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Donahue’s Furniture was the ending. Here’s the beginning and middle.

Harry Donahue army
Harry Donahue

In a historic speech to his inexperienced, trembling Third Army troops in Europe, General George S. Patton described the ideal soldier:

“One of the bravest men I saw in the African campaign was on a telegraph pole in the midst of furious fire while we were moving toward Tunis. I stopped and asked him what the hell he was doing up there. He answered, ‘Fixing the wire, sir.’ ‘Isn’t it a little unhealthy up there right now?’ I asked. ‘Yes sir, but this goddamn wire has got to be fixed.’ I asked, ‘Don’t those planes strafing the road bother you?’ And he answered, ‘No sir, but you sure as hell do.’ Now, there was a real soldier. A real man. A man who devoted all he had to his duty, no matter how great the odds, no matter how seemingly insignificant his duty appeared at the time.”

One of Patton’s troops was Harry Donahue from Woburn, who soon found himself in that very situation in France. With a backpack containing coiled telephone wire, he was high up a pole, trying to restore a vital communication line, when a surprise attack from German Panzer tanks destroyed the mill building right next to him and sent shrapnel flying into his backpack. The coiled wire might have saved his life. Unfazed, Harry stayed on that pole long enough to restore the communication line, then rescued two comrades with his Jeep, evading tanks by slogging the Jeep through swamps where tanks didn’t dare tread.

This surprise tank attack kicked off the Battle of the Bulge. Harry came home from WWII with a Bronze Star Medal for valor.

Harry’s childhood

North Woburn switch tower
Example of a Woburn railroad agency

“We grew up poor, but we didn’t know it.” That’s how he described things to his children. He was a rugged child of the Depression, one of millions. His parents separated when he was young, and under the harshest of circumstances. The family lived alongside the Mishawum train station in Woburn, roughly where Pete’s Tire Barns is now, and functioned as the station “agency.” According to local train historian Rick Nowell, this meant selling tickets, answering questions about schedules and routes, talking to freight customers and drumming up business.

One day Harry’s father got drunk and found himself in jail. His mother went to bail him out and left the children with a babysitter. That’s when two-year-old Ruth Donahue crawled onto the tracks and was killed by a train. The blame game began right away and never ended.

So when he married Dorothy Kelley, Harry wanted stability above all else. Their marriage lasted 67 years until Harry’s death in 2015 at age 90. Harry wasn’t supposed to make it to 90. After a massive heart attack at age 51, doctors told the family he wouldn’t survive that weekend, never mind another 39 years.

Harry’s career

One of his first post-war jobs was trucking gravel from Middleton to Boston for a massive construction project: Logan Airport. He also worked with his brother at Donahue Trucking, but that didn’t last long. It was clear that Harry wasn’t going to work for anybody. He met his future wife Dorothy and, in 1954, started a trucking rental company called 128 Shippers at the junction of Mountain Road and Cambridge Street before Mountain Road became a dead-end.

Business was good! He bought a vacation home on Governors Lake in Raymond, NH and paid a fortune to clear trees and truck in sand so he could enjoy a private beach. Unfortunately, a right-of-way technicality allowed everyone else to use his turf. Soon his private beach was overrun with opportunistic neighbors. Frustrated with that situation, and being a nomad at heart anyway, Harry bought himself a towable camper, a trend at the time. Goodbye Governors Lake and hello rest of the world. This was a vacation home he could take anywhere, and it suited his nomadic tendencies perfectly. “If he lived during the Gold Rush, he would have been on the first wagon out west,” says daughter Nancy.

In 1962 he bought private hilltop property at 73 Cambridge Street in Burlington, in the woods across the Mall Road from the Marriott, before there was a Mall Road or a Marriott. He’d always wanted to live on a hill, and now he was indeed king of this hill, the highest elevation in Burlington. The town later built its biggest water tower in his back yard.

The trucking business became burdensome. Routine turned into outright tedium. And trucks break down too much anyway. Harry had a hunch that his love of travel, and his travel camper, were contagious enough that he could make hay by selling trailers. He was right.

Donahue Trailers grew from towable campers in the early 1960s to full-blown self-powered motor homes in the late 60s and early 70s. Harry became the fourth biggest dealer of Airstream trailers in the country, despite New England’s very short travel season compared with the likes of Florida, Arizona and California, which enjoy a never-ending season for these vehicles. Harry overflowed his property and grabbed a second at the junction of Cambridge Street and Forbes Ave., the former site of Kemp’s Hamburgers.

About 100 Donahue customers, many from Burlington, formed a group called Yellowstone Explorers, named after a brand of trailer, not the national park. The group met at Donahue’s and planned itineraries.

The Donahue family excursions

Every summer, Harry took his wife Dorothy and his four children on month-long adventures. Think National Lampoon’s Vacation but twice the duration and double the children. While Linda, David, Nancy and Patricia sat in the back, torturing each other, Harry would make a show of being first in the family to cross the borderline into new states. He’d stick his foot as far forward into the footwell as possible and declare he was first to enter, say, Utah. One day he pulled off the road a few yards from the Arizona border, opened the door and ran for the line. The rest of the family jumped out and tried to beat him. Anticipating this, Dave had tied Nancy’s shoelaces together. She stumbled into a cactus.

At Yellowstone National Park, the family was doing that everyone did: feeding the bears. As they were tossing cookies through Dorothy’s passenger window, a bear crept closer and closer to that window. Dorothy started to close it, but Harry, an avid photographer, was lining up a fantastic shot and needed just a few more seconds, and a few more, and a few more, until the family was panicking and hollering. The bear ended up with the entire bag of cookies, chucked out the window by Dorothy to stop the madness.

At the Grand Canyon, on a donkey-riding expedition, the Donahues were the last family in a long procession when Nancy’s hat blew off. Harry dismounted and ran to retrieve it, but it turned out that Harry’s donkey had a sense of humor. When he tried to get back on, the donkey took a few brisk steps forward, just beyond reach. And again. And again. And again. Harry’s WWII hero status, and his King of the Hill status in Burlington, meant zero to this donkey.

Harry’s favorite bit of vacation folly came at Yosemite National Park. He was riding his motorcycle from the hot and sunny valley below up to the mountaintops where the motor home was waiting. Well, the weather took a dramatic turn when he was halfway up the mountainside. Suddenly it was freezing outside. Then gumball-sized hail started pelting Harry and passenger Nancy. They pulled off the road and sought shelter under a tree. A perfectly sensible solution — except it wasn’t working. The hail was battering them just the same. Struggling to look upward through the hailstorm, Harry finally managed to glance skyward and discovered he’d picked a tree that had no branches at all.

 

Harry Donahue with trailers
Harry Donahue

In the 1970s, the oil embargo by OPEC nations drove US gas prices north of $12/gallon overnight. People suddenly scrapped their mighty Chevy V8-powered family haulers and bought four-cylinder Toyotas that could hardly tow a bicycle, never mind a vacation camper. And full-blown motor homes? Forget it. Too costly to operate.

Just as business was returning to normal in 1980, Donahue Trailers had a catastrophic fire. Dave was wiring a Cadillac for towing while a partner was underneath with a blowtorch, installing a custom tow hitch. Some Cadillacs, like this one, used plastic gas tanks. The blowtorch transferred so much heat to the tank, fire suddenly shot from the gas filler door and torched an overhead garage door. Dave grabbed a fire extinguisher and pulled the pin. It was empty. Firefighters had the fire under control but ran out of water. The town had just made a water main connection from Winn Street to Cambridge Street via Mountain Road but hadn’t yet tied in the hydrants at the Donahue’s end.

The business operated out of a trailer in the parking lot while the insurance company hemmed and hawed, finally settling a year laterThe fire-damaged trailers found a new home in the Building 19 chain, where they sold for thousands more than the original Donahue’s prices. Yes, more.

In 1982, another fire shoved Donahue Trailers into regional headlines and made heroes out of Dave Donahue and a nurse bystander. A family of seven in a propane-powered 1978 Ford Fairmont wagon stopped into Donahue’s for refueling. These propane conversions weren’t all that uncommon in the 1970s due to the fuel crisis.

The woeful chain of events: The propane conversion, performed by a backyard mechanic, wasn’t done properly, so fumes vented into the car. Some members of the family stayed in the car during refueling. One of the children was flicking a spent cigarette lighter in the back seat. It made just enough spark . . .

So where are they now? They’re in the western US and doing fine.

  • LeRoy — Retired Navy engineer
  • Regina — Still married to LeRoy
  • Cheryl — Speaks three languages and is working on her master’s degree for teaching. Lives in Utah.
  • Shawn — Was in the hospital the longest, but you’d have to really look hard to see any scarring on him. He works for a healthcare organization in Utah and serves on his city’s planning commission. He bikes annually in 100-mile fundraisers for Multiple Sclerosis.
  • Suzanne — Living in Washington state. Has one boy, volunteers for various causes and is a fitness buff.
  • Scott — Construction manager in Washington state. Motorcycle enthusiast. Three children.
  • Jennifer — Human resource manager for the Department of Transportation in Washington state. Has one child.

“Everybody came through both emotionally and physically,” says LeRoy. “There were a lot of things that astonished Shriners in Boston, about the healing that took place.”

Goodbye trailers. Hello furniture.

The transition from trailers to furniture ramped up in the 1980s and really took off when the 1990s brought a recession. Vacation became an unattainable luxury. An investment firm called Vyquest made an ill-timed foray into the RV business, snapping up manufacturers and trying to basically own the market just as it soured. This bankrupted Vyquest and decimated Donahue’s trailer supply.

So this triple whammy of the fuel crisis, the store fire and the flaccid economy finally prompted Harry to move beyond towable campers and RVs. But why furniture? Where did the idea come from?

Years earlier, furniture peddlers had occasionally rented space at Harry’s satellite lot on Cambridge Street at Forbes Ave. They set up chairs for sale and posted attractive prices. People pulled over and snapped them right up. Those peddlers made a pretty good business case for furniture retailing.

Donahue Trailers had 10 employees at its peak. But Donahue’s Furniture quickly grew to 30 employees, including all four Donahue children and three spouses:

  • Dave Donahue
  • Linda and husband Kenny Higgins.
  • Patty and husband Kevin Crampton, who first met at the store.
  • Nancy and husband Paul Arsenault.

The store was refreshingly accessible. It wasn’t too big. It wasn’t intimidating. “You could find the door. It wasn’t a maze,” says Nancy. Many staffers stayed on board for decades and became some of Burlington’s premier furniture consultants. Others built on their Donahue’s experience and ventured into other businesses.

Robert Cassidy of Woburn worked there from 1965 to 2010. Don DiGiovanni from 1990 to 2017. Robert Bailey from 1960 to 1980. Michael Holleran put in 20 years. Drew Harmer spent a decade at Donahue’s before starting Center Sports in Chelmsford.

Eye in the sky

In the early 1990s, as Harry approached 70 years old, he scaled back his office time to about an hour a week. But he never turned his back on the store. Oh, just the opposite. His businesses had been robbed multiple times over the years, including one unsolved inside job, so Harry was quite vigilant.

It turned out, the King of the Hill had a direct line of sight to Donahue’s Furniture from his high-elevation home at 73 Cambridge Street. He installed surveillance cameras at the store and erected a microwave tower at his house so he could watch the operation on video screens at home. This was much cheaper than hiring round-the-clock security guards. So from a large, glass-walled room with a raised hot tub in the middle, Harry would watch the goings-on at Donahue’s Furniture — and ogle the Boston skyline.

 

Sunroom in the Donahue house
The King of the Hill’s perspective of Burlington (and Boston)

The last chapter

It’s pretty simple, and pretty brutal. Harry died in October, 2015. His wife Dorothy died in late 2016 and Linda died in 20 days later in early 2017. Patty and Nancy wanted to move on to other careers.

The three Donahues sold the property to the store’s next door neighbor, Winn Street Service. They still own the business, however, meaning the mailing list and the company name and logo.

Dave is still in the business. People still call him to place orders. But without a brick and mortar operation, it’s futile, he says. There’s no way to show the merchandise and no loading dock. He does run a furniture repair and refinishing business. Nancy is a music teacher. Patty plans to enter the real estate business.

When signs went up around Burlington announcing Donahue’s was closing, a tsunami of longtime customers showed up to place orders one last time. Final words from Dave: “Every creditor of Donahue’s Furniture got paid. Nobody got shortchanged. Everything was done on the high end. Lots of places don’t go out like that. My family got cut in half in a year, but we went out with our heads up.”

 

Donahue's Furniture sign, Burlington, MA

 

 

3 thoughts on “Donahue’s Furniture was the ending. Here’s the beginning and middle. Leave a comment

  1. Great story….about about a time when handshakes were binding contracts…..Harry was a fine person..

  2. I loved reading this life story. It was nice reading my father-in-law Robert Bailey, was acknowledged as a long time employee.

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