The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 15, 2002


Among the 'earliest new people:' Jim and Wendy Davis

Jim and Wendy Davis of East Street were newcomers to Carlisle almost 50 years ago. There were 876 people in town, the selectmen were the police force, and the Davises were among the "the earliest new people" in an established rural community. Since then, they have contributed enormously to the shaping of Carlisle and today are one of our most beloved couples. The Carlisle Oral History Project has recorded their memories, wisdom and priceless stories about small-town life. They start by remembering their arrival in Carlisle in 1953.

Jim Davis relaxes during a recent interview for the Oral History Project. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)
Jim: In the beginning, we were looking for a place to build a house and we saw a nice saltbox in Chelmsford in the middle of a development; we found some other places in Westford and Groton, but somehow or other we got into Carlisle and it looked like a really great town, the kind we were looking for. Both Wendy and I are open-field and agrarian types. We found that in 1953 when we arrived here we could buy 4 1/2 acres in the Center for $2500, so we bought it and carefully put the house up on Lowell Road. It's the little Cape that's behind Bob Hilton's little house.

Ellen Miller: Before Carlisle, where had you come from?

Jim: I started in New York (I was born there in 1926), Wendy started in North Georgia in Habersham County. I moved to Framingham when I was four, and grew up in Framingham. When I was through college [Dartmouth], I went down to Georgia to teach at Piedmont College and Wendy was at it! I met Wendy and she and I got along nicely, and we were married, much to her mother's annoyance, the day after she graduated from college. We stayed right there for two years and went to church with Mama and so forth. So I spent a year getting used to North Georgia culture, and then we moved to Mississippi because the Korean War was on and I was a civilian teacher in the Air Force. And then a baby started, and we moved up here because the hospitals weren't that great in Mississippi, and moved to Weston with my mother for a short while, and then moved to Carlisle.

EM: (To Wendy) Were you studying classical mythology in college?

Wendy: No, I did literature and . . . we touched on everything . . .

Jim: She studied serious literature.

Wendy: And then I branched out once I got out of college. I studied Greek for several years at Boston College and Hellenic College, and then I started teaching literature, first at the Carlisle Middle School. After I retired, Jim and I started teaching King Arthur at the community ed. The first year we taught it, the people never wanted to stop, so we keep going.

Jim: We have a self-leading group.

EM: Well, let's go back to your early days in Carlisle. You built a house, and then moved here on East Street in 1959. . .

Jim: We did have this nice house over on Lowell Road, which was very satisfactory but we had three kids and needed more space. This house came on the market fairly economically and it had a barn, and 32 acres, so this appealed to both of us.

This house was built by Captain Spaulding in 1799 to house his daughters when they were married. The story I have heard, and I forget from whom, is that Captain Spaulding had two daughters. The first one married when she was 23 or so — maybe 17, real young — and moved across here [from Spaulding's Tavern] and settled in comfortably. And her sister waited 22 years more to marry and when she did, she got half this house.

EM: Was it this size, or was it added onto?

Jim: The wing goes out that way where the kitchen is, that's all new; there was a Victorian wing and it burned down. We built another one in 1991, which is supposed to look sort of colonial, but this one is the original. Originally, though, the house was divided in two . . . .

EM: What about the house across the street?

Jim: That was Spaulding's Tavern and it was very run down. Some people thought it was just a derelict, but I knew it was a first-period house and the advantage was that I knew what to do with first-period houses, so we bought it. With the aid of a couple of contractors, we renovated it. We have had very good luck renting it . . . we've had some really great tenants.

EM: Let's talk about your children.

Jim: Well, we had a bunch of children — I don't do dates well, because they all came quickly in those days. Martha was the first one, in May of '53. Jic (James) came in August of '54, and Jane came on income tax day in '58. And that was the end of those. So we started raising them up and they did the usual stuff for 1950s Carlisle children.

EM: Which is probably quite different from 2000 Carlisle children.

Jim: Well, organized stuff. They had Little League, I can remember it was up at Weezie Clark's where Herters live now. The problems were such as cow flaps and nettles on the ball field. If you slid into third base and hit a cow flap by mistake, you would slide right through into a big field of nettles. This would sometimes deter the third baseman from tagging you out, but this was the organized sports program! In the winter there were school sports, but things were much smaller. There was only the Highland School, and then they got into the new school.

Wendy: There was 4-H . . .

EM: And during this time you were working where?

Jim: At that time I was working in Bedford, at Raytheon . . . as an engineer. I worked there for a number of years, until it got bigger.

We have lots of crazy children's stories! The one that I remember particularly was Martha's entrance exam for first grade, for getting into the Highland School, reading readiness and all that. Martha had been up at Mrs. Campbell's nursery school and kindergarten at the end of Rockland Road for a couple of years. She was smart enough, and she took the exam, and we got a frantic cry from [school principal] Peggy Grant that Martha had flunked the entrance exam for first grade. We talked to Martha and said, "Martha, you took this exam up there. How come you flunked it?" "I flunked it?" she said. "They asked all kinds of dumb questions and I gave them dumb answers." So she took it again with the idea that she was supposed to give them the answers that were obviously asked for and then she got in.

And the other story is Jic in first grade or second grade. He was in the Spaulding School and came home one day and said, "The drain fell off the sink at school, and the janitor came and fixed it. I told him he fixed it wrong, and he said, 'Oh, no, it's fine,' and so he tried it out and it fell off again!"

Wendy: The interesting thing is when we first came, we were among the first young people to come to Carlisle.

Jim: Among the earliest new people . .

Wendy: Yes, and we were told that J. Harry Wilkins had said to Dave Bott, "Well, I suppose you've come to tell us how to run our town, all you newcomers!" So we knew we had to be good to J. Harry, and I absolutely fell in love with him. He reminded me of my uncle who was so gentlemanly and gentle. I just loved J. Harry! He was wonderful. We had a very good working relationship, a friendly relationship. But it was very interesting because when we first came, that was the attitude toward newcomers.

Jim: I'd grown up in Framingham . . . when I was a baby, I was a true new-comer in Framingham, and we had a lot of the old-timers still there, so I knew how to work with them. And actually Wendy, in the south, had uncles and so forth who were the same way. Both of us had an agricultural background, more or less . . .

Wendy: Even though Jim was born in New York City!

Jim: Both of us were small-town people, although Framingham had gotten pretty big by the time I left, so we didn't have any problems with the older people in town. They quickly got used to us, so I soon got to be "used" by the committees when they needed a person that was younger.

EM: Weren't there children of the older people in town who stayed here in town?

Wendy: There were some.

Jim: As an example, when we moved to town and had a baby, there were 12 kids in the high school from Carlisle. We had Mrs. Towle and people like that as babysitters, we had Sarah Andreassen, Twee Wright, Betty Ann Forsaith . . . There were very few teen-agers, so if you had a long night, you couldn't get anyone except a grandma. The school was very small; they all fit into the Highland without any trouble. But five years later, no, they were all over the place, 'cause our generation of kids had lots of friends.

EM: But the population explosion wasn't until the '70s, is that right?

Jim: Well, we had one in the '50s, when people were coming back from the war. But it wasn't too big. We had about 800 when we moved here, and in 1960 it hit 1488.

Wendy: And there were no new roads since 1883, or something . . .

EM: Which store was in the center when you came here?

Jim: That was the fruit store, that came before the Superette. The gas station was there; there was an antique shop in the house on the corner of the common, next to the ATM. The place where the ATM is now was a cement block and steel frame automobile place known as Tiny's Garage. Tiny was six foot six! Tiny did all sorts of things. The town wanted a new fire engine so Tiny bought an old oil truck and completely rebuilt it and cleaned it up and patched all the rusty places, equipped it with hoses and pumps as a bona fide fire truck and it cost the town $3,000! That was the way things were done back then.

EM: Tell me, Jim, about your involvement in town government. I know you were a selectman . . .

Jim: I can't remember what all of them were. Early on I got involved with the fire department. We lived right across from the firehouse, so to speak. When the whistle went off, you either got up or had to get 22 quilts and bury your head! So I was an auxiliary fireman, never anything more and everybody knew that. This fitted in with the town's social structure very nicely.

I don't know what we did first. I got into the Historical Society; my job was secretary; once in a while I was curator. When the '60s came on, we got into the Carlisle Fair Practices Committee, which was not a town governmental body, it was separate and oriented with the churches, and it was to ensure that people who moved into town were not discriminated against. It would also expand into civil rights protests and stuff. I'm not sure what the first town office was; I think it was probably on the finance committee when John Bisbee was chair. I think from there I went to being selectman, that was back in '66, I think, or '67. I did two terms. I've been on lots of little committees.

EM: What do you remember as being particularly noteworthy in your involvement with town government?

Jim: When we first came to town, before I was a selectman — two of the selectmen were Mutt Foss and Cal Adrian, but Mutt Foss was clearly the runner of the town. The town offices unofficially were in back of Daisy's store, which was then the Carlisle Fruit Store, where Mutt had a desk. When Mutt died and the rest of the town got bigger, they got more people and a typical story I like to tell about those early days is that we had Dan Bickford, who was a lawyer, and Art Taylor, who was a banker, and I was an engineer

— we were the selectmen. Earlier, one of the selectmen was George Meehan and he had taken on the role of police chief. When we became selectmen, we said, "Well, the police force has got to be separated . . . we can't have the police called out for domestic disputes, which happened frequently, and have to send the board of selectmen!" If there was a real crook, we'd call the state police, but if it was just domestic disputes or barking dogs or something, the board of selectmen would show up at somebody's doorstep. So at the time I was a selectman, we got Herbie Bates to be chief of police and of course he knew everybody in town, he knew all the roads and back roads, so that worked out pretty well. Except that the job grew even bigger. But for many years he was the chief and he had a couple of assistants, part-time policemen, who would show up for parades or if you needed two policemen for something, and the state police still came around if there was a real crook.

In that period, things got more formal but they also got diverted from what was more traditional. The story I like is the story of the Tennessee pipeline. I was a selectman, with Dan Bickford and Art Taylor, in the late '60s. What happened was that Frank Berry was out in his woods behind his house on Concord Street, and he met a guy coming through marking trees and surveying and even cutting them down if they were in the line of his surveying. Frank said, "What are you doing in my woods, cutting down trees and making marks?" The guy said, "I'm from the Tennessee pipeline and this is where the pipeline is going!" Frank Berry said, "Oh? These are my woods — who said you could put a pipeline through here?" The guy said, "I have a piece of paper here for eminent domain." Frank went to see the board of selectmen. Dan Bickford was a lawyer and he worked in Boston. Anyway, Dan said, "That doesn't sound quite right." This was a Friday, I guess; the surveyers showed up on Monday, and Frank went out and served them this cease-and-desist order from the state supreme court! This was the first surprise for the Tennessee pipeline — they weren't used to getting little towns out in the boonies who knew how to get a cease-and-desist order from the state supreme court over the weekend!

Then there was some discussion among the lawyers and they showed where the pipeline was going to go right through the middle of town and up across Great Brook Farm, and various people said, "This isn't good." Farnham Smith, who in those days owned Great Brook Farm, got some lawyers and [conservation commissioner] Ben Benfield got some lawyers, and they had cases going at the State House and down in Washington at the federal utilities commission, or whatever, so things came to a screeching halt.

So then we got a letter from the Tennessee pipeline asking if they could confer with the selectmen at some point about this pipeline, and we said, "Certainly." They came to the selectmen's office, and there was a little sign, "Moved to the Unitarian Church," and there were 250 people there. And they'd sent a P.R. man and the first question was, "Why does the pipeline have to go right through the middle Carlisle in a straight line?" And the P.R. man, who didn't have the foggiest idea, said, "I think it has to do with the pipe bending, or something." And our building inspector, who was Jimmy Barron, got up and he said, "This is 24-inch schedule 40 pipe and it will bend on this radius and schedule 80 pipe will bend on this radius, and I don't see any problem with it bending to go wherever you might want in town." And what the pipeline people learned later is that he was superintendent of the State Street Bank building in Boston!

So after this went on, someone said, "Why don't you go around the edge of town following the old railroad bed from Framingham to Lowell?" The P.R. guy said, "Well, I don't think the railroads want the pipeline on their railroad beds," and Farnham Smith got up and he said, "I'm a director of the Bangor & Aroostock railroad and we're trying very hard to get the pipelines to go up our roadbeds!" So the pipeline company finally sent up a helicopter and took the selectmen up and the selectmen showed them where the pipeline should go, which is along the Acton-Carlisle border and across the Cranberry Bog and along the Chelmsford-Carlisle border and they arranged it so it goes just inside the Carlisle side of the border, where there are no houses or anything up there but woods. So it's a sort of a roadblock between development in Chelmsford and Acton getting into Carlisle. It protects the woods in other ways, mainly by protecting it from too many roads and because it's just inside the Carlisle side of the town line, it's now our biggest taxpayer!

Wendy: It was absolutely a marvelous thing to live through.

Jim: And I heard somewhere that because of the activities of people like Ben Benfield and Farnham Smith there are now laws in the state and in the federal government that require hearings for pipelines, and announcements to all the landowners in advance, and somebody else said that it cost the pipeline company $500,000 extra to get around Carlisle!

EM: This certainly couldn't happen these days with all the regulations.

Jim: They initiated those regulations, yes. . . .

EM: You once told me that you went to the Carlisle School to talk about history and all the children wanted to talk about was your truck. Let's talk about your truck! When did you buy it?

Jim Davis bought his truck in 1942 for $75. (Photo by Ellen Huber)
Jim: I bought it in 1942. At the time I got my license, I had a coupe, which was not suitable for what I wanted to do, which was hauling wood and stuff. I went to work for a garage and this truck came in, so I bought the truck on layaway, for $75. It took me roughly 300 hours to pay for it on layaway. Meanwhile I fixed it up with the parts from the coupe that were good and sold the coupe back to the guy I bought the truck from! So he gave it to the local rationing board chairman, and I never figured out whether this was a gift of love or . . . That was in World War II, and that's Framingham news, not Carlisle, but that's where the truck came from.

EM: It's been in continual service?

Jim: Yes, it's run ever since. I used it all my working life for commuting and it gets repaired as needed and upgraded when needed, so a lot of it is all stainless steel.

I just got Jic to put in seat belts and he decided he was going to do it right. He met the structural requirements for a safe seat belt and it cost five times the sticker cost for the truck! After he'd done it, I didn't complain because I told him to do it.

EM: I understand that you are a Minuteman?

In 1975, Carlisle Minuteman Jim Davis pauses on the Estabrook trail as he and his regiment make their way to the Old North Bridge in Concord. (photo by Bonnie Miskolczy)
Jim: I am a Minuteman. I have been a Minuteman since the original Carlisle Minutemen were founded, although at the time they first marched I was in Japan. In fact, I was active in the Junior Minutemen, which was actually founded by the grade school, which had grade school kids dressed up in mock clothes, we had mock rifles, and marched before the Bicentenary. I think 1967 or '68 was the first time Carlisle had Minutemen marching to Concord, maybe it was earlier than that. That might have been the first year they had the official Minutemen. I've been captain once, and a number of other officers, but I try to avoid those things. Other people with military inclinations, which I don't haveI'm definitely a buck private typebecame officers.

The Minutemen privates selected the captain, he wasn't appointed. Well, there was the story that's not Carlisle history but Concord history. During the real Revolutionary War, when they set up the Minutemen after the Battle of Concord and Lexington, the rules came from the State House to elect a captain for each company, so Concord held its election and they elected the guy they thought was the best soldier and the most capable one. And the word came back from Boston: this guy is not of the correct social class to be a captain. He's fired. Have another election. So they had another election and the same guy won almost unanimously. And the State House gave in finally. This was typical of the early Minutemen. We've always had our elections in the same manner as the original ones.

Wendy: Well, this was always an interesting town and Town Meetings were so wonderful. They were held in the bottom of the Unitarian Church and everybody knew everybody.

EM: Was there dissension?

Wendy: Oh, yes, there was, but it was all pretty much polite.

Jim: Everybody pretty much knew each other and [moderator] Guy Clark kept decorum. He kept rules that were not quite the rule-book rules, but everybody knew what they were and it went along quite nicely. There used to be considerable dissension on some items, but they always ended up in a vote that would be accepted.

Wendy: There was one time when one child was missing. You have to tell about that.

Jim: Right in the middle of a special Town Meeting on a Saturday afternoon the whistle blew for the fire department —4-44- which was "everybody out." That was the general emergency, it meant some child was lost or something that needed lots of unskilled manpower. So everybody who was a fireman or a policeman and a lot of the able-bodied townspeople all got up and went out. And Town Meeting had to shut down for lack of a quorum! Finally they found the child and everybody came back.

Wendy: I think the child was at his house, asleep in a bureau drawer or something.

Jim: There are always lots of interesting fire department stories. Did I mention to you the fire in the telephone pole? There was a fire, the whistle blew, the fire engines went out. Mutt was on duty that day at the state place where he worked, he called in and said, "There's a telephone pole on fire down here on School Street. Call the Edison." Esther [Wilson] said, "Roger," and there was no more on the line for a while. Then Mutt came on, and said, "Call the Edison again. Tell them we got the fire out and they can come at their pleasure." And Esther went telling everyone about the rules for firemen not doing anything about electrical fires, because you might get a shock through the hose line, and Mutt called back and said, "Don't worry, we put it out with snowballs!"

Later on we had another guy, Jimmy Gallagher, one of the firemen in the 1950s and 1960s, I think. He lived right next to the firehouse, so this was convenient. He could always get the truck out quickly and go. His other job was chief of the Bedford Airport fire department in charge of all airplane crashes east of the Connecticut River! We had lots of forest fires back in '68 and Jimmy saved us a lot of trouble. He called up the boys down in Bedford and he sent up this humongous fire truck and another truck full of hose, and they ran a hose all the way from the Concord River to the center of town and put high pressure on it with this big old truck they had, and kept plenty of water around in case the fires in the center got out of hand.

Wendy Davis serves as a judge at the Great Pumpkin Spectacle. (Photo by Midge Eliassen)
Wendy: And then there was the summer when Guy Clark's bog caught on fire and of course it's all dry under there, you know, and they couldn't put it out. And every single afternoon at a certain time the whistle would blow and the trucks would go down and do their thingall summer long. It was really quite interesting!

EM: If you were going to speak to someone who was moving to Carlisle today, how would you describe our communityits pros and cons?

Jim: Well, there's good advantages and bad. It's still pretty open; we do have a problem with urban types who are surprised because we don't have what they expect. It takes three to five years generally for most of these people to start voting the way the old town voted, which is pro-conservation and anti-development and so forth. You still get too much development and not enough cows, but that's probably due to economics as much as anything. State laws are anti-cow--they have inspections and criteria, which would add too much overhead to have cows.

The same is true of affordable housing, which is subsidized housing because the rules say that the affordable houses have to look like the big houses and if you don't have the right [number of] bathrooms and the stairs are too steep, it's not code and if it's not code it can't be built and it can't be affordable. They've got to go back to having different grades of houses which are to code, some of which are simpler.

A more obvious example is if you build houses to code for people who are young and agile, they wouldn't work for handicapped. But I think some of the rules say that affordable houses sometimes have to be handicapped [accessible], so I think they should separate these things. Maybe the general building code has come to accept some of the handicapped rules. I'm not sure actually how it works, but I know when we built the new wing on the house, the stairs couldn't be as steep as I wanted because it wasn't code and the ceilings had to be higher because it wasn't code, and I think a lot of stuff makes the price too high.

The poorest family moving into Carlisle still needs two carsat least if you have two working people or children. I don't know what else you could say, but the environment is very conducive as you can see to intellectual activity and not as apt to go off on fads and so forth of the mall type and so forth that some other towns go into. I think it's still quite nice. You can certainly find a lot of compatible people. I'm not sure what some people who moved in who were not intellectually inclined would do for entertainment, but there may be a whole entertainment subculture in town that I never heard of!

2002 The Carlisle Mosquito