Category Archives: Concord, Mass.

Local history

Sometimes you find the best stories in local histories. In The Meetinghouse on the Green: A History of First Parish in Concord [Massachusetts], Eric Smith tells a story about Elmer Joslin, who was both a member of First Parish in Concord and the Superintendent of Roads in Bridges for the Town of Concord:

“In days past, the Concord dump was open seven days a week. There was no nonsense then about a sanitary landfill. A column of smoke by day, a glow of flame by night, and a warm enduring odor floating down the wind, the dump was a center of social life, especially on Sundays. This happy situation ended in the 1950s. The dump was closed on Sundays, obliging all residents who worked out of town to bring their offerings on Saturdays. The resultant traffic jams were not conducive to socializing. Why did this happen?

“Allegedly Dr. Daniels, then the [Unitarian] minister, facing a small congregation one Sunday morning, announced that he would hold his service at the dump on the following Sunday, as he presumed that most of his parishioners would then be there. Elmer was in church and was heard to mutter that no such event would take place. Accordingly he closed the dump on Sundays thereafter, thus outraging some Episcopalians who, like the Unitarians, patronized the dump on the Lord’s Day.” [p. 263]

And now, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story: That dump was finally filled and closed, and they built a new high school on top of it, the high school which my sisters and I attended. The new dump was built a little further down the same road, which placed it between a highway and a trailer park, just down the street from Walden Pond. The new dump served as a social center up through the 1990s; it was also a sure place to find various gulls during the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Alas, the Concord dump was closed for good when the Thoreau-followers complained about its proximity to Walden Pond, although I suspect Henry Thoreau would have liked it because it was a good place to scrounge free stuff. (If you sneak under the gate you’ll find it’s still a good place to go birding, though.)

Patriot’s Day and Universalism

By April 20, 1775, His Majesty’s regular troops had retreated from the towns west of Boston by the colonial militia companies. Nonetheless, more colonial militia companies continued to pour into the Concord and Lexington area for some days; when they arrived in Concord and Lexington they learned that the Redcoats had gone to Boston, and many of them continued on and participated in the engagements that culminated in the battle of Bunker Hill. One such company came all the way from the newly settled Massachusetts town of Warwick, and Caleb Rich was one of their number. Supposedly, Rich actually stood on Lexington Green a little more than 24 hours after the skirmish there.

Rich was one of the early Universalist preachers in North America. Beginning in 1772, Rich had experienced a number of visions and dramatic insights that were leading him towards a universalist theological position. In 1773, he was expelled from the Warwick Baptist Church as a heretic, and, with his two brothers and some others, formed a new religious society. This new religious society became an early Universalist church by about 1778; so while Rich wasn’t exactly a Universalist in 1775, he was only three years away from being one. Rich was later instrumental in converting Hosea Ballou, the greatest American Universalist theologian, to Universalism.

Thus, a proto-Universalist preacher missed participating in the Battle of Concord and Lexington by one day.

April 19

Patriot’s Day, the Massachusetts holiday that commemorates the April 19, 1775, Battle of Concord and Lexington, is a big deal in Concord, Massachusetts. I was born in Concord, and lived there for forty years, and Patriot’s Day is still a big deal to me. Patriot’s Day is now celebrated on the Monday following the real day, but no matter. When I was a kid, the parade and the re-enactment of the battle took place on April 19. It really was a big deal: cannon and muskets firing, guys walking around in funny clothes, and us kids running around trying to find the best place to see the Redcoats.

So in commemoration of my favorite holiday of the whole year, here’s Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 poem, often called the Concord Hymn, about the events of April 19 (with my commentary in italics after each stanza):

(Sung to Old 100th.)

  By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
  Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
  Here once the embattled farmers stood;
  And fired the shot heard round the world.

According to the Dolittle prints of 1775, the bridge came up a little in the middle but it’s a stretch to say it arched. The flag carried by the Minutemen and militia-men was the Bedford flag, not the stars and stripes. Not all the militia were farmers, though most were; rather than embattled, they were really the attackers in this skirmish. And the good folks of Lexington would argue that one of their shots, fired several hours earlier in the first skirmish of the day-long battle, was the shot heard ’round the world.

  The foe long since in silence slept;
  Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
  And Time the ruined bridge has swept
  Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

A number of His Majesty’s troops died at the site of the bridge, and today the approximate location of their graves is marked. The bridge washed out in a spring flood a few years after the battle. The Concord River is indeed dark from tannin.

  On this green bank, by this soft stream,
  We set to-day a votive stone,
  That memory may their deeds redeem,
  When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

The monument of 1837 was set up on the side of the bridge defended by His Majesty’s troops. Not until 1875 was a monument put up on the side of the river commanded by the colonials — the famous Minuteman statue, by Unitarian sculptor and Concord native Daniel Chester French.

  O Thou who made those heroes dare
  To die, and leave their children free, —
  Bid Time and Nature gently spare
  The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

No comment needed, only shed a tear for those who died on both sides of the conflict.

Death’s heads and sunrises

Screen grab from the video showing a gravestone.

I’m giving a talk on Puritan-era gravestones this Thursday, and I’ve been obsessing over the slides I’m going to show during the talk. So I had this idea of doing a sort of music video with death’s heads and cherubs and other images from gravestones, all jumping around to the music. Well, I don’t have the time to do something like that, so I made this video instead… which I admit is a little quirky.

[For you gravestone geeks out there, the stones were photographed at Old Hill Burying Ground in Concord, Mass. (most of the ones in the first third of the video, including those carved by the Lamson family and the Worcester family), the old burying ground in Acushnet, Mass. (many of the broken stones are from there, including the one that appears to be carved by one of Stevens family from Newport), the Naskatucket graveyard in Fairhaven, Mass. (including another possible Stevens stone and the phenomenal sunrise stone towards the end), and Westport Friends burying ground (the granite stone marked “R.B” comes from there).]


Note: video host is defunct, so this video no longer exists.

Friday video: Autumnal tints video postcard

Another video postcard — this time “Autumnal Tints in New England.” It’s shamelessly pastoral, with however the realistic inclusion of passing SUVs and airplane noise overhead. All video shot in and around Concord, Massachusetts, in Minuteman National Historical Park and Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. (1:05)

Note: video host is defunct, so this video no longer exists.

The Lakes District

My older sister, Jean, is back east from Indiana. Somehow or another, we decided to go fishing on the rivers in Concord. We had to get fishing licenses first, so we couldn’t get on the river at sunrise (the best time to fish in summer because it’s cool). But by ten thirty or so, we had my canoe in the water, and we were paddling up the Assabet River.

The river was low, and there were a couple of places where there was barely enough water to float the canoe. We had a hard time getting through a couple of shallow places. The river was low enough that it seemed unlikely that we would catch anything except small fish. But the great virtue of the Assabet is that it is lined by overhanging trees, which shade it even in the middle of the hottest of summer days. Since we were fishing in the middle of the day, on one of the hottest of summer days, the Assabet seemed like a good choice.

We skirted barely-hidden underwater rocks, and paddled silently over deep, shady pools. We ducked to get under branches, and in the shallow parts I admired the pattern of sun and shadow on the sandy bottom of the river. We heard an occasional lawn mower — lawn care companies hired by the well-to-do householders who live near the river — but mostly we heard nothing but a few hot and lazy birds, or the plop of a turtle dropping into the water at our approach.

At last we got to a place where the river was blocked by a tiny water fall, all of twelve inches high. We could have gotten out and waded in water up to our knees and carried the canoe over the tiny falls, but we decided to start fishing. It took Jean a couple of casts to get back into the rhythm of casting — she said that it must have been twenty years since the last time she went fishing — but pretty soon, we were drifting downstream with the current, lazily casting and retrieving our lures, hoping we wouldn’t catch anything.

Of course we did catch some fish, mostly sunfish — voracious little pumpkinseeds and bluegills who lunged at the lures and stared at us with their goggle eyes as we unhooked them and released them back into the river. Jean caught a calico bass, and I caught a little six-inch largemouth bass. We got tired of catching the tiny fish. We both put on larger lures, too big for the little sunfish to get their jaws around, although sometimes they still would attack our lures. We drifted along with the slow current, casting into deeper holes where maybe a larger bass was lurking. In one such deep hole, I cast and felt a bigger fish hit my lure down in the murk. We cast a couple more times in that hole, but nothing came of it.

Really, though, we didn’t plan to catch much of anything. We wanted to go fishing for the sake of going fishing, not for the sake of catching fish. We were out fishing in the middle of the day on one of the hottest days of the year, in a shallow river where there shouldn’t be any fish at all except minnows. But the Pennsylvania Dutch side of our family are anglers, and I swear I could feel some kind of Pennsylvania Dutch witchery in my fingertips. So we caught more fish than we wanted to.

We took a break in the hottest part of the afternoon, and went to a nearby art museum that was air conditioned. We ate a quick dinner, and drove over to the Sudbury River. We drifted downstream in the canoe, catching a few more sunfish, and I got a small bass. When we got to Fairhaven Bay, we started fishing more seriously. Though it was only an hour before sunset, it was still hot. We knew the fish were still lying on the bottom, trying to stay cool, maybe snapping at a tasty morsel that drifted too close. So we fished on the bottom.

Fairhaven Bay covers about forty or fifty acres, and though it’s not as deep as nearby Walden Pond, it looks much the same. Henry Thoreau used to fish here, and he said that Walden Pond, Fairhaven Bay, and White Pond are Concord’s Lakes District — which I suppose means that these ponds should be the haunts of writers, just as England’s Lakes District has been haunted by writers. Even though Jean is a writer, and a college professor of writing, we did not talk about writing, or about the literary associations of Fairhaven Bay. We just fished off the bottom of the bay. We caught some more sunfish, and Jean pulled in a largemouth bass that was ten or twelve inches long.

Thoreau wrote that he got to the point where he didn’t like to fish, saying he thought less of himself when he went fishing. For me, the point of fishing is to not think much at all, except to think like a fish — which pretty much rules out everything except figuring out where the food comes from, and where you can find a sheltered spot near a good food source. As we paddled back to the landing, Jean and I talked a little bit about the morality of fishing, and I said I was willing to go fishing because I do eat fish and meat, and fishing helps me understand that eating fish and meat means that something has to die to feed me. However, I don’t suppose that a largemouth bass thinks about the morality of eating when it eats an insect, another fish, or a mouse (a bass will eat a mouse if one falls in the water). In my experience, most human beings don’t think much about the morality of eating. Thoreau probably thought too much about a lot of things.

When the sun disappeared behind the hills, we each had a last cast. We paddled back to the canoe landing, put the canoe on my car, and drove home.

Jean’s account of the same trip: Link.

Local vegetables

On my way to my sister Abby’s house, I stopped at a farmstand near where Carol and I used to live in Concord. I bought some asparagus to bring to Abby and Jim — cut that day, most of the stalks about as thin as a pencil and so tender you could eat it raw. The locally-grown produce is really starting to come in now: traditional spring vegetables like rhubarb, peas, strawberries, and asparagus (Concord used to be famous for its strawberries and asparagus); cool-weather vegetables like broccoli, kohlrabi, and bok choy; and the first of the summer squashes, zucchini, patty-pan, and yellow squash.

I not only bought asparagus for Abby and Jim, I also bought broccoli, zucchini, bok choy, and about five pounds of rhubarb. Rhubarb has become my favorite spring food. I like to cook up a pound of rhubarb with maybe a teaspoon or two of honey, just enough to thicken up the sauce but not enough to take the edge off the sourness of it.

I told my dad how I make rhubarb, and he made a little sour expression with his mouth. You have to understand that dad grew up on Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, with no lack of sugar. Once when he went to my mother’s house for dinner when they were still getting to know one another (the way she told it, it was the first time he went to her house to meet her family), mom cooked up some rhubarb with only a hint of sugar. She said that when she watched him eat it, she could tell is was too tart for him and she knew he must really love her when he ate it all. So when I told dad how I like my rhubarb, he screwed up his mouth a little, then smiled and said, “You take after your mother.”

“I guess I do,” I said, at least as far as rhubarb is concerned.

Spring watch

Three years ago, we lived a mile away from Verrill Farm in Concord, Massachusetts. We used to walk down and buy our vegetables there. In the winter, they’d bring in vegetables from California or Florida, but at about this time of year they would start having some of their own vegetables for sale.

I drove up to see Carol’s parents this afternoon, and I took the route that went by Verrill’s Farm. Sure enough, they had their own spinach on sale, the first vegetables out of their greenhouse: nice, crisp, curly, succulent, bright green leaves of spinach. I bought a big bag of their spinach. By this time in the spring, I’m desperate for fresh local vegetables. The stuff they truck in from California and Florida always tastes a little limp and flat.

It’s a quarter to ten, and I just got back home. I was tempted to cook up some spinach before I went to sleep, but it’s really too late. Now I can hardly wait until tomorrow: spinach salad for lunch, steamed spinach for dinner….