Category Archives: Local history

History can be personal, too

Yesterday, we agreed to sell my parents’ house. Over the next few weeks, we’ll dispose of the furniture, dishes and cutlery, books and VHS video tapes, and other sundries that remain. Soon, all that will be left of my parents are their names, photographs, and a few possessions each of us children took away.

In many ways, that house was their lives. It was the third house they owned together, and was meant to be their last residence. Some of the furnishings had been with them as long as I can remember. There are bowls in that house from which I ate breakfast cereal as a child. And almost every square foot of the house was ornamented with knickknacks they had picked up in their lives: souvenir spoons, reproduction art work, even a collection of delicate china cups. If anyone ever drank out of those cups, the occasion escapes me, but my mother valued them and always had them on display in each house that was her home.

They’d moved to that house, a “mobile home” (although it wasn’t mobile, really), to secure a financially stable retirement. Which they did: so long as they lived there, their expenses were less than their income. They were able to live out their retirement without constant financial worries, without dipping into capital except to buy a car every so often.

They expected to die in that house. Having been generally healthy most of their lives, they hoped to remain that way until their death. Fate was not that kind to them. My father spent the last few months of his life in a nursing home, afflicted with various ills that made even eating difficult. My mother fell and seriously injured her back, and so had to spend her last two years in an assisted living facility.

The rocking couch was such a favorite of my mother’s that she took it with her to the assisted living facility

During those last two years, I would visit her every week. And, if she were feeling up to it, we drove up to that house, and she spent a few hours sitting in her living room. As far as she was concerned, that was still her home, and rarely did a week go by that she didn’t suggest that she ought to move back there. What could I tell her? That she had physical problems that required the help of another person often enough, that her cognitive skills had declined to the point that we couldn’t trust her to take her medication? That it would be a disaster? So I temporized, and put her off, and let her hope. I still wonder if that was the right thing to do.

When she first moved to the assisted living facility, I remember walking through the house. With the detachment of a professional historian, I marveled at how fascinating it would be to simply preserve the house as is, leave this way for a few centuries, to let future historians delve into its contents, to give them the physical household of a working class couple circa 2000. However, even then I realized that much would be a mystery to those historians. Without my parents alive and living there, so much of the personal content would be meaningless. What would they make of the stuffed kiwi bird toy sitting on the top kitchen shelf? No way could they guess how that came to be there.

I have only a few more times to walk through it now. Those will be the last I see of many old familiar possessions. Some I’ve not seen in years, hidden away in cupboards. Some I saw every time I visited. Some bring back memories; some don’t. It doesn’t matter. We have no room for them, so they must go. The new owner will get a house stripped of its furnishings, of its memories. He can build new ones, if he wants.

And my parents’ last household will be gone. In a lot of ways, it’s like saying goodbye to them all over again. Silly. These are just things they owned, not the family members I loved. And yet, and yet, I can stand in any room and bring back memories of them. For a few more days. And then never again.

Riding into history: railroads, Boutwell, and an old mill

Built a century and a half ago, I have to admit I've always found the Town Hall architecturally uninspiring

Built a century and a half ago, I have to admit I’ve always found the Town Hall architecturally uninspiring

I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts called Groton. Not Groton, Connecticut, mind you: that johnny-come-lately town was named after my town, and is famous only for the submarine base. Groton is an old town as New England towns go, founded in 1655, displacing Native Americans who would return to burn it down in 1676. It was rebuilt, but every so often yet another fire takes out a piece of the town’s history.

Back in the day when railroads were the lifeblood of communities, there was a line that ran through the town, carrying passengers and freight. As a kid, I used to hear the freight trains blow their whistles every day. And along with some friends, I’d try the daring experiment of laying a penny on the rails where the tracks crossed Common Street, to see how the train would flatten the penny when it rolled through.

Railroads don't handle slopes well, so the trail sometimes cuts through the land

Railroads don’t handle slopes well, so the trail sometimes cuts through the land

But the railroad through Groton was never a major line. Passenger service had ceased and the town’s train station burnt down before I was born, and freights stopped running while I still lived in town. The right of way could have been abandoned, but the local authorities took it over and remade it into a paved bike trail, running from Ayer, Massachusetts, where the commuter rail still runs from Boston, to Nashua, New Hampshire.

I took a ride on the bike trail earlier this month for the first time. It was nearing peak foliage season, and I wanted to do some leaf peeping. And while I was passing through Groton, I took a few detours to see some of the local history there.

If there is anything Groton is nationally famous for, it is the Groton School, a “prep” school founded in 1884. Franklin Delano IMG_0596Roosevelt went there before going off to Harvard. There’s a nice view from the Circle at the center of the campus, currently marred by the reconstruction of the Schoolhouse. The most striking building on the Circle is the chapel, a stone Gothic structure that stands in sharp contrast to the brick buildings around it.

The bike path has easy access to downtown Groton because the old railroad station was at the end of a short side street off the main road. George Boutwell, who served as the state’s governor in 1851-52, built his house on the main road facing the station. For much of his life working as a lawyer, he’d walk from his front door down the side street to the station to take the train in to his office in Boston every day. It was said he was so regular you could set your watch by him.

The store where Boutwell clerked

The store where Boutwell clerked

Boutwell didn’t start as a lawyer. Before that, he’d been a teacher. And when he first came to Groton, he worked as a clerk in a store. The building still stands. After years of being the town’s post office, it is once again a store.

Further up the river is evidence of Groton’s industrial past. The Nashua River and its tributaries were a source of water power for many mills, which provided much of the freight traffic for the railroad. But cheaper labor in the South doomed the New England mills. IMG_0658This one here burned down before I was born and was not rebuilt. I remember when this brick wall used to stand three stories tall, but the elements have caused it to crumble.

There are still mills and dams on the river. The one in East Pepperell, Massachusetts makes the river slow and sluggish in the interval between that community and the burnt mill. Yet a half a century of work have made the river look clean and lovely, quite a wonder for those of us who remember it changing its dismal polluted colors by the season!IMG_0636

And that was my bike ride, from Ayer through Groton to East Pepperell. It was a good ride, both for foliage and for history.