You don’t have to be over 80 to tell children a quaint story from old Burlington. Even not-so-old Burlington residents have a good ol’ story in their arsenal. When school was cancelled, nobody received robocalls or text messages from the superintendent’s office, and obviously nobody checked a website. Everyone found out by:
- Watching a scrolling list of cancellations across the bottom of the TV screen. That’s pretty quaint.
- Listening to a morning radio host recite a tedious list every few minutes. That’s quainter.
- Listening for a deep, thrumming horn signal from the town common. That’s the quaintest — and it wasn’t that long ago.
They were first mounted behind the fire station in 1939, atop a tower that Burlington salvaged from a Littleton farm, and honked through the late 1980s. How loud were they? Loud enough to reach every neighborhood in town, (although several Lantern Lane residents swear it was a dead zone), so imagine the volume when you’re standing right in front of the fire station. Former Police Chief Ted Ferguson sometimes left the ground involuntarily when hooligan firefighters strategically blew the horns as he was coming into the station from his car. Ferguson’s middle finger signaled that he’d received the message.
Two big air tanks, each 10 feet long and about six feet tall, supplied pressurized air, which pushed against copper discs and made them vibrate, creating the basso profundo “hoooot.” Horns at 6:45 a.m. meant a day off for everyone. Horns at 7 meant high schoolers had school, but everyone else had the day off. Raw deal.
The horns blew every day at noon also. Why? Because why not?
Georgi Emery Reynolds of Hilltop Drive recalls listening for the horns on snowy mornings. “My mother would open the back door at that special time. I’d stand beside her with my fingers crossed. Amazingly, she would be happy if she heard the horns. We would have a great day.” Her neighbor, Ann Oliveira, says her family couldn’t quite rely on the horns. “My dad was so hard of hearing, he would wait for WBZ. Might have had something to do with Tommy telling him a couple times that the horns sounded when they didn’t.”
The horns signaled emergencies too. Back when Burlington had mostly on-call firefighters spread throughout the town instead of full-timers at the station, the horns told them where to go during an emergency. The town had every street and most cross-streets numbered. If you heard, say, four toots, four more toots, then one toot, it meant an emergency at 441. Call firefighters would check their charts and then respond directly to the location, or to the fire station if it was on the way. Curious residents could check the legend in town telephone directory to learn where the emergency was.
As the years went by, it seems residents became less confident in the horn signals. Burlington parents increasingly called the Fire Department to ask if school was cancelled. Perhaps they’d heard the horn but, you know, just wanted to make sure school was cancelled. Or maybe they hadn’t heard the horn but, you know, just wanted to make sure school wasn’t cancelled. Or maybe they wanted an answer before 6:45 a.m.
The classic Fire Department answer: “If your house is on fire, do you call the school superintendent?”