Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - DCU

The Digital Federal Credit Union, which goes by “DCU,” had its beginnings in 1979 when DEC was in the process of transferring people from Maynard to a new factory in Westminster, 30 miles west on Route 2. Complaints got back to Ken Olsen that people were having a hard time getting house mortgages. After discussions with Human Resources, a decision was made to create a credit union that would charge less than the going rate for home loans and pay better interest on savings. Interestingly, this echoed services that the woolen mill had offered under the Maynard family during the 19th century. Back then there was no bank in Maynard; employees could earn interest by creating accounts funded by money deducted from their pay.

Today, DCU has outlived Digital by 21 years. The headquarters are in Marlborough. It is the largest credit union headquartered in New England, with over 863,000 members and management of assets in excess of eight billion dollars. Per DCU’s website: “The credit union is a member-owned financial cooperative providing financial banking services to multiple member groups, but primarily serves communications and utilities employees. Membership is also open to immediate family of current members.” The nearest branch office to Maynard is in the Stop-and-Shop plaza, in Acton. No-charge ATMs are located inside CVS and 7-11.

The credit union logo
DCU offers a variety of financial services typically offered by financial institutions, including savings and checking accounts, and IRAs. DCU also offers its members home mortgages, home equity loans, auto loans, boat loans, business loans, credit cards, debit cards and insurance services. Checking accounts have no required minimum nor monthly fees, on-line access and bill paying. Savings accounts are federally insured.

The DCU vision – “All Members Achieve Their Financial Goals Collaboratively” – means it wants to be catalyst and cheerleader for members’ long-term financial success. DCU feels strongly that integrity is the most important aspect of what it is, and stands by three principles that guide the decisions and behavior of everyone at DCU: 1) People Come First; 2) Do the Right Thing; and 3) Make a Difference. The second, especially harks back to a guiding principle that stood Digital Equipment Corporation in good stead for so many years.

And now for the bad news. A check at YELP for consumer reviews of DCU found scores upon scores of one-star reviews, many stating that they had actually wanted to rate their experience as zero stars. Complaints were about both in-bank and on-line services. Often, after long time on phone-hold, the person answering did not know how to solve the problem and could not forward the caller to a person who might. At banks, rudeness ruled. In the summer of 2019 DCU settled a class-action lawsuit for $1.8 million for accusations that it had triggered overdraft fees by delaying action on deposits while at the same time speedily processing debit card charges.       

The first mention of banking services in Maynard pre-dates 1900. The Assabet Manufacturing Company, under management by Lorenzo Maynard, allowed employees and ex-employees to have money in interest-earning savings accounts. When the company went bankrupt in January 1, 1899, deposits were $132,000. According to the centennial history book, on August 12, 1899, assignees managing the distribution of mill assets paid the depositors 25%, and then on February 23, 1990, an additional 35%. There were rumors at the time that the mill owners and Maynard family had diverted funds before the bankruptcy, and that Lorenzo Maynard, realizing that the end was drawing nigh, signed over mill property estimated at $250,000 to protect himself when the crash came. Such was the animosity that in 1902 there was a concerted effort to change the name of the town from Maynard to Assabet. The State Legislature voted to not let the question come to a local vote – Maynard remained Maynard.

Assabet Institute for Savings, the first bank in Maynard, opened on April 29, 1904. Maynard Trust Company began operations in 1913, and soon after had a building on Main Street. It later merged with Middlesex County National Bank. Approaching Maynard’s 150th anniversary, the town is served by Middlesex Bank and Citizens Bank, both on Nason Street. Bank of America had a Nason Street branch office in Maynard starting in 1947, recently closed.

Not in the newspaper: In October 2004, DCU (Digital Federal Credit Union) and the City of Worcester entered into a naming rights partnership at $5.2 million for ten years, to rename the arena and convention center to the DCU Center Arena & Convention Center. Naming rights later extended to 2025. Originally Worcester Centrum Centre, opened 1982, convention center added 1997. Renovated several times since.


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Mill-Owned Homes Auctions of 1934

The American Woolen Company (AWC), soon after having purchased the bankrupt Assabet Woolen Mill in May 1899, expanded operations and decided to create housing to meet demands from workers. The company purchased farm and pasture land on the east side of Parker Street in 1901, and over two years built 206 single family homes and duplexes. This development became known as New Village, but also as Presidential Village, as the streets were named after presidents. Houses were rented to mill employees for $3-6/month. The Bancroft School (later renamed Calvin Coolidge School) was opened September 1906, in part to accommodate children living in the new development.      

Assabet Mills homes auction, August 1934. Click on image to enlarge.
In 1934, a smidge over 30 years later, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and the mill was operating at 20 percent capacity. AWC decided to auction housing in many towns, including Maynard. On August 18 and 19, twelve vacant lots and 150 buildings in the Presidential Village development – single family homes and duplexes – were auctioned, for a total of $183,740. There were no reserves on the prices, meaning that there were no minimums below with the properties would be withdrawn from auction. All properties were sold. Terms were 10 percent at bid, 15 percent at closing, buyers offered three-year mortgages on the remaining amount at 6 percent interest. The average for single family homes was under $1,000. By way of comparison, a new Chevrolet car could be had for $450-700. The great majority of purchases were by Maynard residents, although in some instances families were outbid on the houses they lived in, but were able to buy a different house.  

This was actually the second AWC auction of 1934. June 23 of the same year saw auction of 74 dwellings, many multi-family, plus four stores and three boarding houses. Terms were same as the August auction. This sale included much of the company property on Main, Front and High Streets, plus the row house buildings on Railroad Street. The eight-page auction brochure can be viewed online at https://collection.maynardhistory.org/items/show/5126. The auction netted $90,000. Newspaper accounts of both auctions – on microfilm at the Maynard Public Library – named the buyers, but not which properties they had bought.    

A less well-known part of Maynard’s history is that John F. Lovell, owner of Lovell Bus Lines, had accrued a notable amount of Maynard real estate, and then auctioned 24 pieces of property to the highest bidders on December 2, 1939. The five-page auction brochure can be viewed online at https://collection.maynardhistory.org/items/show/5129. It includes photos of each house, addresses, and hand-written, the selling prices and names of buyers. Terms were the same as the 1934 auctions. The auctioneering firm – Samuel T. Freeman & Co. – was also the same. From the brochure: “Accommodating from one to five families each. These properties have been excellently maintained, consistently occupied, and are advantageously located.”

Lovell Bus Lines, Maynard, MA. Historic Society collection, date unknown
Lovell’s letter to the auction house stated that he was 82 years old, and had found that managing all this property in addition to the Lovell Bus Lines, was too much of a burden. Most of what he owned was two- to five-family dwellings scattered about town. The total netted from the auction was about $55,000. Of note, what had been the Lorenzo Maynard mansion on Dartmouth Street, described as a five-family dwelling, went for $2,650. The building still exists as apartments, with the original stained-glass windows intact.

John Lovell started bus service from Maynard to the South Acton train station in 1923. In time, he bought what had been the electric trolley car barn at the west end of Main Street, and added bus service to Concord and to Hudson. Eventually the line was extended west to Clinton and Leominster, and east to Waltham and Revere Beach (summers only, round-trip $1.25). Lovell also had the school bus contract for Weymouth. In 1953, Lovell Bus Lines was sold to Middlesex & Boston Street Railway – which operated trolleys and buses – later merged with MBTA. Bus service for Maynard ended.

Lovell had lived a remarkable life. He left school at age nine for factory work, taught himself to read and write in his teens, then alternated factory work with starting his own businesses (with little success at the latter). Age 61 years found him broke again, with only an old Model T Ford to his name. He went into the taxi-cab business in Woburn, expanded that to buses, was bought out for $45,000, and at age 63, instead of retiring, started the bus line in Maynard. He stayed involved in daily operations until his death in 1945, at age 87. Over time the family sold off parts, then ended the business in 1954.    


Monday, December 16, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - Women

Ken Olsen was a big believer in numbers. Employees were assigned consecutive numbers based onAlma E. Pontz, #5 and Gloria Porrazzo, #6. Barbara Stephenson was #71. One thing about badge numbers – your badge number became yours and was retired when you left the company. Employees returning with a gap in service could apply for "their" old number back.
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. Barbara Stephenson was #71. One thing about badge numbers – your badge number became yours and was retired when you left the company. Employees returning with a gap in service could apply for "their" old number back.

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, some who had worked in the same buildings in the woolen mill era, which had ended less than 10 years back. The newly refurbished work areas were clean, quiet and well lit, although hot during the summers, as air conditioning was not 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.    

Women at DEC, assembling boards (date unknown). This is
probably the original space in Building 12.
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 She 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. 
"Light, clean work in our Production Department for
girls and women with good eyesight and nimble fingers."
Why women on the production floor? Because it was no longer legal to hire children. Back in the woolen mill years, children were hired for the manual dexterity. In time, women had taken over those jobs. A DEC job openings advertisement from 1959 specified a preference for women with good eyesight and nimble fingers. Some women worked the “Mother Shift,” meaning their day ended in time for them to be home when their kids got out of school.

Digital was not averse to hiring women with technical expertise, but some of the customers had a hard time adapting. Olsen had gone to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus to interview students in the electrical engineering department in 1960. One result was the hiring of Barbara Stephenson in 1961. From Barbara: "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!'"
Barbara Stephenson: first
woman engineer at DEC

Women were promoted from within. Rose Ann Giordano was hired from Xerox in 1979 to work in marketing, promoted to manager in 1981, then promoted in 1984 to become the first woman vice president and corporate officer at Digital Equipment Corporation. Earlier, 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.

Cossette’s 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.

Mark went to MIT (where Ken Olsen got his undergraduate when the undergraduate population was 7 percent female. It is now 45 percent. Faculty is 25 percent women.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - Minicomputers

Harlan Anderson, co-founder and employee #2, left the company in 1966, just before the company went public (issued stock). Anderson’s take on his departure, incorporated into a memoir he published in 2009, descripted the problem as a major difference in his and Olsen’s visions for how to manage the fast-growing company. Anderson favored a traditional hierarchy. Olsen, having put in a bit over a year in Poughkeepsie, New York as MIT’s liaison to IBM, loathed this type of rigidity. Each had their champions on the board of directors, respectively Jay Forrester, who had been their boss at Lincoln Labs, later a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Georges Doriot, president of the venture capital firm that had provided start-up funding for DEC.


[Harlan Anderson died January 30, 2019, age 89 years]

Anderson’s position within the company had been weakened by his ties to the failed PDP-6 computer. He resigned rather than assume a lesser position within the company. Forrester left the board soon thereafter; Doriot stayed on into the late 1980s. Olsen went on to commit to a matrix-style management that perplexed business school academics for years, yet seemed to work fine for a company of engineers making leading-edge products for engineers.     

Ken Olsen standing next to the sign facing Main Street
(Internet download, date not known)
DEC dominated the minicomputer niche. In 1971, Massachusetts Governor Francis William Sargent declared Maynard as “Minicomputer Capital of the World.” By then, DEC had expanded to renting most of the mill. A year later it bought the 60-acre Parker Street industrial. In 1974 it bought the entire mill complex, and in time a few other buildings in town, bringing the total to more than two million square feet of office and factory space.

Exact numbers are not available, but estimates are that Digital employed between one-third and one-half of the adults living in Maynard. Students were hired right out of high school. Other employees commuted – Routes 117 and 27 had twice daily traffic jams, and the mill pond was partially filled in to create more parking. Evenings, restaurants and bars were flooded with employees. There were no empty storefronts. Was there a downside? Yes, in that Maynard was once again a one-company town.  

VAX was Digital’s second act. The name choice itself was significant, as after almost twenty years of ‘PDP-next,’ this was a whole new system. The acronym stood for “Virtual Address Extension.” Design and development started in 1975, The VAX-11/780 was introduced in October 1977. In tech-speak – which will not be interpreted here – VAX had a novel instruction set architecture incorporating a 32-bit system. According to the Wikipedia article on VAX, primary features were “…its very large number of assembly-language-programmer-friendly addressing modes and machine instructions, highly orthogonal architecture, and instructions for complex operations such as queue insertion or deletion and polynomial evaluation.” In non-tech-speak, the VAX computer systems were flexible, robust and scalable. As a customer’s information technology needs grew, more VAX machines could be added, and networked through a new means – the Ethernet. New VAX models were introduced well into the early 1990s, but everything remained compatible.

There was a downside. Faced with an internal competition for resources, Ken Olsen decided in 1982 that it was time to kill the extremely successful PDP-11 series. Vice presidents Rose Anne Giordano and Winston “Win” Hindle were tasked with the announcement at the annual DECUS symposium. The sense of betrayal led many clients to abandon DEC, but most transitioned to VAX. It helped that DEC sweetened the pot with discounts. The success of VAX catapulted DEC into higher and higher income levels: $1.0 billion for 1977, then $4.0 billion for 1982, $11.4 billion for 1988.  

Aerial photo circa 1970 - note full parking lots. Click on photos to enlarge.
Prior to DEC outright buying the mill, it had been owned since 1953 as a multi-tenant rental by Maynard Industries Incorporated. What they had purchased was the buildings, surrounding land, and more: the mill pond, Ben Smith Dam, Lake Boon and part of the Fort Meadow Reservoir. The purchase price of $200,000 equates to $1.9 million in today’s dollars. Lake Boon was relinquished to Stow in lieu of unpaid property taxes, ditto Fort Meadow to Marlborough. The mill pond itself remains private property (presently by Mill & Main). Before the 2008 recession the previous owner/operator had proposed to build an office building on the south side, and either a multi-level parking garage for 1,000 cars or else fill in more of the pond.

DEC’s market capitalization – number of shares times price per share – reached a peak of $24 billion in 1987. The company was riding the peak of the ‘bet-the-farm’ introduction of the VAX-based mini-computers a decade earlier. Even though it had stumbled badly in beginnings of the microcomputer era, DEC had a valid claim to being the second largest computer company in the world. What DEC did not see coming was changes embodied by a famous quote by Georges Doriot: “Someone, somewhere, is making a product that will make your product obsolete.”

Very unofficially, a humor-intended memo circulated within DEC in the 1980s. It finished with the punchline: “This isn’t Burger King and you don’t get it your way. You get it our way or not at all, because we’re Digital and you’re not!”

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation - the Rise

Among the many stories Ken Olsen told about the early years was how primitive the working  Summer, with no air conditioning, windows were opened, but there were no screens, so the work area was plagued by pigeons. In the deeps of winter, heat was constantly on, but during the spring and fall, not on for weekends. Raytheon shared one building with Digital’s space. If Raytheon wanted heat, Digital got heat. Raytheon would call noon on Friday to specify which buildings it wanted heated, paying $15/hour for the service. Ken Olsen would call at 1:00 to see if he was going to get his part of the building heated for free.
conditions were in the early years. Workspaces had walls but no doors (bathroom stalls did not have doors, either).

The early successes of DEC rested on two concepts – real time computing and time sharing. The first described the ability to sit in front of a computer, create program code on a keyboard, and see code and output on a video screen. The second referred to the idea that more than one user could be using the same computer at the same time, with speed fast enough that each user had the sense that they were a sole operator.

Digital Equipment Corporation: PDP-1. "PDP" was from
Programmed Data Processor, as Digital was adverse to
calling itself a computer company. 
The PDP-1 was DEC’s first computer, introduced in December 1959. First delivery to a customer was November 1960. It introduced the concept of real-time computing. It weighed about 1,600 pounds, sold for $30,000 (roughly $1,000,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars, and was considered a huge bargain compared to mainframe computers. DEC sold 53 of them. One was on permanent loan to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Electrical Engineering Department, Ken Olsen’s alma mater, where faculty and students could sign up for computer time, 24/7. DEC recruited students who showed programming promise.  

The PDP-8, introduced in 1965, became DEC’s first superstar computer, selling more than 50,000 over its lifespan. The innovative idea – radical at the time – was to make a smaller, cost-effective computer rather than going for “bigger equals better.” There had been missteps prior. PDP models 4-7 were sluggish sellers, and the PDP-6 in particular had devoured huge amounts of the company’s research and development budget. The PDP-8 supported time-sharing, meaning that many people could be using terminals at the same time, but have the response time they expected from being the only user of a real-time computer. The introductory price was $18,500.

The original PDP-8 spawned a large family of models that were progressively smaller and faster and less expensive. One anecdote of the time was that Bob Metcalf, a graduate student at MIT, had received permission to have a PDP-8 on loan in his office for a weekend demonstration for visiting high school students. When he got to his office that Saturday, the computer was gone. DEC’s public relations department turned the crime into an advertising coup, describing the PDP-8 as “The first computer small enough to steal.” Metcalf went on to co-invent the Ethernet, parent concept for the Internet. The PDP-8 system was later incorporated into one of DEC’s entries into the personal computer niche – the DECmate II/III.

Financially, a major milestone was achieved when the company issued stock on August 18, 1966 as an initial public offering (IPO) of 375,000 shares at $22/share, raising a bit over $8 million dollars for about 20 percent of the company (the majority of shares retained by the investor). Given that the company had been initially funded by $70,000 from American Research & Development, one of the first venture capital companies in the U.S., for 70% ownership, this achievement was insanely profitable for AR&D. Harlan Anderson, one of the co-founders, later wrote: “This deal seems ridiculous and unfair by today’s standards; however, we never contacted an alternative source of capital. We were very na├»ve and there was very little venture capital money available then. We accepted the offer without any negotiation.” When AR&D was purchased in 1972 the price was $450 million; the major asset in its portfolio was Digital Equipment Corporation.

Image of $1,000 bond issued in December 1978. The computer in the
central image appears to be a PDP-12. Click on image to enlarge.
PDP-11 reached the market in 1970. DEC had ended up behind the competition – IBM, and Data General – the latter started in Hudson by ex-DEC engineers. DEC “bet the farm” on leapfrogging the competition. It succeeded. Various versions in the PDP-11 family sold more than 600,000 computers to all corners of the world. The need to fulfill sales and service contracts on this vast family meant DEC needing to have thousands of employees in scores of countries. The PDP-11 models had a successful twenty-year run, until being rendered obsolete by microcomputers connected to server networks.

Prior to the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan in 1979, and a subsequent boycott on importing U.S. computers, PDP-8s and PDP-11s legally made their way behind the Iron Curtain. There, they were reverse-engineered to create knock-offs. Some were so compatible that they could run DEC software, and DEC sales force in eastern Europe reported seeing Russian language PDP manuals. Most of the early personal computers in the USSR were PDP-11 compatible. Years later, VAX machines were smuggled into the USSR and cloned as ‘WAX’ superminicomputers, also able to run DEC software.

There is a confirmed story that the scribe lane of the Digital CVAX microprocessor had text in the Cyrillic (Russian) alphabet, with one suggested translation as: "VAX - when you care enough to steal the very best". This was actually a rift on the famous Hallmark card slogan: "When you care enough to send the best".




Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Digital Equipment Corporation – Origins

Prior to 1987 the DEC logo was with blue rectangles. In 1987
it retained the font but the color became a dark red.
The rise and fall of Digital Equipment Corporation, often referred to as Digital or DEC, was a 41-year arc that started with a bit of rented space in the mill buildings in 1957, peaked in size and sales in 1990 with the mill complex being the world headquarters of a 125,000 employee empire that reached $14 billion in annual sales, then as a result of management and technology missteps, repeatedly downsized, had a fire sale of assets, and was finally sold to Compaq Corporation in 1998 (in turn, in time, acquired by  Hewlett-Packard Company in 2002).

In the beginning, there was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Kenneth “Ken” Olsen – born in 1926 – had done a stint in the Navy right out of high school, then attended MIT as undergraduate and then graduate student, completing a Master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1952. Then and now, this was the study of electrical equipment and computing. After graduating, Olsen moved to Lincoln when he took a job at Lincoln Laboratory, a MIT-affiliated facility focused on military research. It was at Lincoln Labs that the first transitions were made from vacuum tube to transistor-based computers. Olsen oversaw the development of a machine called the TX-0. Much of the design, improved, was incorporated into DEC’s first computers. It was at DEC that the crucial first steps were taken for commercializing real-time computing involving a keyboard and a video monitor.

Harlan Anderson badge for
DEC, identifying him as
employee #2.
In late May 1957, Olsen and Harlan Anderson, a colleague at Lincoln Labs, approached a venture capitalist company with a proposal. They got an investment of $70,000 for a 70 percent share in the company. There was pushback from the investors about “computer” being in the company’s name, because at the time computers were large, expensive, mostly unprofitable machines – think IBM and UNIVAC – hence the name became Digital Equipment Corporation.   

The situation in Maynard was this: The American Woolen Company had a last burst of busy-ness at the mill during the first years of the Korean War, but those contracts ended in late 1950. A group of local business people tried to arrange financing to buy the property in 1950. That failed. Not until July 1953 did a group from Worcester, calling itself Maynard Industries Incorporated, close a deal. By 1957 the mill complex was almost entirely rented out to dozens of businesses. Only because of a timely bankruptcy of a small company named Maynard Mill Outlet did space open up when Olsen and Andersen came calling on July 9th. After a few visits they signed a three-year lease on August 27th for 8,680 square feet at $300/month. They and Stan Olsen – Ken’s younger brother – spent weekends painting the space themselves, then bought office furniture from Gruber Brothers on credit.

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, named the PDP-1. By October 1961 the company had grown to 265 employees and annual sales were approaching six million dollars. In time, DEC made Maynard "The mini-computer capital of the world."

Wedding photo of Kenneth Harry ("Ken") 
Olsen and Eeva-Liisa Aulikki (“Aulikki”) 
Valve. December 12, 1950.

There is a great personal story of how Ken pursed his wife. On vacation from graduate school and visiting his parents in Connecticut, he was smitten with a woman, Aulikki Valve [full name: Eeva-Liisa Aulikki Valve], from Finland who was visiting the neighbors for a week. Nothing came of it at the time, but after she returned to Finland and he to MIT, he could not stop thinking about her. Olsen wrote a letter, asking if he might visit. Her reply? “Don’t bother.” Not taking no for an answer, he left MIT, took a ship to Europe, bicycled to Denmark, then ferried to Sweden, where he got a job as an electrician at a Swedish ball-bearing factory. This journey to Sweden was perhaps not entirely crazy. His mother’s parents had come from Sweden (his father’s from Norway), so it is possible that he had relatives there.

Once settled in, Olsen wrote Aulikki again. This time she agreed to see him. Olsen quit his job, traveled to Finland, arrived at Aulikki’s parents’ house, and proposed marriage. The response was “No”, from both Aulikki and her parents. Did Olsen return to the U.S.? No. He continued to court Aulikki. After two months, the answer became “Yes.” They married, in Finland, December 12, 1950, then returned to Massachusetts where he competed his graduate degree.

Olsen had always said that the reasons he started the company in Maynard was the low rent and the availability of an under-employed, factory-skilled work force, but an unspoken reason might have been the presence of a Finnish-speaking population, to help his wife be a bit less homesick. Although the Olsens lived in Lincoln, there are many mentions of Aulikki and their three children visiting Ken at the mill. Aulikki died in 2009, after 59 years of marriage. Ken two years later.

This is the beginning of a series of columns about DEC. If there are errors, send corrections to damark51@gmail.com. And send interesting anecdotes. Particularly interested in learning about the impact of DEC on life in Maynard.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Thank you for Trail of Flowers Help


Letter to Editor of Beacon-Villager newspaper, serving Maynard and Stow. Submitted Nov 14, 2019

Trail of Flowers (www.trailofflowers.com) wishes to express thanks to the donors and diggers who made this year’s plantings of hundreds upon hundreds of daffodil, tulip and crocus bulbs in Maynard and Acton this fall. 

DONORS: Pamela A. Agner, Assabet River Rail Trail Inc., Ellen C. Duggan Trust, Cindy Beck Goldstein & Roger Goldstein, Lewis & Judith Halprin, LOOK Optical, Dorothy MacKeen, Pam Margules Mark & Joshua Mark, Linda Oniki & Charles Mark, Maynard Cultural Council, Maynard Community Gardeners, Laura Moore, Pamela Newton & John Houchin, Roger Stillwater, Lois K. Tetreault, Maya Weiss, Suzanne & Corey Weiss. 

DIGGERS: Pamela Agner, Dia Chigas, Trevor Dawley, Cathy Fochtman, Kathleen Gildea, Stephanie Hills, Alexandra Howard, Craig Jones, Heather Nickle, Maynard Girl Scouts, Rheta Roeber, Lizza Smith, Steven Smith, Anne Sterling, Jeffrey Swanberg, Lois Tetreault, Mark Tricca and Loretta West (apologies if anyone missed). Blooms should be up mid-April into May. Major sites include near the Acton end of the Assabet River Rail Trail, the Marble Farm historic site (across Route 27 from Christmas Motors), a bit west of where the trail crosses Summer Street, and the east end of the footbridge over the Assabet River. Non-bulb plantings will continue in 2020, and more bulbs in the fall, with new planting sites added in Acton, Maynard and Marlborough. 

 - David Mark, Maynard

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 www.maynardlifeoutdoors.com.  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 (https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?site_no=01097000) 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 www.trailofflowers.com 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 https://collection.maynardhistory.org/ (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 collection.maynardhistory.org /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.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Volunteers Needed to Plant Daffodils

Do you know which end of a shovel goes into the ground? Not afraid of the outdoors? Then there is a volunteer opportunity waiting for you this fall: Trail of Flowers (TOF). A website www.trailofflowers.com explains what this is about. Briefly, now that the Assabet River Rail Trail is paved in Acton and Maynard, a proposal was made in fall 2018 to embellish the trail with extensive plantings of spring-blooming bulbs and summer-blooming perennial plants. The proposer was David Mark (me). Donations were made to pay for the purchase of bulbs and volunteers helped plant. This year, on October 19, volunteers are again needed to plant bulbs. The event is BYOS, as in bring-your-own-shovel. And BYOW, as in bring your own water.

Trail Of Flowers, planting volunteers, October 20, 2018
Last fall, the volunteers planted 2,000 daffodils in Maynard, mostly at the Marble Farm historic site, which is at Maynard’s north end of the trail, across from Christmas Motors. Other bulb plantings were scattered along the trail between Concord and Summer Streets. The donor organizations were Maynard Community Gardeners (MCG) and the Assabet River Rail Trail organization. During the summer of 2019 perennial plants were added, some being donated leftovers from the MCG plant sale.

This year, the Maynard Cultural Council provided a grant, Maynard Community Gardeners again made a sizeable contribution, and many private parties donated – enough to purchase 3,000 daffodil, tulip and crocus bulbs. Donations greater than $100 are acknowledged on the TOF website. The Marble Farm historic site will be added to, plus two new Maynard sites. If the Acton Garden Club comes through with providing volunteers, a planting site will be added in Acton.

First flower-viewing walk, May 4, 2019. Click to enlarge.
Next spring there will be an organized flower-viewing trail walk, with suggestions to wear flower-themed clothing (Hawaiian shirts, anyone?). And a flower poster to promote the event and list sponsors. The 2020 walk probably start at the footbridge over the Assabet River, pass by Tulip Corner (intersection of Summer, Maple and Brooks Streets), then proceed north on the Rail Trail to the Marble Farm site   

The Town of Maynard approved Trail Of Flowers. To wit: Will this cost the Town any money? No. Will this require the Department of Public Works to do any planting or maintenance? No. Will this interfere with DPW’s intent to mow the borders of the Trail? No. This is a great idea!

If you, readers of this column, or anyone you think of sharing this information with, are interested in becoming a TOF volunteer, please email your contact information to David Mark at damark51@gmail.com. Or just show up on Saturday, October 19, between the hours of 1:00 and 4:00 with a shovel. If you arrive by car, park on Acton Street south of the State Police building, as this is preferred to parking on Rockland Avenue.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Folate and Folic Acid

Folate is a B-vitamin that occurs naturally in plants – more in some than others. Folic acid is a synthetic compound incorporated into multi-vitamins, dietary supplements and used to fortify foods; once absorbed it is converted into folate. Starting about 20 years ago, the United States decided to mandate fortification of wheat flour and other grains with folic acid in order to reduce the risk of infants being born with spina bifida and other neural tube defects (NTDs). In effect, the decision was made to increase folate in 350 million people to prevent an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 birth defect births per year. At the time, concerns were raised that this folic acid fortification might have unknown health-positive and health-negative consequences, the latter including an increased incidence of cancer. So far, most of this has proven to be not true.

In general, beans, nuts and seeds are good sources of food folate, as are dark, leafy green foods (spinach, etc.) and cruciferous vegetables. Animal liver is a great source, but animal meat, dairy and eggs, not. People who adhere to a vegetarian or vegan diet should have no worries about getting adequate folate from food, although there are other vitamins for which a general-purpose vitamin/mineral supplement is recommended. Currently trendy diets need to be examined for nutrient deficiencies. A ‘keto’ (ketogenic) diet avoids carbohydrates, but if it contains enough in the way of leafy green vegetables it should not shortfall the recommended intake of food folate. Exceptions are any women who might become pregnant, as the recommendation is to be consuming 600 micrograms of folate as folate and folic acid before and during the pregnancy. “Gluten free” diets can lead to folate deficiency, especially if people are replacing wheat-based foods with alternative sources of carbohydrates. Here too, consider a general-purpose vitamin/mineral supplement.

Worldwide, there were about 300,000 live NTDs per year before any country required folic acid fortification. The U.S. and Canada were the first countries to implement fortification in early 1998. For the sixty-some countries that now require fortification of wheat flour, and/or corn meal or rice, the incidence of NTDs has dropped by 25 to 50% (higher in countries that started with low folate intake from diet). The reasoning for fortification over advising women who became pregnant to start taking a folic acid supplement was they the risk for development of neural tube defects is greatest in the first few months of pregnancy – a time when women may not even be sure they are pregnant.

In the U.S., the decision to fortify food with folic acid resulted in roughly a 50 percent increase in total folate (naturally occurring from food plus folic acid). There were hopes among researchers that requiring fortification of foods, and thus increasing folate status in everyone, not just women of child-bearing age, would also have benefits for cardiovascular and mental health. The latest reviews of evidence report no change cardiovascular disease in general, but a modest decrease in the risk of stroke in people who already had pre-existing cardiovascular disease. Evidence for the last came from trials with folic acid supplementation in amounts higher than were achieved just from the food fortification program. In the arena of mental health, there are not enough human trials to determine if there are any benefits toward mild cognitive impairment, dementia in general or Alzheimer’s disease. One promising result is evidence that adequate folate status during pregnancy reduces the risk of the child developing autism.  

As for the whole cancer thing, long-term intake of insufficient amounts of folate appears to increate the risk of several types of cancer, including breast, colorectal, lung and prostate cancer. Although there were theories that folic acid fortification of foods would increase risk of cancer, by promoting growth of preneoplastic lesions, this turned out not to be true. Even supplementation in amounts far in excess of what would be achieved by food fortification did not increase cancer risk – but with one exception – prostate cancer. Multi-year, high-dose trials with folic acid supplements resulted in a 15 to 25 percent increase in prostate cancer compared to unsupplemented control groups. 

The Wikipedia article Folate elaborates on information presented here. Major population centers not requiring mandatory fortification include China, India, the European Union and Russia. Instead, these countries have public health education programs recommending to women that a folic acid dietary supplement be consumed starting months before becoming pregnant and continuing through pregnancy. The U.S. and other countries that now require fortification found that health education alone was not sufficient.