Imagine no Rahanis Park. No climbing structures. No merry-go-rounds. No tennis, basketball or baseball.
Instead, picture two unlocked VW Beetles, vernal pools full of wildlife, an unpolluted well with a drinking fountain, rivers for log-rafting in the spring and slalom-skating in winter. And a real farmhouse, abandoned after the 1962 death of Stylianos Rahanis, a Turkish immigrant, WWI vet and Burlington pig farmer. Picture it fully furnished with appliances, furniture, beds, drapes, dishes — and never locked.
Which sounds like more fun for the child in you?
For Dave Runyan, whose childhood yard on Skilton Lane abutted the farm in the early 1960s, the abandoned farm provided far more childhood fulfillment than the “cookie-cutter” park built by the town in 1966. The farmhouse stood where the baseball diamond nearest the parking lot is now. The pitcher’s mound would be in the living room.
“The most amazing feature of the land was the farmhouse itself, which remained intact for about three years, fully furnished down to the bed spreads and window drapes. It remained this way until the town received legal authority to burn down the house and fill in the cellar hole. The house was not locked. We kids were free to enter and enter we did and often. To us 7-10 year olds, it was a scary yet irresistible place that we invaded, ran around, imagined ghosts were chasing us and left in a hurry. To the teenagers it was a place where they drank beer and fooled around. It was the domain of preteens by day and of teens by night.
“The house was a typical two-story farmhouse with a cellar. Mrs. Rahanis apparently took nothing with her when she left. The kitchen table and chairs were there, the living room sofa and coffee table were there, the bedrooms had beds with pillows, sheets and bedspreads, all the windows had curtains, there were major appliances and all kinds of personal effects. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom was overflowing with prescription drugs.
“The town did not board up the house or slap padlocks on the doors. In that era our nation was a functional society. The drug culture had not yet taken hold in a big way so the house was not used as a heroin hangout and because the economy was robust and costs were under control no one was homeless so there were no squatters living there.
“Outside the hone there was a phone pole bringing electric and phone service to the house. The phone was fastened to the pole and not inside the house. An old, rotary dial phone in a steel box.
“Also in the front yard was a crab apple tree. The fruit was bitter, so we used those apples to bop our friends when they weren’t paying attention. The Rahanis land did have edible fruit, however. At the forest edges and along the banks of the two streams flowing through the property were blueberry and raspberry plants galore from which we snacked during the summer months.
“In one part of the land, Rahanis had dug himself a personal landfill which always had water therein. We learned to skate at that water hole by winter and come spring we navigated it with log rafts built by a neighborhood dad. At the edge of the landfill were two rusting old VW beetles which we children faux-drove. Those cars taught us the difference between brake and clutch, and the shifting pattern of the 3-speed manual transmission.
“Next to the landfill was a vernal pool where we caught polliwogs and salamanders when the snow retreated and life began anew each year. The landfill and vernal pool are now the last three homes on Patriot Drive. This was done before it became illegal to develop on wetlands.
“We had a Tarzan Swing on the adjacent Sawmill Brook. The rope was thick, about 2” diameter, and fastened to the top of a 60′ tree, so a trip on the swing covered a lot of ground (and water). Many a young boy ended up in the drink before learning how to master the swing. It was one of our incidental neighborhood rites of passage.
“If you’ve seen one town park you’ve seen a billion of them. They all have swings, slides and basketball courts. It is impossible to explain the endless ways in which the raw abandoned land of Stylianos Rahanis enriched the lives of the children who freely and daily explored all that it had to offer.”
Lorna Scolponeti from Thomas St., just behind the Rahanis property, skated with her friends along the continuous frozen streams from the Rahanis wetlands all the way to the sharp curves on Locust St., with only a brief interruption to hop across Mill St. That same route, under the power lines, was lined with boardwalks for summertime strolls. Only problem was the bees that lived under the boardwalks. “You’d get stung,” she says, dismissively.
Rahanis farm served more utilitarian functions for other locals.
Arthur Pigott of Mill St. used to pick vegetables at Rahanis farm on behalf of Lentini’s grocery store in Woburn as a child. His wholesale harvesting paid almost nothing, but “it seemed like a lot then.” He also recalls drinking from the on-site fieldstone well. The water was perfect, he reports.
Longtime Burlington resident Fred Keene says he sometimes utilized the clothes washer in the empty farmhouse. For what? To clean the diapers of his son Kevin, a current member of the Burlington Highway Department.