Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Ten Years of Columns

David Mark selfie: outdoors in all weather
My first “Life Outdoors” column appeared in the Beacon-Villager on November 12, 2009. Prior to that, I had several Letters to the Editor published that were about observations on nature. I contacted the newspaper’s editor, who at that time was Brian Nanos, to propose my writing a column on local history, observations on nature and outdoor recreational opportunities. Brian’s response was “Yes, but we cannot pay you.”  

In these ten years I have written close to 350 columns. I have not run out of ideas yet, but am always open to suggestions. I have written for five editors – the current one being Holly Camero, who has captained the Beacon-Villager since August 2013. Columns – with photos – have been posted to the blog  Roughly 100 columns were incorporated into two books: “MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors” (2011) and “Hidden History of Maynard” (2014). Those columns and some of the others have been removed from the blog. By far, the most popular column has been “Luna Moth: Photos, Symbolism and a Poem” (May 2013) with over 65,000 viewings. Second most popular is “Calories in Human Blood” (September 2010).  

My first column “Whatever Happened to Maynard’s Stone Walls?” 

New England’s famed stonework is a reminder of a period 150-250 years ago when dry-laid stone was part of every household: fences, walls, foundations, root cellars and more.  But anyone who has bicycled through Maynard and neighboring towns will notice Maynard’s relative dearth of stone fences and stone walls. Where did the stones go?  

It helps to know that during the Colonial era stone was the last choice of materials for fencing fields. Farming through the 1600’s consisted of laborious clearing of small fields for vegetables, corn and livestock feed. These plots were bordered by cut brush and branches. The fields were stump-filled and worked by hand. As the brush fences rotted they were replaced by fences made of logs laid horizontally so the ends would overlap as the fence zig-zagged along the edge of a field. The goal, always, was to keep livestock out of the fields.

Later still the stumps of trees cut to clear the fields were rotten enough to pull out of the soil and were laid along the edge of a field. As stones emerged through the eroding soil they were added to the fences. Stump fences were functional, but not handsome; hence the old-time insult “Ugly as a stump fence.”  When the stumps rotted away, post and rail fences were built over the growing rows of stones.

By the end of the Revolutionary War most of eastern Massachusetts was almost denuded of trees. What wood was left was used for building materials, heat and cooking fires. Stone fencing tall and strong enough to contain cattle took a day’s work from two men equipped with an oxcart to gather stone and build 10-20 feet of a fence. Most of what we see crisscrossing New England was post and rail over stone, and laid down between 1775 and 1850. Barbed wire, the easy solution, was not perfected until 1874.

Compared to the surrounding towns of Stow, Acton, Concord, and Sudbury, Maynard has very few remaining stone fences. As farms were divided into lots for houses and stone-bordered roads widened, many of the stones were hauled away to build the foundations of new houses. For example, the houses on Maple Street were built in the 1870’s with fieldstone foundations capped by brick above ground. But some remnants of stone fences can be found in Maynard. The hiking trail from Summer Street to the top of Summer Hill crosses a stone fence about half-way up, confirming that the top of Summer Hill was once a near-treeless cow pasture.  

Extensive stone fences can also be seen along the south side of ‘Track Road’ (the old railroad right-of-way and future Assabet River Rail Trail) as one walks from Maynard into Stow.  The woods south of one of these fences is all pine trees approximately 60 years old, suggesting that this pasture was abandoned when the land was seized by the U.S. Army during WW II.

Marble Farm historic site, Maynard, MA. Taken from Assabet
River Rail Trail, facing west. (Brick entrance is recent.)
Stone walls are rarer. Stone walls are what we see around churchyards, cemeteries and facing the road in front of the well-off homesteads.  In Maynard there are examples of these as mill races, river walls, and walls keeping private yards from washing away onto the sidewalks or streets. The Marble Farm historic site has impressive stone walls. A large retaining wall holds up the railroad right-of-way behind the apartment building at Nason and Summer Streets. Flat-topped ‘capstones’ line the tops of low stone retaining walls throughout town. In contrast, ‘copestones’ were set on edge on tops of walls to prevent wall sitters. Look for copestones near Maynard’s older churches.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Litter - Less Each Year

Litter is a pervasive, perpetual problem. And yet, decades of changes in manufacturing practices, anti-littering laws, public education, household recycling programs, plastic bag bans and single-use container refund programs (“bottle bills”) have combined to reduce the visual clutter that used to plague roadsides and parks in towns like Maynard and Stow.

This BUD LIGHT can is beyond the redeemable stage, but it
could be recycled with household recyclables.
Oregon was the first state to pass a bottle bill, in 1971, with a surcharge of five cents per bottle or can at point of purchase, refundable if brought back to a store or recycling facility. Between then and 2002, ten states followed: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, Maine, Michigan, New York and Vermont. (Michigan and Oregon later increased the deposit to ten cents. Delaware repealed its law in 2010.)  Studies show that beverage container legislation initially reduced total roadside litter by 30 to 60 percent in those states. However, there have been increases of late, due to the shift away from carbonated soft drinks – in deposit containers – and to bottled non-carbonated beverages and water, as those may be exempt from the mandatory surcharge.

For the remainder of the country, lobbying by the container industry has been successful in blocking passage of similar laws. Early on, companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi supported the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, in effect putting the onus on the consumer rather than the industry. Companies also supported the addition of household recycling bin programs as an alternative. This last can be very effective, especially when (as in Maynard), what goes into the big blue recycling bin is collected free whereas regular trash requires the purchase of stickers.  

Hard spirits bottles of any size are not
returnable. Mini-bottles like there are
common parking lot and roadside litter.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a bottle bill in January 1983. It applied to beer, carbonated soft drinks and carbonated (sparkling) water in glass, metal or plastic containers. The law did not apply to containers of non-carbonated water, flavored water, coffee, tea, caffeinated beverages or sports (electrolyte-containing) beverages. Or wine. Or spirits. The refund amount was set at five cents, and has remained the same even though that should be more than a dime if there was compensation for inflation. Subsequent proposals to expand the bottle refund law to bottled water, non-carbonated flavored beverages and sports drinks have failed to gain legislative approval even though some of our neighboring states have succeeded in just such an expansion of the law. What happens to the unrefunded nickel if a container is trashed or ends up in a household recycling bin rather than being taken to a refund center? Massachusetts is one of the states that declare unclaimed refunds as being abandoned by the public, and therefore property of the state. The money is used to support recycling programs.

OARS Assabet River cleanup, 2013. Click to enlarge photos. 
What other changes have taken place through the years? On the plus side, the Clean Water Act of 1972 and its subsequent amendments made clear the idea that rivers and lakes are not dumping places for trash or polluting chemicals. Locally, since the Organization for the Assabet River (OAR) was created in 1986 (expanded to Sudbury and Concord Rivers in 2010), tons upon tons of trash have been removed from the rivers and their shores. New dumping has dwindled.

Cigarette butt littering has declined for several reasons, the largest being that the percentage of American adults who smoke has declined from 43 percent in the 1960s to 14 percent now. Massachusetts has the third-highest state tax on cigarettes in the nation, so that even people who smoke on a daily basis smoke less.

The use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) as fast-food packaging and as disposable cups has diminished. Maine and Maryland have enacted bans on polystyrene food containers, including restaurant take-out containers. On the downside, food stores switched from paper to plastic bags for being less expensive; in response, public awareness campaigns have led to people bringing their own reusable bags. Worldwide, more than 30 countries have banned the use of single-use plastic bags. California was the first state to do the same; seven states have since followed suit. Massachusetts is considering a ban, and some towns – including Concord – have already initiated their own ban. On a weird note, lobbying by the American Progressive Bag Alliance has led to a dozen states blocking any towns, cities or counties from passing a local law, in effect banning the banning of plastic bags.

The Maynard Litter League (on Facebook) was started in 2004 with the goal of combatting Maynard’s littering problem. The call to action is simple: don’t litter, keep your immediate neighborhood litter free, and participate in the annual town wide cleanup, held in late April.        

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The River Rises and Falls

From the late 1700s onward the Assabet River was less of a river and more of a series of narrow ponds, each created by dams that first backed up water for seasonal usage by saw mills and grain mills, those dams or their replacements later put into service for factories of the Industrial Revolution. Given the dams, the river was not a useful means of transportation either for people or freight; instead the river’s watershed became crisscrossed by railroads.

Figure from 2011 book "MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors"
shows water precipitation in inches per month and average river volume,
also by the month. Snow expressed as water inches.
Mill operations were initially all about how much water could be retained. With a sufficient supply, mill operations could be year-round rather than limited to the times of naturally higher water flow (late fall through late spring). When partners Amory Maynard and William Knight bought land in Assabet Village they also bought water rights upriver, include rights to dam up Boon Pond and to the Fort Meadow Reservoir in Marlborough. One nice thing about water power was that once the dam, canal and waterwheel were in place, power was basically free. Within years, however, the demand for power was such that instead of relying wholly on water, coal-powered steam engines were soon supplementing and then replacing water power.    

Ben Smith dam in drought conditions. Click photo to enlarge.
As to how much water flows in the Assabet River, a U.S. Geological Survey station ( located a short distance upstream from the Waltham Street bridge provides depth and flow information. The long-term average volume is 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). As the figure shows, March and April are the high-water months as a result of snow melt plus rain falling on frozen and therefore non-absorbent ground. July through September are the low-water months despite basically the same amount of precipitation every month, because of evaporation and transpiration (water molecules released into the air from plant leaves). A prolonged drought can reduce flow to under 20 cfs. An interesting legality here in Maynard is that while Mill & Main owns the millpond, it is restricted from diverting water into the canal that provides water to the millpond when flow volume falls below 39 cfs. The intent of the law is to prevent the river going dry for the section downstream from the dam. Only when the river rises, as it did after the October 17 storm, is Mill & Main allowed to top up the pond, and perhaps simultaneously release water from the east end, so as to both refresh and replenish the millpond.

The river also rises and falls after each rain storm. Case in point – after that October storm the river rose from 1.5 to 2.8 feet deep at the USGS gauge. Pre-storm volume was 30 cfs, peaking at 260 cfs about a day after the storm ended. There was then a days-long gradual decline toward pre-storm levels, reversed when rain started the night of October 22. Interestingly, a look back at historic floods finds that there was often a previous significant rainfall event that had saturated the ground and raised water levels in the river just before the big storms that pushed the river into flood. For those floods, the most recent in 2010, flood crest levels occurred three days after the heavy rains began. Sometimes the skies had cleared and the sun was shining while the water was still rising.

River depth markers painted on wall below John's Cleaners on Sept 22, 2019.
White paint markers spaced one foot apart were recently painted on the wall below John’s Cleaners, visible from the sidewalk on the north side of the Main Street bridge. These indicate how deep the water is at the wall. Nine feet is optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on hour you feel about floods), as for flood peaks measured at the USGS station, there have only been five that topped seven feet since 1942. Because river width is different at the gauge and the bridge, we don’t know yet how closely the two indicators comply.

There once was, actually, a bit of Assabet River boat transportation. From 1906 to 1914 there was steamboat service from a boat house near the Ben Smith dam, Maynard, and a landing wharf was installed at Whitman's Crossing near Lake Boon, Stow. The one-way cost was twenty-five cents. Disembarking at the crossing, a short walk brought people to a dock on Lake Boon, where a regularly scheduled steam launch would travel to docks along the shore, allowing people to reach resorts, club houses and lakeshore summer homes.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Trail of Flowers 2019 Planting

Plantings of daffodils, tulips, crocuses and grape hyacinths are ongoing along the Assabet River Rail Trail. This is part of the second-year effort for the Trail of Flowers project. See for photographs. Last year - the first year - saw $600 raised from donations and the planting of 2,000 daffodils in Maynard. This year saw $1,923 in donations so far, the domain purchase and creation of the Trail of Flowers website, and an effort to plant nearly 3,000 bulbs in Maynard and Acton - the latter with help from the Acton Garden Club.

Donations of plants, mostly leftovers from the Maynard Community Gardeners annual plant sale in May 2019, meant that forsythia, beauty bush, irises, day lilies and goldenrod have also been planted adjacent to the trail.

Lastly, wildflowers of various types grew in the borders of the trail without any human involvement. These included goldenrod, black-eyed susans, Queen Anne's lace, cornfloweres, etc.

Volunteers planting tulips, crocuses and grape hyacinth on October 13, at the east side of the footbridge
Volunteers planting daffodils at the Marble Farm historic site on October 19. Includes three Girl Scouts who
helped put the bulbs into ground after the dirt was shoveled out. About 1,200 daffodils were planted at this
location last year - the intention for this year is to add about the same.


Volunteers planting daffodils at the north end of the Assabet River Rail Trail on October 20.

These flowers magically appeared next to the Trail along the section parallel to Railroad Street, Maynard.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Maynard's 50th Anniversary

April 1921 saw the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the incorporation of the Town of Maynard, which had taken place on April 19, 1871. The date coincided with the then-time celebration of Patriots’ Day, traditionally on April 19th, changed in 1969 to be the third Monday in April. Interestingly, only Connecticut and Maine celebrate this holiday, and Maine – for some reason – calls it Patriot’s Day (note placement of apostrophe). And why Maine? Because until March 1820, Maine was a district rather than a state, and as a district, part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.    

Parade photo of Maynard's 50th Anniversary, corner of Main and Walnut
Streets. Note iron bridge in foreground, replaced by reinforced concrete
bridge in 1922. Click on photos to enlarge 
The Maynard Historical Society has on file a copy of the program for the Fiftieth Anniversary. Morning and evening church observances were held on Sunday, April 17th at six churches, of which only St. Bridget’s Catholic and the Finnish Congregational are still with us today. Monday saw a presentation pageant “Origin of Maynard,” performed by junior and senior high school students at Colonial Hall, admission ten cents. Tuesday, April 19th, started at 7:00 AM with a fifty-cannon salute, followed by a parade from the town hall east on Main, northeast on Nason (a two-way street at the time), southeast on Summer and then west on Main, to Walnut Street. Governor Channing H. Cox and others delivered addresses at the end of the parade. Plans called for the orations to be followed by choral singing, various speeches, a band concert, a baseball game at Crowe Park (Maynard versus Concord), concluding the day with ringing of church bells. Planning the whole event had happened quite fast, as only on March 7th had the concept been approved at Town Meeting, and budgeted at $1,000.   

In April 1966, Elizabeth M. Schnair, one of Maynard’s several volunteer historians, composed a description of the 1921 festivities. Details she added were that it was Battery D of the 2nd Field Artillery of Lowell that came with their cannons and gunpowder. The parade included Maynard’s police, Maynard Brass Band, veterans of the recent World War, veterans of the Civil War(!), the town’s various fraternal societies, the Finnish Temperance Band, Imatra Band, Girl Scouts, school children and other groups. The outdoor choral speaking, band concert and baseball game were cancelled on account of bad weather, but an indoor reunion of old-timers meeting with past- and present-day residents was a great success.    

Documents pertaining to the 50th anniversary include a book written by William H. Gutteridge, “A Brief History of MAYNARD MASS.” The book, 115 pages, including many photos of old buildings, describes the creation and growth of the town, schools and places of worship, and genealogy of the important early families. The Maynard Historical Society Archive has many photos of the celebration events, all viewable on line at (search on 50th, then ignore mentions of school buildings being 50 years old or high school 50th reunions). Among those documents, there exists a 13:25 minute silent film of street scenes of Maynard, with parade events starting at 9:06. Viewable at /items/show/3638.

Planning for the centennial celebrations of 1971 had a much longer lead time. The Maynard Historical Society was organized in 1961 and charged with – among other tasks – writing a comprehensive history of Maynard. The book was published in 1971 with the title “History of Maynard, Massachusetts 1871-1971.” The Maynard Public Library has a copy. A modest celebration was held to celebrate the 125th anniversary, in June 1996. Both a section of the newspaper and a booklet titled “A Maynard Sampler 1871-1996” retold historical vignettes, most taken from the centennial book. In addition to three days of musical events and one evening of fireworks, a road race was conducted in coordination with the passage of the Olympic Torch through Maynard on June 15th, on its way to the Summer Olympics, in Atlanta, GA.   

Plans for the sesquicentennial (150th) celebration are underway. The first official event will be the opening of a 1971 time capsule in April 2020.