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Time capsule found in condemned Billerica school

Thomas Ditson Elementary School, Pinehurst, Billerica

If cities have urban legends, suburbs have suburban legends. In Burlington, Sawmill Road supposedly had deaths, suicides and witchcraft. Winnmere Hill, behind Sammy’s Deli, supposedly had missiles pointed skyward during the cold war with Russia. Both false.

Schools have their own legends. The current Burlington High School supposedly was designed by a prison architect who later killed himself. And it has a bomb shelter too. All baloney, but the legends persist anyway. Why let the truth spoil an interesting story?

Just over the border in Pinehurst, the Thomas Ditson Elementary School had an old legend too, about a time capsule hidden in a wall somewhere. School officials allegedly stuck some artifacts into the concrete during construction in 1931. Teachers and students heard about this right up until the last dismissal bell rang in 2001.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021. The eroding building was scheduled for demolition. But wait! Not so fast. What about the time capsule? Luckily, the project manager and demolition contractor were good sports and agreed to play ball. Okay, they said, a time capsule would probably hide in a “cornerstone” of the building. They poked gently around the concrete corners near the two front entrances.

Lo and behold!

This suburban legend wasn’t baloney after all! So what was hiding in this little chamber for 90 years? Scroll to the end of this article to see the goods, or stick around to learn why the building had ties to the song Yankee Doodle.


 

Thomas Ditson Elementary School, Billerica, MA
The original school building in 1931. Expansions began in 1948.

Thomas Ditson

The school was built on the generations-old Ditson family farm. Thomas Ditson fought in the Revolutionary War, but he isn’t famous for how many Redcoats he plugged in the battle of Concord. Instead, he’s known for what British soldiers did to him in 1775 just as tensions were ramping up to war. The soldiers were stationed in Boston to keep an eye on the agitated colonists. They hatched a plan to lure an unsuspecting simpleton, a country bumpkin, to commit a crime. Why? So they could tar and feather him and march him around town in a show of intimidation.

On March 8, along came 31-year-old Ditson. “Psst,” said a British soldier named McClinchy. “Want to buy a fine gun?” After some negotiation, Ditson paid $5.50 for it. Gotcha, Mr. Ditson! It was illegal to buy arms from a British soldier. He was seized and held in a guard house all night. The next morning, without a trial, the soldiers declared him guilty. Then the atrocity:

  • They stripped him naked.
  • They poured hot, sticky pine tar all over him.
  • Then they dumped feathers on him.
  • Then paraded him around town with a sign on his back stating he had tried to brainwash British soldiers into fighting against their own king and country.
  • They concocted a personalized version of Yankee Doodle that went like this, “Yankee doodle came to town, for to buy a firelock. We will tar and feather him and so we will John Hancock.”

Billerica issued a strongly-worded statement to local General Gage, who vowed to look into the matter but did nothing. No matter. A few weeks later, war broke out in Lexington and Concord. Surely some Redcoats found themselves looking down the barrel of a musket held by none other than Thomas Ditson, probably still smelling like pine tar.

Yes, some comeuppance!

Ditson eventually fathered 10 children and became a local legend. Billerica still celebrates “Yankee Doodle Homecoming” every year. In 1997, when the state considered issuing town-oriented license plates, Billerica proposed this design, evoking Ditson:

The song Yankee Doodle makes no sense without a quick vocab lesson. It was a British pub song that belittled America.

  • Yankee — Unsophisticated colonist
  • Doodle — Scatterbrained goofball
  • Dandy — Someone who adopted the flamboyant clothing and hairdos of British aristocrats
  • Macaroni — A wild hair style worn by some young British trendsetters at the time

So Yankee Doodle depicts a dimwitted American colonist trying to pass himself off as rich and trendy by sticking a feather in his cap and calling it macaroni.

But when the underdog American colonists booted the Redcoats back to England, the song became an ironic American anthem of sorts, making Ditson, the tarred and feathered martyr, the quintessential Yankee Doodle as far as Billerica is concerned.

Ditson interior

The most memorable feature? The tunnel that connected the old building to the newer section. It was NOT a normal hallway. Think of a catacomb if you’re feeling generous, or a sewer system if you’re not.

The tunnel was similar to this other Ditson hallway, but scarier. It had only a couple of side entrances, so no welcoming light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite itself, the tunnel did have a bright side!

  • Mary Ann Sinclair: “In sixth grade, I got my first kiss in that tunnel.”
  • Mary Towse: “When I taught there, we often decorated it for Halloween with hanging spiders, ghosts and skeletons. The kids loved it!”

But mostly, it scared people. On her first day of first grade, Marilyn Slattery bolted from the school building rather than enter that tunnel. She stopped only because she came to a cop on Boston Road, while her teacher chased after her in clacking high heels the whole time. Gwen Wilcox remembers a cafeteria fire filled the tunnel with a stench that lasted for months, making it even more horrible.

Ditson exterior

The partially-demolished building briefly harkened back to the original before it vanished forever this week. Don’t confuse this building with the much newer school on Cook Street, also named after Ditson. This one is now a pile of bones. The town hasn’t decided what to do with the property.

 

Honorable mentions

The principal during the late 50s and early 60s. Stood only 4′ 10″ but scared everyone.
This rock was in the front schoolyard near the basketball court.

Contents of the time capsule

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notice the article (below) about the school. The fourth paragraph mentions the time capsule!

 

 

Notice the ad (above) for the single greatest thing of all time, a thing so great, all other things would forever be compared to it.

 

Special thanks to Leftfield Project Management for the aerial shots and many of the interior shots.

15 thoughts on “Time capsule found in condemned Billerica school Leave a comment

  1. You say that behind sammy’s up the winnmere hills that there were no missiles that is false I grew up in winnmere hills and personally saw missiles on trucks leaving the base when they were closing it dowm

    • Maybe in storage, but not “pointed skyward.” Launching facility is seen in the pics in the article. Different hill.

      • Are the silos still near the Northeastern buildings? The barracks and command center were on the Winnmere Hill. Ask Dick Sheppard, wasn’t he stationed there too.

  2. Great article and pictures about the “Old Ditson” as we call it. Was a great neighborhood school.

  3. Glad you were able to do the article about the school. Interesting reading from the paper too. Wonder if Harnden’s Corner is the curve heading down the hill past Harnden Rd. just as you enter Pinehurst.

  4. Miss Moglia was my principle and the pictures have great memories. Rest in Peace Miss Auster Upley. YOU were an Angel. Thank you……

  5. Thank you ! Great memories growing up in Pinehurst. I still have a milk stool we all sat on during lunch. Enjoy our childhood memories.

  6. I went to Ditson 1st grade until christmas 1958 when we moved to 2 Mill St Burlington. My 6 yo memories include pint sized glass bottles of milk with cardboard tabs and 1 girl being diagnosed with polio which was very scary. For years after, played many hours (my O’Connor cousins lived adjacent to the school at 4 Grove st. Pinehurst) making houses with pine needles covering grounds surrounding school and metal monkeybars ( amazing no fracures)
    Kathy Mullen Guicho

  7. great read, it was really cool going down memory lane and learning about some of the history of billerica.

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