Thursday, January 22, 2015

Assabet River Walk - Into the Woods

Colbert Avenue entrance to river walk
 Be forewarned: parts of the Assabet River Walk described in this column connect to a narrow trail on steep terrain bordering the Assabet River. During winter conditions a slip could send a hiker sliding down the hill. A sturdy hiking stick is well advised.

One end of the Assabet River Walk is off the Colbert Avenue cul-de-sac, reached by turning east from Route 27 onto Glendale Street (next to AVIS car rental), and then taking the second right onto Colbert, which for the moment has no street sign. At the dead end a large wooden sign installed by Maynard's Conservation Commission reads "ASSABET RIVER WALK." Along the trail, trees bordering the trail are marked with white paint.

In winter the entrance is clear, but by mid-summer it can be obscured by Japanese knotweed, an invasive plant species which looks a bit like bamboo. Other winter-visible examples of invasive plants on this trail include bayberry, burning bush, and oriental bittersweet.

There are beech and sugar maple trees everywhere, from saplings to mature trees topping fifty feet. This mix signifies a mature forest, because both are slow growing, shade tolerant species that over a long period of time will supersede faster growing pines and oaks.   

Beech tree leaves, still on tree well into winter
Beech trees have smooth bark and the early winter oddity of not yet having shed their light brown colored dead leaves - a trait more obvious on saplings. The retention of dead plant matter is called marcescence. One theory is that dead leaves may dissuade deer from browsing on buds and twig ends.  

The first part of the trail meanders along the north shore of the Assabet River, then veers left to cross a small stream. For many years there was a small bridge over the stream, but it has gone missing. For the moment, it is possible to walk across on the ice.

A bit past the stream the trail splits. Left goes uphill to Concord Street, the other officially marked end of the trial. This part of the trail climbs about 60 feet in elevation from riverbank to road. From there, left on Concord Street and then a second left onto Lewis Street takes one back to Colbert Avenue.

Turn right (east) at the split and the trail continues to parallel the river. The Assabet River soon stills and widens as it becomes Ripple Pond, the name for the impoundment backed up behind Powdermill Dam. There has been a dam at this site since 1800; first providing power to grind grain, then starting in 1835, for the manufacture of gunpowder, thus providing a name for the dam and for that portion of Route 62.

Maynard's wastewater outlet
While continuing eastward, look upslope for large, rounded boulders. These are glacial erratics - rocks that were being carried along by the underside of ice age glaciers, deposited here more than 10,000 years ago.

In time, the path reaches the outlet from the Maynard wastewater treatment plant. The water volume does not look like much, considering a rough estimate of Maynard's output is a million gallons per day, but that amount equates to about 1.5 cubic feet of water per second.

Wastewater temperature is well above freezing. The day I was there, a flock of some forty mallard ducks was taking advantage of the area of open water. This time of year the male mallards sport a shimmer of iridescent green feathers on their heads and partway down their necks - part of their mating colors. Late spring, after mating season, males will molt (shed their feathers) and grow new feathers of the same mottled brown color as the females. These drab colors serve until the fall molt, whence the males will again put on their mating finery.      
Border stone on Stow (Maynard) side

About fifty feet downstream from the outlet, away from the water, is a low, squared off granite post. The east side has an "A" carved into it, the west side an "S." This is a border marker, dating back to before Maynard became a town, so signifying Acton on one side and Stow the other. The trail continues on the other side of the outlet to reach Adams Street, in Acton.

Backtrack from the outlet to Colbert Avenue or Concord Street and you have accomplished a fine winter walk of more than an hour's duration. Time it well and you will be home before dark.

Postscript on river volume: By the time the Assabet gets to Maynard's wastewater outlet, it and the upstream wastewater treatement plants have put roughly ten million gallons a day into the river, equating to a bit over ten cubic feet of water per second (cfs). During the low river months of July, August and September the river often has a total flow of less than 40 cfs, some days under 20 cfs, so treated wastewater makes up a significant fraction of total volume.     

Thursday, January 15, 2015

When cats go out - where to they go?

If I don't have a cat, why are there cat footprints in the snow in my backyard?  Or for a daytime sighting, my thoughts "That's not my cat," or "Whose cat is that, and why is it hissing at another not my cat?"

Cat research - interesting career choice, no? - estimates that there are between 75 and 95 million domestic cats in the United States, inhabiting 30 to 35 percent of households, with perhaps an additional non-owned 30 to 70 million stray or feral cats. That equates to 6,000 cats living in Stow and Maynard! That's a lot of cat food!! Also a lot of killing of small mammals, birds, frogs, baby bunnies and what have you.  

Distinctions among domestic, stray, feral and wild come down to owned, owned once upon a time, never owned and never domesticated. "Feral" is for species which are domesticated in general, able to survive and reproduce as unowned animals, but with the potential to be redomesticated. In parts of the U.S. this means cats, pigs, burros and horses. Elsewhere in the world add goats, camels (Australia) and dogs (India). Some wild, non-native species owned as pets are let loose and establish a reproductive population, but those are invasive, not feral (think pythons in Florida).

Cat researchers have decided that the time has come to find out what cats do and where they go. Two technologies make this possible. First, using a harness to mount a camera on a cat's chest. Second, a GPS-equipped collar which either records information to be downloaded later, or sends a real-time location signal. The cameras weigh three ounces, have night vision capacity, and are designed to break away from the harness if caught on something. GPS collars (also available commercially for cat owners from companies Pawtrack, Tagg and others) weigh two ounces.  

What was learned was that domestic cats are effective hunters. What they bring home is only about one-fifth of their kills. The rest is either eaten (about 30 percent) or left at the scene of the crime. In rural and suburban neighborhoods various scavengers such as skunks, opossums and crows glean the fruit of these cats' labors. Feral cats obviously are going to be hunting more often and eating more of their catch. For the U.S., kill estimates are more than one billion birds per year and at least five times as much for small mammals.    

Cats are wanderers. House cats tend to stay within a hundred yards or so of home, but in a suburban environment that means crossing a street or two, or wandering into the woods. Feral cats have a larger range in general - one study reported an average of just under 400 acres. Males tend to have ranges that overlap with several females. This trait that is seen in wild mammal species for which males seek to mate with more than one female and do not have any active role in child care or feeding.

Interestingly, feral cats prefer to live near humans rather than in the wilderness. A guess here is a combination of more food sources, more shelter and less risk of predation.   

Indoor cat the morning after his 21st birthday

Being an outdoor cat shortens lifespan. Indoor cats live on average about 15 years, while owned cats allowed outdoors on a regular basis clock in at well under 10 years. Feral cats that make it past kittenhood rarely manage to make it past 5 years. Life shortening risks include fights with cats, with dogs, coyotes, disease, being hit be a car...

Cats are lazy. Tracking of house cats during their indoor and outdoor doings found that cats were inactive - sleeping or resting or grooming - some 80 percent of the time, low active 17 percent and high active just 3 percent. In comparison, the numbers for feral cats were 62, 23 and 15 percent respectively.

One interesting observation is that people who have a cat door to allow their cat to enter and exit at will are likely playing host to neighborhood cats - owned, stray and feral. The next step up in home security may be to equip pet cats with a collar that allows them but no others access through the cat door.   

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Fire Alarm Call Boxes soon to be History

Trademark is clenched fist and lightning bolts
over the company name, registered 1879
Maynard's outdoor fire alarm call box system will be replaced with new technology. The existing boxes are painted red and white (with one exception), and either attached to a telephone pole, the side of a building or mounted on a pedestal, such as the one facing Nason Street in Memorial Park. In Maynard, the top of the face of each call box (with one exception) displays GAMEWELL below a clenched hand holding lightning bolts. This symbol was registered as a trademark in 1879. A few of Maynard's call boxes are topped with red lights. Sides have decals - often severely faded - reading "FIRE" in red letters on a white background.

The exceptions: On the wall of Suburban Glass and Mirror, on Powder Mill Road, the call box is branded SAFA. The initials stand for Superior American Fire Alarm & Signal Co., Meriden, Connecticut. SAFA was competing with Gamewell in the 1950s, but no longer exists by that name. How Maynard ended up with one SAFA box is a mystery. The other exception is that the box at Reo Park is painted white with blue trim.

January 29, 1921: Maynard Hotel lost to fire despite
timely efforts of the fire department
Gamewell, named after the owner, John N. Gamewell, was the New York and Massachusetts based company that had provided Maynard with its first box, in 1892, and is still in business today as a division of Honeywell. Because of a peaked roof design their outdoor call boxes are referred to as cottage style.

From a website: "Boxes were installed on buildings such as churches, schools, movie theaters and major factories. This was to provide a reliable method of sending a fire alarm from the protected facility to the fire department. These boxes were placed to provide for a rapid response to incidents where there was a large life-loss potential, schools for instance, or the potential for a large economic impact to the community such as a large factory."

Older boxes were made of cast iron and weighed close to 75 pounds. Manufacturing was located in Newton, MA, on the Charles River, a long-time iron works site. Decades later, cast aluminum replaced iron, so the newer boxes weighed a tad under 28 pounds. Up until some time in the 1970's the lower front read "Newton, Massachusetts," changed to "Medway, Massachusetts." Most (all?) of Maynard's call boxes read "Newton."

Gamewell call box on pedestal, Memorial Park
Click on any photo to enlarge
As noted above, Maynard acquired its first alarm box in 1892. Expansion was slow. The count reached 8 by 1903, 22 by 1938 and 30 by 1953. Maynard currently maintains more than 70 call boxes, plus a handful that are still out there but not operative, so wrapped in plastic.

Back when the town's annual reports used to have a list of call boxes, there was a subset described as phantom boxes. This term referred to sites throughout town without real boxes yet assigned box numbers. There was a filing system at the fire station with all the box numbers - real and phantom - and when a call came by telephone, the desk man pulled the card and then tapped out the box number (and thus location) to the responding crew.

However, in this era of 9-1-1 and cell phones, the use of outdoor-mounted call boxes to report fires has dramatically declined while the cost of maintaining the system has increased. The fire department's  intent, over the next two years, is to ship Maynard's boxes to other towns. Maynard's system will be modernized to radio call boxes akin to cell phone technology.  

One of the old Gamewell boxes - from the site of the now demolished Oriental Delight restaurant, formerly Russo's - has been donated to the Maynard Historical Society. It was recently on display at the Maynard Public Library as part of an exhibit on the history of the fire department.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back at 2014

First, a look back at the most popular columns of 2014 as determined by numbers of visits to columns posted at Then, a few suggestions for New Year's Resolutions and a look forward at planned topics for 2015.

Not counting a handful of repeats of nature articles, this is column number 175, stretching back to November 2009. Topics have been history-related for 100, with the others divided across observations on nature, outdoor recreational ideas and a smattering of health-related topics. 

Click on any photo to enlarge
Far and away, the most popular column of 2014 was about Luna moths. A long version of this was first posted to the website in May 2013 under the title "Luna Moth: Photos, Symbolism and a Poem." For those without computer access, turns out there isn't any symbolism unique to Luna moths, but moths and butterflies in general symbolize rebirth and transformation. (think corpse-still cocoon bursting open to release winged beauty). For those with computers, a search for images of "moon moths" will yield photos of Luna moths plus two dozen related species, mostly from Asia.

At Wikipedia, websites for town often include a list of Notable Residents - either current or former - who lived in those towns. At the time a February 2014 column was written on this topic Stow had six Notables whereas Maynard had none. As of this writing, the count is Stow: eight; Maynard: seven. Both lag badly behind Concord, which claims seventy-nine. Criteria to qualify appears to be a separate Wikipedia entry about the person in question. So, for anyone who thinks of themselves as at least locally semi-famous, time to find the Boswell to your Samuel Johnson.

Other 2014 columns that drew a lot of traffic to the website were "You know you're from Maynard if..." and "Gunpowder Mill on Powder Mill Road," both from January 2014. Also "A Cleaner River - the Assabet Transformed," May 2014, about the continuing efforts to clear trash from the Assabet River. All wastewater treatment plants along the Assabet now meet new standards on how much plant-growth promoting phosphorus can be released to the river.   

Assabet River Rail Trail, Maynard
As for New Year's Resolutions - plan to spend more time outdoors!  Stow and Maynard have miles of trails perfect for winter hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Many of these are marked with blazes painted on trees or are too obvious to get lost on (the Rail Trail). Keep an eye out for animal tracks. Revel in the fact that deer ticks are dormant. By the way, conversion of the Rail Trail from unpaved to paved has been pushed back to 2016. See an updated description of trail news and a walking guide posted in June 2013.

While woodland trail walking, think about bringing along a small brush saw. Winter is a good time to cut bittersweet vines. But do not cut poison ivy (these vines cling to tree trunks with myriad tendrils) or wild grape vines (brown, flaking bark). Uncontrolled, bittersweet will reach treetops and then kill trees by cutting off sunlight and by sheer weight, breaking branches.

On the docket for this column for 2015 are a sequel to September's "Murders in Maynard?" plus columns on where our cats go when we let them out, the great train wreck of 1905, the history of our towns' newspapers, what the Whitney family has been doing in this area since they got here in 1680, La Petite Auberge restaurant, Rodoff Shalom Synagogue, headstone art in Stow's oldest cemetery, and more. Suggestions welcome!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Researching Topics for 2015

If my writing continues at the same pace, 2015 should see 30-40 columns published in the Beacon-Villager (Maynard & Stow, MA) weekly newspaper, and posted to this blog. Here are a few topics that could use some research help:

The 2nd Richard Whitney 1660-1723 
Click on photo to enlarge
THE WHITNEYS: John Whitney and his wife Elinor came over in 1635 on the ship “Elizabeth and Anne” with four sons, and had four more sons in New England. Six of the sons reached adulthood, to marry and have children. Two daughters had been born in England and died in England. 

Richard, one of their sons, was listed as living in Watertown as of 1673, but later as “a proprietor” in Stow, which became a named town in 1683. Stow and Maynard cemeteries are the resting place of dozens of Whitneys. Can any Whitneys living here today trace their family name over 300 years, back to Richard Whitney? Any interesting stories on what growing up a Whitney meant?  Inherited antiques that come with a story? Photos from the late 1800s?

One line of the family: John (the immigrant, born 1592), Richard (first to live in Stow), Richard, Richard, Daniel, Daniel, Daniel, Artemas, Lucy (who married H.B. Case of the Maynard store with his name), and then Ralph Case, Frank Case and Frank Case (still alive). Equals 12 generations and 423 years.

The SMITH FAMILY: John Smith came over in 1638 and settled in Sudbury. He married Sarah Hunt and they had three sons. When Sudbury territory was expanded north west to the border of the Assabet River, John and Sarah received 130 acres as part of the land being divided amongst Sudbury residents. As the family line was traced from John to Thomas to Amos and subsequent generations, the Smiths acquired more of what was to become Maynard in 1871. Various Smiths sold land to Amory Maynard and William Knight as they were developing the mill dam, canal and wool mill. Seven Smiths were signers of the petition to create the Town of Maynard. Of the five oldest houses still in existence in Maynard, four were owned by Smith family members.  

RODOFF SHALOM SYNAGOGUE:  Existed in Maynard from 1921 to 1980, when the congregation merged into Congregation Beth Elohim, in Acton. Information on Rodoff Synagogue is welcome, as is any information on the presence of a Jewish community in Maynard prior to the formation of the synagogue. There are historical mentions of an Ednas Israel Society and a Maynard Hebrew Society, both pre-dating the synagogue. 

Glenwood Cemetery Pond, Maynard, MA  1938
WPA and NYA: During the Great Depression, the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 led to the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and National Youth Administration (NYA). Both agencies had projects in Maynard and Stow. For example, WPA created Glenwood Cemetery Pond, south of the Cemetery (and now a marshy mess). As constructed, there was an island in the pond, and a pond in the center of the island. The outer pond was very popular for ice skating. A shed and benches gave space to put on skates.  Any memories or stories handed down on family members who were involved with WPA or NYA?  Details on local projects?

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Thank you -