Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Telephones from Bell to Cell

OSMOSE is a New York company that provides utility pole inspection and
treatment services. MITC-FUME is an anti-fungal chemical injected into
poles to combat fungal rot. Treatment every 5-7 years.
"Astounding" barely begins to describe how fast telephone technology went from invention to must-have. Alexander Graham Bell was awarded a U.S. patent in 1876. Operator switchboards were being set up in cities by 1878, and by 1881 close to 50,000 telephones were in use, mostly in east coast cities. One reason for fast implementation was that the telegraph, invented decades earlier, had become a mature industry with inter-city connections, telegraph poles, set fees, operators, etc. In many instances, telegraph companies adapted by adding telephone service, sometimes referred to as 'talking telegraph.'  

Telephone wires were also known as "Hello wires," and there is a mention as early as 1880 for "Hello" as the appropriate answer to a phone call. (Bell preferred "Ahoy," but he lost out to Thomas Edison.) In a 1889 book, Mark Twain wrote that switchboard operators were known as "Hello girls."

The mythology of telephone history has it that young men were the first switchboard employees, but their rudeness, impatience and pranks quickly led to this becoming a woman-only profession. Young women, preferably unmarried and living with their parents, were background checked, then taught the proper tone of speech and vocabulary for operators, as in "Number please." Unspoken was that this was a profession for U.S. born white women only. Not until 1944 did Bell Telephone begin to hire Negro women as operators. Jewish women were excluded for almost as long, as were immigrants in general.      

Locally, telegraph service had reached towns west of Concord in the 1850s. In Maynard, the first phone was installed at Johnson Pharmacy in 1888, in what was then the Masonic Building, on Main Street. All calls, in and out, were made from that location, and people paid by the call. The second phone, same year, was in the residence of Dr. Rich. By 1902 many local businesses had phones, including the newly relocated W.B. Case & Sons dry goods store. That was the year NET&T moved its switchboard office into the Naylor building, corner of Nason and Main (burned in 1917, currently site of Serendipity).      

Shared telephone pole: NET&T
Company and Boston Edison.
As phone networks expanded, most home phone customers were on a party line, meaning shared. A call would be put out on a line with four homes. The operator would signal with one ring for the first house, two for the second, and so on, so homeowners would know who was supposed to pick up. However, there was no means of stopping others on the line from listening in.

 Back in the early years, telephone, telegraph and electric power companies were each putting up their own poles. Arrangements were made to share, with each paying rent to the others on a pole-by-pole basis. We still call them 'telephone poles' even though much of what is carried is electric power and cable for out televisions and computers.

Most poles have lost their date nails, but this one still
sports a nail indicating the telephone pole dates to 1939.
Click on any photo to enlarge
Speaking of telephone poles, if your vehicle breaks a pole your insurance will be charged for a replacement. Poles at corners provide support for yard sale and lost pet signs, evidenced be the hundreds of staples and nails. One too-common sight is 'double poles,' old poles next to the replacements because some of the wires have not yet been transferred. Poles used to have spikes for climbing, but these have (mostly) been removed. Instead, workers use a hydraulic lift mounted on a truck. A scattering of older poles sport a date nail at eye height. Two digits on the nail head signify year installed. Oldest spotted so far reads "38."

The cell phone era began in the United States in 1983 with Motorola's DynaTAC 8000X. This larger than brick-sized phone cost $4,000 at the time - equivalent to more than $10,000 now - and provided only 30 minutes of talking time per ten hour recharge. Cell phones have gotten smaller, cheaper, smarter and common. According to a 2015 government survey, eight percent of households have only a land line, 47 per cent are only cell and 42 per cent have both. Three percent have no phone at all. The trend toward only cell is age driven - higher in younger - and interestingly also poverty driven, as poorer households are less likely to have a land line.  

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Snapping Turtles

June hereabouts brings turtle sightings on dry land, near and not so near bodies of water, some of which end up in the weekly newspaper police reports. What's happening is that female snapping turtles are leaving ponds and rivers to find places to lay eggs.

Let's get to the important parts first: snapping turtles should not be picked up by their tails as this can damage the animal's vertebral column and tail. Think how you would feel if dangling from one wrist or one ankle. And if you try for a grab of the shell, know that the neck is long enough and flexible enough for the biting end to reach at least half way back. A shell grip above the hind legs is safer, but better to leave the turtle alone. Second option is to lay a tarp or blanket on the ground and convince the turtle to walk onto that. (Yeah, right.) Then have people lift it by the corners. Or coax the turtle to walk into a garbage can.    

What these wanderers seek is a sandy or loose-soil bed in which to scrape out a depression, lay some 20 to 40 roundish eggs, each not much smaller than a ping-pong ball, scrape dirt back over, and depart. Unlike alligators or crocodiles, the mother does not guard and maintain the nest, nor stay with the newborns after hatching. Nest predation by skunks, raccoons, opossums and mink, followed by hatchling predation by great blue herons, snakes, otter... mean that fewer than five percent make it to end of first year.  

If they do survive, juvenile and adult snapping turtles are omnivores that will eat just about anything, including aquatic plants, dead fish, and live stuff they catch: crayfish, snails, fish, frogs, salamanders, insects, leeches, worms, snakes, small mammals, baby ducks, baby geese - and other turtles.

Females reach sexual maturity at about 15-20 years, with an upper shell 10-14 inches in length and a weight of 10-16 pounds. Males are larger than females. As snapping turtles continue to grow as they get older, and can exceed 50 years in the wild, male turtles can exceed 30 pounds, with rare reports of turtles exceeding 60 pounds. And there are reports of snapping turtles grabbing a leg of a adult Mallard duck and dragging the duck underwater.

One acquaintance told me of a childhood experience when he and friends were stepping on stones to cross a small stream in Great Meadow, Concord. One of the algae-covered 'stones' started to move! Everyone was startled. No one (and no turtle) was injured.   

Most snapping turtles enter hibernation by late October and emerge around April. To hibernate, they burrow into the debris or mud bottom of creeks, ponds or lakes. Metabolic rate is slowed. Rather than rising to the surface to breath, the semi-comatose turtles are able to absorb oxygen through their skin. Come spring the turtles reactivate. This paragraph started with "Most" because there are credible reports of sightings of active snapping turtles in mid-winter, seen through the ice.    

Female snapping turtle laying eggs, June 2015
Click on photo to enlarge.
Last June a snapping turtle larger than a car's hubcap chose the greenspace behind Maynard's town building to lay eggs. This was noted by town employees. A hurried consultation led to the conclusion that the eggs were too fragile to relocate, so a plastic mesh fence was erected around the nest site. The hope was that some 60-90 days later, unseen by human or predator eyes, the newly hatched, inch-long turtles crept under the edge of the fence, to the Assabet River, there to avoid herons and other hazards, and reach adulthood.

And finally, it is legal to catch snapping turtles in Massachusetts. From "Common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) that measure at least 12 inches in straight-line carapace length may be taken by hand, dip net or gaff, up to a limit of 2 per day, or in possession for personal use, by licensed fishermen. Snapping turtles may not be taken from May 1 to July 16." As to why one might want to catch a snapping turtle, the operative word is "soup."


Serpentina in the Linnaean name comes from observation that the neck is snake-like long and snake-like fast. Extended, head and neck are about same length as the width of the shell. Many the person has had a finger bitten for not knowing this fact.

Snappers hiss. If confronted on land, snappers expel air from their lungs to make more room to pull neck into shell. From this neck-retracted position the neck muscles and bones are ready for a very fast strike and bite.

Each state has its own restrictions. For example, Connecticut allows five per day, 30/year, shell length to exceed 13 inches, and allows hook fishing and turtle traps in addition to by hand, net or gaff.

Southeastern states are home to alligator snapping turtles, an entirely different species that weighs in at 100-200 pounds. This is the turtle that has an extension on its tongue that looks like a wriggling work. Fish swim up to eat it and become eaten.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

D.Y.W.Y.K. Club: 1889-1926

"Don't You Wish You Knew" was the explanation behind the founding of the D.Y.W.Y.K. Club in 1889, in Maynard, MA, a mill town west of Concord. Membership was limited to twenty men. The club's existence came to an end in 1926. Purpose is lost to history, with the exception that we know that the club held an annual masquerade ball at Maynard's Music Hall, prizes awarded to handsomest lady and most comically costumed gentleman.

The phrase, with or without the acronym, appears to have been common slang some 100 to 150 years ago, separating people in the know from those on the outs. Much like "www" for world wide web, saying the acronym out loud requires more syllables than the words it represents. Only in print does it have a useful brevity.   

We know nothing about how members originally decided to organize, what functions the club had other than the annual ball, or how replacement members were chosen. What we do have on the D.Y.W.Y.K. Club is a short description penned by Ralph L. Sheridan, in 1965. From the list of members in 1900 we learn that many had Irish surnames: McCarron, Doherty, Coughlan, Sheehan... mixed with old Yankee stock: Whitney, Smith, Lawton...

D.Y.W.Y.K. Club ticket in collection of Maynard Historical Society
The D.Y.W.Y.K Club masquerade ball was no small undertaking. The Historical Society has in its records a 1909 printers' estimate for printing 1500 tickets, 1500 promotional flyers and 75 posters to be set in storefront windows. A 1901 poster for the "BAL DE MASQUE" provides details: music by Brigham's Original Celebrated Singing Orchestra, Concert 8 to 9, tickets 25 cents, followed by Dancing 9 to 3, tickets one dollar per couple. To put that into context, male mill workers were making 20 to 25 cents per hour.

The Music Hall, built 1884 by Lorenzo Maynard, had started out as a roller skating rink, also doing duty as a basketball arena, host to dances, theater, minstrel shows and silent movies. It burned to the ground in November 1912. The location was on Main Street, west of McDonald's restaurant, roughly where the new apartment building now sits.  

Dancing, you say?  This town was CRAZY about dancing. The local chapters of national organizations such as Masons, Elks, Moose, Eagles and Odd Fellows would each have annual balls with live music and dancing. Gaps in the calendar were filled by groups of friends who would pool their money to rent a hall, hire a band, and hope to turn a profit selling tickets in advance and at the door. In warmer months these might be "Shirt Waist" dance parties, meaning less formal dress - no suit jackets for the men, and skirts and blouses for the women.

In that era, the burgeoning popularity of ragtime music pitted young against old in the form of "animal dances" and the like thought by many (of the elders) to be so scandalous as to warrant banning. Well-known dance names included the fox trot, turkey trot, bunny hug, grizzly bear, kangaroo hop, camel walk, Texas Tommy wriggle... These dances were danced in close personal contact intended to arouse sex feeling. By today's standards quite chaste in comparison to twerking or grinding, but back then, scandalous.

Much like responses portrayed in movies such as Footloose, there were official and semi-official reactions to any dancing that included lewd movement, unchaste touching, or indecent exposure. In Maynard, the November 1913 Selectman's meeting reached a decision that all of these objectionable forms of dance be prohibited "...for a cleaner and better Maynard."

P.S. "Happy Feet" (animated, penguins) was another movie in which the elders were against dancing.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Fire Hydrants - Oldest in Maynard

New Mueller hydrant, all red, dated 2015.
There are two Muellers dated 1959 on Nason Street.
After penning the fire hydrant article I got a few tips. A Mueller hydrant dated 1958 was sighted at Driscoll Avenue. This is now the oldest Mueller found. Pre-1975 Muellers are identified as being made in CHATTA TENN, not CHATT TENN (still meaning Chattanooga). Other brands of hydrants found in Maynard include American Darling, in the Presidents' street district, one hydrant at Main and River Streets branded the Eddy Valve Div of James B Clow Valve, and a couple of Traverse City Iron Works hydrants on mill&main property. A second  Rensselaer hydrant labeled THE COREY, stands on O'Moore Avenue. According to, this model dates to 1900-1930. The street itself dates to 1921, so this may be an original hydrant, new in 1921.

Being in a neighborhood where the nearest hydrants are red-topped, meaning low water flow, is not as scary as it sounds. First responder trucks carry 500-1000 gallons of water, which is often all it takes to knock down a house fire. Even if not extinguished, time is gained for other water-carrying trucks and hydrant pumper trucks to arrive.

Chapman Valve fire hydrant.
Click on photos to enlarge.

The apparent winner for oldest hydrant is on an unpaved portion of White Avenue. Buried under uncounted layers of white paint, the hydrant has an emblem of a "C" entwined with a "V" which stands for Chapman Valve, A raised circle surrounds the emblem with the faintly legible words CHAPMAN VALVE on the top and BOSTON on the bottom. Outside this ring is a stylized snowflake design. All this detail dates the hydrant's manufacture to 1890-1900. However, Winter Avenue itself and neighboring streets were created in 1921. The possibility remains that this is one of Maynard's first hydrants, installed at the same time as the beginnings of the town's water system, in 1890, later relocated to Winter Avenue.  [Here's hoping that when the hydrant is retired it will turned over to the Maynard Historical Society.]

Chapman Valve Manufacturing Co. was located in the town of Indian Orchard, near Springfield, MA. Chapman had its own complex history. During World War II it supplied valves to the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Energy Commission. After the war, Chapman machined enriched uranium rods into reactor fuel slugs for the Brookhaven National Laboratory. The company may also have conducted rolling operations on uranium metal as late as 1949. The hydrant and valve factory was still active under various company names until 1971.

Twenty-five years later a radioactivity examination found evidence of enriched uranium contamination throughout the buildings and grounds. Remediation actions were taken, the buildings razed, the site capped with concrete and declared safe. A fund was set up to make payments to workers who had developed cancer in the interim. Or to their families if they had died of cancer.

Chapman Valve fire hydrant close-up. Center is letters "C" and "V" with
"MFG" in center. Top of ring reads "CHAPMAN VALVE" and bottom of
ring reads "BOSTON." Outer ring is eight-point snowflake design. 
Much closer to home, Nuclear Metals Incorporated, later named Starmet Corporation, processed depleted uranium (DU) to create armor-penetrating shells for military use. The NMI/Starmet site is in Concord, on the south side of Route 62, about half a mile east of Wendy's. The company operated from 1958 to 2002. Clean-up and remediation efforts, which began in 1997, continue.     

Depleted uranium is 67% denser than lead and only slightly less dense than gold. DU's military use advantage over lead (and gold) is that after penetrating tank or other vehicle armor the pulverized uranium is pyrophoric, meaning that the sparks of impact will set it afire. "Depleted" in this context means that most of the highly radioactive uranium isotope 235 was removed to make power plant or weapons-grade uranium. The problem is that depleted or not, uranium is chemically toxic if inhaled as dust or ingested from a contaminated water supply. Decades of processing DU and other exotic metals at the NMI/Starmet set left buildings and grounds and an on-site retention pond heavily contaminated with metals and chemicals such as PCBs.

Only now - 2016 - are the buildings being torn down and removed from the site, as part of a $100+ million dollar process of final remediation. The previous year saw removal of 4,000 tons of contaminated material, shipped off to Utah and Idaho. In addition to all the above ground and near-surface contamination in a holding pond and on-site dump pit, there is concern that contaminating materials have seeped deep into the earth, and are spreading beyond the boundaries of the property. In time, contaminated subsurface water could reach the Assabet River, some 300 feet to the north.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Fire Hydrants - American Iron

Mueller Centurion fire hydrant (left) and "THE COREY (right). Paint color
on the bonnet and outlet caps signifies how much water will come out.
Through the paint, and sometimes through the rust, most of the fire hydrants in Maynard read MUELLER, ALBERTVILLE,  and either ALA or AL (for Alabama), plus a year for when the hydrant was made. Mueller Company was started in 1857, but did not get into the hydrant business until 1933, when it acquired Columbian Iron Works. An informal search found a Mueller hydrant dated 1959. One of the newest - dated 2015 - is next to the former American Legion building, at corner of Summer and Linden Streets. Older Mueller hydrants have CHATT TENN instead of Albertville.

And the oldest hydrant in town? There may be Mueller hydrants that pre-date 1959 (two of those on Nason Street). That's not shockingly old, as with proper maintenance hydrants can be operative past 75 years. Forest Street hosts an antiquated-looking, red-topped hydrant with "THE COREY" across the top. This model, from the Rensselaer Manufacturing Company, was named after the inventor William W. Corey. This individual hydrant may be more than 100 years old, although some versions of that model were still being made into the 1930s. There is an "1895" low on the front, but it seems that refers to the patent year, not the manufacture year.

Click on any photo to enlarge
Maynard appears to use a nationally standardized color coding system on older hydrants to indicate capacity. The main body of each hydrant is painted white. The bonnet and outlet caps are blue, green, yellow or red. Color indicates water output in gallons per minute, with blue meaning excellent, green meaning good, and so on. Route 117 toward Stow has a series of red-topped hydrants. All newer hydrants are entirely red, as the fire department now has computerized information on water volume and water pressure provided by the Department of Public Works, which is responsible for hydrant maintenance.

Mueller Centurion hydrant dated 1959.
Two with this date on Nason Street.
All of Maynard's public hydrants are dry barrel, meaning that the insides of the hydrants are not full of water when not in use. The top nut connects via a long rod to the valve many feet down, at the level of the water pipe. The alternative system - wet barrel - is used in warmer climates, where there is no risk of water in a hydrant freezing solid, which would render the hydrant useless and possibly damaged. Those movie scenes in which a truck or bus hits a hydrant and water spouts high into the air can be true, but not here.  

Maynard in the late 1880s had a population of 2500 and no central water system. Pipes and pumps were installed to bring water three miles north from White Pond, Sudbury. In town, a tank was built on Summer Hill, so that water pumped to the hilltop would provide good water pressure to all homes and businesses. The initial system included just over 7,500 feet of iron pipe and 57 fire hydrants. Subsequent annual reports mention pipe and hydrants being added as the town grew. Settled Maynard was very compact at the time; today's more spread out population is on the order of 10,000 people, serviced by a roughly estimated 400 to 500 fire hydrants.

There are perhaps a dozen hydrant manufacturing companies in the United States, and many more elsewhere, so it is nice to think that Maynard makes a point of buying American iron. Nice, but now also legally required. The American Iron and Steel Act of 2014 requires that any public water system getting federal funds to help pay for waterworks of any type use iron and steel products produced in the United States.  

By the way, you break it you own it, meaning that your insurance company will have to cover the cost of hydrant replacement in addition to the damage to your vehicle. Same applies to any damaged signage, light posts, traffic lights, etc. The newer Mueller Centurion models are designed to break off when hit, minimizing damage to the underground parts.

Sign in Stow, MA
Stow Fire Department
access to Elizabeth Brook
Lest any reader think this column is neglecting Maynard's western neighbor, Stow does not have a public water supply system, and thus no centralized system of hydrants. New housing developments are required to have underground water storage tanks. For everything else, the Stow Fire Department is equipped to pump water from streams, ponds and lakes. This is not as scary as it sounds. First responder trucks carry 500-1000 gallons of water, which is often all it takes to knock down a fire. Even if not extinguished, time is gained for other water-carrying trucks (Stow's and neighboring towns) to arrive. Only rarely would there be a need for the trucks to shuttle back and forth from a water source to the site of the fire.