When MSMS had real horsepower

It’s 1912 and you’re about to move from Ireland to the USA. You’ve got two choices of vessel. Which do you choose?

  1. The SS California
  2. A heavily-hyped but unproven engineering marvel called the Titanic

William Kerrigan and his brother Arthur chose the California,* so this story can continue. Upon arrival in the US, the brothers worked on some Woburn farms before starting their own Kerrigan Farm in 1930. Here’s a section of it. Recognize the area?

Kerrigan Farm, Burlington MA

Long before Abati and Connors, the head honcho was Dick, the workhorse on Kerrigan Farm. Photo credit: Bill Kerrigan

It’s the front yard of Marshall Simonds Middle School. That’s Winn Street on the right. Most of the background buildings are still there today, including the house on the south corner of Peach Orchard and Winn. After that photo was taken, Kerrigan built a house for his son, William Jr., on the north corner. You’ll recognize it as the office of Dr. Robert E. Segool, optometrist:

Dr. Robert E. Segool

Here are William Jr. and family, the original occupants:

Kerrigan Farm family, Burlington MA

William Kerrigan Jr., wife Dorothy, son Bill and daughter Joyce. They’re the original occupants of the white house at the corner of Winn St. and Peach Orchard Road, now an optometrist’s office. Bill vividly remembers Dick, the horse. “He was a huge animal. I was afraid to ride him.”

Meanwhile, William Sr., the Irish immigrant who created the farm, lived across the farm at 128 Winn St. — the big, white estate that’s still there today, and whose history stretches back to the 1800s, decades before he arrived.

William Kerrigan Sr.'s home from 1930 to 1958.

Some spots in the world might carry special, even sentimental, significance for you while meaning precisely nothing to anyone else. One particular fire hydrant at Faneuil Hall carries unique significance for Bill, the youngest Kerrigan in this story. It’s where he sat while his father, William Jr., unloaded the celery, spinach, lettuce, carrots and squash grown on Kerrigan Farm.

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Bill attended the brand new (original) Memorial School across the street for a couple of years. When he turned seven, the town bought Kerrigan Farm and built the high school, now the middle school. The family moved the farm operation to Hudson, N.H.

Here’s a good aerial shot of the whole area in 1954. You can see the brand new Memorial School and . . . not much else. There was no school across the street. No St. Margaret’s next door (it’s on the fork of Center and Winn Streets instead). No neighborhood behind Memorial. Peach Orchard Road seems to continue right past Winn Street and into the distance. That’s actually the long-abandoned Salem Turnpike.

1954 Memorial School aerial, Burlington, MA

*Their immigration paperwork reads “California,” but it might be a typo for the SS Californian.

The fighter who grew up on Veterans Playground

One morning in the mid-1970s, Massachusetts lawmakers arrived at the State House to find their parking garage barricaded by tow trucks. It was a “sit-in” by lobbyists for the state’s service stations, who were pushing for franchise reforms to get their Big Oil overlords off their backs.

That barricade was just the beginning. After much grueling work by Burlington native Carl Olson, president of the state’s gas station association, the bill informally known as the Dealers’ Bill of Rights, written by Olson and Cambridge attorney John Campbell, finally had its big day in the House.

Make that several days. Olson and his allies milled around the State House chambers awaiting word. Every day, House Speaker Thomas W. McGee would emerge saying the same thing: “Don’t worry, today it will come out of committee,” meaning it would come to a vote. But every day, nothing happened. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.

On day four, Olson lost it. “I confronted Tommy McGee in the hall, in front of everybody. He said the same thing, about the bill coming out of committee tomorrow. I punched him in the face. He went back in there with a bloody nose.” Violence gets you nowhere in a civilized society. However, Massachusetts politicians don’t comprise a civilized society. The House passed the bill that afternoon.

Olson had leveraged every contact he had, ranging from Senate President Billy Bulger to Wilmington auto franchisee-turned-politician Fred Cain. He went on to win the war. Soon after Gov. Michael Dukakis signed the new legislation, Ronald Reagan later signed a federal counterpart after some keen strategizing by Olson’s drinking buddy Tip O’Neill, whose private secretary happened to be a regular customer at Olson’s Sunoco station at the junction of Market Street and Broadway in Cambridge.

And so, nowadays, franchisees such as service centers and auto dealerships determine their own hours of operation, prices charged, facility improvements etc., and they enjoy certain protections against termination. Franchise laws existed many years before Olson came along, but, as he puts it, “A franchise wasn’t worth anything. It had no teeth.”

Olson traces his own “teeth,” his tenacity, back to his childhood home at 112 Wilmington Road, near the corner of Westwood Street. His home was a gentle little poultry farm, not a common breeding ground for political agitators.

Carl loved the farm. The Olsons swapped their eggs for the Johnson family’s cow milk down the street. Carl’s father, Hilmer, a Swedish immigrant, would take adolescent Carl on his egg delivery route in the family wagon on Saturdays, to Boston’s North End. “The cheap customers would call down to us, ‘Got any cracked eggs?’ They were much cheaper. Those people always seemed to be on the top floor, though. So I had to run up and down four-story houses in the North End of Boston to make 20 cents on cracked eggs. I guess that’s why I could run like a deer when I grew a little older.”

‭‬But all was not pastoral bliss on the farm. Carl’s father, Hilmer, divorced his wife, Inez, and left her with three adult children. They weren’t keen on halting their budding adult lives to pack eggs and shovel chicken poop.

Carl is the first to admit that he and his siblings, brother John and sister Carol, dropped the ball. They should have paid closer attention to the old homestead and what their mother was up to. In September of 1969, Inez quietly sold the four-acre parcel for $30,000 to the town, which promptly turned it into Veterans Playground, on the corner of Wilmington Road and Westwood Street. “That would have been my permanent home,” says Carl, “If I had a choice.”

Lesson learned: If you’re caught napping, or anything less than hypervigilant, you lose. At least that was Carl’s belief, and he carried it into his professional life as a gas/service station owner and lobbyist. “Everyone’s telling me you can’t beat the oil companies,” says Olson. “Yes you can.”

He certainly didn’t get there by pulling punches. Ask Mr. McGee.

Veterans Playground

When your farm becomes Route 128, it’s a tough road to hoe

Beverly was burning. A tenacious brush fire clawed toward some woodsy Beverly estates. The mayday call went all the way to Burlington. Why? Burlington had a water tanker truck, a precious machine at the time. Our on-call firefighters, including Herb Crawford, went tearing up Route 128 to save the day.

One problem: Route 128 wasn’t a highway as we know it today. Rather, it was a meandering secondary road akin to Route 62. Crawford and crew arrived about an hour later.

After pumping water all night, the fire finally succumbed. Local passersby gawked at the scene. One of them, slightly drunk and wobbly, marveled at the Burlington tanker truck and asked Crawford, “You guys came all the way from Vermont?” Crawford politely pointed to the Massachusetts license plate on the front. Bewildered, the man turned to Crawford and yelled, “What? Where the hell is Burlington Massachusetts?”

This was 1947. Little did Crawford know that four years later, a new highway would put Burlington on the map. It would also split his family’s farm right down the middle.

If you go to Beacon Village and look across the highway, you’re looking across Crawford’s vegetable farm. The farmhouse stood on the hump between the Beacon Village entrance and exit before there was a Beacon Street at all, never mind a Beacon Village.

Andrew John “AJ” Crawford and his wife Bessie, Herb’s parents, took over the farm from AJ’s older siblings in 1918. The farm’s biggest customer was the First National (Finast) store chain. Burlington had a Finast at Cambridge and Winn Streets. Life was good.

Crawford Farmhouse, Burlington MA

Crawford Farmhouse

One day in late 1947, AJ’s cousin tipped him off that state-hired surveyors were poking around the area. That cousin owned Kerrigan Farm, which later became Marshall Simonds Middle School. Across from Kerrigan Farm was Dobbins Farm, which became Memorial School. Surveyors were prodding both properties. Clearly this was something big.

Just as predicted, the surveyors started staking the Crawford Farm shortly afterward. They didn’t bother ringing the doorbell first. They just jumped right in. Soon the farm was punctured with stakes. Many, many of them. “My father said, ‘Hey, can’t you guys pull these up? We can’t plow around them,'” recalls Herb Crawford. “They said, ‘Oh, just pull them up. We’ll put them back in later. It’ll keep us busy.'” The joking ended when state engineers met with the Crawford family in the farmhouse, behind closed doors. Herb waited outside.

Bad news. Crawford Farm beat out the Winn Street farms to become the lucky recipient of a new interstate highway. “My father wasn’t very happy. I wasn’t either. I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life on the farm.” But the prevailing attitude of the day was fatalistic. Buildings burned down, you rebuilt them. People died young, you buried them. Farms too, were subject to fate. “Nobody got excited then. Everything came and went. It wasn’t like it is today, where people get all upset over everything. Life was what it was.”

And so, the moment came when the Crawford family stood at the farmhouse and watched the bulldozers scrape a huge stripe down the middle of the farm, perpendicular to the rows of crops. Again, nobody was happy, but nobody cried. Stoicism prevailed. “What else could you do?” Herb asks aloud. “Stand in front of them?”

That c’est la vie attitude had a limit, however. The contractor for Route 128 in this area, Lane Construction from Connecticut, held a meeting with homeowners living on the steep Winnmere hill behind what is now Domino’s Pizza and Sammy’s Deli. He laid out a radical plan to devour the entire hill and use it for fill along the highway. Then, when the neighborhood was flat, he’d put everyone in new houses.

No deal. This was the first of many setbacks for Lane, apparently. “That company said they’d never work in Massachusetts again,” recalls Herb Crawford. “Too much politics.”

If you’re wondering about the eminent domain payday for the Crawford family, it was exactly one US dollar. Not quite satisfied, the family hired lawyer Thomas Murphy, grandfather of the current Burlington lawyer of the same name. He happened to be the brother-in-law of state DPW Commissioner William Callahan, namesake of the Callahan Tunnel and champion of the Route 128 project from the beginning. When the ribbon-cutting took place for the new highway in 1951, the Crawfords received a check for “a lot more than one dollar,” says Herb.

Route 128 didn’t kill Crawford Farm. It just made farming very inconvenient. The triangular area between 128 and Newbridge Ave. was still Crawford Farm. However, getting there meant trucking down to Winn St., crossing under 128 and then turning left to access the island of farmland. It was exasperating to do it all day.

Crawford Farm, Burlington MA

After a few years, AJ Crawford sold that portion. It became Frances Road, Sylvester Road, Florence Road, Sunnyfield Ave. and, of course, Crawford Road. Notice Lowell Street coming in diagonally from the top left. Before the highway came to town, Lowell Street connected seamlessly to Winn Street and led to Lowell eventually, via Burlington and Billerica. But when the highway bisected Lowell Street, that meant two Lowell Streets, so the part near Winn St. was given a new name: Beacon Street. It was later extended alongside the highway into Woburn.

AJ Crawford held onto the Beacon Street side of the farmland until the early 1960s, when he finally called it quits, selling the land to developers who created Beacon Village. The seven Crawford children were grown at this point:

  • Andrew became a Winchester police officer.
  • Lester had a career at Atlantic Gelatin in Woburn.
  • Warren had a military career.
  • David was a bricklayer. He helped build University of New Hampshire.
  • Elsie married and moved to Reading.
  • Joan married and lived in Woburn.
  • Herb became Burlington fire chief from 1955 until he retired in 1985.

Herb is now 94. The farm may be off the map, but thanks to Route 128, the Burlington in Massachusetts is definitely on the map. In fact, the name probably rings a bell all the way up in Beverly. Maybe beyond.

When Locust Street laid eggs

You’ve seen plenty of “organic” offerings at the supermarket. But back in the 1950s and 60s, you could avoid supermarkets entirely and instead visit Locust Street to buy eggs that were still warm from the hen. Heck, you could buy the hen too. Is that organic enough for you?

Kay and Alfred Cabral’s poultry farm is now Sparhawk Drive, off Locust Street. The photos were sent by the Cabrals’ granddaughter, who lived on the farm. She says customers sometimes stopped in just to hear the old stories Kay would tell.

For kid fun, Rahanis Farm > Rahanis Park

Imagine no Rahanis Park. No climbing structures. No merry-go-rounds. No tennis, basketball or baseball.

Instead, picture two unlocked VW Beetles, vernal pools full of wildlife, an unpolluted well with a drinking fountain, rivers for log-rafting in the spring and slalom-skating in winter. And a real farmhouse, abandoned after the 1962 death of Stylianos Rahanis, a Turkish immigrant, WWI vet and Burlington pig farmer. Picture it fully furnished with appliances, furniture, beds, drapes, dishes — and never locked.

Which sounds like more fun for the child in you?

For Dave Runyan, whose childhood yard on Skilton Lane abutted the farm in the early 1960s, the abandoned farm provided far more childhood fulfillment than the “cookie-cutter” park built by the town in 1966. The farmhouse stood where the baseball diamond nearest the parking lot is now. The pitcher’s mound would be in the living room.

 

Runyan recalls:

“The most amazing feature of the land was the farmhouse itself, which remained intact for about three years, fully furnished down to the bed spreads and window drapes. It remained this way until the town received legal authority to burn down the house and fill in the cellar hole. The house was not locked. We kids were free to enter and enter we did and often. To us 7-10 year olds, it was a scary yet irresistible place that we invaded, ran around, imagined ghosts were chasing us and left in a hurry. To the teenagers it was a place where they drank beer and fooled around. It was the domain of preteens by day and of teens by night.

“The house was a typical two-story farmhouse with a cellar. Mrs. Rahanis apparently took nothing with her when she left. The kitchen table and chairs were there, the living room sofa and coffee table were there, the bedrooms had beds with pillows, sheets and bedspreads, all the windows had curtains, there were major appliances and all kinds of personal effects. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom was overflowing with prescription drugs.

“The town did not board up the house or slap padlocks on the doors. In that era our nation was a functional society. The drug culture had not yet taken hold in a big way so the house was not used as a heroin hangout and because the economy was robust and costs were under control no one was homeless so there were no squatters living there.

“Outside the hone there was a phone pole bringing electric and phone service to the house. The phone was fastened to the pole and not inside the house. An old, rotary dial phone in a steel box.

“Also in the front yard was a crab apple tree. The fruit was bitter, so we used those apples to bop our friends when they weren’t paying attention. The Rahanis land did have edible fruit, however. At the forest edges and along the banks of the two streams flowing through the property were blueberry and raspberry plants galore from which we snacked during the summer months.

“In one part of the land, Rahanis had dug himself a personal landfill which always had water therein. We learned to skate at that water hole by winter and come spring we navigated it with log rafts built by a neighborhood dad. At the edge of the landfill were two rusting old VW beetles which we children faux-drove. Those cars taught us the difference between brake and clutch, and the shifting pattern of the 3-speed manual transmission.

“Next to the landfill was a vernal pool where we caught polliwogs and salamanders when the snow retreated and life began anew each year. The landfill and vernal pool are now the last three homes on Patriot Drive. This was done before it became illegal to develop on wetlands.

“We had a Tarzan Swing on the adjacent Sawmill Brook. The rope was thick, about 2” diameter, and fastened to the top of a 60′ tree, so a trip on the swing covered a lot of ground (and water). Many a young boy ended up in the drink before learning how to master the swing. It was one of our incidental neighborhood rites of passage.

“If you’ve seen one town park you’ve seen a billion of them. They all have swings, slides and basketball courts. It is impossible to explain the endless ways in which the raw abandoned land of Stylianos Rahanis enriched the lives of the children who freely and daily explored all that it had to offer.”

Lorna Scolponeti from Thomas St., just behind the Rahanis property, skated with her friends along the continuous frozen streams from the Rahanis wetlands all the way to the sharp curves on Locust St., with only a brief interruption to hop across Mill St. That same route, under the power lines, was lined with boardwalks for summertime strolls. Only problem was the bees that lived under the boardwalks. “You’d get stung,” she says, dismissively.

Rahanis farm served more utilitarian functions for other locals.

Arthur Pigott of Mill St. used to pick vegetables at Rahanis farm on behalf of Lentini’s grocery store in Woburn as a child. His wholesale harvesting paid almost nothing, but “it seemed like a lot then.” He also recalls drinking from the on-site fieldstone well. The water was perfect, he reports.

Longtime Burlington resident Fred Keene says he sometimes utilized the clothes washer in the empty farmhouse. For what? To clean the diapers of his son Kevin, a current member of the Burlington Highway Department.

81 Mill St Burlington MA

Mill Street seen from Rahanis Farm, 1963