Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Maynard, MA: Unusual People

These people profiles were first published in Maynard's newspaper, the Beacon-Villager, and then assembled into Chapter 6 of the 2014 book "Hidden History of Maynard."

 Poet Laureate of Maynard

Men on their way to Marlboro after Maynard
voted itself 'dry' in 1915 (3rd poem)
One hundred years ago, William C. Kenyon was locally known for poems published in the Maynard News. Kenyon worked at the woolen mill. Little is known about him. Apparently, he married Eva Wilson in 1895, lived in Maynard, and then moved away in 1919. The newspaper published more than fifty of his poems over the period 1913 to 1919. The Maynard Historical Society has on file a binder containing most of Kenyon’s poems, transcribed from archived copies of the newspaper. Internet searches yield no additional information.

   His topics were local: the woolen mill, a town election, the bandstand controversy; and also general: the war, death, motherhood. Quite a number of the poems had to do with efforts to ban the sale of alcohol. This was a topic Kenyon appeared ambivalent about, as in several poems he portrayed the harmful influence of alcohol, while in another he lamented Maynard voting itself dry. Here are excerpts from some of his poems (which will benefit from being read out loud). The first example is the beginning lines from “Maynard's Woolen Mill”:

 Upon the river Assabet,

which flows by Summer Hill,

in the old town of Maynard, Mass,

stands Maynard's woolen mill.

A high imposing structure,

the largest of its kind;

it answers well the purposes,

for which it was designed.

It is not a thing of beauty,

though planned with greatest skill;

it was ugly when completed,

and it is ugly still.

 This one goes on for eight more verses of similar length. It was in print in 1918, about when the large new buildings closest to the mill pond were being completed. The next is from “A Protest.” Kenyon was castigating speculators who were driving up the price of food during the war.

 And some of our men of finance,

if I had the proper dope,

should be made to do a high dance,

with their necks inside a rope.

For the men who rob our children,

of their meat and of their bread,

should be hung from some high building,

and left there till they're dead.

 This one also had eight more verses in a similar vein. Kenyon’s style was not concise. Most of his work fell into the range of three hundred to six hundred words. He tended to rhyme alternating lines—except when he didn't.

   Next example: April 1915, and the town of Maynard had just voted itself dry. The neighboring towns were consistently dry, but Maynard flip-flopped from year to year. Prohibition was town-by-town, county-by-county or state-by-state before it became Federal law in 1919. From the start of “The Wail of the Wets”:

 Yes, Maynard went dry, and we wonder why,

For no one seems to know.

Now, just how quick can we make the trip,

from here to Marlboro?

For spring is here and we want beer,

we don't care what you say.

So we ask you, what shall we do,

after the first of May?

Titanic Disaster Affected Maynard Resident

The RMS Titanic sank in 1912. Per accounts in the February 14, 1913 issues of the Maynard News and the Concord Enterprise, Frances M. Ford filed a lawsuit against the White Star Line for losses suffered in the disaster. Miss Ford had crossed the Atlantic in 1911. She found work as a domestic servant. Her letters to her family, with glowing accounts of the prospects of a good life in America, convinced them to make the crossing.

   Back in England, Miss Ford’s mother, Margaret Ann Watson Ford, sold the family’s meager belongings and bought tickets for herself and her four other children: Dollina, age twenty; Edward, age eighteen; William, age fifteen; and Robina, age seven. Also crossing with the Ford family was Mrs. Ford’s younger sister Eliza Johnston, her husband Andrew Johnston, and their two young children. In all, a party of nine. Their one-way tickets in third class cost a bit more than seven British pounds—roughly four hundred dollars per person in today's dollars.

   None of the Fords or Johnstons survived. Miss Ford was living in New York at the time of the ship’s sinking, but she became so despondent after her loss of nine family members that she gave up her position to go live with an uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Watson, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, later relocating with them to Maynard. It was while living in Maynard that Miss Ford made the local newspaper by deciding to join the many who were filing lawsuits against the White Star Line.

   The sinking of the Titanic caused many wrongful death and loss of property lawsuits to be filed in the courts of the United States and United Kingdom. Claims filed in the United States alone easily exceeded ten million dollars. A legal definition of ownership of the Titanic would be crucial to remuneration.

   The backstory: John Pierpont Morgan, a wealthy American, bought the White Star Line in 1902. A nuance of the purchase was that White Star continued to be registered as a British shipping company with British officers and crew. Hence RMS Titanic, signifying Royal Mail Ship. By doing so, Morgan avoided enforcement of U.S. anti-monopoly laws.

   There was another benefit. White Star claimed that the tragic loss occurred without any cause on their part, and filed a petition to this effect asking for a cap on their liability based on the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. The U.S. government had passed this law to make U.S. shipping more competitive via lower insurance costs. The law specified that damages could not exceed the value of the ship at the end of the voyage in question. Even if the ship was insured by the owner, the claimants had no claim to the insurance payout, only the ship’s remaining value.

   Nothing could be salvaged from the Titanic. Morgan argued that the remnant value of the Titanic was only $96,000—calculated from the value of the recovered lifeboats—thus leaving little to file lawsuits against.

   Across the ocean, a British citizen counterclaimed that since the ship sailed under British registry, England’s maritime law should apply to his lawsuit. Under this law, the liability limit would be determined by the size and value of the ship—in this case several million dollars. Morgan initially lost his petition for U.S. jurisdiction, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and won there. Thus, all successful lawsuits filed in the United States would divvy up only $96,000 (minus lawyers’ fees). But because of the ship’s registry, lawsuits could be brought in Britain and would have access to the larger pool of money.

   History does not reveal if Miss Ford was successful in her lawsuit. On a different note, there was no mention of a Mr. Ford being on the Titanic with his wife and children, the reason being he had deserted the family in 1904, shortly after the birth of their last child, leaving Margaret Ford to struggle in poverty as a single mother of five. However, he joined the British lawsuits against the White Star Line and was awarded a modest annuity.

 Babe Ruth Shopped Here

Babe Ruth in RED SOX uniform
“Babe and Helen Ruth spent the winter of 1917–18 at their farmhouse in Sudbury, Massachusetts. They often took a horse and buggy into the nearby town of Maynard, where Helen would shop and Babe would buy cigars and play pool at the Maynard Smoke Shop, which was owned by Frank and Joe Sheridan. The owners' younger brother, 19-year old Ralph Sheridan, had followed the Red Sox since 2008, and he recognized Ruth the first time he walked into the store.” (From the book Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox by Allan Wood)

    This raises the question: Why was the young Boston Red Sox pitcher living in Sudbury? Firstly, this was not the Dutton Road farmhouse that Babe bought in 1922, when he was already a star for the Yankees. Rather, the story goes that a couple of his teammates on the Red Sox had invited him to visit Sudbury, where they would rent cabins to fish and hunt. For the winter of 1917–18, Ruth rented a modest waterfront cottage near the end of Butler Road (which has since burned down). Maynard was the closest place to go shopping and also to drink, play pool, and otherwise carouse.

   Ruth was well off at the time but not rich. He was twenty-two years old and had been paid $5,000 for the 1917 season. In today's inflation-adjusted dollars that would have been approximately $90,000. Baseball in the era before radio or television broadcasting, and all the associated advertising, was America’s pastime, but no one got rich.

   This story is not complete without a connection to the legend of Babe Ruth’s piano. Again, Ralph Sheridan's reminisces, as recounted by Allan Wood:

 “Several times that winter, Ruth invited young men and kids from the area out to his house. Ralph Sheridan worked in a nearby woolen mill and on the weekends, he and some friends, all teenagers, would walk from Maynard, about one mile, across Willis Pond to Ruth's farm. Babe and Helen were often out playing in the snow when Sheridan and his friends came by.”

   Sheridan recalled that he and his friends would play outside with Ruth. When they got cold, Helen Ruth invited the boys into the cottage and served them hot cocoa and cookies. “Mrs. Ruth would play the piano and we would all sing along, including the Babe,” wrote Sheridan. “He loved kids and always liked to have them around. And, always when we would leave, he would say, ‘Come over again and bring the gang.’ We were thrilled to be with him.”

   So how did that piano supposedly end up in Willis Pond? As one version of the story goes, a daytime gathering at the house got overcrowded—the cottage being only twenty by fifty feet—so Ruth and others pushed the piano down the hill and out onto the ice. There, they continued the party complete with singing and dancing while Helen played the piano. When it was time to move the piano back it was too heavy to push up the hill. So, the Babe simply left the instrument on the ice, where it eventually sank to the bottom.

   Kevin Kennedy, a resident of Sudbury, has been searching for the piano for many years. Teams of expert divers have been in the pond more than once. In 2010, a group of divers pulled out pieces of wood, possibly white oak, that piano expert David Sanderson, of Sanderson Piano in Littleton, believed was the veneer of an old upright piano.

 Babe Ruth Drank Here?

Initially, lore of Babe Ruth drinking or otherwise carousing in Maynard appeared to be just that. A few neighboring town waterholes—such as the Dudley Chateau in Wayland—claim to have been speakeasies frequented by Ruth back in the day. The timing would have been in the early 1920s, i.e., after national Prohibition was in effect. What is missing from this story is confirmation of sites within Maynard that were serving booze before or during Prohibition. The two oldest bars extant—the Pleasant Cafe and Stretch’s Tavern (now Morey’s) —both postdate the end of Prohibition.

   Babe Ruth could have been buying illegally in Maynard and drinking at his Sudbury estate just two miles away. When he bought the farmhouse in 1922, it included a simple cabin on Willis Pond about half a mile from the house. Babe and his friends could head out there for an evening of drinking, card playing and whatnot without disturbing his wife and daughter in the farmhouse. His name for the cabin was “Ihatetoquitit.” (I hate to quit it.)

   A quote often attributed to Babe Ruth, but in fact the work of current-day comic writer Jack Handey: “Sometimes when I reflect on all the beer I drink, I feel ashamed. Then I look into the glass and think about the workers in the brewery and all of their hopes and dreams. If I didn't drink this beer, they might be out of work and their dreams would be shattered. I think, ‘It is better to drink this beer and let their dreams come true than be selfish and worry about my liver.’”

   On the other hand, this one appears to be true Ruth: “I learned early to drink beer, wine and whiskey. And I think I was about five when I first chewed tobacco.”

   First appearances were that Ruth was not drinking during his Red Sox years. In Ralph Sheridan’s reminisces about visiting Ruth’s cabin on Willis Pond, he said he never saw Ruth drink nor saw any alcohol in the house. Babe Ruth spent mid-1914 through 1919 with the Red Sox, initially as a pitcher, but by the end he was pitching less and putting in more time as an outfielder. He was sold to the Yankees before the start of the 1920 season.

   After two years of Ruth’s successes and shenanigans in New York, Colonel Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the Yankees, attempted to curtail Babe's drinking and partying. Thus an addendum to the contract signed in late 1922:

“It is understood and agreed by and between the parties hereto that the regulation set forth shall be construed to mean among other things, that the player shall at all times during the term of this contract [$52,000/year] and throughout the years 1922, 1923 and 1924, and the years 1925 and 1926 if this contract is renewed for such years, refrain and abstain entirely from the use of intoxicating liquors and that he shall not during the training and playing season in each year stay up later than 1 o'clock a.m. on any day without the permission and consent of the Club's manager.”

   This appears to have been the first morals clause for a professional athlete. Ruppert may have hoped that the Sultan of Swat would also curtail his compulsive womanizing, but did not try to get that into the contract. Supposedly, at the time of that meeting, the Babe told Ruppert: “I'll promise to go easier on drinking and to get to bed earlier, but not for you, $50,000 or $250,000 will I give up women. They’re too much fun.”

   While a Yankee, Ruth and his wife made one more stab at reconciling. He returned to Massachusetts, bought the farmhouse and farm at 558 Dutton Road, in Sudbury, and took up the public image of a gentleman farmer living the good, clean life in the country with his wife and their adopted daughter. Babe was in residence the winter of 1922–23. After that, his wife continued to reside in Sudbury or elsewhere in the Boston area, but Babe was mostly in New York. They formalized their separation (not a divorce) in 1925 and she sold the house in 1926. Mrs. Ruth died in a house fire in 1929. Babe Ruth remarried, and remained married until his death in 1948.

   After this column appeared in Maynard’s newspaper, I got a phone call from Bob Merriam, Maynard High School class of 1962, with stories about how his grandparents, Niilo and Saimi Hirvonen, knew all about Babe Ruth’s drinking in Maynard. According to Bob, during the time when Ruth was still with the Red Sox (and liquor was still legal), Babe would show up at the bar at Bughouse Corner with a big roll of cash in his pocket, slap it on the bar, and tell the bartender “Everyone drinks on Babe Ruth.” Not only was he buying, but he also insisted that everyone stay until the bar closed, because he liked being around lots of people. He would have been in his early twenties at the time.

   Bughouse Corner was a nickname for the intersection of Waltham and Parker, possibly due to speechifying Socialists, and came to apply to the bar also. The latter was a low-key, smoke-filled drinking haunt for workers coming off shift at the woolen mill. More than one night, Ruth was too drunk to drive the two miles back to Sudbury (where his wife was home alone in the remote cabin on Willis Pond). Instead, Niilo—himself being a drinking man—saw no problem in inviting Babe Ruth back to his place, where Ruth would sleep it off on the living room floor.

   As Bob Merriam told it, “When I was growing up, my grandfather was proud that he had known Babe Ruth, but my grandmother had nothing kind to say.” What he heard from her: “‘That man would wake up in the night and go outside and pee off the porch instead of using the bathroom.’” When Bob asked his grandfather if this was true, the diplomatic answer was “Your grandmother has a good memory.”

   Another story about the Babe and urination is not as well documented. As the story goes, he was an avid golfer, at times played the Stowaway Golf Course (in Stow), and when he did, had on occasion stepped into the woods to relieve himself. Some players joke that they may be wetting the same spot honored by Ruth, ninety years ago.

Sid’s Airport (closed circa 2017)

Sid Mason, wife, dog and his beloved plane
Start with a Google search on Maynard, Massachusetts. Select the Maps option. Zoom in a couple of clicks. Drag the map so that it is centered on the west side of town, just north of Summer Street. You will see a designation: “Sid’s Airport.” A switch to satellite view will confirm a grassy airstrip. At this point, say to yourself “Really?!?” Next time you are driving west on Summer Street, remember to glance to the right two houses after passing Durant Avenue on the right. Voila! Sid’s Airport.

   Sidney H. Mason created his backyard airstrip in 1948 (the same year Orville Wright died). Sid was twenty-eight at the time and an army veteran. He and three friends bought a used Luscombe 1946 8A in 1947 for one thousand dollars. The plane was a two-seater with an all-aluminum body and wings, powered by a sixty-five horsepower engine. The airstrip land was carved out of what had been an extensive Mason family farm that dated back to at least 1875. In fact, back in the farm days, the family had two runways, and many of the pilots in Maynard and nearby towns kept their planes there.

   Sid was still flying in the left hand (pilot’s) seat as late as 1997, at age seventy-nine. A few years before he gave up flying, he had switched over to a 1955 Cessna that needed a bit more runway than his private airstrip provided, so he started flying from Stow’s Minute Man Air Field. Meanwhile, Sid's son—Jack Mason—had taken up his father's hobby while still in his teens, earned his pilot’s license, and was flying a Vector Ultralight in and out of the backyard. This meant that their landing strip continued to be an active, FAA-numbered airstrip (MA52). Sid also soloed the ultralight now and then.

   Run the timeline forward to 2012, and Jack Mason had just become the proud owner of a 1946 Luscombe 8E (a model with a bit more horsepower than his dad's old plane). He won the plane in a lottery. By choosing a propeller that maximizes takeoff and climbing power, he has a vintage but modernized plane that can be flown in and out of the landing strip behind his house. Thus, while the plane lives at Stow’s airport, Jack can start a voyage from there, stop home for lunch, then head out again…or just step out the back door and into an ultralight.

   Sid Mason passed on to the big airport in the sky in 2005. His life-long love affair with the air is memorialized by his tombstone, as it portrays his Luscombe in flight, with the plane’s registration number N72025 on the side.

Women at Digital Equipment Corporation

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

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

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

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

   Alma E. Pontz was the first woman hired. According to her 2013 obituary, she had already put in twenty-four years in the wool business before being hired by Olsen as the first administrative assistant, and thus was more than a decade older than her bosses. She stayed with DEC until she retired twenty-one years later. Gloria Porrazzo was the first woman hired to work in assembling the Laboratory Modules and Systems Modules. These products allowed Digital to be profitable from its first year onward. The women who worked in assembly, informally “Gloria's Girls,” did circuit board assembly, welds and quality control.

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

   Women were promoted from within. Maynard resident Angela Cossette was hired as an administrative assistant in 1963 in support for DEC User’s Society. DECUS provided a pre-internet forum for computer users to exchange technical information and user-developed software. Cossette moved up to becoming the company’s first woman manager, in time with as many as one hundred 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.” Cossette retired in 1992.

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

Fleepo the Clown, aka Philip Bohunicky

November 2014 marked ten years since Philip W. Bohunicky, aka “Fleepo the Clown” passed away, a month shy of his eighty-fifth birthday. Phil had been a fixture in Maynard’s parades and celebrations for close to forty years. He, as have others, qualified for the honorary title “Mr. Maynard” in his time.

Plaque honoring Phil Bohunicky
   Phil wrote up part of his life’s story for the Maynard Historical Society shortly before he died. As he told it, he began sponsoring and coordinating Maynard’s Christmas parade in 1966 because of an event from his youth. His early memories were of growing up in a Catholic orphanage. He described a snowy winter evening when the nuns told the boys that after evening prayers they were to put on their winter outfits. They walked to the center of town, where he heard a small band playing “Jingle Bells,” and everyone joined in to sing Christmas carols.

   In his own words, “All of a sudden a huge red fire engine appeared around the corner with its sirens and horns blasting away. Standing in the back of the fire engine was a huge Santa Claus waving and yelling ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas! Ho Ho Ho!’ As Santa faded slowly in the distance I was mesmerized, and to this day, oh so long, long after, I never forgot when I first saw Santa Claus when I was only six years old and living in the orphanage.”

   In addition to starting the Maynard Christmas Parade tradition, behind the scenes he also personally covered much of the cost of putting on the event, a responsibility since taken on by the Rotary Club. Phil also organized the annual Easter Egg Hunt at Crowe Park and helped provide entertainment at the Fourth of July carnivals at the same location. At many events he was joined by his children, and others in the seven to ten age range, who performed as the Happy Toe Square Dancers.

   Phil's main alter ego was “Fleepo the Clown,” but he also put in appearances at children’s and charity events as Grandpa Fleepo or Harmonica Phil. Many Maynardites remember Fleepo on WAVM’s The Fleepo Show; or in costume, on roller skates, handing out lollipops; or seeing him drive by—in costume, on his way to an event—with a very, very large stuffed panda in the car as his sidekick. His license plate read FLEEPO. One story that made local news in April 1990 was that Fleepo was hatjacked of his signature antique top hat at the Easter Egg event. Sadly, the hat was never recovered.

   As to how his clown name came to be: Philip clown-apprenticed for years with Chris Sclarppia, who went by the name “Bozo” (not the famous Bozo). Chris took the French pronunciation of Phil’s name—think “Fe-leep”—and from there mutated it to “Fleepo.”

   Out of costume, Bohunicky put in uncounted hours supporting Little League baseball, T-ball and the water safety swim program conducted at Lake Boon. He had served in the Army Medical Corp in Europe during World War II, and appeared in uniform at Memorial Day and Veterans Day remembrances. His post-war career was as an electronics technician at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, in Lexington. Bohunicky died on Veterans Day, 2004.

   Little is known about Bohunicky’s family history. One source mentions both of his parents dying when he was an infant, and with no other family member to take him, he ended up at St. John’s Catholic Orphanage in Utica, New York, until he was eleven, and then lived with a series of foster families. His good luck was the last family insisting he finish high school, and then the GI Bill putting him through Massachusetts Trade School.

   Phil's contributions to town spirit continue to be remembered. Each year, the Philip Bohunicky Humanitarian Award is presented at the WAVM banquet to a member of the town who exemplifies the same type of dedication to his/her community.

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