Friday, May 14, 2004
"This Old Farm" A childhood on Concord Street
Two sisters peer into the windows of the tired house at 730 Concord Street. "That was our dining room," one of them offers. "We always did our homework on the dining room table."
"Our bedrooms were up there," says the other sister, pointing above the ancient lilac bush. "We would run downstairs in the morning and get dressed near the radiators. It was too darn cold upstairs!" They laugh with delight at the long-ago scene.
Marion Christiansen of Yarmouth and her sister Eleanor Duren of Littleton are reminiscing for the Carlisle Oral History Project about growing up in "This Old House" on the day before the ell that connected the house to the barn was scheduled for demolition (see Mosquito, May 7). They are excited about the renovation of their childhood home by the TV program, and "can't wait" for the episodes to start airing in October.
The Greek Revival house was built in 1849 by Jonathan Bradford Heald and has had many owners in its long lifetime. Marion and Eleanor's parents, Mabel and Ludvig Holm, bought the farmhouse, barn and 75 acres on Concord Street in 1923, the year they were married. Mabel was from Acton and Ludvig emigrated to the U.S. from Norway when he was 16. "He came to Ellis Island," says Marion. "His name is on the marble slab there. He lived with his uncle in a development in Acton where all the Scandinavians lived — Norwegian Village, they called it." Eleanor adds, "Our mother told us he worked on the railroad out west, shoveling coal, and got deathly sick and had a serious operation. Then he came back to Concord as a farmer."
Their parents met in Acton and were the first couple to be married in the Scandinavian Church in Concord. Mabel and Ludvig Holm had five children: Henry, Allen, Mildred, Marion and Eleanor. Henry died in a car accident at 18 in 1943, and Allen died in 1982 at the age of 53. Marion and Eleanor's sister Mildred O'Boyle lives in Venice, Florida.
The family farm
The Holms' property extended down Concord Street toward Concord, on both sides of the street, to the pond. Both parents ran the farm. Once in a while they had a hired hand for the summer, and a "state lady," a ward of the state, lived with the family for twenty years. "Her name was Louise Nutter," says Eleanor, "and she was like a member of the family. The state came out every once in a while to check on her, and eventually they stopped coming because they knew she was very well situated. She would do the dishes and dust and vacuum while my mother was out farming."
Like all farm families, the Holm children worked on the farm. Their father had an egg route in Concord and Maynard, and Eleanor candled the eggs. "During the summer we had to pick strawberries," Marion recalls. "My father gave us five cents a quart. We also picked green beans and dug up potatoes. When my brother Allen was drafted in World War II, I was in high school, and my father was devastated because he needed somebody to drive the tractor. So two days a week at noon he came to the high school to bring me home to drive the tractor. I loved it! I thought I was a big wheel!"
Eleanor remembers, not fondly, carrying hundreds of chickens across the road, holding them by their feet, three in each hand, while they flapped and squawked. Every spring the chickens were moved from their winter home in the barn to outdoor coops across the street; in the fall, the trip was reversed. "After we did that, our father took us over to Mike's store [in Carlisle center] for an ice cream, loaded with jimmies!"
Trips to Faneuil Hall in Boston to deliver produce are among Marion's favorite memories. "I loved going to Boston with my father. We would go at five o'clock in the afternoon, but before we could go, we had to wash the vegetables across the street in the brook. We would wash the carrots and parsnips and beets and put them back in containers, dripping wet. They had to dry off before we could deliver them to Boston." The carrots that couldn't be sold in Boston were taken to Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire, for the horses.
Eleanor sold strawberries at the family's roadside stand. In a big-sisterly way, Marion teases her: "She was the youngest and she had beautiful hair, and she couldn't till the farm, so Mum said she could have that job." Eleanor smiles: "I didn't like the sand underneath my nails!"
Farm life was hard but undeniably healthful. "We were hardly ever sick," reports Marion. "The only thing I ever had as a child was the whooping cough." Eleanor adds that their sister Mildred, who is 78, never had any childhood diseases, even though she worked as a nurse in hospitals in the Boston area. "It made a big difference, growing up on the farm. We drank a lot of milk, we were always active, and we never took any pills," says Marion.
The Holm children went to the Highland School, and the sisters remember their teachers: Mrs. Grant, Mrs. Robbins, and "Miss Blossom who was our first- and second-grade teacher. She lived at Fire Chief Wilson's house for years." There were only eight children in Marion's Highland School graduating class, and Concord-Carlisle High School with its large student population was a rude awakening. Eleanor calls it "devastating," and Marion remembers that gym was "especially bad. We hadn't had gym or sports [in Carlisle], so I didn't know how to play anything. They called us the 'Carlisle Indians' and thought we were stupid."
The sisters agree that they didn't have much of a social life. Since there were no late buses from the high school, they couldn't participate in after-school activities. Their parents didn't allow them to go to school dances or functions at Union Hall. The only movie Marion saw as a child was "Gone with the Wind." But the sisters have no complaints and remember simple pleasures. On Saturday nights, "we'd go to Concord Center and my mother would do the meat shopping at Anderson's store," Marion notes. "Louise would take Eleanor and me to F.W. Woolworth's and buy crayons and coloring books, puzzles, things like that. Once a summer we would go to Revere Beach."
"On Saturdays Mum wrote a grocery list in the morning," says Marion, "and one of us had to go to the phone and call Mike's store with the list. Mike would bring them down at two o'clock in the afternoon." Deliveries were also made by the ice man, the fish man and occasionally a baker from Lowell.
Sunday mornings, Mr. Holm did his chores, Mrs. Holm cooked Sunday dinner and served it at noon, and then the whole family rested in the afternoon. At five o'clock they got ready for church at seven. "We always went to church in the evening," Marion explains, "because all the Norwegian farmers had to till their farms during the day."
Eleanor speaks for both sisters: "I enjoyed my childhood, I really did."
Working at Valleyhead
Eventually, Mr. Holm gave up farming and leased the land on the opposite side of Concord Street to Arena Farms of Concord. They installed a sprinkler system and "they ran that field for many, many years," according to Marion.
Several members of the Holm family worked at Valleyhead, the psychiatric hospital just next door on South Street (see Mosquito, Feb. 6, 2004). Marion and Eleanor worked in the kitchen, their mother did laundry and was an attendant ("she saw many shock treatments there"), and so was their brother Allen. Marion remembers a famous patient, Hassie Hunt, the son of H.L. Hunt, the Texas millionaire. "He had a private nurse 24 hours a day, and when the nurse wanted time off, my mother would take Hassie to our house, and he would sit and play the piano. He was at Valleyhead for a long time." The family's upright piano also soothed a concert pianist who was a Valleyhead patient — "she was a middle-aged lady," says Marion. "My mother would take her home and sit her at the piano, and she would play for hours while my mother did some chores.
"This Old House"
Marion delights in telling her teenage grandchildren about growing up in "this old house." "They can't visualize how we used to live. 'What do you mean you didn't have a bathroom. How did you take a bath?'" Marion explained that they had baths on Saturday night — water heated on the stove was poured into a round metal tub placed in front of the wood stove in the kitchen. The outhouse was in the garage. "I didn't know anything different. It was fine by me," she says cheerfully. "When I was in high school, we had a bathroom put in, and that was great." In addition to living without a bathroom, the children had no toys — another deprivation that is quite incomprehensible to today's kids but perfectly normal in less complicated, more innocent times. "We played mostly outside the barn in our crate boxes," says Marion. "We used to build houses, play house, play ball, hide-and-seek."
Today the sisters pay close attention to the dramatic changes at 730 Concord Street. Eleanor and Bill Duren were watching the demolition of the ell when the house gave up one of its old secrets — a cannonball was found in the wall! Marion and Eleanor stay in touch with the TV producers and eagerly await the transformation of the old house into a desirable Carlisle property for the 21st century — with multiple bathrooms.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito