Sunday, December 3, 2023

Maynard MA: Unusual Businesses

Extracted and condensed from 2014 book Hidden History of Maynard

Unusual Businesses

Most New England cities and towns have had their share of businesses that elicit a sense of “You're kidding, right?” when mentioned in today's conversations. Maynard has had more than its share.

Funeral Homes and Cemeteries

Henry Fowler—a signer of the 1871 petition to create the town of Maynard—was an undertaker. His son, Orrin S. Fowler, followed into the family business in 1887. Orrin and his wife Nellie were a power couple. He was on the founding boards of banks and held many town government offices. She was a member of Daughters of the American Revolution and first president of the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary. They were among the honorables on the very first electric trolley ride, in 1901. Their son, Guyer Fowler (Harvard graduate, class of 1915, and World War I veteran who served in France), followed the family business until his death in 1956, age sixty-three years. Fowler-Kennedy Funeral Service, Inc., at its present location on Concord Street, was started by Guyer and his business partner in 1941. Although the Fowler family no longer has any connection, this is by far the oldest same-name business in Maynard.

   At one time there were four. Herbert Martin Funeral Home started in 1927. Years later, his son-in-law, John Doran, joined the business, making it Martin & Doran, which later moved to Acton. Sheehan and White Funeral Home operated on Bancroft Street into the 1970s. The W.A. Twombly Funeral Home had started out on Main Street near the Methodist Church before relocating to 42 Summer Street and then closing in the 1950s.

   Prior to the founding of the Town of Maynard in 1871, the dead would have been buried in Sudbury or Stow. But with the start of church congregations circa 1850 in what was then known as Assabet Village and the sense of becoming a community, people wanted to be buried closer to their families. Part of what is now Glenwood Cemetery was in use as a burial ground as far back as the 1850s. The first occupant after the cemetery was formally dedicated in 1871 was Thomas H. Brooks. Saint. Bridget’s Cemetery also got off to an informal start, as a man named O’Donnell was planted in 1859, a decade before James Heffernan officially reached six feet under. Both cemeteries are still active. The buried dead number an estimated 11,500, or about the same as the number of people alive in Maynard today.

The Gunpowder Mills on Powder Mill Road

Ka-boom! There was a 105-year history of gunpowder manufacture in this area. A 1921 history of Maynard noted that many local men found employment in the American Powder Mills, adding, “occasional explosions, sometimes serious, do not permit us to ignore their [APM’s] existence.” A newspaper account of an explosion on March 12, 1878 described widely scattered body parts of two workers being gathered in pails, including a detached finger bearing a gold ring. The location of this spread-out complex was along what is now Route 62, encompassing parts of Maynard, Acton, Concord and Sudbury on both sides of the Assabet River.

The black powder manufacturing process in brief: potassium nitrate, sulfur and softwood charcoal are each milled separately to a fine powder, then mixed together while dampened with water. The blend is pressed to remove water, the presscake then broken into the desired coarseness (for cannons) or fineness (for guns) in the kernel-house, sieved to remove dust, with the resulting grains glazed with graphite to prevent sticking, dried and then packed into copper-nailed oak barrels or tin containers. Because of the dangerous nature of gunpowder, this type of operation was typically composed of modest-sized wooden buildings quite a distance apart from each other.

   Thoreau’s journal mentions the gunpowder mills several times. Passing by on an 1851 walk to Lake Boon, Thoreau complained that the harsh chemicals irritated his throat. Later the same year, he recounted having asked a worker about the dangers of working with gunpowder. Per his journal, the workmen wore shoes without iron tacks, so as to reduce the risk of striking a spark. The workers considered the kernel-house the most dangerous.

   The site of all this was the gunpowder mills that Nathan Pratt built in 1835. Previously, a dam at that site had provided power for a saw mill. Pratt had learned his trade at the gunpowder mills in Barre, Massachusetts. That operation became incorporated as the Massachusetts Powder Works, which then bought Pratt’s business in 1864, moved its own equipment to Pratt’s site because his was close to a railroad and then took on his company’s name: American Powder Company. Under subsequent ownerships by the American Powder Mills (1883–1929) and American Cyanamid Company (1929–1940), the operation grew to some forty buildings scattered over 401 acres—mostly in Acton and Maynard—employing at times as many as sixty men and a dozen or more women (the latter to assemble cartridges). The company had its own small-gauge railroad to carry freight to and from the railroad a mile north.

   Descriptions of the time mention willow tree wood being brought in from Sudbury to make the charcoal, and of unshod mules being used to pull wagons within the mill compound because of the fear that horseshoe-shod horses might strike sparks. Coming off work, men would leave their gunpowder-soiled clothing in the changing room and wash thoroughly before changing into clean clothes to go home.

   American Powder Mills added production of smokeless powder for shotguns, including the renowned brand Dead Shot, but continued making black powder. Interestingly, during World War I, the facility’s entire production was contracted to the Russian government. And why weren't they selling to the United States? Because DuPont had an exclusive contact.

   The first fatal explosion mentioned in historic records occurred in 1836. The Concord Freeman reported that three men were blown to bits and a fourth succumbed hours later to burns and fractures. Various records documented twenty-three explosions—many with fatalities. A New York Times article told of five deaths in a multi-building series of explosions on May 3, 1898. A September 4, 1915 explosion was heard as far away as Lowell and Boston. The last three explosions on record took place in 1940; the mills were closed shortly thereafter. The dam still exists, with an adjoining, recently modernized hydroelectric facility operating under the name Acton Hydro Company. The body of water is named Ripple Pond, visible from Route 62.

Maydale Beverage Company

Maynard’s one-time bustling soda company, epitomized by the very popular Maydale Ginger Ale, ceased operations in the mid-1960s. The customer list was sold to Chelmsford Ginger Ale, at that time a division of Canada Dry Ginger Ale. The term “dry” in this context means a milder ginger taste and lower sugar content than was typical of the traditional (now rare) golden ginger ale.

   Maynard’s soda business originated with Waino Keto owning and operating Maynard Bottling Works, on Euclid Avenue. He started the business in 1899. Returnable glass bottles were washed, rinsed, filled, capped and labeled by hand. Production was a few dozen cases per week. Karl Paul Hilander, who went by the name K. Paul Hilander, started working for Keto in 1913, then bought the company in early 1914. A year later, he relocated to Glendale Street at a site that had access to spring water.

   Immigration records indicate that Hilander was born in 1889 in Bjarnbarg, Finland. He immigrated to the United States in 1908 and became a citizen in 1921. Somewhere along the way, his name morphed from Helander to the perhaps more American-sounding Hilander. What’s missing from this story is where, at age twenty-four, he got the money not only to buy the soda company, but also buy out the Cullen Wet Wash Laundry that had been operating at the Glendale site. One possibility is money came from his wife’s family, as her maiden name was Keto; it's possible she was related to Waino Keto, the original owner.

   In 1916, Hilander decided on the name Maydale, from combining Maynard with Glendale. His businesses provided spring water as the Maydale Spring Company and bottled soda as the Maydale Beverage Co., Inc. In addition to ginger ale, flavors included root beer, birch beer, sarsaparilla and orange.

   At its peak, Maydale was the bottled beverage of choice in Maynard and surrounding towns as far away as Fitchburg. Production topped thousands of cases per week. A nickel would buy an eight ounce bottle. The clear glass bottles are not infrequent finds whenever people dig on their property to put in gardens or paths. Hilander had between twelve and fifteen people working for him, including drivers for his delivery trucks.

   Hilander owned the business into the 1950s. The soda and spring water business continued for a while under Arnold Anderson, until he converted the site to an auto body shop for his Ford dealership, later relocated to Acton.

Taylor’s Mink Ranch

Older residents of Maynard remember when the town had a mink farm. What was the Taylor farm is now the site of the senior housing complex on Concord Street Circle, off of Concord Street, east of Route 27.

   Town directories from the 1920s onward list John W. Taylor as a fur dealer living at 60 Concord with his wife Hulda. Townspeople remember the Taylor’s farm as still in operation into the 1960s. George Walls recalled, “As kids, we would sneak over there to see the minks in rows of small cages. The smell from all the feces and urine dripping through the wire mesh was horrible.”

   Typically, a mink farm, or “ranch” in the parlance of the day, would have had two to ten thousand mink in individual cages under long, open-sided sheds. Each wire mesh cage was about twenty by twenty by thirty inches, with the bottoms thirty inches above ground. Each year started with breeding animals in early March, followed by births of four to eight kits per litter in May. Come November, most of the mink were killed and skinned at the farm. The remaining 20 percent were overwintered to be breeding stock for the next year.

   John Taylor was more than a mere mink farmer. As a furrier with a store in Boston, he partnered with Percy V. Noble, a Canadian mink rancher. Together they turned a fortuitous color mutation which had occurred in Noble’s breeding stock in 1937 into the first ever offering of natural white mink. This was just after the end of World War II.

Sonja Henie, the famous Norwegian Olympic figure skater and later ice show and movie star, was one of the early wearers of Noble-Taylor white mink coats and also incorporated white mink into skating outfits for her ice skating shows. One of her mink coats was valued at $20,000 back when a new car cost around $1,500.
Sonja Henie admires white mink pelts

   According to Frederick Johnson of Maynard, whose sister was married to Taylor’s son, Taylor’s interest in furs began after World War I with his buying pelts from local trappers. He subsequently opened up a furriers on Washington Street, in Boston, and became known for offering high quality fur coats. He bought only top-quality pelts at the annual auctions in New York City.

   In time, he started breeding mink on his property along Concord Street. As Fred tells it, “Mr. Taylor and his wife Hulda had a huge mink ranch—maybe as many as ten thousand animals. He was an expert on the rare, light-colored fur mutations. What he did not raise on his ranch he got from Percy Noble, his Canadian partner.”

   As for what the mink were fed, Fred went on to recount, “Any time a horse died in Maynard, south Acton or Stow, one of Taylor’s employees would go round with a wagon. The carcasses would be processed for food.” Purchases were also made from slaughter houses and fish processing facilities.

Powell Flutes

An inverted triangle logo and “Powell Flutes” grace the end of the Clock Tower building closest to the Farmers’ Market parking lot. The triangle displays the stylized letters VQP for Verne Q. Powell, the founder of the company.

   According to postings at and, Powell was a jeweler and engraver living in Fort Scott, Kansas. He came from a musical family and played piccolo and flute (wooden) in the town band. During a visit to Chicago he heard a European flutist performing on a silver flute. He was so impressed with the quality of the sound that he decided to craft a silver flute. As the story goes, he melted silver coins, watch cases and teaspoons to make the first silver flute made in America, in 1910. The keys were inlaid with gold from gold coins. The instrument became known as “The Spoon Flute,” and is still in the family’s possession to this day.

   This flute came to the attention of William S. Haynes, one of several wind instrument makers based in Boston. Haynes hired Powell as foreman, where he worked for over ten years before setting out on his own, in 1927. Powell’s shop was on Huntington Avenue, near the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston Symphony Hall.

   From the beginning, Powell flutes and piccolos were renowned as top-quality professional instruments. Still, the business grew slowly. It took twenty-five years to reach flute number one thousand. Verne Q. Powell sold the company to a group of employees in 1961 and retired in early 1962. The company moved from Boston to Arlington in 1970 and then to Waltham in 1989.

   Steven Wasser, a graduate of Harvard Business School, bought into the company in 1986, bought out the other co-owner in 1989, then moved the company to Maynard in 1999. Under his management Powell continued to innovate at all levels while having also launched a lower cost line of instruments to complement the higher-priced brands and custom-made flutes. In 2016, the company was purchased by Buffet Crampon, joining nine other brands of wind instruments to complete the largest group of wind instrument manufacturers in the world. Powell Flutes employs about fifty people.

   Eastern Massachusetts is a nexus of American flute manufacture. The William S. Haynes Company, from which Verne Q. Powell had left to start his own company, still exists, and, much like Powell Flutes, exited Boston after many years in the city. Haynes is now located in Acton. The Brannen brothers left Powell in 1977 to make flutes on their own, and are currently in Woburn. Lillian Burkart and Jim Phelan met while working at Powell, married, and later launched Burkart Flutes & Piccolos, currently in Shirley. Di Zhao worked for Powell and then Haynes before starting Di Zhao Flutes in Westford.

   There’s more. David Williams was at Powell, put in a stint at Brannen Brothers, and in 1990, launched Williams Flutes in Arlington. Lev Levit followed the same Powell-to-Brannen path before starting Levit Flute Company in Natick. Kanichi Nagahara started in flutes in Japan, then put in a few years at two Boston area flute companies (coyly, his website does not name names) before starting Nagahara Flutes, now in Chelmsford.

   A Powell flute (#365) commanded the highest price ever paid for a flute. This platinum flute with sterling silver mechanism was commissioned for an exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair, in New York. In 1986, the same flute was auctioned at Christie’s for $187,000. For a time, it was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

   Lastly, a Powell flute has journeyed into space. Massachusetts resident astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman had three trips into space over the period 1995–2011. Her last was a 159-day stint in the Space Station. Included in the personal belongings each Space Station inhabitant is allowed was her handmade sterling silver flute. On April 11, 2011 she played a flute duet with Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull (she in space, he on earth, both on Powell flutes).

Northern Recording Studio

Once upon a time, gods and demigods of rock and roll walked the streets of Maynard. It was the ’70s. Aerosmith, Talking Heads, the Cars, Tommy Bolin Band, Johnny Barnes, Thundertrain…all recorded at the Great Northern Studio, aka Northern Studio, Northern Recording Studio, Northern Sound or Northern Lights Recording Studio, located on the second floor of the brick building at 63 Main Street.

   Back then, the Rathskeller—better known as “The Rat”—was a live music club in Kenmore Square, Boston. Many Massachusetts bands that came through there became almost famous. Some of those bands, when cutting a demo tape, recording songs, taping a live radio show, or maybe just adding tracks to songs recorded elsewhere, often ended up in Maynard. The building itself has a long history. This upstairs space in Colonial Hall, which was built in 1914, served as one of Maynard’s early movie theaters, and also did duty as a dance hall and meeting room. Downstairs, Woolworths moved in with a small store in 1916, later expanding to the entire ground floor. One anecdote that connects the two comes from Joe Viglione’s History of New England Rock: “Worcester/Boston radio station WAAF broadcast Duke & the Drivers live from Northern Sound on the day Elvis Presley died, August 16, 1977, with approximately 1,000 people jammed into the studio atop a Woolworths five-and-dime.” Likely a wildly exaggerated number, but definitely crowded.

   The Great Northern Studio was started by Peter Casperson and Bob Runstein, both out of Boston. Casperson is still very active in music management. Runstein’s book, Modern Recording Techniques, now in its fifth edition, is considered the Bible of the industry. Later, the studio was taken over by Bill Riseman and operated under the name Northern Studio.

   And thus it was that up one long flight of steps, Thundertrain came to record songs for their first album, Teenage Suicide, including “Hot for Teacher!” (ten years before Van Halen’s hit of the same name). Reddy Teddy taped their first album in 1976, as did the Earl Slick Band. The Tommy Bolin Band recorded “Live at Northern Lights” during a WBCN broadcast the same year.

   One year later, the Cars did a demo tape of “Just What I Needed.” Also in 1977, side one of The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads was recorded for a WCOZ radio broadcast, but did not appear on that double album compilation until 1982. Aerosmith was in for three nights doing some early rehearsal work on what became Toys in the Attic. “Having Aerosmith record in Maynard was very exciting, and as word slowly leaked out there was a steady stream of teenagers hanging around the back door. I say ‘slowly leaked out’ but I should say ‘blasted out,’ as even the acoustically insulated walls of the studio could not contain the ripping, thundering sounds of Aerosmith.”

   Stories have it that many other bands recorded a track or two, or maybe an entire song or album at Northern Studios through those years. One of the few that bothered to credit that in the liner notes was Boston, which on the 1978 album Don't Look Back acknowledged that the piano track on “A Man I'll Never Be” was recorded in Maynard. Researching obscure discography added recording work done for Duke and the Drivers, James Montgomery Blues Band, Barbara Holliday, Cap’n Swing, Andy Pratt, Eastwood Peak, the Dawgs and the Blend. Some of this appeared on the Jelly Records label.

   Life at the studio must have been interesting. This from a forum post on “The first time I ever saw a ‘beer machine’ [soda machine stocked with cans of beer] was at Northern Sound in Maynard, MA in the late ’70s. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world!”


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