Skip to content

If it Ain’t Ai

Daily Times Chronicle, Tuesday, January 10, 1984

Burlington Past & Present, by John ‘Ed’ Fogelberg (Article # 236)


This article is about two old timers, neither of whom ever did anything spectacular or were influential in politics at any time. They are interesting simply because one of them lived to almost 100 and spent more than half his lifetime in the oldest house standing in Burlington, and the other because he had the oddest name in town.

Joshua Reed

He was only years younger than Burlington itself. He was born in Burlington April 3, 1801, the son of Jonathan and Ruth Reed, and died here May 29, 1899. The house in which he lived for over 60 years is the old Francis Wyman House which he bought from a Mathew Skelton in 1827. At that time the old house still bore the marks of arrow points and Joshua used to say that the house had once been set on fire by the Indians. But that item has never been substantiated.

The house was used, however, as a garrison house during the Indian uprising of 1675 and the upper story once had port holes through which the settlers could fire their muskets to repulse Indian attacks. Reed closed those holes simply by nailing a board over them. When Reed was a boy growing up in Burlington one of his chores as a teenager was driving the ox team to Boston with produce from the farm and, in his old age, he remembered actively cudgelling his team in an effort to make quick time and so beat other teamsters to market. That trip took about three hours back then.

Talking to a friend several years before his death he remarked that times were tough in Burlington for the Reed family when he was a youngster and that his father gave him the use of some land for a potato patch, and that he raised enough vegetables on it to keep himself in clothing. He used to say that he went to school when there was nothing else to do, and that was seldom. He was apprenticed to a leather manufacturer when still a youth and worked for a number of years in a tannery before returning to his farm. That tannery may have been the Cummings shop. He was married twice, first to a Rhoda Goodwin of Billerica when both were no more than teenagers. She gave him seven children whom they named Rhoda, Charles, Ruel, Moses, Nahum, Diantha and Mary. His wife died In 1843 and he soon married another Billerica woman, Roxanna Farmer, who gave him another daughter, Susan, in 1849.

Roxanna died in 1895 and Joshua spent the rest of his life living alone with the help of a cleaning woman once in a while and sporadic visits of his family. By the time Joshua died the old Wyman house was in sad shape. Repairs had been haphazard with boards nailed on here and there to keep clapboards from falling off, bricks were missing from the top of the chimney, and windows were closed off in several areas because old Joshua lived in only part of the house. The house looked like a big patched box in 1900 when the Francis Wyman Association bought it.

The Wyman house has been mentioned in this column many times before. It was built by Francis Wyman in 1666, went to his son William in 1699, to William’s son William in 1705, to his son Nehemiah in 1775, and to Nehemiah’s son Abel in 1820 who sold It to Mathew Skelton.

Ai Nichols

His first name was pronounced Ay Eye. Elizabeth Lowther could remember his saying of himself to get a laugh, “If I ain’t Ai, who be I?” Where his father got the name to give the son, born to the Nichols family in 1870, is anybody’s guess. If it’s Biblical, it’s the old name for the Canaanite royal city north of Jerusalem. Joshua conquered and burned it to the ground so that Ai came to mean a “heap of stones.” Why would anyone name their child after a heap of stones? Ai died in an accident in 1940. His father’s name was just as odd. It was another little-known Biblical name: Alpheus.

Alpheus is mentioned once in St. Matthew and again in St. Mark: “And as he (Jesus) passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alpheus sitting at the receipt of custom and said unto him, Follow me. And he arose and followed him.” At least his parents had named him after a person. Alpheus lived in a little house near Chestnut Hill Cemetery, a house now long gone. But Ai’s house is still standing at the curve of Bedford Street as it rounds that cemetery opposite the old Shaw place. It is now owned and occupied by Mae Vaillancourt.

As for odd names, Woburn and Burlington records abound with them.

  • The first marriage in Woburn was George Farley to a person named Christian Births.
  • Edward Winn’s son was named Increase.
  • The Simonds family have a Zebedee and a Bathsheba.
  • The Snows have a Zerubbabel and a Benoni.
  • And the Wymans are not to be forgotten, for they have a Peleg, a Hephzibah, a Zebediah and a Nehemiah.