Friday, November 21, 2003
A House full of memories
The Kiersteads' house makes way for Carlisle's first 40B development
A small blue Cape perches atop a hill on Lowell Street across from the transfer station. It stares out, watchfully, its windows vacant. The blue house waits to be demolished to make way for Carlisle's first Chapter 40B development, Laurel Hollow, on a four-acre site at 302 Lowell Street. This house holds a lifetime of memories.
For 64 years this was the home of Helen Otterson Kierstead. She married her Highland School classmate Paul Kierstead in 1952, and they lived in the house until June 2002 when they sold it and moved to Groton.
The Kiersteads were interviewed for the Carlisle Oral History Project two weeks ago and shared a wealth of warm stories about growing up in Carlisle, raising their family, building their business and then deciding to leave town after 64 years.
Paul and Helen Kierstead are an extremely likeable and loving couple, who are so attuned to each other that they seamlessly fill in gaps in each other's thoughts, always respectfully and gently. "I don't think so, honey," Helen demurs softly when Paul pops in with a detail during the interview. He backs down gracefully. Theirs is, after all, a relationship that spans six and a half decades. They know each other very well.
Highland School classmates
"I met my wife-to-be Helen on September 2, 1938, and we're still here!" says Paul, with a smile. Adds Helen, "We met in fifth grade and went through twelfth grade together. Two years later, we were married."
September 1938 was notable also for the Great Hurricane that swept through the area. "We were standing and watching the trees come down," Helen recalls, "and one tree took down a small shed that was out in back." At the time the Kierstead family was living in the Nickles house on North Road. "The hurricane took down a huge elm tree in front of the house. We were lucky because it went mostly across the street, and there was only one big branch that whacked the corner of the house." Paul adds, "There was a beautiful huge barn, and I guess the main door was open and the wind got in and couldn't get out. It took the whole top of that barn, post and beam construction and all, and took it off. Eventually they took the barn down. I remember in the loft of that barn there was a big water tank and out in the pasture behind it was a windmill that used to pump the water up to the tank and gravity-fed it into the house. Pretty neat system."
Helen Otterson and Paul Kierstead had eight classmates in their grade at the Highland School. Each room held two classes. Even today Helen is grateful for the education she received in Carlisle: "We learned multiplication all by memory, and flash cards. And I'm thankful for that because I spent most of my adult life doing accounting and I think it was made easier for me because I was so well-taught. The other thing I'm thankful for was the Rinehart Writing System." "Penmanship," Paul explains, and Helen finishes, "I really thank the town for that too."
The highlight of the Kiersteads' eight years in grammar school was their class trip to Boston to see the movie Pinocchio. "They loaded us onto a bus and away we went. That was very special," says Helen, "not like nowadays when kids can go to the movies anytime."
Helen and Paul went to Concord High School, which they both enjoyed. "The only drawback was we couldn't participate in after-school sports or anything because there was no late bus. We did miss out on that because I would have liked to play basketball," says Helen. Carlisle students were called the "Carlisle Indians" but that didn't bother Paul and Helen. "We gave it back the same way we got it," says Paul. "One of the Towle girls was really smart, and there was some competition at the school," he recalls. "She did as well or better than the one who won the competition, but she was from Carlisle so she lost out." Helen's pragmatic view was, "I loved Carlisle, growing up in Carlisle, so it didn't bother me."
Helen Kierstead's family has well-established roots in Carlisle history. Her paternal grandfather was Ingwald Otterson, Carlisle's longtime blacksmith. "He made some beautiful pieces. I believe his candelabras are still in the Unitarian Church," says Helen. Otterson's original shop was on the corner of Stearns Street and Bedford Road, "in that little house that they moved in the past few years to Lowell Road [to the Hiltons' property]," says Paul. "Then he moved up to the corner of Concord Street and Westford Street." Helen's mother, Alfreda Teabo, grew up on South Street in what is thought to be the oldest house in Carlisle, and her grandmother was Ella Hood. (According to Ruth Wilkins' book Carlisle: Its History and Heritage, William Hood lived at 879 Concord Street and was a partner in Buttrick's Mill. He married Nathan Buttrick, Jr.'s daughter, Augusta, and William and Augusta were Helen's great-grandparents.)
Paul moved to Carlisle when he was five years old. "We shared a duplex in Arlington with the Harrison family," he recalls. "We moved to Carlisle in the spring of '38 to the old Nickles homestead up on North Road. We had one side of the house and the Harrisons moved up and had the other side. They eventually moved over to Brook Street. All their kids grew up in Carlisle." Paul remembers their neighbors, the McAllisters, with great fondness. "Grammy and Grampy McAllister said we could eat all their apples on the ground — we used to eat ourselves sick with apples, pears, peaches, everything. They were great people. Mrs. McAllister used to drive by on Sunday mornings and anyone that wanted to go to the Congregational Church in the Center, she'd pile them into the car and they'd all go down there. We were brought up Catholic and there was no Catholic church, and my mother insisted we were going to get some sort of religion, so we piled in on top of one another and went to church."
A Carlisle childhood
Both Kiersteads have happy memories of growing up in Carlisle. "We had chores," Paul says, "and for entertainment, we made our own." Helen adds, "In the first eight grades, growing up and making our own entertainment was wonderful. In the wintertime we used to skate for hours, and there was sledding and tobogganing down Church Street hill. Of course, they shut that road off for us all."
Helen remembers the annual Cabaret in grammar school, directed by Phyllis Towle. "Those that could sing would sing, and Paul would play the banjo and guitar. He had a nice singing voice. We put on skits. It was just great fun. Another thing we looked forward to when we were in grammar school was in September we'd go up to Clint Lamb's orchard, which was right up the street from us. It's Orchard Acres now. They had these fruit trees and we'd pick the apples and peaches for him and earn a bit of money. We thought we were rich, being kids! He had the best peaches — I've never found any as good since, really. And then in June we'd go down to Mrs. Davis's on Bedford Road and pick strawberries. We got something like five cents a box."
"If kids wanted some spending money," says Paul, "there were always some jobs they could find. Some farmer would need help. Guy Clark hired kids a lot. My brother Tom worked for him for quite a few years. Great Brook Farm too — both my brothers worked for Farnham Smith."
Dancing was a popular pastime in Carlisle, especially Friday nights at Union Hall. Confirming that things haven't changed all that much, Paul observes, "Young teens, they're madly in love one week and next week it's somebody else. But it seems funny — we always ended up with the last dance!" Helen agrees that "those dances were wonderful. It wasn't just for the children, it was the grown-ups too. I can remember dancing with a lot of the grown-ups in town. That's how nice they were. They would ask the younger ones to dance. I remember dancing with Charlie Miller. He was a smooth dancer! It's funny the things you remember."
Helen remembers going to dances at the Bedford V.A. Hospital: "My aunt used to take a group of us down there to dance with the patients when we were teenagers. It was quite an experience. My aunt belonged to the Eastern Star, so it might have been part of their program." Helen's aunt was Ida Otterson, one of the school nurses, who was Ida Martin when she got married. She lived in the Otterson house on the corner of Westford and Concord Street. Paul remembers that she had the first TV in Carlisle.
Part of growing up in Carlisle in the 1930s and '40s included the frequent barn fires in town. "One of the saddest things I remember from grammar school," says Helen, "was when the Blaisdells' barn burned, on Lowell Road where the Hiltons live. They had this big barn and it all burned down. The fire department was volunteer then." Helen's father was assistant fire chief and worked in West Concord. "He was always called whenever there was a fire in Carlisle because he could get the pumps running fastest. That [fire] was really sad; I remember standing in the school window, on the second floor, watching the smoke. Of course I had to walk right by it on my way home. It was sad." "Barn fires were very common," says Paul, remembering that Jay Fisk's barn, across the street from the Litchfield Parsonage on Lowell Street, burned just shortly after Fisk moved there.
Love and marriage
Both Helen and Paul worked through high school; Helen waitressed at the Norwegian Coffee Shop in Concord, and Paul worked for the New England Fence Company in Carlisle. "It was up at Charlie Taylor's house," he says, "right across from the post office now, and then they moved down to where the Carlisle garage and the Blue Jay recording studio are now on Bedford Road. Years later my brother Tom bought it and moved it up to Westford."
After the Kiersteads were married in 1952, they moved in with her mother and younger brother at 302 Lowell Street. Paul was working for an instrument maker in Lincoln. Then, he says wryly, "I was invited on an all-expense-paid tour of Korea for 18 months." While Paul was in the Army in Korea, Helen worked at Technology Instruments Company in Acton until he came back. Their daughter Cindy was born in 1956, followed four years later by son Jeffrey. Eleven years later their younger son Timothy was born.
"Most of my time was devoted to the children," says Helen. "Cindy was in Brownies and I was a den mother in Cubs for each one of the boys. I went to the Unitarian Church and I did teach Sunday School before the children came." In 1957 Paul started working for the Carlisle Screw Corporation in the center of town. "Kenny Seaberg and his partner from Waltham ran it. They rented the property from Clarence Russell who owned one end of the long block. I worked there for 26 years. Helen was a secretary there. Then they moved to Maynard, and then Hudson, until they sold out and the new owners put it asunder. Then I started my own business doing machining. I put a couple of machines in my cellar, which was kind of covertly done but nobody bothered me about it, and I didn't plan to do it there very long."
Helen explains, "He had what's called the automatic screw machines which are really fascinating. You put in a bar of stock and it will come out a shape to a blueprint." Paul made custom machine parts, "everything from a tiny screw for your eyeglasses to some sort of a big bolt. It was interesting work, hard work." Paul ran the shop, Helen ran the office, and the partnership was as successful as the marriage. When business became so successful that it outgrew the cellar, Paul rented space in Lowell for 18 years.
Living across from the dump
The Kiersteads' house at 302 Lowell Street was built in the early 1930s, at the beginning of the Depression. Many years after their marriage, the Kiersteads bought it from Helen's mother, who lived there until she died. In those busy years when Paul was working and Helen was raising three children, the dump right across the street was a constant source of irritation. "We were busy calling the fire department all the time for the fires at the dump," recalls Paul. "It was an open landfill and people, and even the town when they were cutting the brush, would dump the trash and the brush over the bank. Eventually somebody would touch it off." Helen adds, "The town would burn it periodically to keep the brush down, but the main problem was when kids went over there and lit it. Most of the kids were from surrounding towns, not Carlisle. We were forever calling the fire department because we'd see it first. And one time we saw the fire by the side of the road, and we always had to fear that a spark would come onto our property. But fortunately it only got that far once. But it was terrible, terrible. I couldn't hang my laundry out. I used to say that the only time I could hang my laundry out was when it was raining, and that's not a very good day!"
Even the Kiersteads' two horses would be "up on the hill, coughing and choking from the smoke pouring across the road." At the Carlisle Screw Corporation, where Paul worked, "All of the waste products from the business went into the dump. Once a week they loaded up the pick-up truck and took it down there. We just didn't know any better at that time, nobody did. There weren't any rules or regulations at all. Everything was just dumped into the dump and buried."
In the late 1960s, the dump reached its capacity and the town was forced to find a solution, energized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which had recently banned open landfills. Study committees were formed and Town Meetings were held. Paul attended a few selectmen's meetings, but doesn't remember that they were especially controversial. Finally, in June 1972, Town Meeting approved a transfer station for Carlisle. "It's better than the open dump, for sure," Paul acknowledges. "I was just concerned with property devaluation."
After a lifetime in Carlisle, raising their family and starting their own business here, Paul and Helen in 2001 made the difficult decision to sell their house and leave town. "We knew the way things were shaping up in Carlisle — the way the taxes were climbing up — that we'd have to do something," says Paul. "We just couldn't see paying all that money out in taxes." And then there was the increasing traffic noise on Lowell Street. "We'd be trying to watch television in our den, which was in front of the house, in the summertime with the windows open. I'd crank up the TV to hear it. But primarily it was economic."
When they decided to leave, they found a place in Groton, a familiar town since family members had lived there, and moved in June 2002. "The first year we were there the taxes were just about half of what we were paying in Carlisle and we had a real nice ranch house with almost 3/4 of an acre, nicely landscaped," Helen says. "It's a cul-de-sac, so there's no traffic. The neighbors are lovely. There are little kids we just adore, they come running over to see us. To me it's almost perfect." To Paul, though, it was less than perfect in the beginning. "I missed Carlisle so much when we first moved," he admits. "This house was in mint condition, I didn't have to do anything. I was so used to having to fix things in the old house and I kept wondering as time went on, 'Well, when are these people coming back so we can move home?'" Helen found that the move was easier for her, because "Carlisle now isn't the Carlisle we knew. It's totally different."
Paul was happy to retire. He finds it odd that in his last few years in business he had to try to "slow the company down while everybody was still rushing on to some things." Helen points out that they felt an obligation to their longtime customers. "We couldn't have said all of a sudden, 'We're done.' It wouldn't have been fair to them." Adds Paul, "We had to try to wean them off of us."
With their old house sitting empty on Lowell Street, the Kiersteads reflect on their property being transformed into eight units of 40B housing. Paul muses thoughtfully, "The way I see it is if somebody owns a piece of land they ought to be able to do what they want with it, within the law. I feel bad for the neighbors, though, because when they bought their properties, they were peaceful and quiet with all kinds of room — both of them are set way back from the road. Now they're being crowded with this. I do feel bad for them. At the same time, the fellow that bought it, he's a decent man — I asked him for extra time to move, because I don't move as fast as I used to! He said, 'Take all the time you want.'" Helen, characteristically, is optimistic: "It looks like it's going to be beautiful. I believe after it's been there a while, people are going to think it's always been like that. Of course, we had no idea when we put the house up for sale."
Before the interview ends, both Paul and Helen have more stories that convey just how special Carlisle was when they were children. For Paul, it's the winter night in 1939 when "Frank Philbrick, who later married one of my sisters, brought a team and his bobsled over, and the Harrisons were piling in and my sisters were piling in. I put up such a fuss at being left out that my mother dumped me, pajamas and all, into my snowsuit, put my boots on and threw me up on the back of the sled. We rode up toward where the state park is now and turned around and came back. That's a favorite memory." In fact, the winter of 1939-40 was fierce, with heavy snow that held up the mail for many days. When the governor ordered the roads to be cleared to allow the mail to flow, entire Carlisle families headed out with shovels and home-made plows to open the roads.
Helen remembers trick-or-treating at Halloween when "we always made sure we went to Kemps' on Bedford Road. He had a candy company and we always got a box of peanut brittle." Paul adds that Mr. Kemp used to ride his Palomino over to North Road every week to deliver candy and chocolates to an elderly lady.
Stories continue to bubble up — family outings to Tophet Swamp to cut down the Christmas tree, a runaway cow on North Road, and "Mutt" Foss, a selectman who looked out for all the kids in town because he cared. "When I first got my driver's license and drove up to town," recalls Helen, "Mutt yelled out to me, 'You'd better have your license!' 'Yes, Mutt, I do, I do!'
It was a great town to grow up in."
© 2003 The Carlisle Mosquito