Welcome to 1940s Burlington, as described by George Perkins, BHS class of 1947, in his memoir “Stones Stand, Waters Flow.” This excerpt is about the swollen section of Vine Brook where it crosses Terrace Hall Avenue, close to the Middlesex Turnpike. It was known simply as “the Mudhole.” More book excepts to come.
At the western side of the Mudhole, a clump of soft grass hangs over the edge, where a boy can lie with his head and shoulders over the water and tickle a pickerel . . . Small children fish here with gauze nets attached to wire handles. The silt swirls around bare toes and heels and settles to leave no mark of their passing.
On the opposite shore, a clump of shrubbery shades deep water and conceals a four-foot blacksnake that slithers forth, head erect and eyes shining, leaving a wake of v-shaped ripples as he disappears under the branches again. Swimmers avoid the shrubs, and the snake does not expose himself for long or travel far when the children’s bodies disturb the nearby water . . .
A granite boulder rises a couple of feet above water not far from the snake shrubs, to provide a platform for fishing or diving. Away from the boulder, the water deepens quickly as it slopes toward the bottomless part of the hole, where divers try but always fail to touch bottom. This is not the bottomless swimming hole on the Middlesex Turnpike, where we’re told gangsters sank a murdered man in the 1920s. On that occasion, the Turnpike swimming place turned out not to be bottomless when the police raised the bloated body, still wired to an engine block.
At the Mudhole of the 1940s, I’m one of the children who thrills to the thought of endless water beneath his thrashing arms and legs. We hold our noses with our left hands, raise our right arms, and plunge feet downward to where probing toes feel only water and then rise to burst through the surface, gasping for air, proud and pleased that we have found neither mud nor sand, nor human remains. There is a war on, but that is far away.
After the hay is in, or the barn is swept, or the chicken houses cleaned, there is nothing better than to stand waist-deep, soaping off the sweat and dust and flecks of straw, and then dive, breast-stroking underwater to the bottomless center and to rise with eyes open through ever-lightening water, shake the suds from the hair, brush it back from the eyes, and circle back to shore, avoiding the snake . . .
Boys and girls played chasing-and capturing-games like “Ringalevio” and “Blacksmith, Blacksmith, All Drop Hands,” both in and out of the water, laughing and slapping. When enthusiasms waned, they soaked up the sun, spreading towels will wartime carelessness on the surface of the crushed stone road. A boy would emerge, dripping from the water, to bend sideways and pick a three-inch bloodsucker off his leg. He would impale it on a stick, turn it inside out, the black outer skin replaced by the inner pink alimentary tract, and leave it on the crushed stone road to die and dry in the sun . . .
Two decades earlier, in the 1920s, my father, Burton, swam at the Mudhole to remove the dusty, dried specks of feces and litter that clung to his body when he’d been cleaning out the henhouse or pushing horse and cow dung from the stalls of the barn. He often swam with a slightly older man, a veteran of the War to End All Wars, who was descended from a Minuteman who fought at the Battle of Lexington. My father’s great, great grandfather had died at Lexington, so they had something in common . . .
A millwheel once turned where Terrace Hall Avenue crosses Vine Brook. For decades, it whirled on its axle, powering millstones that turned their grooves surfaces one on top of another to grind the grain of the neighborhood. The miller never thrived, but he got by. When the mill was gone, the timbers of the building and the wheel were carted off for reuse in barns and cowsheds . . . By 1922 almost nothing was left to tell that there had been a mill at the Mudhole, or before that a low and muddy crossing in the neck of a swamp where deer stopped to drink and bears ranged in the surrounding woods.
Early in the crossing’s history, townspeople placed logs on other logs to form a bridge that allowed the water to flow below. More logs formed a corduroy road on the mud on both sides until the road reached higher ground . . .
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, adult swimmers at the Mudhole became few as it turned into a resort mostly of children and teenagers. Men seldom came in, dusty from hayfields, for the hay was not needed on farms where draft horses gave way to tractors and milk cows ceased their relevance in a town where Bustead’s Dairy delivered milk daily by the bottle.
Here is the mudhole today. Click for video:
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