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