Indian warrior delayed Route 128 project — by a few hours, at least

By Carl Johnson, BHS class of ’54. He grew up on Derryfield Ave., atop Winnmere hill.

Native American boyIn my youth growing up in the pine woods, without any neighbors or kids nearby, I would amuse myself by hiking and exploring the woods and streams around me. I developed a great interest in the history and background of the Indian tribes of the area, even finding arrowheads by the shores of Littles Brook.

History says they were called the Nipmuck by the colonists. I studied their customs, religion, and dress, and decided to reestablish a Nipmuck tribe in our neck of the woods. I made my own crude bow and arrows (reeds from the pond) and practiced on my poor dog, Skipper, who learned to hide under the house when he saw me put on my loincloth and headband, even though I don’t think I ever hit him with a single “arrow.” I made my own moccasins of deer hide, borrowed from a hunting neighbor.

My mother soon pointed out that the loincloth might constitute indecent exposure and would encourage ticks and mosquitoes. So Yellow Wolf, as I named myself, would enter the woods wearing dungarees. I found the natural ingredients for war paint impossible to find, but my little sister’s poster paints made an impressive substitute. I would build campfires in the fall and winter, and would sit around them cross-legged, imagining myself leading a fierce tribe of warriors, watching for the encroachment of the white men.

One day I launched an “attack” on a cedar wood cutting crew. It wasn’t a physical attack, since they all seemed to be mature men of quite muscular build. I hid in the limbs of a tall white pine and let out a series of loud screeches, which my research told me would resemble a mountain lion’s call. I thought it was most impressive, sounding like a young boy screeching in pain as he was tortured over a hot fire.

This did make them pause, but they continued to cut wood, much to my dismay. I read in the paper that a grand invasion of the pines was taking place: the building of a highway very close to our little house in the piney woods. Each week, I heard the ominous sounds of the power saws and cat tree pullers miles away as they approached.

I found a large area punctured with impressive stakes. They had various surveying numbers on them, probably for an interchange of some sort. The next weekend when the workers were gone, I went to the area and pulled up all the stakes, piling them in the center of the clearing, where they burned magnificently, leaving a large pile of ash. On top of the pile I left a large hawk feather, assuming that this would be an obvious sign that the highway crews were dealing with a mean bunch of Nipmuck Indians.

Activity seemed to slow for a week or so, but when I revisited the site several weeks later, I found all of the stakes replaced with new ones, and fresh surveying numerals on them. Once again I pulled them up and made another impressive bonfire, leaving a buzzard feather. This would show the true wrath of the wily Nipmuck .

Walking on the road to meet the school bus later that month I saw several state police cars pulled up, and several dogs that seemed to be k-9 search dogs milling about. I realized at this point that it might be wise to terminate the Nipmuck rebellion. The next day I buried all my Indian regalia in a sand pit nearby and watched the highway progress. Yellow Wolf, fierce warrior of the Nipmuck, had met his match.

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.