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Children of the Turnpike

“I grew up in Burlington.”
“Me too. Whereabouts?”
“The Middlesex Turnpike.”
“No, I mean what street?
“I told you. The Middlesex Turnpike.”

Very few people can say they grew up along the Turnpike. It’s had very few homes. And it’s a hostile environment for children anyway, right? There’s nowhere to play or ride bikes or swim or even walk around. Ah, but your mind is stuck in the present. Let’s rewind a few decades . . . 

Let's do the Time Warp Again

The southern end of the Turnpike, near Lexington, isn’t four lanes. It’s two. Traffic is so light, you often see two brothers running across to play on the tire swing. What tire swing? The one hanging on the big oak tree. What oak tree? The one in the field. What field? Where Burger King will go in the future.

Who are these kids? Dave and Hugh Donato. They live just over the border in Lexington and frequently walk or bike to spend the day with their dad, Ned, the namesake of Ned’s Texaco, which will become Ned’s Towing.

Ned Donato Burlington MANed's Texaco, opened in 1961 Burlington MA

Ned's Towing

Next door is Form In Teak. And next to that? Nothing but acres of sand and gravel pits instead of the future Middlesex Commons shopping plaza. Trucks loaded with sand stop at a little white house on the way out. It’s a weigh station.

Form in Teak Burlington MA

Metropolitan Furniture, Burlington MA

Those pits and their ponds extend all the way to the future H Mart and Seven Springs locations. The whole area is peppered with young people from all over the region, especially on weekends, when there’s nobody around to chase them away. Those ponds are the regional swimming holes, skating rinks and all-purpose hangouts. Clothing is optional at times.

But the biggest Turnpike draw is located a bit north at Wood’s Corner, where the Turnpike meets Wheeler Road. Everyone goes to Woodward’s. Period.

Woodward's, Burlington MA
The Woodward family lived above the store, which was razed to make way for a Dunkin’ Donuts. The family still owns the property and still leases to Dunkin’ Donuts.

It’s Sunday, so the Turnpike is pretty quiet. Young Stuart Woodard and brother Mike are tossing a football around — in the middle of the street. They’re aspiring athletes. When winter comes, their daily routine becomes: Go to school. Go to hockey practice. Come home for dinner. Go out behind the store to skate on the pond. What pond? The one right behind Woodward’s, part of the Vine Brook. In the future, the Vine Brook will wither and become a skinny capillary, but right now it’s a wide-open artery.

“We do an unbelievable amount of skating on the pond,” Stuart says. A few years in the future, Mike will go to Merrimack College on a full scholarship due his hockey skills, developed behind the Turnpike.

Woods corner aerial 1957 Burlington MA

  1. Sand and gravel pits — Now the Burlington Mall.
  2. Wheeler Road before it was straightened near the Turnpike.
  3. Roebuck home.
  4. Woodward home/business — Now leased from the family by Dunkin’ Donuts.
  5. Hines home and adjacent Ye Old Spinning Wheel Coffee House — Now a commercial area containing Burlington Veterinary Hospital.
  6. Vine Brook — Now overgrown and constricted, but not then.
  7. Sand and gravel pits — Now the Seven Springs housing complex.
  8. Reed home — Now an electrical substation location.

Turnpike aerial 2019

Here comes Jim Roebuck. His family lives on Woods Corner, the junction of the Turnpike and a dirt path that will eventually be called Wheeler Road. The Roebucks have 3.25 acres and an 18-room house built in the early 1700s. It has a three-car garage. Actually, a three-carriage barn. There’s a rope swing over the nearby Vine Brook. Tommy Roebuck set it up by climbing a tree on his own. Now every kid in the area loves it — even some kids who aren’t in the area. The Osbornes from Winnmere come over a lot.

Roebuck children, Woods Corner, Burlington MA
The Roebuck kids: Jimmy, Mary, Stevie, Freddy, and John (known as Tommy due to middle name Thomas)

Tommy and Mary Roebuck with cat

Roebuck house 1970, Woods Corner, Burlington MA. Photo credit: Mary (Roebuck) Oliver
Roebuck house. This property is now a commercial area containing a Ski Haus and GolfTEC.

Jim wants to talk about pond hockey. “That pond is great for skating as long as you don’t get too close to the small waterfall just under the bridge. Richard Woodward played hockey in college, so he helps us set up and clear the ice behind his place, and he’s the referee. He stops some fights too.”

Jim’s father works in construction, and that’s a good thing. “He brings home bicycles. Well, they’re usually broken, but after a while we put the parts together and make them work.”

Mary Roebuck, his sister, has a fun story. We just had my birthday party here in the yard. It was supposed to be just a few kids my age. Well, a couple guys from Woburn had a band and started playing — and then the party got crashed. Everyone from the area found out, I don’t know how, and they all came. There was a gang of guys from around there, most of them drop-outs, and they all showed up. It seemed like the whole town was in my yard. Most of the guys were much older. There were people all over the rope swings and the brook.”

A mini-Woodstock!

“This is a big deal for us. There are block parties up at the other end of town, near Dale Pharmacy, but we never get there because we have to walk everywhere, and a few miles is a long way.  So this party was crazy. It ended up being fun — I guess.”

Mary’s mother cooks food at Woodwards while Mary waits tables. “You ask any truck driver from the sand pits — they all know my mom’s cooking.” Here’s Mary on the stump of a huge tree felled during Hurricane Carol in 1954.

Mary Roebuck at her home, 1 Wheeler Rd. That tree was a Hurricane Carol victim.There was no power for at least a week after that hurricane. “There’s a big fire pit out back, and we used it to cook,” says Jim Roebuck. “And there’s an old well on the property, so we got water from there. My Dad rigged the plumbing to work in the bathrooms, but we had to haul water in there. The Woodwards gave away food and ice cream from the store before it went bad. We lost a lot of trees. One fell across the house and ripped off the awnings that Dad just put on a year before.”

Here comes Mike Hines, who lives across the Turnpike from Woodward’s, on a hill that will one day host  an animal hospital and an electrical substation. He points to a pole. “I was sitting in a car and my cousin reached in and took off the hand brake. I rolled all the way across the Turnpike and hit that pole. A man came and got me out.” Harrowing, but nothing compared to the swimming holes. “My sisters say a kid jumped into one of the ponds near the ice house. When he came up, he had an ice hook right through his face and head.”

Here come a couple of girls from the northern end of the Turnpike, near Bedford. Alouette Burns lives in Kent Cottage, a grand old 1850 stone structure that will lurk, abandoned, long after her family leaves. She has enough material for a whole ‘nuther story.

Kent Cottage and future Turnpike area c. 1930.
This photo would be impossible to take today. A forest would block Kent Cottage and you would be blocking traffic on Middlesex Turnpike.

Beverly Lowe lives on the corner of Bedford Street near Sebastian Farm, the future Mitre property. There’s one house next to hers, and then virtually nothing but sand pits all the way to Wood’s Corner. 

Beverly Lowe with doll.
Beverly Lowe, 151 Bedford Street, on the corner of the Turnpike (the skinny road heading left, between the two poles). The hill in the distance is now Mitre property. The car is a ’58 Pontiac Super Chief.
Beverly Lowe, Charles and Marjorie Casassa. Photo credit: Beverly Lowe Obremski.
Beverly Lowe’s back yard at 151 Bedford Street, looking south, around 1959. There was virtually nothing along her side of the Turnpike all the way to the Lexington line. Daniel Drive eventually came to the wooded area in the background. The adults are family friends, Marjorie and Charles Casassa of Bedford Street.

“I was only two when we moved in. My brother would put me in the basket of his bike and ride me down to the Lexington end to get corn for dinner. Now we have lots of adventures in the sand pits. There was a man who pulled a sawed-off shotgun on us. The Turnpike is really called the roller coaster road. Kids drag race up and down at night. There are some pretty bad accidents, one where a girl went through the windshield. My dad was trying to comfort her because her face was so damaged.”

Time’s up. Let’s return to 2019 . . .

Let's do the Time Warp Again

It seems these children of the Turnpike would have to conclude that growing up along that road was idyllic except when it was terrifying — and it was everything in between. Like youth itself.

 

Riddle me this

The Retro Riddler striketh!

In 1951, the Roebuck family lived on Lexington Street, as indicated on the first envelope below. By 1966, they were living way down at Woods Corner (Wheeler Road at the Turnpike) as indicated on the second envelope below.

Yet they never moved.

How is this possible? The answer lies in that black and white aerial shot you saw earlier, but you’d have to REALLY study that image and REALLY know Burlington history to figure it out. Even the Bat Computer is struggling with this one.

Bat Computer
“Not ready reading drive A. Abort, Retry, Fail?”

Roebuck film envelope showing Lexington Street addressRoebuck mail received, Burlington MA Woods Corner.

 

26 thoughts on “Children of the Turnpike Leave a comment

    • OK, here’s my answer. The little lane on which the house stood was part of Lexington St. until Rte 128 and the gravel pits forced the road to be moved. So even though the house was in the same place, it was no longer on Lexington St.

      GREAT article!

    • You and Mike Shannon are right, but even y’all might not have noticed Lexington Street is VISIBLE in the black and white aerial. The very end of it comes straight down, just left of the number 2.

  1. I lived on pleasant st and remember when there were no lights at the intersection of rt62 and Middlesex turnpike and for a couple of years it wasn’t even paved.We used to buy vegetables at Happy Valley farm which was at the Mitre property. I also played hockey with the Woodward Bros

    • I lived a little further away–Francis Wyman Road–but I used to bike down to Vine Brook and catch catfish which my mom cleaned and fed to our cat. Back from California for our 50th BHS reunion on September 7, 2019.

      • The class of ’69 picked the Double Tree Hilton, which is actually right here on the Turnpike, just over the line in Bedford, as the official hotel of the event (though the actual reunion is in Burlington). Being on the Turnpike again was incentive to search for Happy Valley and thereby find this page, which was created just in time for us returning Burlingtonians!

      • I could walk the length of Pike from Bedford St to see a friend that lived in an old colonial house rented from Martin’s near Nuttings Lake. If two cars and a sand truck passed me, it was a busy day. Sometimes thumb a ride. After a few house across from Mitre, the only building was a old small gas station, near what is now Plank Rd. It burnt down one evening. Beyond that was a side road to a Boy Scout Camp and a Gun Club.

  2. Thank you for taking me back to simple times for me. I grew up on Waltham Street. Plenty of stories from that neighborhood. You have just inspired me…

  3. Great memories – we used to ride our bikes from Bedford St (Rt -4-25) in Lexington- over Burlington St, to Woodwards for a snack in 1956. Then go out back and skip rocks across the pond. Recently moved to condo in old sand pit off of Muller Rd. Now drive by Dunkin and can hardly see the water behind it.

  4. My uncle and father thank you from the bottom of their hearts for recognizing Ned’s. My grandfather would be so happy and proud ❤️

  5. Does anybody recall the company across the street from the Mall with the big neon sign? It was to the right of Howard Johnson’s and I believe it was a chemical company of some sort….maybe the neon sign was in the shape of an atom…I forget..

  6. Old age leaves me with names forgotten. Where the Burlington Mall is was a hill with an active farm owned and run by a member of my grand mother’s family, my father would grow up walking up there from their farm on East Street. The farm was sold and a sand pit established, a hill became a deep crater. The Burlington Mall is now there. However during the sand pit era, RT 128 was being built and family from the farm had a home in the way, so the house was moved down the Turnpike (Lowell St.) near East St., I watched from the back seat of the car.
    Now Lowell Street “the Turn Pike” to Burlington, the roller coaster road, new homes priced at $6 million dollars placed close to the road. It’s a different world today.

  7. What a wonderful, thoughtful presentation of the families/history of that section of Lexington. I grew up in Lexington from the time I was 5 and I am now 74 and love all the good memories I had there. I go back as often as I can and reminisce about those earlier days.
    Again, thanks for this pictorial/narrative about our town. It’s really appreciated.
    Barbara (McCormack) Vadeboncoeur

  8. Lovely story. Even the WAY you told it evokes the simpler time. I lived off the Turnpike, on Crowley Rd, in the 60’s, when SOME development had happened (Mitre was there), but I remember when the Mall was new. My father talked about hiking down the pike from Arlington to Boy Scout Camp as a boy. The Envelope you show, addressed to the Roebuck Family, caught my eye for 2 reasons – the ZIPCODE, which must have been brand new in 1966, because I was old enough to remember when they started; then the Hampton, Va return address, since I now work right next to LAFB in Hampton, VA.

  9. Ahhh…the way back days. What a wonderful story; very well told! My brothers and I spent many summer days swimming at the pits. As we left the house our Dad would remind us (for the umpteenth time) to not go swimming at the pits, it’s dangerous. As we headed out the door saying ‘ok we won’t’…naturally, with every intent of doing so – straight to this forbidden watering hole we went. (sorry/not sorry Dad) Maybe he thought we were headed, to Horn Pond? Thankfully nothing bad ever happened. How he never caught onto us is beyond me as he seemed to have eyes in the back of his head!

  10. I grew up in Lexington on the turnpike just below East st. We walked up and past “Woodies” all the time in the early fifties because my Aunt,Vi Pike, lived in a house near the sand pit. It was taken for 128. She and her husband bought another house being taken for 128 and moved it down the turnpike from Burlington to Lexington.
    I also remember a paddock and pony rides right where Burger King is now. Thanks

  11. The company on the hill across from the Mall near HoJo’s was Microwave, and Wang was also once nearby. This is a great story, I like the style of writing. I grew up at 132 Bedford st. near the turnpike in the ’60s and ’70s a generation later. Very different times but still some remnants of the old days. Before MITRE was a strawberry and corn farm owned by the Patterson’s I think because my parents watched their house moved up Bedford Street in ’59 to the corner at Greenwood across from Wildwood. We swam at the pits, used the rope swing, explored the brook under the bridge behind Woody’s, fished for hornpout, caught turtles, frogs. The marsh at WRKO was still native Cattails but now its all invasive Purple Loosestrife. We ice skated, played pond hockey on Vine Brook at the WRKO towers, built homemade rafts, poled our way down to meet the Shawsheen river into Bedford at Bedford Hill Golf Course and down into Pinehurst Billerica. Rode bikes to Nuttings Lake fishing, rode bikes everyday everywhere, ran rough shod over Mitre Field chasing groundhogs and catching Monarch Butterflies. The photo of the snow covered Kent House shows the Barn that is now gone but it was there in my day full of bats which we annoyed to our delight. Later, ’70s and ’80s the ‘pike was built up, all developed so instead had to bike 10 miles along rte. 62 to Walden Pond Concord for swimming, tree rafting and rope swings.

  12. Gosh, you guys really know how to invoke memories. Most of us in our eighties recall riding bikes up and down the turnpike. You’re right, hardly any traffic in those days……………….is the burns house still there……………..its a shame it isnt preserved as a relic of the old days………………clare burns and i were in the sixth grade together at the union school…………..she is buried now up in camden ,maine …………………..carl johnson, piner36@comcast.net

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