By Carl Johnson, BHS class of 1954
If my mother shed tears, we never saw them. Stoic, I guess, is the word. It was 1947. I was 11, and my family was renting an old victorian at 334 Montvale Avenue in Woburn. Mom broke the bad news at the dinner table: We had to move out. The landlords’ son was returning from the war and needed the house.
We wanted to stay in the area, but my parents couldn’t find anything they could afford. Luckily, my dad’s parents in Burlington had some land in the outskirts of Winnmere on a dirt road called Derryfield, surrounded by fields and woods. They offered it to us.
All we needed was a house. A lumber company called Grossman’s was offering house kits for three or four thousand dollars. They supplied all the materials for a small home of pine boards, along with a mortgage on easy terms.
My father, despite his label of “laborer,” was actually a highly intelligent man, skilled in many crafts. If it weren’t for the Great Depression, he would have gone into his love, engineering, and probably done very well. He and I worked on the building lot, cutting trees and brush, and finally the materials arrived in several truckloads. Many of his friends came and helped with the building, most of them builders of some type.
By early fall, it was done: four rooms of sweet smelling pine studs. There were only two bedrooms for six people. Mom and Dad used a pull-out sofa. The girls had their bedroom and my brother and I had the other.
But we had no running water or electricity. You see, the power company refused to build poles all the way to the end of Derryfield because it wasn’t worth their while. There was just one other house up there besides ours: a fieldstone home built by an old French Canadian stonemason named Andrew Blanchard.
No running water meant no toilet either. My dad built an outhouse of sorts, but we avoided it as much as possible. We relied on the toilets at school, or in an emergency, we ran to my grandparents’ home on Overlook Avenue. We did not miss much school for that reason. It had toilets.
For heat, we used an old cast iron stove converted to kerosene, which was stored in a large glass jug next to the stove. It was very dangerous but widely used in those days. Kerosene was expensive. When we were running low, my mother would send me to the Rogers family on Sunnyside Avenue. Their situation was very much like ours, a young family. Mrs Rogers would loan us enough kerosene until money came in to fill the jug, and they often came down to borrow some from us.
Water was a recurrent problem. Mr. Blanchard, or Frenchie as he asked to be called, offered us the use of his deep, cold well. My sisters and I lugged pail after pail, a heavy pail made of zinc, up the long, wooded path between our houses. I never realized water could be so heavy. One day, my mother encountered a large timber rattlesnake on the path. She threw the pail at him, and that night told my father that it was time to dig a well of our own.
This meant finding water without any modern equipment. That’s where “dowsers” came in. They were the alleged experts at finding water, but they relied on homespun methods that seemed no more valid than witchcraft. My father was skeptical, but finally hired one.
This particular dowser had an allegedly foolproof method. He cut a fresh, forked willow branch in the shape of a Y. Holding both sides of the Y with his hands “firmly,” he said, the branch would tip downward when held over a large deposit of water. We followed him about the property in back of the house. Finally, the willow twig bent to the satisfaction of the dowser. “Dig there!” he said. And dig we did — my father with a shovel, and my mother with a bucket.
All summer long they dug, with my mother throwing the dirt over the bluff behind us. It was exhausting, and the house had no air conditioning to retreat to afterward. As the hole grew deeper, my dad rigged up a platform and a winch, which spared my mom the pain of hauling up the bucket. At eight feet, my dad noticed water was seeping in to the hole! He stopped digging. Several days went by, but the water in the well did not increase.
My mother decided to call upon St. Brigid, the Irish Patron Saint of wells and water. She gathered all five of us around the well. Holding the cross of Saint Brigid, which she had carried from her home in Ireland, we prayed for an hour or so. The next day, the well was filled with water! That well sustained us for the next three years. It was my job during winter to go out and break the ice and prime the pump.
For a year, my siblings and I studied by kerosene lantern. I don’t recommend it. Those lamps give off an offensive soot-causing smoke, and our eyes were often red and inflamed during the school year. Our second year there, the electric company built poles down the rest of Derryfield, so we finally had light. The little Polish woman next door would come over with gifts of raw milk and Polish pastries. When the Osbornes got a television in 1948, they kindly invited the whole neighborhood of kids to watch Howdy Doody at five. There would be 10 or 15 of us gathered around the Osborne parlor.
In the 1940s, Winnmere had some characters. A tall, quiet man arrived by bus every weekend to stay in a shack within the rectangle formed by Winnmere Ave., Glen Ave., Fairlawn Ave. and Winn Street. He never spoke to anyone while he pruned trees and built storage shacks for himself. Local boys like me would try stealing some of his apples. The rumor mill suggested he had once fired a gun at some brazen thieves. This grew into a tall tale: The “Hermit of Winnmere” was an ex-convict, or a German war criminal hiding in the woods of Winnmere.
Years later, when my dad operated a small luncheonette at the Corner of Winn Street and Mountain Road, the local constable, Ray Litchfield, one of the town’s two policemen, came in for his usual cup of coffee and said he’d been called to the hermit’s shack one day and found him dead. Among his old papers, including an army discharge and several medals, was an old Valentine’s card — ripped in half but not discarded. The words said, “With dearest love, from Ellen to Hank.” Maybe the hermit was a poor relic of a long-ago love affair.
But the most pitiful character in Winnmere was the old egg lady on Glen Avenue, just past Overlook. She had lost a son in the war but lived in denial. She believed it was all a mistake and that any day, her son would come walking up Glen Avenue and into her arms. I dreaded being sent to buy eggs from her. She would always ask if I had seen a young soldier on my way.
In 1950, after my dad worked his way up in jobs and pay — by studying at night for his plumber’s license and finally landing a good job at Raytheon — we finally had enough money to buy 14 Sylvester Road, one of the small tract homes built by Frank Sylvester on the old Pollock Farm on the flats of Winnmere. For the first few years, beets and turnips sprouted in our yard each spring. My mother loved her new home, but often said she missed the quiet and serenity of those three years, living under the tall pines on Derryfield. But she did like the running water and real toilets.
The low-lying end of Sylvester, now tucked against the onramp to Route 128 North and shrouded in trees, held the neighborhood skating pond. One of the Blais brothers set Winnmere abuzz when he skate-jumped four barrels.
My parents were often poor and struggling, but demanded we read and do well in school. Hard work was expected of all of us. I started working at Blais greenhouses at eleven, and continued on the Crawford and Kerrigan Farms until I left high school.
For college, I chose Salem because of the cheap tuition, $100 a year. Even a farm boy could afford that. Harvard Grad School was a bit more expensive. By this time, I had a few years of teaching under my belt. I paid for Harvard by taking about $2,000 from my Vermont teachers’ pension fund, and I landed some grants from a few organizations. But I still could not afford the Harvard meal plan, so I restricted myself to just one meal a day, which was dinner at the Hayes Bickford cafeteria in Harvard Square. It offered an evening dinner and drink for $1.50.
Two of the great moments of my life were having my parents attend my commencement from Salem College, and later, Harvard University.
Carl Johnson became head of guidance in a New Jersey school system, then director of testing, and finally principal of the adult school system there, wherein adults age 19 and older earn their GEDs or simply take courses to learn something specific.