Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Leaf Pile - Burn or Compost?

Burning leaf pile. Click on photos to enlarge.
Yankee Candle has scented candles that go by 'Autumn Leaves.' A company named CB Experience makes a Burning Leaves perfume. Another has a product called Bonfire. Reviews are mixed - some describe the perfumes as having a liquid smoke or barbecue odor, with too-sweet overtones - while others reminisce on memories of camping trip fires or the childhood smells of burning leaves as an integral part of memories of fall.

Mind you, the smell of leaves burning is not the same as wood smoke. Leaves have a higher moisture and tannin content compared to seasoned wood, so the experience is smokier and more astringent, although not necessarily acrid unless the pile is wetter than it should be.   

Smoky leaf pile burn
Nowadays residents of Massachusetts do not burn leaves in the fall. It's illegal. In fact, we rarely burn anything outdoors. Massachusetts state law stipulates that outdoor burning of brush can take place January 15 through May 1 with a requirement for a permit from local fire department, plus permission from the MA Department of Environmental Protection via a call to the Air Quality Hotline. Open burning must be a minimum of 75 feet from all buildings and must be conducted between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Even with all these stipulations met, if a neighbor complains, the fire department will ask that the fire be extinguished. For details, see: 

Per that state law, Massachusetts does not allow leaf burning at any time. Ditto grass, hay or stumps, or pressure-treated wood, or any wood with paint, or construction debris, the reason being that these fuels do not burn as cleanly as brush, branches and trees.   

As to why open air burning has become a no-no, when plant material is burned, much of it is converted to water and carbon dioxide. These are not local pollutants, although the latter contributes to global warming. However, incompletely combusted material becomes carbon monoxide, smoke and ash - all dangerous to people with asthma or other respiratory diseases. Too many leaf fires on a still air day will reduce visibility, resulting in a higher risk of car accidents. People will smell smoke and call police/fire responders, wasting their time on false alarms. More seriously, flyaway embers can cause forest and house fires.
Two leaf composting containers, plus dirt pile to layer into the new leaves.
In background is a brush pile  - too woody to compost on site - so trucked
away every other year to a commercial composting center. 

If not to burn, what? Composting on your own property works, but it means dedicating part of the yard to this unsightly process. Consider hiring a yard clean-up service, either for an annual fall rake-out, or year-round mowing and maintenance. What they haul away ends up either in landfill or composted. What you should not do is dump leaves and yard waste in the woods behind your house, as A) not your property, and B) you will be creating a fuel pile for a forest fire that could threaten yours and others' property.  

For Maynard, all those thousands and thousands of bags of leaves and sticks left curbside last month were hauled away by E.L. Harvey & Sons via a town contract. According to the Harvey & Sons website, the company is a full service waste hauling, transfer and scrap recycling operation, founded in 1911 by Emory Larkin Harvey and existing this day as a fourth generation family owned business.

Hardware stores such as Lowe's sell paper bags for fall
leaves. The bags are made from recycled paper. There is
no truth to the rumor that the bags are made from leaves. 
Our yard waste is trucked to their headquarters site in Westborough, MA, where it is composted to become topsoil. The process involves shredding, mixing with a nitrogen source such as manure, grass clippings or previously composted soil, dampening with water, then using huge front-end loaders to turn/mix the piles about once a month. This routine keeps the oxygen- and water-requiring bacteria happy, and results in 100 cubic yards of leaves being converted into 25 cubic yards of compost in 10-12 months. The process generates so much heat that it continues all winter.

By the way, calling the season "fall" came about in Britain in the sixteenth century, and refers to the observation that this is the time of year that leaves fall off trees. Really. Prior to that the season was autumn, borrowed from France (automne) and stemming from the Latin, autumus. Or else just referred to as "harvest." Of the season names, summer and winter go back more than 1,000 years, whereas spring and fall, date to half that.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Baker Bridge Train Wreck of 1905 Lincoln MA

Imagine an algebra problem with potentially fatal consequences: a train leaves the station going 35 mph, with stops. Thirty minutes later an express train departs on the same track going 35 mph, no stops. Will the first train reach an exit at mile 25 before the second train catches up?
On Sunday evening, November 26, 1905, the answer was "No."

Although trains had been around for more than fifty years, train safety was still an evolving process. At the time of this accident some systems had electric-powered signals - semaphore arms by day and lights by night - to signify that another train was ahead. Additionally, if operators on a leading train thought there was a chance a following train might catch up, a flagman on the rear car (not always a caboose) would periodically throw red 'fusees' (flares) off the back. These were designed to burn for about ten minutes. And that's it for preventing rear-end collisions. No real-time train tracking, no radio communications between trains, and no collision avoidance automated braking.

The players: Boston & Maine Railroad ran local-stop passenger trains between Boston and Marlborough, using the main line to south Acton, where the trains would switch to tracks serving Maynard, Stow, Hudson and Marlborough. The night of the accident, the train, comprised of an engine, a tender and four coaches, left Union Station (same site as current North Station) at 7:16 p.m., making stops all along the way. Scores of people were returning to Maynard after Sunday excursions in Boston. Most were on the last car, as it was designated to be left behind at Maynard before the rest of the train continued onward. Behind it, the overnight Montreal Express - two engines, two milk cars, two baggage cars, a mail car, a Pullman car, a smoker and two coaches - left Union Station at 7:45 p.m.

The local was running late and the operators were aware of what was chasing them from behind. At the evidentiary hearing the flagman reported he had dropped fusees east of the Lincoln station, west of the Lincoln station, and again a goodly distance before the Baker Bridge station in western Lincoln.

According to the report from the Board of Railroad Commissioners, Horace  Lyon, the engineer of the lead engine of the express stated that he had seen the fusees, and had cut back power, but at most only lightly applied brakes. The night was in general clear, but there may have been some obscuring night fog in Lincoln, near the Sudbury River. Regardless, Lyon testified that he did not see the rear lights of the stopped train until within 100 yards, and even with emergency brakes, could not stop in time.

Burned railroad car from the Baker Bridge Station, Lincoln, MA
train wreck of Nov 26, 1905 (courtesy Maynard Historical Society)
The conclusion was operator error on the part of Mr. Lyons. There was discussion about him doing a night shift when he had just completed a day shift, but the major fault was identified as lack of experience. Lyons had only recently been promoted from fireman. Prior to the night of the accident his experience was a few weeks in the switching yard, a week driving freight trains, and this only his second day in charge of a passenger train. Although he had experience as a fireman on the Montreal Express, he may not have been aware that the local had an optional stop at Baker Bridge, 1.5 miles after the Lincoln Station stop. Lyons was only slightly injured in the accident, and fled the scene immediately after the accident, and when located later, was described as being in a state of mental collapse.  

Newspaper reports of the time reported the accident as occurring at 8:15 p.m., and resulting in 17 dead and 25-30 seriously injured. Two of the dead were fireman on the Montreal-bound engines. The others were passengers on the rear two cars of the local, either killed in the accident or from the resulting fire, set by the lead engine of the express. The death toll would have been higher except for railroad employees and passengers from both trains braving the smoke and fire and risk of a boiler explosion to extract the trapped and wounded.   

The Maynard dead, and their ages:
  William J. Barris 29
  Irving H. Barris 3
  Mary Campbell 27
  Andrew Carlson 28
  Josephine Carlson 22
  Thomas Crowley 56
  George Czujko 49
  Hannah Desmond 40
  Vladyslav Matisliewicz 26 

The Barris's were father and son; the Carlson's husband and wife. Albert and Elfrida (Collins) Batley, married just two years, were among the injured. Mrs. Batley lost part of a leg. The couple were later owners of Batley & Son Florists, with more than 7,000 square feet of greenhouse buildings on Acton Street, behind the Fowler funeral home.

One question the Commissioners asked - if the train was stopped - why not send the rear flagman back on the tracks to flag the oncoming train?  Or at least put some torpedoes* on the rails? This would have been the approved practice if the local train had broken down and could not proceed. But that was not the case. The local had just dropped off passengers, and was expected to be underway again within minutes. Being off the train would have separated the flagman from his train.

Not in the newspaper article:

This account draws on reporting published in the Boston Globe and New York Times at the time of the accident, the collections of the Lincoln, MA public library and the Maynard Historical Society, and the railroad investigation of the incident. Source sites:

Interestingly, a 1922 report on medical causes of railroad accidents due to operator error specifically mentioned the Baker Bridge station accident as likely caused by undiagnosed and untreated neurosyphilis! Train operators and crew were known to have a much higher prevalence of syphilis compared to the population as a whole - thought to be a consequence of frequent travel away from family and access to prostitutes. [Chace AE, Hays GA. Railway Age. 1922;73(24):1103-05]  

On a different note, a U.S. report circa 1905 - meaning before the era of cars and trucks and buses, there was an estimate that train and trolley accidents were responsible for approximately 10,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries each year. Currently, rail-related fatalities average around 1,000 per year, the great majority being a combination of people walking along or crossing tracks and vehicles hit while crossing tracks.  

Wikipeida image of torpedo on a rail
Click on photo to enlarge
*A "torpedo" was a small metal packet, about half the size of a business card, filled with gunpowder. When a train's front wheels hit one, it would explode, thus warning the engineer of danger down the track. The torpedo was attached to a strip of lead four inches long. When the torpedo was set on the rail the lead would be bent down on either side in order to hold it in place. Several of these might have been placed on a rail to make sure the following train got the warning. Railroad workers being railroad workers, torpedoes were central to various practical jokes.  

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Maynard Post Office

Back of Post Office truck, showing logo and
website address (click to enlarge photos)
For nearly one-third of its existence as an institution, Maynard's U.S. Post Office has resided in its current building at 143 Main Street. At a recent visit the people in line in front of me were: 1) stopping home delivery for a vacation, 2) dropping off wedding invitations, 3) getting a passport photo taken, and 4) shipping a large box to a person in Russia. I was there for stamps.

Two sets of stamps are issued each year for the winter holidays season, usually one with a religious theme and one winterish. This year the choices are Geometric Snowflakes and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Both available now.

There are some interesting stamps that fall outside the first class postage rate. Wedding invitations, what with RSVP envelopes inside, tend to be too heavy for the standard rate, so the post office creates Two Ounce stamps for this special need. And for those who want to think outside the government stamps, USPS recommends Zazzle (, a non-government entity that has hundreds of love/wedding themed postage stamps, and can also create a custom stamp from a photo of the engaged couple. Zazzle also does divorce themed stamps. (Example: silver lettered "I Do Not" on a black background.)

Prior to finding its long-term home on Main Street the Post Office was somewhat peripatetic. The first location, circa 1850, shortly after the woolen mill opened, was next to the railroad station. Amory Maynard served as first Postmaster. Subsequent sites included inside the Riverside Block building (long before it became Gruber Bros. Furniture), the corner of the building currently occupied by Boston Bean House, another site on Main Street, then up at the corner of Nason and Summer Streets before settling in its current Main Street location. Just inside the door is a plaque: This building dedicated to public service 1963, John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, J. Edward Day, Postmaster General.

Historical descriptions tell of immigrants arriving from Finland and other European countries with Post Office box number of their Maynard relatives written on a tag attached to their clothing. Supposedly, the PO workers 'delivered' the arrivers to their families. The truth may not have been as dramatic. Immigrants at Ellis Island, in New York's harbor, was required to display a "Landing Card" on their outer clothing with information including their name, name of ship and that they had passed daily health inspections, but not their destination address.

Once cleared to leave the island there were immigrant aid societies which would help get tickets for the right trains, and also provide a card to facilitate travel: "To the conductor: This person is going to this address. Please show bearer where to change trains and where to get off, as this person does not speak English." The train station was the gateway to arriving in Maynard, not the Post Office.

Little-known fact: Only immigrants in steerage, i.e., third class, went through Ellis Island. Those who had enough money to travel first or second class were subjected to a cursory medical examination while still on board, then dropped off at Manhattan.

Upgrades of post office services reached Maynard in an odd order. Rural free delivery was implemented nationally and locally in 1902. Long before then, most cities already had in-town delivery direct to homes (Boston started in 1864), but Maynard did not start home delivery until 1920. Until then, people picked up their mail at the post office. Nationally, home delivery was twice a day until the Federal Post Office scaled down to once a day in 1950.    

Mail boxes in front of building (for after-hours)
Today, the Maynard Post Office serves a population of about 10,100 people. According to Postmaster Mike Welch, employees number 18, 6 at the building and 12 carriers for home delivery. All are federal employees. The building itself is privately owned by Mass Postal Holdings LLC. The Post Office pays rent. This is not unusual - nationally, the Postal Service owns only ten percent of its buildings.

In addition to the mail boxes at the Post Office there are nine mail boxes scattered about town, the majority found at senior housing centers and condominium complexes. Neighboring Stow, serving a population of 7,100, has a post office next to the Shaw's shopping plaza and only two mail boxes elsewhere in town.    

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

History of Maynard Library

Carnegie is a name oft-associated with public libraries. Steel industry tycoon Andrew Carnegie decided to use his wealth for the public good in his lifetime. He established a system by which municipalities could apply to him for funds to build a library if the city or town promised to buy the land and commit to an annual budget greater than ten percent of his gift toward construction costs. By the time of his death in 1919 he had gifted over $350 million dollars ($13 billion in today’s value) to many causes, including more than 2,500 libraries, two-thirds in the United States. A Carnegie gift led to construction of the public library in Hudson in 1905.

Local benefactors were often instrumental in start-ups of local libraries. William Wilde of Acton paid for construction of a library in memory of the Acton citizens who had fought in the Civil War (hence Acton Memorial Library). William Munroe paid for the Concord Free Public Library. In Stow, John Witt Randall donated a collection of 700 books to start a town library in 1851, and later bequeathed the money used to build the original parts of the present-day Randall Library in 1894. Similarly, in Sudbury, John Goodnow II, who died in 1851, left land and funds to build the Goodnow Library.

The 1851 date is important. In May of that year the state of Massachusetts passed an Act to authorize cities and towns the right to tax occupants one dollar per year to create a public library and twenty-five cents per year in subsequent years for operation expenses. Personal and business bequests and donations were allowed. By 1870 there were eighty free public libraries in the state, all pre-dating Carnegie's impetus.   

In Maynard there was no significant benefactor. The Town appropriated $1,000 in 1881 to start a library, located in a room in the Acton Street School. Subsequent annual budgets were in range of $500-600 per year, mostly for more books. The library was open two evenings per week. A few years later it was relocated to rooms in the Riverside Cooperative Building, at the site of what is now the Knights of Columbus building, then in 1918 to second floor rooms in another building on Nason Street. Only in 1962 did the Maynard Public Library get its own building, next to town hall.

Library entrance dates to school that opened in 1892
Forty years later the demands for library services called for a much larger facility than could be provided at the Main Street site. After consideration of many options a decision was made to utilize the Roosevelt School building at 77 Nason Street. This elementary school opened in 1918, built on the 1892 stone foundation of what had been the wood-framed Nason Street High School, completely destroyed by fire in 1916. Roosevelt School existed from 1918 through 1988. The building then stood empty, deteriorating, until a combination of state grant, town tax funding and private donations - the last accomplished by efforts of the Friends of the Maynard Public Library - combined to total the $5.7 million needed for this project. Middlesex Savings Bank was a major contributor with a gift of $100,000.

The plan from the architectural firm Lerner | Ladds + Bartels was to retain the entrances and brick walls of the school building but construct an entirely new structure within the exterior shell. The result is a three story, 24,000 square foot building with an open core and stairwell, naturally lit from above via skylight.  

Maynard Library - looking up at skylight from first floor
Click on any photo to enlarge
An anecdote: during the empty years, the Town of Maynard used the building to store all lost bicycles that went unclaimed by owners. Some towns have annual auctions of unclaimed bicycles - sold "as is." Not here. When the building was being cleared prior to start of construction, an open topped waste container 6x8x22 feet (30 cubic yards) was filled with bicycles.

Twenty-first century libraries are so much more than books. Over time, libraries added adult reading rooms, newspapers and magazines, children's rooms, story time, meeting rooms, used book sales, use of computers, access to internet, movie nights, guest speakers, education programs, museum passes, loaning out e-books, movies and music, and so on. Inter-library book transfers allow libraries to have smaller collections on site, yet still provide access to the larger world of books.

The brick facade dates to Roosevelt School, which
opened in 1918 and operated for 70 years
Maynard's library also uses the first floor meeting room for art displays and a glassed cabinet on the second floor for historical displays. The third floor is for children's programs. To the left of the entrance is a red cicycle rack that spells out the word "BOOKS." Between in and the door is one of Maynard's fire alarm call boxes. Visit to learn more about what this library provides.

Annual reports mention 1,893 books in 1885 and 3,416 books in 1891.

1881-1885       Acton Street School (now Jarmo's Auto Repair site)
1885-1918       Riverside Cooperative Society, Nason Street (now Knights of Columbus site)
1918-1962       2nd floor, Naylor Block, Nason Street (now dentist's office)
1962-2006       Town Building Annex, Main Street (now Maynard Police station
2006-present    former Roosevelt School, Nason Street

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book. And at the Maynard Public Library!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Boy Scouts of Maynard: Trail Work

Through decades, Maynard's Boy Scout Troop #130 has conducted numerous Eagle Scout Service Projects to improve outdoor recreational opportunities in Maynard. These include creating and improving the town's Summer Hill and Assabet River Walk Trails, work at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge and on the Assabet River Rail Trail, and clearing the Marble Farm historic site.

To earn the Eagle Scout rank, the highest advancement rank in Scouting, a Boy Scout must fulfill requirements in the areas of leadership, service, and outdoor skills. Although many options are available to demonstrate proficiency in these areas, a number of specific skills are required to advance through the ranks: Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life, and Eagle. Scouts must pass specific tests that are organized by requirements and merit badges. The top three ranks require community service projects. Approximately five percent of Boy Scouts reach Eagle Scout.

Jason installing plaque on fence post
(Click on any photo to enlarge)
On April 4, 2009, Maynard Boy Scout Troop 130 spent the better part of a damp spring day cutting down trees and clearing brush from the Marble Farm site, next to Rockland Avenue, and erecting a post and chain fence bordering two sides of the foundation. This was an Eagle Scout project by Jason Schomacker. A plaque on one of the fence posts shows a photo of the house, with barns and other outbuildings seen in the background.

The Marble family had moved to this site circa 1710. Their descendants (Marble, then Whitney, then Parmenter) owned it through 1924, when the house was destroyed by fire. The site has the potential for being an interesting addition to Maynard’s history, but without periodic maintenance it gets rapidly overgrown.

Boy Scouts on completed bridge. Jakob Dickson at left end.
This year, on September 19, 2015, the Troop spent a warm fall morning under the aegis of Eagle Scout candidate Jakob Dickson, carrying lumber a quarter mile into the woods and then building a bridge over a creek. Funding was provided by the Town of Maynard, courtesy of the Conservation Commission. All the pressure-treated lumber was pre-cut and delivered to the trail head by Butler Lumber. The finished bridge spans sixteen feet and is 3.5 feet wide. The two beams are each three 2x8 by 16 foot long, nailed together.

The Assabet River Walk Trail has signed entrances from the cul-de-sac at the end of Colbert Avenue and on Concord Street. From Colbert, the Trail can be very wet, and is also too root-ridden, root-riven and root-rampant to be managed on an off-road bicycle. From Concord Street the first half of the trail is walkable and rideable, then progressively wilder after the bridge crossing. Just before the bridge there is an option to head farther east. This alternative route leads to good views of the Assabet River. The river here is still water (not moving) because it is backed up behind a dam next to Route 62, in Acton. All parts of trial are marked with white blazed painted on trees.

New bridge viewed approaching from north side
Not in the newspaper article: The land is shown on town maps as town land, designated either Lemoine Land or Colbert Hill. There was a Fred Lemoine who served in World War I and an Edward Lemoine listed as donating to the Collection at St. Bridget's Church, November 1907. One end of the Trail is to Colbert Avenue, named for Eugene Colbert's family who lived nearby on Glendale Street starting around 1879. His son Daniel Colbert identified as a founding member of the Twilight Club (1904) a social organization that had a cottage on Lake Boon. But there are no Historical Society details on why these two names are associated with this plot of land. There are remnants of stone walls and drainage ditches crossed by the Trail, suggesting this was pasture.

Recent wildlife sightings in the area include several deer and a rafter of turkeys. (Venery, the proper naming of animal groups, declares that turkeys in plural are a rafter in the same way that geese grouped are a gaggle if on the ground but a skein if aflight.)  The River Walk also introduces visitors to native and invasive plant species. Natives includes numerous beech trees, identified by smooth grey bark, and also poison ivy. Invasives include Japanese knotweed at the Colbert end, Japanese barberry at the Concord end, garlic mustard, burning bush, multiflora rose and Oriental bittersweet throughout. These dominate the forest understory because they are all plants deer disdain to eat.     
Whitetail fawn with spots

Anyone interested in learning more about Troop #130's activities should visit This website provides a description and history of the Troop, including past Eagle Scout projects. The Troop is chartered with the Boy Scouts of America and sponsored by the Union Congregational Church. Scouting in Maynard dates back to 1927. Going forward, there were years with no troop, one troop or two troops (#1 and #30). The two merged at the close of 1984 to form Troop #130, which continues to this day.

Girl Scouts also have an active presence in Maynard, as part of Girl Scouts of Eastern Massachusetts. Earlier this year Rachel Hahn earned her Girl Scout Gold Award - the highest level, requiring 80 hours of toward a community service project - for creating a website, informational brochure and events about autism inclusion resources. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Sidewalks of Maynard

According to the Town of Maynard, MA, population 10,000, the town maintains roughly 50 miles roads and 30 miles of sidewalks. The latter includes wide sidewalks on both sides of streets in the downtown district, 3-5 foot wide sidewalks on both or only one side of some of the other roads, and no sidewalks on less traveled roads.

The first mention of sidewalks is in an Annual Report from 1880 as a comment that $150 was spent on labor and gravel. Back then an unskilled laborer was paid about $1.25 per day. Subsequent reports had budgets covering highways, bridges and sidewalks that gradually increased from $1,000 per year to $2,500 per year. The report for 1893 mentioned concrete sidewalk for Nason Street, but most years described sidewalk expenditures as for labor and crushed stone. Starting with 1902 there were budget breakouts just for sidewalk work: $500 per year for the early years, increasing to $2,000 to $2,500 per year by 1925.  

Without a curb, a grassy strip was needed to separate the
sidewalk from the street. This has different names in
different parts of the country: parkway, citygrass, tree lawn
(if wide enough to include trees), etc. The city owns it
but the homeowner is responsible for upkeep.
As noted, sidewalk materials in the early years were typically gravel, crushed stone, stone dust or cinders. Roads were often of the same composition, so to distinguish road from sidewalk there was either curbstone or a grassy strip separating one from the other. Road surface science progressed from macadam to tarmac to tarvia, to present-day asphalt or concrete. The town's 1921 report mentioned that streets were graded and oiled, bridges replanked, and sidewalks repaired with cinders, gravel and stone dust. Same year, sidewalks were upgraded to asphalt on Walnut, Thompson, Nason and Summer Streets.

The primary purpose of sidewalks is to provide pedestrians with a safe means of getting from one place to another. Today, that means not sharing space with cars, but circa 1900, Maynard had nearly one horse for every ten people, so sidewalks kept people away from horse-drawn wagons. One reason etiquette called for a man to walk on the street side of a woman was to protect her clothing from horse manure spattered by passing vehicles.

Sidewalks have other purposes - places to meet people one knows and see people one does not, to peer into store windows, sit at cafes, for children to jump rope or learn to ride a bicycle, and just to be outdoors when indoors is too crowded or confining. A double plus for Maynard is that sidewalks actually go somewhere (downtown), and by walking, residents avoid the need to find parking and get exercise, too!

Texting while walking creates problems. People are more likely to walk into traffic when distracted. Even when away from street corners, texting-distracted walkers are 10-25 percent slower than people trying to get somewhere, and more likely to drift to one side or the other. Some urban sites are putting padding on light posts and telephone poles.          

Back to Maynard: In parts of town sidewalk replacements are overdue to the point that people consider it safer to walk in the street. This year saw new or rebuilt sidewalks and curbing on portions of Concord, Thompson, Parker and Acton Streets. Next year will see beginning of paving of the Assabet River Rail Trail, which in effect will be a wide sidewalk and bicycle and skateboard path bisecting the town.

The mystery of bumpy yellow (sometimes orange)
metal plates at street crossings is solved.
 A note about sidewalk upgrades: The American Disabilities Act of 1990 requires that when sidewalks meet streets there be no curb, and instead a ramp that will accommodate a wheelchair. However, for blind and severely visually impaired people, the lack of a curb took away the cue for a street crossing. The solution was to install a bright-colored steel plate with bumps, so as to provide a visual and tactile signal.

With sidewalks come responsibilities. The Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that property owners are responsible for keeping all sidewalks along their property clear of snow and ice. For an apartment building, that means the landlord. The Town clears snow in business districts and along major streets. Additionally, all building owners are obligated to remove plants, tree branches, construction materials or debris that infringe on sidewalks from either side, and maintain clearance to a height of eight feet.

The grassy strip between street and sidewalk is also a place to pile snow
Maynard residents are to refrain from parking on sidewalks, including parking in their own driveway so as to block the sidewalk. From the town by-laws: "This can create a dangerous situation when people, particularly children or parents with baby carriages, are forced into the street to get around an illegally parked vehicle. There is a $15 fine for parking on the sidewalk and it will be strictly enforced."

Another town regulation, more often in abeyance than observed, is that every building shall have displayed a street number at least four inches in height, visible from street, and be of a contrasting color to the surface to which it is applied - either the building or a roadside mailbox. If the latter, on both sides.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Suburban Ravens in Massachusetts

EXTIRPATED: the condition of a species that ceases to exist in the chosen geographic area of study, though it still exists elsewhere, i.e., locally extinct. Often tinted with a meaning that incorporates a deliberate destruction and eradication of an evil presence.

For those with an attentive ear to bird calls, Maynard's summer has been host to a mystery which, depending on how you feel about scarily large black birds, is either a return of nature or a return of evil. Amongst the common "Kaws" of crows there has been the occasional deeper-voiced "Awk, Awk." First guess was that this was a crow with a sore throat, or perhaps a vocal dyslexia (Kaw versus Awk?). However, many sightings confirmed that what Maynard has is a resident pair of ravens, which this year successfully raised a family.

What's interesting here is that dogma on ravens states they are people averse. Most habitat maps show ravens in Alaska, Canada and down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, but in the east limited to northern parts of northern states. The reasons are three-fold. First, ravens prefer forests. As this part of Massachusetts became settled by European colonists the forests were cut to make space for farming, for housing, for industry and to provide firewood. Even unfarmable hilltops became sheep pasture.

Three exposures of one raven in flight (internet photo)
Second, ravens prefer not being shot. Past times, there were no hunting/shooting restrictions on crow and ravens. Both are known to damage crops, including pulling up seedling corn to eat the kernels. Both are carrion eaters, but ravens have been known to be more proactive, for example, raiding chicken coops for chicks and eggs, and killing newborn lambs. For good reasons, generations of ravens taught their offspring to stay far away from humans.

Third, ravens like to eat. Pre-colonial forests had been home to deer, elk and moose. Wolf kill and winter kill provided carcasses for these carrion feeders to dine on all winter, and of greater importance, hair to line nests and early spring food sources for their hatchlings. The recent explosive growth of the deer population contributes to a year-round food source, supplemented by scavenging road kill, nest robbing, and so on. Ravens will eat almost anything, including food left outside for pets and garbage from open-top dumpsters behind restaurants and food markets.

So, much akin to other extirpated species which have been returning to eastern Massachusetts - deer, turkey, beaver, bear - a decline of hunting combined with an expansion of preferred habitat (forests over farmers' fields) has led to a return of ravens. For birds, especially, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act made it "...illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter... any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to Federal regulations." There is a hunting season for crows (and deer, and turkeys, and black bears), but not for ravens.

Ravens are wanderers but not migrators. An adult pair will defend a territory that can be ten miles in area, chasing away interlopers, including their own chicks from previous years. Younger birds, up to five years old, will gather to roost at night, or to take advantage of a food bonanza (dead deer) by day, but otherwise are opportunistic feeders and solo travelers.  

In conclusion, if ever you hear a bird call louder than any crow should be, look to the sky. The size difference is hard to perceive without a side-by-side, but ravens in flight glide more often compared to crows' flap, flap, flap. At wing ends, the primary feathers of a raven are splayed. What you are seeing is an extremely intelligent, playful, ruthless, long-lived species, known throughout history as a battlefield follower, gallows haunter, trickster, thief and oft-used symbol or omen of evil.

In 2014 Chris Renna posted a video of ravens hanging out in Maynard, some of it on rooftops of mill buildings. See YouTube (search Ravens Maynard). A 2015 video of ravens raising a family at/on the Wellesley College Science Center is posted at Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich, provides great detail on raven intelligence and lifestyle.

Cornell University has audio at

Beak to tail-tip, ravens are 50-60% larger than crows, and weigh twice as much. The head and neck is larger in proportion to the rest of the body. In flight, a crow's tail is straight across the back end, while a raven's widens, then narrows. Both can walk or hop (many smaller birds only hop).

As to why we sometimes see small birds in flight chasing and harassing much larger birds, that is nest defense. The smaller birds are agile enough to fly above/behind the larger bird, then dive in for a peck or two. On a different scale, in Alaska, ravens have been known to harass bald eagles in the air, and on the ground, when feeding at the same carcass (left behind by wolves or polar bear), to sneak up and pull an eagle's tail feather.   

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Old are Maynard's Mill Buildings?

The existing mill buildings date from 1859-1918. Older, wood-frame buildings were either replaced or destroyed in a 1920 fire. A walk/bike tour can help visualize the evolution of the mill complex - older buildings in the center surrounded by newer buildings on all sides - first under the Maynard family (1846-1898) and then as part of the American Woolen Company (1899-1950). Digital Equipment Corporation started as a tenant in 1957, in time owned everything, but did not add or remove major buildings. Clock Tower Place (2000-2015) added the parking garage in 2001. Saracen Properties LLC, the new owners/operators, intend to remove two of the smaller buildings both dating to 1887 (#10 and the west end of #2) to create more open space.  
"You are here" map with present-day building numbering of Maynard's mill buildings

Viewed from the parking lot next to Main Street, three large buildings face the pond. Building #1, with Powell Flutes sign on the end, was built in 1911 as Building #21. The larger building to its right was completed in 1918 and initially designated Building #1, is now #3. Its construction required draining the pond. There are photos of people walking on the pond’s bottom. Building #5, on the far side of the pond, and the largest at 640 feet long, was completed in 1902.

Walking under the parking garage traces the path of the railroad tracks that delivered coal for the steam engines. Continue forward here, keeping in mind that there was nothing but mill pond to the right of the tracks. The buildings on the left, now bannered as #2 at the near end and #4 at the far end were originally #'s 2-7 and among the oldest still standing (parts back to 1859). These were where the pre-steam waterwheels were sited. Outflow, on the river side, was through what is now a red-painted gate. Situated between the waterwheels and river were a number of low-storied brick buildings in which water was pumped out of the millrace for purposes of washing raw wool and the dyeing process. Discharges discolored and polluted the river.

 Mill pond control gate(click on any photo to enlarge)
At the end of Building #3, on the right, is the old pond control apparatus. From here, water was released to the river whenever the pond level got too high. Prior to the installation of steam engines this channel powered a saw mill. Afterwards, it provided water for the engines, as roughly six tons of water were needed for every ton of coal. Spent steam and coal ash were vented from the top of two 200 foot tall chimneys, of which one remains, obsolete.

Our walk continues toward Walnut Street. Building #4 (left) went up in 1871. The powerhouse building, unwindowed, dates to 1900. Current maps show it as #9. After a left turn onto the sidewalk along the river, pass Building #6, completed in 1901. It’s possible, but in need of researching that this is when the river was narrowed and walled from Florida Street to the Walnut Street Bridge.

The next building on this tour was originally #11 (1893) but now designated Building #8. Behind it is the old #8 (1870). Between the two is the clock tower, which was erected in 1892 atop the external freight elevator structure for the older building. Continuing left onto Main Street, the building currently bannered as #12 was built in 1866 (as Building #1).

#10 (1887) slated for removal
Completing the walk along Main Street back to the starting point passes two modest brick buildings on the left and two wooden buildings on the right. The first wooden building, on the corner of Florida and Main, was the residence of Amory Maynard before he built a mansion south of the mill. The next over belonged to Lorenzo Maynard, his oldest son. The brick building at 146 Main, medical offices on the first floor and current home of the Historical Society on the second, was built in 1903. The last building before reentering the parking lot was built in 1905. These two buildings housed mill offices.

While on this tour, look for architectural details, particularly the varying styles of brick arches over the tops of windows and decorative brickwork at the rooflines. Most of the buildings were well windowed to provide natural light for the workers, but from the very beginnings the mill also has gas lighting.


#21 (1911)                         1                            1                 1, 3 and 5 face pond
#1 (1918)                           3                            3                 second largest
#5 (1902)                           5                            5                 largest
2-6 (1859-1887*)                 3                            2                 the west end of #2 (two stories)
                                                                                              demolished Jan 2016
#7 (1871)                           4                            4                 called "new mill" when built
#7 (1906)                           7                            7                 one story, restaurant area
#6A-6D (1901-2)                 6                            6                faces river
#8 (1870)                           8                            8                 "old" 8 and "new" 8 connected
#9 (1861)                           9                          ---                 no longer exists
#10 (1887*)                       10                         10                demolished March 2016
#11 (1893)                         8                             8                new 8
#1 (1866)                          12                          12               described as weave mill
#16-19 (???)                      these were one-story dye buildings, all replaced by #7
Powerhouse (1900)            no #                       ---              few windows
146 Main (1903)                no #                        9               med offices and Maynard Hist. Soc.
150 Main (1905)                no #                      10

When buildings are torn down some of the construction details come to light. Photographed is the west end of Building 2, built in 1887. Individual bricks did not have lettering, so these post-dated the era when brick-mix was pressed into a mold by hand (the mold having lettering across the inner surface to leave a brand mark on the brick face). Nails in the floors and roof were rectangular in cross section versus round - a shape that became obsolete circa 1900.

The exterior walls were three bricks thick. The inner and outer bricks were aligned parallel to the wall, with the exception that every eighth row, every brick was end out, so that the other end extended into the center of the wall. With both sides of a wall having this pattern, the inner and outer face surfaces were linked to the center, making the entire wall rigid.

*An April 2016 column about the demolition of 2A and 10 pointed out that the buildings probably pre-dated 1887. Both were in an image of the mill celebrating the 40th anniversary, 1886. An earlier image - the 1879 aerial map - showed Building 2A but not Building 10.

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Up the Assabet Without a Paddle

If the question is, "If it's possible to kayak down the Assabet River through the middle of Maynard, i.e., Ben Smith Dam to Waltham Street Bridge, a bit over one mile, is it possible to walk up the same stretch of river?" then the answer is "Yes, but..."

David Mark, Assabet River, 7/26/15
Beginning a half-mile river walk
To test this, I stepped into the river by the footbridge behind Gruber Bros. Furniture and walked upstream half a mile to the Mill Street Bridge. Elapsed time was one hour. I had intended to continue to the Ben Smith Dam (another quarter mile), but was exhausted, hence the decision to step out early.

The water was clear, with little in the way of surface-growing algae and duckweed that have plagued the river in past years. There were no off-putting odors. What with the steep, rocky riverbanks, there was little in the way of shoreline water plants, such as cattails.   

There is a beaver lodge on the north bank of this section of the river. Dimensions are about twelve feet across and six feet tall, topped and surrounded with lushly growing plants.  Low water on the day of my walk meant that the two entrances were not under water. I startled a young beaver that was munching plants on the riverbank. It did the tail slap and swam past me underwater, eight feet from where I was standing. Other nature sightings included a great blue heron, fish, frogs, crayfish, mussels... Not-so-nature sightings included bottles and pottery shards, a propane tank and an engine block. No automobile tires. 

Safety, you ask? I was wearing water shoes - a rubber-sole, shoe/sandal hybrid - and using two ski poles for balance. Every step, I had both poles in contact with the river bottom. The poles also helped me check depth as I moved forward. This was useful, as while depth at the downstream gauge was only 1.5 feet, there were several passages two to three feet deep and one section I skirted that was more than four feet deep. Much of the bottom was loose rocks from baseball to softball size and larger. Other stretches were a mix of sand and gravel, some bare and others covered by aquatic plants. There was very little of silt/mud bottom because small particles are trapped behind the upstream dam.

How bad was it? Photo of tires, underneath the Walnut Street Bridge (1974)
Ralph Sheridan, courtesy Maynard Historical Society 
Guidelines for whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking strongly caution against trying to stand up in fast-moving water. The risk is that a person can get a foot entrapped in rocks or sunken tree branches, be pushed over by the moving water, and be unable to self-rescue. My adventure in the Assabet was at a time the water level and flow at the U.S. Geological Service gauge was at the lowest it has been all summer: 1.5 feet deep and 36 cubic feet per second (cfs). No part of the river would have qualified as Class I rapids. Fast-moving water was no more than half a foot deep. Deeper at the gauge would also mean faster - six inches more would mean flow at 100 cfs. At 2.75 feet (the lowest considered boatable through town) the flow rate would be 300 cfs, with sections of Class II rapids.

Approaching Mill Street Bridge. Note large rocks and
tree trunk downstream of the middle channel (July 2015)
The river's flow through town is actively managed, and has been mismanaged in the past. Old record show that at times during summer months the volume of water would decrease precipitously for a few days, getting to as low as two cfs - a trickle - and then revert to what it had been before. What was happening was that all water was being diverted to top up the mill pond at the expense of the river. Currently, restrictions are in place so that whenever river volume drops below 39 cfs, no water can be channeled to the pond.  

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and towns in the Assabet River watershed aspire to getting the river to Class B, defined as clean enough for swimming. Right now most of the river's status is Class C, which allows for fishing and fish consumption, diverse aquatic life, maintenance of biological integrity, use for agriculture irrigation and secondary recreation, the last defined as wading, boating, and other uses involving human body contact with water where such activities take place in an infrequent, unorganized, or incidental manner.

Engine block on rocky shore. Begs the
question: "How did that get there?"
When I first had the idea for this adventure, friends suggested I inform the police of my intentions, the concern being that a homeowner along the river, or a passer-by on a bridge might call 911 to report a person in the river. I took their advice. I also discussed my plan with the Conservation Commission. I did have a conversation with one waterfront owner, but he was more interested in telling me of his efforts to remove trash from the river than what I was up to.

Ten hot, dry days after my river walk, flow had dropped to under 30 cfs. Then, the afternoon of August 4th, severe thunderstorms with wind, rain and hail, swept in from the west. Rainfall was over an inch in less than half an hour. In the same time period the river rose more than half a foot and flow tripled.

Extreme low water at the Ben Smith Dam (July 2010)
Sofferman has posted several videos on YouTube of kayaking the Assabet through the center of Maynard under various conditions. A seven minute clip posted as  is from February 2014, with the river still sporting lots of ice and snow.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gruber Bros. Furniture

Gruber Bros. Furniture, Main Street, Maynard, MA (2015)
 The fire of 1934 changed everything. Julius and Benjamin Gruber had bought the business from Alfred T. Haynes in 1917, followed by buying the building in 1919, and were operating as Gruber Bros. Furniture on the first floor. Upstairs was Riverside Theatre (motion pictures), managed by Samuel Lerer. Elsewhere in the building were the Waino Williams Bakery, King & Huggins liquor merchants, and various offices of the Town of Maynard. The fire started in the back of the building around 4:30 AM on a Saturday morning and was not entirely extinguished until after noon. The re-build was to a smaller building, currently with Gruber Bros. Furniture as its sole occupant.

A pre-fire photo hangs in the front window along with a plaque from the Maynard Historical Commission. The original building, three stories tall, much modified through the years, was erected in 1868. A large meeting hall on the second floor served as host to Maynard’s first town meeting, in 1871.   

When Julius and Ben retired the business fell to Burton “Burt” Gruber, Julius’ son. A newspaper clipping from The Beacon, Nov 18, 1982, recounts a story about Burt selling $69 worth of office furniture on credit to a couple of guys starting up a new business in the mill. The business was Digital Equipment Corporation and one of the shoppers was Ken Olsen. When Burt retired operation of the business went to his nephew, Joel B. Cohen, son of Burt's sister Jeanette (Gruber) Cohen and Sidney Cohen. [Burt died in 2006, age 94 years.]

Joel B. Cohen, president & proprietor of Gruber Bros. Furniture, Maynard MA
The Gruber family was an active part of a small Jewish community in Maynard. Family records suggest that brothers Max and Eli Gruber came to the United States from Russia circa 1880, with both of them ending up in Maynard some time later. Ellis Island as the east coast immigration arrival site did not start operating until 1892, so a good guess is that the Grubers left port from Hamburg, Germany and landed in Boston (rather than New York, the major destination for Jewish immigration from 1890-1925). Max's oldest daughter was born in Europe, but the subsequent four children, including Julius and Benjamin, were born in the U.S. The oldest sister married Samuel Lerer, local store owner, movie theater operator, and a Selectman of the Town of Maynard.     
Warehouse behind Gruber Bros. Furniture, Maynard, MA
The murals were painted by members of CinderBlockHustle
in 2008, with the north wall repainted in 2012 with a
patriotic/military theme. [Click on photo to enlarge]

The Gruber family was instrumental in forming the Maynard Hebrew Society, which in 1921 bought a house on Nason Street and had it moved to Acton Street to be the home of Rodoff Shalom Synagogue. Prior to that the members had been served by a visiting rabbi, holding services in space rented in the meeting hall of the International Order of Odd Fellows, on Nason Street. Rodoff Shalom Synagogue existed through to 1980, when it merged into Congregation Beth Elohim, in Acton. In a temple newsletter, Adam Jacoby remembered, “In 1980 we built a new building and marched the Torah from Maynard to Acton under a chuppa [canopy] with shofars [horns made from rams' horns]. I was one of the shofrot during the walk.”

Gruber Bros. Furniture intends to close its doors later this year, thus bringing a closure to three generations and 98 years as a family business. As Joel Cohen put it, "When I was 16 years old my mother sent me over to the store to help with a furniture delivery. Now, 54 years and one hip replacement later, it's time for me to get off the truck and retire." The middle photo shows Cohen leaning on a stand-up desk that spans the width of the office. When asked the history of the desk he replied that it was in the office when his family bought the business in 1917. Future use of the building, which includes a mural-decorated warehouse building in back, is unknown.

Fifty of David Mark’s 2012-2014 columns were published in book "Hidden History of Maynard" available at The Paper Store, on-line, and as an e-book.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Public Access to Assabet River

Automated river depth and flow gauge,
Assabet River, Maynard, MA (2010 flood)
Addresses public access to the Assabet River in Maynard, MA. Includes a kayaker's description.

For all that the Assabet River runs through the center of Maynard, crossed by seven bridges, public access points - meaning places where it is possible to sit or stand by the riverbank, and if so desired, do some fishing, wade into the river or launch a canoe or kayak - are scarce.

Passage through Maynard starts at the White Pond Road Bridge on the Maynard:Stow border and ends at Ripple Pond, which is the name of the body of water backed up by the dam next to Route 62, in Acton. This portion, some 2.5 miles long, offers a mix of flat and flowing water ranging from placid to exciting and potentially dangerous.

Upstream of the Ben Smith Dam provides five miles of flat water. Boaters' access in Maynard is at Ice House Landing and at White Pond Bridge. The former is near the Department of Public Works, on Winter Street, and offers a few parking places and a short portage to the shore, where it is possible to put in a canoe or kayak. The latter has space to put in a small boat off a trailer, but parking is problematic. Between, there are good views of the water from Track Road, on the south side, but the shoreline is steep and brushy. Farther upstream but still part of the same flat water is a put-in in Stow, at Sudbury Road.

Downstream from the Ben Smith Dam there are views from the bridges and along Walnut Street, but no accessible shoreline on town property other than a short stretch in Tobin Park, by the footbridge, and then much farther east, from a trail that descends from Concord Street.

Kayaker working the rapids upriver from Main Street, Maynard, MA
Maynard owns or is about to own or can consider owning land that could provide much more river access. Construction of the Assabet River Rail Trail will include a larger parking lot at Ice House Landing. The town could improve the put-in.

A private parking lot at the back of Millpond Square provides access below the dam. The town could look into purchasing part of the lot. There is an easy 80 yard portage to a put-in place. The same concept would hold true for buying part of the parking lot at the Elks Lodge, as either a takeout for river runners or a put in for Ripple Pond. Between, the town already owns land behind the Town Building and is in the process of buying riverside land at the end of a small parking lot on River Street. These two sites have a steep bank from shore to river, so not ideal for boating or fishing access, but could become attractive viewing areas.

Lastly, the river border from Main Street to the footbridge (adjacent to the Gruber Bros. Furniture building, currently an overgrown mess of poison ivy and bittersweet) could be improved to include a boardwalk, benches, small tables, plantings, bicycle rack, informational kiosk, water fountain, a cart selling Italian ices, live music…
All this harping on access, access, access begs the question – is it really possible to boat through the center of Maynard on the Assabet River? Safe? Legal? As noted, upstream of the Ben Smith Dam is flat water, so boating is possible, safe and legal. Through town, the criteria are deep enough to float a boat but no so high as to risk hitting the undersides of bridges. A gauge located behind Tedeschi Food Shops provides on-line information on depth and flow rate, findable via internet search on the terms USGS ASSABET followed by selection of the one that has “Current Conditions” in the description.
Pipe under Mill Street Bridge reduces clearance (flood, March 2010)
From talking to experienced boaters, a depth at the gauge between 3.0 and 4.0 feet floats a boat through Maynard and provides for stretches of Class I-II rapids. Approaching 5.0 feet the bridges become dangerous. The river gets faster. At 2.0 feet the flow is 100 cubic feet per second, increasing to 600 cfs at 4.0 feet and 1200 cfs at 5.0 feet.
As for legal, the Massachusetts River Protection Act extends state control to “Any river or stream that is a naturally flowing body of water that empties into any ocean, lake, or other river and that flows throughout the year.” Recreational activities are allowed, keeping in mind that all the scrap metal and broken glass make barefoot wading unadvisable. 

One experienced kayaker's description of running the center of town when water was 4' deep: 
  • Great Road Bridge – ran to the right through a 2’ drop
  • Mill Street Bridge – ran through the center, but the right arch is also an option [August 2015: just downstream of center there are large tree trunks hung up on larger rocks]
  • Florida Road Bridge – flatwater under the bridge, but there are some nice waves just downstream
  • Main Street Bridge – some easy waves leading up to it, but it can be run anywhere
  • Walnut Street Bridge – fast moving current under the bridges pushes right, some nice wave below the bridge
  • Waltham Street Bridge – ran in the middle since the left and right arches were blocked by construction steel [note: this was the old bridge; the new bridge is a single span]