The right store, in the right town, at the right time. Many small businesses strive to hit all three targets, but few succeed. Here’s a bulls-eye story.
DuCett’s Hardware arrived just in time for Burlington’s housing boom of the 1950s and 60s, the result of the new Route 128 and burgeoning high tech scene. The store had scant competition besides Sears in Woburn. O’Connor Hardware in Billerica was a fledgling. The Burlington Mall didn’t exist, and the big-box home improvement chains were nowhere near Burlington.
Burlington’s new homeowners needed tools, yard equipment, paint — everything, basically — so they poured into DuCett’s and talked to manager Oscar Peterson, assistant Bobby Ramsdell or John DuCett himself.
This was a family enterprise. John and Judith DuCett had a house built at 2 Rita Avenue, right behind the store. The house faces the back of the old store location on Cambridge Street, where a Speedway gas station is now.
Ducett’s was short on square footage but tall on talent. Judith was certified by Glidden paint company. Without the help of today’s computerized color-matching, she had to eyeball existing paint and custom-mix new paint to match it. A lost art. Even something as robotic as cutting keys required patience and finesse back then. And if you needed your skates sharpened, you went to teen-aged Frank or Steve DuCett.
Business at DuCett’s was good. An understatement. The “blue laws” that banned retail sales on Sundays failed to dent business. The DuCetts hung curtains across the merchandise to imply everything was off-limits, but the curtains only served to conceal the unholy retail activity within.
Oscar Peterson, the store manager, was also a part-time Burlington police officer. This created some interesting moments. “Oscar stopped by on a Sunday, in his Burlington Police Department uniform, to a store full of customers behind the curtains,” recalls Frank DuCett, one of three DuCett sons. “Some customers were wondering if we were busted. We were supposed to be closed.” Actually, blue laws did permit Sunday sales, but only for emergency items. Housewares and hardware didn’t qualify as emergency items. Or did they? It could be said that everything at DuCett’s was emergency merchandise during this period, so there you go.
At one point, the family had a mini-empire at the Cambridge Street/Rita Ave. junction:
- Gas station
- Service station
- Hardware store
Diner? Yes, in 1953, DuCett and partner William A. Barnes brought a railroad car to the opposite side of the Rita Avenue intersection, where a Prime gas station is now, and hired Parker “Sully” Sullivan as the cook. “I do remember a gray military-looking truck arriving with the railway diner in tow,” recalls Frank, “when I was outside playing in the yard.”
One early Burlington Diner customer was flooring installer Richard Kelly, long before he founded Burlington’s RJ Kelly commercial development company. “I was in the kitchen talking with Sully while he was stirring a big pot of beans. He took his cigar, bit the end off and spit it into the beans. I questioned him, but he said once it heated up it would sterilize and be fine.” Frank DuCett doesn’t dispute the story. “Mom mentioned something about cigar ashes on the grill occasionally.”
But don’t let the DuCett name be sullied.
John DuCett, a Seattle boy, raided Omaha beach on D-Day in WWII, went inland and arrived in Belgium in time for the Battle of the Bulge, went into Germany as a rifleman in Patton’s Third Army, took a shrapnel wound to the leg and received the Combat Infantryman’s Badge. His commanding officer, Major Dumont Wright, was killed during the Battle of the Bulge. “I have been honored to have his name, Dumont, as my middle name,” says Frank. His brother Steve’s middle name is Douglas, after General Douglas MacCarthur.
With WWII behind him, “Dad was ready to try his hand at the gas station business. He was living in Waltham with a wife and three boys. He answered an ad about someone selling a small gas station in a town called Burlington.” DuCett opened the station under his name on the 4th of July, 1950.
“That’s how DuCett’s got started, its humble beginning. I would wager that there was never any doubt in my Dad’s mind that the little gas station in Burlington would be more than capable of making some sort of living for our family. Over time, the people of Burlington embraced my dad’s honesty, his humor and, the long hours that he continually worked, at the station and then the hardware store, as well as running a tow truck service that was often called out at 3 AM. These were, and still are, the kind of traits that many of those stoic New Englanders came to honor and respect when they thought of DuCett’s Hardware.”
Where the money went, so went the criminals. Someone stole the cash register from DuCett’s in 1951 and dumped it into the Shawsheen River in Billerica. A couple of fishermen found it. Two years later, gunmen held up the Diner at night, with customers in the place, and made off with $50, according to Lowell Sun archives. One of the robbers was fairly polite. As he held his hand over his own face, he told night manager William McKinnon, “Don’t try to take too good a look at me. This is a stickup.”
If Burlington wasn’t always idyllic, Concord was.
The DuCett boys spent many summers fishing on the Concord River. “Dad had a white 16-foot Owen’s boat with a black 40-hp Mercury outboard motor. We would sometimes slow as deer made their way to the opposite shore. Whenever we returned to Sullivan’s Marina, in Billerica, we would stow our secret lures and never mention our secret fishing hole. I suppose after 54 years I can now mention what our secret lure was. It was a one-inch long red and white spoon known as the Red Devil, and it worked great on pickerel. We talked about that for years after. I remember how much patience my Dad had while fishing, and the wax paper Mom wrapped our sandwiches in, and the clanking of the thermos handle, and the sound of Dad’s Zippo lighter clicking and the smell of Kent cigarettes.”
DuCett eventually sold to Gibbs BP, which built a more modern gas station there at the corner of Cambridge St. and Rita Ave. Frank spent three years in the Army and four in the Air Force before working in the electronics field for IBM, Motorola and others. He now lives in Jasper, Indiana, where he’s on social security and works at a Wal-Mart. He’s the only one on the night shift who can mix paint. He talks about Burlington quite a bit. It’s where he became mechanically-inclined. “Oscar taught me basic mechanics and was largely responsible for my selecting helicopter maintenance in the Army.”
And Burlington is where he met characters. REAL characters.
“There was this guy named Mr. Southwick. He came riding an English Raleigh bicycle around Burlington, handing out ginger snaps. He’d pull up on his bicycle, on a warm summer’s night in front of the hardware store, and before admiring listeners, all seated in wooden lawn chairs, he would recite Shakespeare to people with broad smiles. He also wore — get this — a three-pointed Paul Revere-type hat. He could at times be heard shouting that the British were coming. We lived in such a rich period back then. So many characters to enjoy and learn from. Can you see why I love Burlington?”
Frank DuCett and brother Steve, who is both a retired staff sergeant in the Air Force and retired lt. colonel in the Army, now make annual trips to Africa to volunteer at the Ilula orphanage in Tanzania. This orphanage began 20 years ago as a solo effort by a Norwegian woman and has grown by word of mouth. They’re visiting again March 8 to March 25.
Steve has a doctorate in theology. He teaches to African ministers. Frank fixes bicycles, mends windows gone askew from seismic activity and does handyman work as needed.
“We go from Detroit to Amsterdam, then Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro. You need a fair number of shots per the CDC listing for Tanzania. You also take a broad-spectrum antibiotic, Doxycycline, to prevent Malaria. You need a passport that’s good for at least six months after arrival and a Visa that can be issued at the airport after arrival.
“We stay at the orphanage in small rooms set aside for visitors, one or two people per room. Food is provided by the orphanage cafeteria, very basic foods — rice, vegetables and rarely, meat. We take time for a safari. This year we’re going to Rahaha, just west of the town of Iringa. That town has good shopping and eating, and crafts.
“There’s always work to do at an orphanage, for people of all abilities. There are old people with walkers and young girls and boys from the US, Canada, Norway, Ireland, Germany. About 200 visitors each year. Some stay for a week and some for months.
“The toilet facilities are very basic. You must squat to poop, in private stalls. The women hate it, but the guys don’t care. Animals abound. Unfortunately, the most prevalent are snakes and mosquitoes. All very manageable. As we venture near Ilula, we find lions, elephants, zebras, wildebeests and others.
“I lose about seven pounds each year. Every time I go, I come back in better shape. My most amazing take-away from Tanzania is the night sky. If you want to see some night stars, this is the place. No ambient light, over 5,000 feet elevation, just south of the equator.”