Some hae meat and canna eat, / And some wad eat that want it, / But we hae meat and we can eat, / And sae the Lord be thankit. — old Scottish blessing
Before Burlington was “on the map,” before it had Route 128, or military R&D employing thousands, or particle accelerators or microchips or microwave research, and long before it became a restaurant and shopping heavyweight, Burlington had only one company with any meat on the bone.
Oops — I launched a company
Reed Ham Works began with Isaiah Reed (b. 1816), who grew up in the white house at 336 Cambridge Street, built by his folks in 1820 on the centuries-old Reed family farm. He attended the teensy North School on Wilmington Road, which still hides in plain sight on the corner of Chestnut.
Isaiah stumbled into the ham business around 1846, when he tinkered with curing hams and bacon inside a 20-foot shack, using local hickory wood of his own choosing. The product turned out great! So great that people from miles around returned for more. In 1868 he sold 100 hams. By the time he died in 1872, he was selling 4,000-5,000 hams.
And so his son, Thomas Isaiah, certainly had a good head start, but could he ramp up the business even more? Yes he could. With the help of his own son and grandson, Guy B. Reed and Guy Jr., Reed Ham Works grew to 10,000 square feet, with three smokehouses and a vault that could hold over 4,000 pounds of meat.
The company sourced some of its meat from Burlington and Woburn pig farms, but mostly took in corn-fed hogs from the western US. They tasted better, supposedly. Reed sold by the truckload to surrounding towns and even landed an international supply contract to a college in Istanbul.
Thomas Isaiah became known as T.I. Reed, and he was a big player in Burlington. He developed his own electrical plant to power his business and operate an emergency water pump in case of fires. He also played a role in bringing rail lines through Burlington. In fact, he became president of the Boston and Lowell Street Railway Company, which operated street cars along Cambridge Street.
From October 1889 to June 1, 1890, Reed Ham Works sold about 8,000 hams. When T.I. Reed died in 1934, Burlington’s biggest business fell into the hands of his son, Guy, and grandson Guy Jr., and Harold Reed. The company became one of the largest smoked meat businesses in Massachusetts. Imagine — in Burlington.
A colorful customer
Here’s a Reed Ham Works retail outlet: Manor Spa at 269 Bedford Street, Lexington, on the corner of North Hancock. It was named after the “manor” section of Lexington, and “spa” is an old term for soda fountain, which was indeed inside. The Blodgett family lived in one part of the building, operated a gas station from another part, and had a popular deli/variety store in another section. The building is gone now, replaced by a Mobil station.
Here’s the inside. The woman in the brown dress is Ann B. Davis, better known as Alice from the Brady Bunch. But this is back when she played Shultzy on the Bob Cummings Show. Her twin sister, Harriet, lived in Lexington and sometimes bought Christmas hams here. Ann visited for the holidays and stopped in to Manor Spa to wow the locals.
The Great Depression injured Reed Ham Works badly. As it clawed its way back, World War II dealt another blow. The war forced the country to serve military needs, not just civilian needs, so many consumer goods became scarce. Money was useless. Wartime ration stamps became your money. You could only buy what your stamps allowed, and we’re talking about elemental stuff like sugar, toothpaste, shoes, tires — and ham, assuming the ham company could get the raw material in the first place!
Even little Manor Spa felt the effects of rationing. Here’s the effect of gas rationing in 1942. That main road is Route 4/225 in Lexington.
A Reed child remembers
Guy Reed III could sometimes be found in his grandparents’ old white house at 336 Cambridge Street, Burlington, playing on the spiral staircase inside the front door, or sitting in front of the grandfather clock at the top of those stairs. He’s now 76. “I loved that grandfather clock. Whenever I was there, I would go and sit by the landing. I liked to hear it ring and chime. Anytime they couldn’t find me, that’s what I was doing.”
He didn’t spend much time inside the meat facilities, but does have one distinct memory. “I went into the cutting room and saw a knife and a piece of bacon. I remember playing with that knife, trying to cut that piece of bacon.”
The end of Reed Ham Works
The real deathblow came when Reed could no longer compete with newfangled mass production. The Reed method was slow: soaking in brine, then smoking. Sure, the quality was terrific, but the process was inefficient and drove up the price. “We couldn’t compete in the marketplace,” says Guy Reed III. “Maybe nowadays we could, because people are willing to buy high-end food now. It tastes better.”
When the business folded, his father went to work with relatives at Edward Allen Pianos in Needham, a company specializing in intricate parts for piano keys. Another precise, high-quality endeavor.
“My father spent the rest of his life trying to find ham as good as Reed Ham Works,” Guy says. “He’d order ham from a place in Maine or something, to bake it and eat it. Every time, he said it wasn’t as good. We’d have ham for Easter. He’d cut it and taste it and say, ‘Nah, it’s not the same.'”
Guy has a daughter in Nashville and another in New York. His sister Sally (Reed) Dietrich, the other senior Reed in the family, has a son and daughter; all three are in Massachusetts.
The buildings lived on. Mostly.
Some memorable businesses leased space in the old facilities. In the 1960s, Burlington Lumber operated from one of the buildings. It’s now Anthony Bonanno Landscaping.
The Rentool barn went up in flames in 1983.
In the works at Reed Ham Works
Iconic Capital LLC, a commercial development company from New York, has razed the main Reed Ham Works building and will replace it with a single-story office building to function as a branch of the state’s Department of Children and Families (formerly called DSS).
The Reed house at 336 Cambridge Street is now owned by Lin Xu, who plans to update the house and create three two-bedroom apartments and a small commercial space, according to her attorney, Thomas Murphy of Burlington.
Optimistic plans for saving a portion of the Reed Ham Works structure didn’t work out due to the condition of the building. To add insult to injury, someone stole the weathervane atop the main building. Long story short, Reed Ham Works is history.
Update August 2020:
Here are the ill-fated plans to save some of the complex:
And here’s some information about the Department of Children and Families use of the new building.
Manor Spa images — Richard Blodgett.
Reed Ham Works horse/buggy images and T.I. Reed portrait — Burlington archives via Dan McCormack, town archivist.
Bacon line and Reed family images — Guy Reed III.
Site plans, approvals etc. — Jennifer Gelinas, planning department.
Company origin story — Gleaned from the Fogelberg and Dunham chronicles of Burlington.