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.

With a name like Bustead’s . . .

Bustead's Dairy Products letterheadD2651C5C-A184-41D7-9E82-62565F36016E

. . . it has to be good. The chocolate milk, that is. How good? Good enough to steal from the back of a Bustead’s Dairy Products truck. That’s exactly what William Hamilton did when he was 10. He and a buddy used to hop on the Bustead’s trucks in Woburn center and go for short rides. One day he slipped a crate of chocolate milk into a snowbank and retrieved it later.

Hold that thought until the end of this story.

Every Saturday night, before she could go rollerskating at Wal-Lex in Waltham, Joan Bustead had to spend a couple hours of quality time with empty milk bottles. Many, many crates full of them. The fleet of eight Bustead’s trucks had retrieved them from customers in surrounding towns. As the oldest child in the Bustead family business, Joan had to drag the crates full of empty bottles into the “milk room,” the processing facility behind the family homestead at 14 Wilmington Road. Each crate weighed 12 lbs empty and almost 40 lbs full. Each bottle then had to be arranged for cleaning and refilling the next morning.

The next morning began at 4 a.m.

Besides cleaning and refilling those bottles, Joan also made the orange juice. And she made the chocolate milk. And she made the butter, using a butter churn. And she helped her father strategize the deliveries for the day. It was complicated. Some customers wanted a layer of cream at the top of their milk bottles. Others wanted their milk homogenized. Some wanted delivery daily. Others weekly. Others every two days.

And then there was Mother Nature. What if it was 90 degrees outside? You can’t leave perishable food on people’s doorsteps to perish. The customers had to receive the goods pronto. If this meant banging on doors at 4:30 a.m. before sunrise, so be it.

And then there were the deadbeats — the people who didn’t pay their Bustead’s bill. Some people were always home to receive the goods but always not home when it was time to pay up. They deserved to be shut off, but times were different then. “My father was such a softie. If they had children, he always delivered anyway,” Joan Bustead recalls. “That’s probably why he went out of business.”

Bustead’s operated at 14 Wilmington Road from 1897 to 1950, when competitors like Hood and Sunnyhurst Farms muscled in.

Not exactly helping matters was William Hamilton, the child thief in Woburn Center. Where is that rascal now, you ask? He’s often found in Joan Bustead’s house, because he’s been married to her for 61 years. By pure coincidence, he met her in Woburn Center when he was 21 and married her right away. Looking back at his chocolate milk heist, he says with a smile, “Boy did I pay for that.”

Joan Bustead toddler

Joan Bustead. Milk room in the background.

 

Bustead's milk crate

Killing the Sawmill rumor mill

Sawmill graphic

Sawmill Road checks ’em all.

If you live anywhere near the Wilmington line, you’ve probably heard tall tales about Sawmill Road, like this one about suicide, or this one about a ghost. A Burlington firefighter says he grew up hearing about “dark arts” practiced there.

Why such intrigue?

A very unusual A-frame house, possibly the only one in 20th century Burlington, occupied a tiny slab at the end of Sawmill Road, off Mill St, for some 35 years beginning in the late 60s. Perched on the edge of a stunning rocky gorge, with the Sawmill Brook churning audibly below, the scene befit Burlington for sure. Vermont, that is.

What kind of character would set up a household there? A large, muscular, self-employed carpenter and welder named Richard W. Scott. “Dick was a character, and I mean a character,” recalls David Runyan, his neighbor from Skilton Lane, where Scott lived prior to Sawmill Road. Scott had bought a seven-acre chunk of the Sawmill Road property in 1955 when he lived in Santa Barbara, and then moved to 65 Skilton Lane with his wife Claire M. and three sons, John, Bob and Steve, while he built the A-frame from 1963 to 1968.

He built a skating rink, swimming pool and tether ball court in his Skilton Lane yard, for the neighborhood children. And before he’d finished his Sawmill A-frame, he held large sleepover campouts there for his sons and their friends.

Scott had some quirks:

  • He burned his lawn every spring, a valid agricultural strategy in some books.
  • He became the Skilton Lane traffic enforcer. “He had this VW bus, and whenever someone came speeding through the neighborhood, Dick would fire up that VW and chase the guy down,” Runyan says. “Sometimes he came back claiming he dragged the guy out of the car.” Chasing speeders with the slowest-accelerating vehicle of modern times? “I know. Perhaps the speeder ran into traffic and Dick caught up. Of course I never joined him on his private cop excursions so I can’t say with certainty that he caught them. But it was a common sound in our neighborhood. Dick firing up the bus and giving chase.”

Scott built the Sawmill A-frame himself, from the foundation to the electrical to the plumbing. For the woodwork, he used his homemade saw mill mounted on a 40-foot trailer chassis and powered by a transversely-mounted truck engine and transmission. The source of the wood? The trees in his yard. Clearly this was no ordinary DIY guy. “For me,” Runyan says, “Dick Scott represents the last of a breed of stubbornly independent males, the likes of which the country would do well to encourage.”

When he and his wife split, he moved to Woburn and she settled in Pennsylvania with the couple’s three sons. The abandoned house left Burlington and Wilmington with a mess on their hands. Vandals gutted the house, tossing the home’s tossable contents into the woods and heaving the furniture down the gorge into the river. Wilmington razed the house in the early 2000s.

Why Wilmington? Because town officials discovered the house was in Wilmington even though the street begins in Burlington. This surprised even the Burlington Fire Department, which had provided occasional ambulance service.

Dick died soon after moving to Woburn. Claire is also deceased. Bob, his wife Denise, and Jon are alive and well in Pennsylvania. Denise says the rewards of woodsy living were many; the drawbacks few. “No lights on the road, just the moon. Lots of animals. I grew up in the city and saw my first fox at that house.” One drawback was the long, unpaved, often muddy driveway. The family sometimes had to park at the very beginning of the driveway, where it was somewhat dry, and walk all the way down the unlit, rutted mire to get home. Bob spread small stones on the driveway to help the school bus get a grip.

Saw Mill sluiceway, Burlington MA

The Sawmill “sluiceway,” or water channel, is the only testament to the ancient mill. But stay out. See the tunnel on the right? The ceiling has an ominous crack.

Burlington and Wilmington, along with the state’s Trust for Public Land, conducted a study delineating the various segments of the Sawmill area. The three parties successfully bought some sections, including the Scott property, for preservation. Other property owners weren’t so agreeable, so some sections are still up for grabs, but nobody is grabbing. Burlington realtor Paul Conti cites the expensive site work required. Building roads to town code would devour much of the residential space due to the obligation to replicate disturbed wetlands, says Conservation Administrator John Kelley. Who wants a muddy bog in the front yard? And back yard?

There are no photos of the Clapp Mill. Fogelberg’s Burlington, Part of a Greater Chronicle suggests this “might be” the mill (below).  It’s fun to ponder, but the chances are slim. First, the photo shows nothing but conifers, yet the area is now overwhelmingly deciduous. Could the canopy have undergone such a radical succession? Okay, maybe, given the elapsed time. But the pictured ravine is much wider than actual. Plus the actual site has no large, smooth rock formations as shown. Both sides are equally choppy.

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Today, only a slab foundation, punctured by a single wiring harness, remains earthbound at the end of Sawmill Road, a spot in Burlington that has zero ghosts but may forever be haunted by the tortured, grinding rasp of saw mills, both stationary and portable, from three different centuries. It could be worse. Skilton Lane will forever hear a VW bus.