Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Hidden History of Maynard


Hidden History of Maynard (2014)
128 pages. 54 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.62619.541.7
Price: $19.99 (e-book $9.99)

The book is available in Maynard at The Paper Store, or directly from the author, who will be scheduling appearances at the Maynard Farmers' Market and other locations.

Maynard resident David A. Mark brings his years of experience as a writer to create this fact-populated collection of fifty short essays gathered into seven theme-linked chapters. The contents were originally published 2012-14 as Mark’s column in Maynard’s newspaper, the Beacon-Villager.

Mark continues to write for the newspaper.
His more recent columns are posted at

In this, his second book, the content is 100% history. Chapters again cover the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus a focus on the unusual people and unusual businesses that prospered here. So, from the question as to why there was a mink ranch in Maynard, to whether Babe Ruth came a-drinking here when he lived in Sudbury, here is David Mark with his well-researched and entertaining answers to those questions.  

Only in Maynard
Meet the Maynard Family
19th Century
20th Century
Unusual Businesses
Unusual People
21st Century

         A reading/signing/party is scheduled for October 14, 7:00 PM, at the Maynard Public Library.


First book
MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors (2011)
128 pages. 53 illustrations 
Publisher: The History Press
ISBN: 978.1.60949.303.5
Price: $19.99

Skunk cabbage
Maynard: History and Life Outdoors mixes 2/3 local history with 1/3 observations on nature and local recreational activities as a means of exploring what Maynard, Massachusetts offers to anyone willing to get away from too much time looking at screens and not enough time spent seeing, hearing, touching and smelling the life going on outside. History starts with eighteenth century stone walls, then carries forward to twenty-first century river clean-ups and farmers’ markets. Nature spans skunks to skunk cabbage, deer to deer ticks, and birds to bird food. Recreational sports essays range from describing the slow-motion, nightmarish feel of snow shoeing to how to avoid overhydration – the potentially deadly opposite of dehydration.

Author selfie, one fine cold morning (5ยบ F)

Maynard – Why “Outdoors”
Eighteenth Century
Birds and Bugs
Nineteenth Century
Assabet River 
Twentieth Century
Marble/Whitney/Parmenter Farm
Twenty-first Century

First Time You Bought Art

Today’s question: What was the first piece of art you remember buying?  A few rules here: music is art, but buying an album does not count. Theater, live music and dance are arts, but buying a ticket does not count. Posters, no. Sculpture and statues, yes. Jewelry, no. Clothing, no. Pottery - yes if on display, but not if kept in a kitchen cabinet.

Results of an admittedly informal survey of one hundred people found a few having bought something when quite young, perhaps at a yard sale. The more common memory was of buying art after moving away from home, be it first apartment or college dorm. From the survey, most of those who were able to remember that first purchase either still had the item or remembered what happened to it.

Alexander Calder lithograph, 9x12 inches, 1972
My first was a signed Alexander Calder print from a Boston art gallery for $125, in 1974. I had just started my first job after college. It currently hangs on my office wall. Many twentieth century artists took advantage of the concept of selling multiple copies of work at a lower price per piece, making up the difference in volume. In this business model the artist signs and numbers each one (traditionally in pencil, as a means of indicating that it was done by hand). Art galleries sell the work, take their cut, and remit payments to the artist.

After correcting for forty years of inflation, the value of my purchase has roughly doubled. For comparison, a person with the foresight to purchase Apple stock when it first issued in 1980 would have seen their investment increase one hundred-fold in inflation-corrected dollars.   

A decision to purchase art is colored by whether there was art on display at the home you grew up in, or else in homes of friends and relatives. School field trips to museums may have been for naught if walls were bare at home. Elementary schools also teach art (which is different from teaching appreciation of art) so often the first art a person owns is their own creation. This, too, does not qualify as bought art, but is a start.    

Collections are distinct from art, but can engender the same emotional resonance. Be it a baseball card or a Star Was figurine, the first purchase can cascade into a desire to complete a set. Collectibles can also be seriously expensive – in the same realm as original art.

Speaking of serious art, there are art buyers who think of this solely as an investment. Switzerland offers secure warehouses for art storage. There are literally billions upon billions of dollars of valuable art, which, when sold, may do no more than move from one storage locker to another. Very, very high quality security lets art insurers sleep easy, but there are still disquieting thoughts about all those insured assets being in one place.

Technology is changing the concept of owning art. Given the feasibility of having sizeable flat screens hung on various walls, a person could subscribe to ever-changing e-reproductions of nature scenes or famous paintings: Ansel Adams one week; Van Gogh the next. Not so different from subscribing to a music service.

E-art comes hyperlinked. Already it is possible to stand in front of a painting at a museum and have a free smart phone app (the museum’s or other) whispering in your ear the artist’s name, biography, when this particular piece was created and what various art critics opine.  

In the meantime, while the Town of Maynard has no public displays of
statuary or sculpture (!), it does offer myriad opportunities to buy art, buy more art, buy lots of art. Art & Soul and Denault Studios each sell the work of many local artists and craftspeople, as does the Open Studios program at ArtSpace. Goddard Richard Goldsmith and Earth Changes Pottery are venues for owner/artist work. Gallery Seven is primarily a framing shop, but always has artists’ work on display/sale. Paint ‘n pour allows you to create your own. More than half a dozen consignment, collectors, antique and second-hand establishments carry used art and/or collectibles. Buy art! Support your local artists!!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Worms, Slugs and Snails

Earthworms are such an integral part of New England that it comes as a shock to learn that these worms are an invasive species. Colonial era gardeners brought lilacs and other plants across the Atlantic, with earthworms as inadvertent passengers in the rootballs.

A transition from pre-worm to post-worm ecology can be visited in the upper mid-west, where the slow-motion invasion continues to spread. On the pre-worm side, decaying plant matter creates a “duff” several inches thick on the ground – an ideal habitat for myriad small animal species and also for plant seedlings. On the invading worm side, leaf litter is at a minimum and the surface is quite barren. There are native worms, but those species do not do as efficient job of converting plant detritus to soil as the invaders.

Charles Darwin’s last book “The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits,” captured the conclusions of decades of watching earthworms. By discharging their castings on the surface, worms progressively bury whatever lays on the surface under a thickening layer of topsoil. Darwin reported that a layer of sand or cinder on the surface of a field would in five years’ time be an inch below the surface, and ten years later, three inches. Flagstone paths, artifacts dropped on a battlefield, everything gets buried.

In winter, earthworms migrate downward to stay ahead of soil freeze-up. In spring, worms return to the surface when air temperatures reach 35 to 40 degrees. This timing is matched by migrating robins moving northwards from their winter stay by the Gulf of Mexico, just in time to mate and start feeding a family.

“Worm charming” refers to tapping, vibrating or pounding the earth’s surface as a means to cause worms to rise to the surface. At a mulch pile or other worm-rich environment, jab a pitchfork into the soil and tap the shaft rapidly with a stick. Worms will appear on the surface within seconds. Best guess is that vibrations mimic sounds made by the underground digging of worm-hunting moles. Worms try to escape by moving above ground.

Leopard slug moving across granite boulder
A rarer local resident, the great grey slug (Limax maximus), astounds. Well, maybe not astounds if one has visited the Pacific coast and seen a banana slug, but still, a slug two to four times longer than our common garden slug is impressive. Like earthworms, this is an invasive species from Europe. Coloring can be grey to brown, but always with black splotches. Hence the common name – leopard slug.

Garden snails (Helix aspersa), another European immigrant, are not the same species as what we dine on as escargot. Worms eat decaying organic materials, whereas slugs and snails will go for the green stuff – making the latter pair the bane of gardeners. Snails live for 2 to 5 years; not quite as long as worms, but longer than slugs.

These worms, slugs and snails are all hermaphrodites, i.e., have both male and female reproductive organs. Each act of sexual congress has both partners impregnating and both ending up pregnant. Worms manage this in about an hour, slugs, hours, and snails, as long as a day. Of the species mentioned in this article, great grey slugs have the most interesting mating habit. After several hours of intertwining, the two slugs will suspend themselves in mid-air by dangling from a strand of stringy mucus, there to spend several more hours mating. Male sexual organs emerge from openings just behind the head, and also intertwine. YouTube offers several videos explaining exactly what is happening between a pair of leopard slugs.

From personal observations on my own property there appears to have been a decline in the worm, slug and snail populations over the past 14 years. Curious if anyone else in eastern Massachusetts or elsewhere also seeing this.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fine Arts Theatre, Maynard - History

100 years of movie theater history in Maynard, MA. For a few years, 1949-1952, there were three theaters in Maynard: Colonial, Peoples and Fine Arts. Colonial had lowest ticket price. Peoples was largest, and only one with a balcony. Fine Arts had only one screen until 1969..

First showing of a motion picture in Maynard was at the Riverside CO-OP (now site of Knights of Columbus building) in 1902. There is also mention of a 1909 exhibition of Sherman's moving pictures at same place. Newspapers of that era mentioned S.E. Sherman as a have-projector-will-travel impresario. By 1914 there were occasional showing of features, shorts and newsreels at Colonial Hall. These were silent films in black and white, oft accompanied by live music, typically a solo pianist. Intermissions featured performances by local singers. 

Back then, showing movies was a dangerous business. Until around 1950 all film was made of cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable substance with a chemical composition akin to gunpowder. Film exposed to fire or a spark could burst into intense flames, releasing copious, toxic fumes in the process. Once ignited it could not be easily extinguished. There are fire safety movies showing cellulose nitrate film burning underwater! Luckily, Maynard never suffered a theater fire when an audience was present.

During the first half of the 20th century local businesses often
sponsored sports teams for publicity purposes. At Peoples
Theatre, Burton Coughlan (in suit) managed the team.
He was 34 at the time.
The first location with regularly scheduled movie showings was the aforementioned Colonial Hall, second story of 65-69 Main Street, in business from 1916 onward. Bartholomew 'BJ' Coughlin was one of the owners. Older residents of Maynard remember that nine cents got you in and one penny bought candy. Riverside Theatre (then the second floor of what is now Gruber Bros. Furniture) started showing movies in 1922, run by Samuel Lerer. Riverside's run ended with a fire in 1934. Colonial was still in business as late as 1952.

The first building specifically designed to serve as a motion picture palace was Peoples Theatre. The building still stands at 14 Nason Street, converted to office space. Initially two groups of local businessmen were scrambling for downtown locations and funding. James A. Coughlan, Hector Hobers and James J. Ledgart organized the Peoples Theatre Company and sold shares for $25. The co-operative movement was very strong in Maynard at the time, so the idea of local people being able to buy into ownership and share the profits was well received. In fact, the decision to go for crowd-sourced funding was instrumental to choosing the theater's name. 

The second group (BJ Coughlin, the Naylor brothers, others) had land at the corner of Nason & Main, but not quite enough money. The two groups merged. Peoples Theatre opened on May 6, 1921 with seating for 700 people (250 in the balcony). A huge chandelier graced the lobby. Tickets were 25 cents. Circa 1951 the price of a ticket was up to 44 cents for adults, 16 cents for children. The theater closed its doors around 1959.

Click on photo to enlarge.
Although the Coughlans, father James and son Burton, were both involved with Peoples, Burton decided to build his own theater on the family property at 17 and 19 Summer Street. James had started there with a horse stable in 1897, later adding an auto repair shop. Burton’s vision, the luxuriously appointed Fine Arts Theatre, with 400 seats, no balcony, opened on June 29, 1949 with a showing of The Red Shoes. An adjoining second theater, 300 seats, with its own ticket window, was added in 1969. One employee reminisced: "...the projectionist had to scamper across the roof to get to the [projection] booth for the smaller of the theaters." That theater was divided into two parts in 1989.

Fine Arts Theatre, February 2012
Over decades, Fine Arts lost it lustre (and much of its heat, air conditioning, sound-system and waterproofiness), until by the beginnings of this century it was a threadbare carpets, duct-taped seats and sad bathrooms mess. The Shea family, operating as Deco Entertainment Services, leased the property in late 2002 and started a lengthy rehab process on the interior. Then, in 2013, Burton Coughlan's daughter sold the theater plus the building at 17 Summer Street (originally part of the stables, later Burton's art gallery) to the partnership of Steven Trumble and Melanie Perry.      
Their extensive rehabilitation process, outside and inside, has taken far more money and time than initially expected, including nine months with closed doors and dark screens. Trumble swears that during the remodeling process they excavated and renovated through layers upon layers of movie theater detritus, auto shop, and finally down to the wooden timbers and square-cut nails of the horse stable. So all the more sweet that 65 years after its premiere, the Fine Arts Theatre will have a grand (re)opening this summer.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Women at Digital Equipment Corporation

October 10, 1957: A short item on the third page of The Maynard News mentioned that Kenneth H. Olsen and Harlan E. Anderson had formed a new electronics company named Digital Equipment Corporation. Both of them had been employees at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory before striking out on their own. Ken was 31, Harlan 28. They started with 8,680 square feet of space, rented for $3,600/year. 

For the first three years they were producing electronic test modules for engineering laboratories, meantime working on Phase II of their plan: Digital's first computer, to be named the PDP-1. By October 1961 the company had grown to 265 employees. In time, DEC made Maynard "The mini-computer capital of the world."

Olsen was a big believer in numbers. Employees were assigned consecutive numbers based on order of hire, later becoming their badge numbers. Ken was #1 Harlan was #2. The first two women hired were Alma E. Pontz, #5 and Gloria Porrazzo, #6.

Women were not rare at Digital. From perusing a list of the first 100 full-time employees, 36 were women. Years later, the main reasons Olsen gave for locating in Maynard were low rent and a local work force with lots of factory experience. Many of the women were walk-to-work Maynardites who had worked in the same buildings in the woolen mill era, 10 to 20 years back. The newly refurbished work area was clean, quiet and well lit, although hot during the summers, as no air conditioning installed until around 1970. Throughout the buildings, summer weather meant lanolin from the old wool-processing days dripping down the walls or from the ceilings above.    

Alma E. Pontz was the first woman hired. According to her 2013 obituary she had already put in 24 years in the wool business before being hired by Olsen as the first administrative assistant, and thus was more than a decade older than her bosses. She stayed with DEC until she retired 21 years later.

Gloria Porrazzo was the first woman hired to work in assembling Laboratory Modules and Systems Modules. These products allowed Digital to be profitable from its first year onward. According to Peter Koch, plant manager, Porrazzo stayed with the company for 25 years, rising to the level of production manager. The 50 to 60 women who worked for her in Assembly were informally known as "Gloria's Girls." They were responsible for inserting electronic components into circuit boards, welds and quality control. Ken Olsen was known to drop in for coffee and a chat with Gloria to keep abreast of any production problems.

In time, Digital was not averse to hiring women with technical expertise, but some of the customers had a hard time adapting. Barbara Stephenson, MIT graduate, employee #71, was hired the second year. As posted at "I was the first woman engineer at DEC. Customers would call for an applications engineer. They would say 'I want to speak with an engineer,' and I would reply 'I'm an engineer,' and they would say, 'No, I want to speak with a real engineer.' I developed this patter: 'Well, tell me about the application you have in mind. We have three lines of modules ranging from five to ten megacycles and …' The line would go dead for a moment and then I’d hear, 'Hey Joe, guess what, I’ve got a…woman…engineer on the phone!'"

Women were promoted from within. Maynard resident Angela Cossette was hired as an administrative assistant in 1963 in support for DEC User's Society. DECUS provided a pre-internet forum for computer users to exchange technical information and user-developed software. Cossette moved up to becoming the company's first woman manager, in time with as many as 100 people reporting to her. In her own words "...Digital became very aggressive about giving women the opportunity to grow in their careers and making it possible for them to move into key positions." [Quote from company newsletter Digital This Week.] Cossette retired in 1992.

Her comment reflected Digital's self-realization that it had a problem with its history of male dominated culture. A Core Groups program was started in 1977, evolving into the Valuing Differences philosophy in 1984. The stated goal was for the company and its employees to pay attention to differences of individuals and groups, to be comfortable with those differences, and to utilize those differences as assets to the company's productivity.

Modest monument to Ken Olsen, corner of Main and Walnut Streets.
Digital Equipment Company, for those too young to remember, grew to be the second-largest computer company in the United States, peaking in late 1989 or early 1990 with more than 120,000 employees and ambitions to overtake IBM. Instead, overly-fast growth combined with a series of missteps led to a precipitous decline that finally resulted in a sale to Compaq, which in turn was bought by Hewlett-Packard. All Digital left behind as a name-bearer was the Digital Federal Credit Union, better known as DCU. 

Interesting sources about Digital Equipment Corporation:

Reesa Abrams 1984.

Peter DiLisi 1998