Sunday, August 21, 2016

Complex Questions

From Mick Melvin & Dave Brigham:

The powers that be at New England SportsPlex built it, and for several years, they came: to play softball and volleyball, throw horseshoes, frolic in the screened-in playground, or just hang out and watch. The year was 1994, and life for softball players in and around Vernon, Connecticut, was good. I recall driving past the facility on my way to and from my parents' house a little further south and west in the Nutmeg State, and thinking, "What a cool place!"

The owner talked at the time of the opening about adding a sports bar (I don't believe that ever came about), and said he'd spent a quarter of a million dollars on a lighting system for the complex. The multiple fields had computerized watering and drainage systems to keep the place looking top notch.

But like in "Field of Dreams," players at the SportsPlex headed into the tall weeds, never to return. I'm not sure how long the place has been closed, but an August 2011 article in the Vernon Patch said it closed "several years" prior.

In the Patch article, the reporter noted that the land had recently been cleared, although representatives of the land's owner were unavailable for comment. The article indicated that Home Depot and other big-box retailers had expressed interest in the site.

Shortly after that Patch article ran online, Mick Melvin visited the site and took these photos:

Untitled

(Photo by Mick Melvin, taken September 2011)

Untitled

(Photo by Mick Melvin, taken September 2011)

I've been meaning to take pictures of this site for years, and succeeded once in taking some not-so-great shots. I seized a new opportunity recently by sneaking through a gap in a fence.

(Photo by Dave Brigham, taken April 2016)

(Photo by Dave Brigham, taken April 2016)

(Photo by Dave Brigham, taken April 2016)

As you can see, the site is overgrown once again. Why did the SportsPlex fail when sites like it around the country have done well? Why has it taken so long for a new buyer or tenant to develop this site? Is it too expensive to dig up the water and drainage system? Why isn't a site right off Interstate 84, practically within site of downtown Hartford, attractive to retail/residential/hotel/restaurant developers?

Stay tuned.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Ye Olde Shoppe

From Dave Brigham:

Because I have a fascination with old-money WASPs, several years ago I was struck by a desire to figure out what family in the United States has the oldest money. Could be a Mayflower family, I thought, somebody with a stodgy British name like Winthrop or Winslow or Whittemore.

Here are some famous descendants of Mayflower families, presented in no particular order and without comment: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Marilyn Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Alan Shepard, Clint Eastwood, Sarah Palin, Hugh Hefner and Anna Mary "Grandma Moses" Robertson. Of course, being famous doesn't necessarily translate into being rich.

In the heat of inspiration, I performed a few basic online searches before giving up. Recently, however, I thought to pursue this idea again after the appearance in my Facebook feed of a list of the oldest businesses in every U.S. state.

I found an article at Forbes.com that has more or less answered my question. The duPont family (French immigrants who built their fortune on gunpowder and maintained it through a chemical company that the family no longer owns) gets credit for holding on to their fortune the longest, dating back to 1802, according to this article. The Rockefellers (oil) and the Mellons (real estate, land and banking) are on the short list, as well. (Side note: I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller's Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.)

Now, on to the business at hand. Facebook recently tossed an article by news aggregation site Thrillist my way, headlined "The Oldest Surviving Business In All 50 States."

"Down every main street in America, the old guard of independent 'Mom and Pop' business are an increasingly endangered species," the article beings. "Doors are closing and windows shuttering, with glossy chains, yoga studios, and 24/7 banks popping up between our antiquated favorites and local stalwarts."

I'm proud to say that I once worked at the oldest business in New Hampshire: Tuttle's Red Barn. Calling itself the oldest known family farm in the United States (a claim disputed by Virginia's Shirley Plantation, which is naturally also on the list), Tuttle's grew much of its own produce (strawberries, corn, rhubarb) and sold it alongside plants, flowers and high-end grocery items. I worked in the produce department there from April 1989 until August of 1990, when I moved to Boston. My boss was a cool dude who told great stories about seeing Willie Dixon play live, and about riding naked on his motorcycle to the Woodstock concert in 1969.

After approximately 380 years in business, the Tuttle family sold the farm and its buildings in 2013. The place is now called Tendercrop Farm.

I haven't been to any of the other establishments. How about you? Tell your story in the comments section, if you wouldn't mind.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

More Action in the Lost City

From Dave Brigham:

Watertown, Mass., is booming. Well, in terms of apartment and retail construction anyway. In recent years, developers have completed, begun or proposed numerous projects that will bring thousands of apartments to the city, along with hotels, restaurants, office space and retail outlets. The Greater Boston economy is doing well, and as available land in Boston and Cambridge disappears under cranes, backhoes and dump trucks, the activity has moved a bit westward.

I've written before about the Pleasant Street corridor in Watertown. Just a few minutes from my house, this area was once home to factories and industrial buildings of all sorts. My wife's brother-in-law dubbed it the Lost City because there wasn't much going on there. It was just where you drove to get from Waltham into Watertown Square and eastward toward Boston and Cambridge.

Here are the stories we've posted about the area:

July 5, 2010, "Rebuilding the Lost City"

August 10, 2011, "Rebuilding the Lost City: UPDATE"

March 2, 2013, "Rebuilding the Lost City: SECOND UPDATE"

May 13, 2013, "Another Lost City Ghost"

December 8, 2014, "Another Lost City Ghost: UPDATE" -- after a long delay, construction at this site has begun in earnest of late.

On a large lot that backs up to the Charles River and its fantastic bike path, just down the street from the former Haartz Mason factory I've written about before, there was recently more demolition in advance of construction along Pleasant Street.

Buildings that most recently housed companies including Julian Construction Company and Casey & Dupuis Equipment were torn down. The latter company's property was notable for the giant construction crane, available for rent, that loomed over the squat building.

All of the above buildings are now gone. A developer has proposed a mixed-use development of commercial real estate and 99 apartment/condos. Stay tuned....

Monday, August 1, 2016

I Rail Against Trails (Not Really, But I Don't Want Every Abandoned Set of Train Tracks Converted for Cyclists and Roller Bladers)

From Dave Brigham:

Man, that picture just says it all for me: overgrown history; adventure awaiting; peace and quiet; possibly a little danger.

I'd driven past this spot in Wayland, Mass., several times over the years, but didn't have time to explore until recently. As I've said many times here, the world looks a lot different when you're walking through it than when you're driving past it.

What finally drew me to this location was, as is often the case, a look at Google Maps. Of late, I'd become aware of long-abandoned railroad tracks running through Waltham, Weston, Wayland and other area towns. This is part of what's known as the Wayside section of the Mass Central Rail Trail, a proposed 104-mile connection from Boston to Northampton. Looking at maps online, I zeroed in on the section in Wayland that crosses Route 20.

Starting down the tracks, the teenager inside me expected someone from the adjacent garden center to yell "No trespassing!"

There were no barriers or signs, but for the first hundred yards or so, I looked back a few times to make sure the police weren't behind me. Illogical, I know, but I'm a goody-goody who doesn't want to get busted for being someplace I'm not supposed to be.

Secure in the knowledge that nobody was going to stop me from exploring, and realizing that while the tracks weren't heavily traveled, there was evidence of human activity, I pushed forward across an old bridge over the Sudbury River.

I saw several shotgun shells along and just off the tracks. The rails run alongside part of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, so I initially assumed that poachers were at work. A check of the refuge web site, however, indicates that hunting permits are available during July, so I'm gonna give hunters the benefit of the doubt.

I had no idea what I'd find along the tracks, or how far I'd be able to go. I was just happy to be walking in solitude, imagining the time when freight and passenger trains ran through here regularly. On the north side of my route, between the tracks and busy Route 20, was a patch of woods and small, scattered pieces of broken down equipment, random chunks of manufactured stone and other detritus.

I moseyed on for quite some time, past more shotgun shells, power lines, signs for the wildlife refuge, and the rear of a landscaping supply company. I expected to see signs of teenage partying or homeless encampments, which I'm used to seeing along railroad tracks, river paths and other out-of-the-way locations. But I saw nothing of the sort.

After a while I saw buildings off to the right, one of which is an indoor sports facility. Ahead of me on the left I could see a medium-sized electrical grid complex. At this point, the tracks ended, and I didn't think it made sense to get too close to the enclosed high-voltage area.

I turned around and started heading back, with my eyes peeled for things I'd missed on the way out. I ventured into the wooded area between the tracks and Route 20. I didn't find much of interest, but I have a feeling that a longer exploration might yield something.

Then I spied something colorful through the trees, near a dilapidated building that I hadn't paid much attention to earlier.

I followed an old path off the tracks into the woods. I saw a heavily graffitied truck, but was unsure whether someone might be in there, so I made a bit of noise and after a short time I went closer.

It was an old concession truck for the Wayland Baseball Association, parked at the back of a long-neglected lot and next to a crummy old building. Not sure what this site was previously used for, but I assume it's town-owned.

As I said at the top of this post, this section of tracks starts at Route 20. At some point, of course, they crossed that busy road heading east. In 2010, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation entered into a 99-year lease with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) related to the 24 miles of tracks that run through Waltham, Weston, Wayland, Sudbury, Hudson and Berlin, according to this Wayland Patch article. The DCR has removed some railroad ties, and the Town of Wayland has established a plan for a rail trail near the town center.

I'm in favor of rail trails, at least ones that have already been constructed. There's a paved trail along the Charles River that I've used for bike rides, walks and runs over the years. It's not a rail trail, but it was carved out of little used land the way that rail trails are.

I can't argue against giving people additional places to exercise, and easier routes from Point A to Point B. But I also like the fact that there are places like these tracks in Wayland where suburban explorers can reach back into history a bit, and walk in solace if they choose.

As always, stay tuned....

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

V for Victory

From Derek Watt:

These photos were taken recently, with permission, at the Victory Theatre in Holyoke, MA. Built in 1919, the nearly 1,700-seat Victory hosted vaudeville shows and movies until it closed in 1979, according to the Internet. Now owned by the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts (MIFA), the theater may be returned to its former glory, or something approaching it, if the group can obtain sufficient funding, per an article in the Starts Wednesday blog.

Victory 2016 - 03 Victory 2016 - 04 Victory 2016 - 07 Victory 2016 - 02 Victory 2016 - 10

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Tobacco Road

From Dave Brigham:

When I was a kid, tobacco barns like this one dotted the outskirts of my suburban neighborhood, and teens could earn money during the summer working the fields in the area. My hometown, Simsbury, was (and to a much lesser degree, still is) part of what was called "Tobacco Valley," a fertile area stretching from Springfield, Massachusetts, south along the Connecticut River and its tributaries to Hartford, Connecticut.

Beginning in 1640, farmers imported seeds from Virginia, according to ConnecticutHistory.org, and for a long time after tobacco farming was the largest industry in the Valley. By the time I was growing up, from the late 1960s through the '70s, the industry had shrunk but was still a vital and visible part of the local economy.

A decrease in cigar smoking, combined with the availability of cheaper, mass-produced cigar wrappers, led to the demise of the tobacco farms. In the 1930's, total acreage in the Valley dedicated to growing tobacco stood at 30,000 acres, according to ConnecticutHistory.org. By 2006, the land for farming had dwindled to less than 2,000 acres. For more on the history of tobacco farming in Connecticut, read this article.

East Granby is just north of Simsbury, and was also part of the tobacco industry. My cousin's wife once mentioned an old building along a relatively new bike path (read: old railroad tracks) in that town. Recently, I got around to checking it out.

As you can see, this humble structure used to be a church.

Located in the Floydville section of East Granby, the church was built by a very determined religious woman in order to serve the spiritual needs of her small tobacco farming community.

Floydville Plantation, as it was once known, was owned by American Sumatra Tobacco, which I believe was a successor to the Connecticut Tobacco Company. The latter company counted among its executives one Marcus Floyd, according to this excellent article about the Nutmeg State's tobacco industry. Taking a wild leap: this plantation was probably named after Marcus Floyd.

"Floydville did not have its own town hall or post office," according to a memory posted by Dave Bergeron on RootsWeb, a community on Ancestry.com. There was a "warehouse where they sorted broadleaf during the summer. A.S.T would bring in Pennsylvania (workers) to work the fields. They would sleep in barracks in the Warehouse.”

Many of those who picked tobacco in Connecticut were African Americans who migrated from the South, or arrived with college groups for the summer (Martin Luther King, Jr., spent time in Simsbury picking tobacco in the 1940's, during his time at Morehouse College). Others came from the Caribbean islands. When I did my initial research online about Floydville, I checked out Google Maps, and saw a beautifully worn-down yellow barn along Floydville Road. This evidently was the warehouse spoken of in the quote above. I was sad to find upon my arrival at the site that the building had been torn down.

There are a few rundown houses along the dead-end Railroad Ave, which parallels the bike path (which follows the former New York, New Haven & Hartford rail line), but the most telling evidence of the old plantation community is the church.

(An old box spring outside the church.)

(Faux stained glass on the ground outside the church. It's in surprisingly good shape.)

So who built this church?

Rushia James came north from Americus, Georgia, in 1917 with her parents and at least four siblings to find better opportunities in Hartford. The granddaughter of slaves and already a teacher in her native Georgia, she found the only employment in the north for blacks was menial. Responding to the call from tobacco growers, Rushia’s family moved to Granby around 1918....By 1920 Rushia was married to another Georgia native, Theodore West, and she worked as a tobacco sorter. In 1921 Theodore was able to purchase about five acres of property along side the railroad tracks in East Granby off Floydville Road. Over the years she and her family made the trek each week to Hartford so they could worship at a Seventh Day Adventist church. The local Congregational churches lacked the welcome and the Pentecostal spirit she and other tobacco workers of color desired.

From The Shade Laborers: Tobacco Worker Recruitment Through the 1940s by Dawn Byron Hutchins

In the 1950's, Rushia's mother was in poor health. The time had come for the daughter to plan the church that she and her mother had dreamed of, according to Hutchins. After paying $50 to have a foundation poured, Rushia spent the next 15 years funding the growth of the one-room church. She ran into permitting issues with the town of East Granby, but eventually a contractor helped her past those obstacles and in 1976 the West Community Church was dedicated, Hutchins writes.

(The light was tough, and I didn't want to trespass inside, so this was the best shot I could get of the inside of the church.)

(A fridge in the basement of the church.)

I'm guessing that parishioners used the church in the years prior to its dedication in 1976. Sadly, though, all use of the building seems to have ended in the mid-'80s, according to Hutchins's book, which is available online as a PDF.

Her dream church caught the attention of the local and national press, who ran articles on it and chronicled its ongoing difficulties – monetary support, its founder’s age, physical access and competing congregational interpretations of the Bible – until 1985 when all mention of it stopped, according to the book. By 1990 Rushia West had passed and along with her the memories of the community she built.

(I was taken aback by this sign, "GRACE," draped over the rickety front steps of the church.)

This Backside trip was unusual in that I brought along a special guest: my mother. I was visiting her for the day, and as I told her ahead of time, "I'm not a man of ulterior motives, except when it comes to the Backside of America. Would you like to join me?" She was quite happy to come along.

After I snapped pictures of the barns at the top of this post, we got off the bike path and onto Railroad Avenue. In short order we came across the church. After a few minutes of snapping pictures, I heard a voice through the bushes, back toward the ramshackle houses we'd passed.

"Hello? Can I help you? This is private property back here."

Uh oh. Was I about to get hauled to the slammer, with my 83-year-old mother in tow?

"Oh, hi," I answered. "I'm just taking a few pictures. I love old buildings like this."

The woman was very nice, explaining that since it was private property, she had to be concerned about people getting hurt exploring the church, which is falling apart on the inside.

"It hasn't been used in about 30 years," she said. If I'd known more of the background of Floydville Plantation at the time, I would have asked this woman if she was related to Rushia West.

To see some very good photos of the church's interior, and read a short post about a local woman's visit to the site, read this Facebook post.

A quick note about the former tobacco-growing land of Floydville Plantation: at some point the business was sold to Culbro Corp. (which was evidently known at some point as General Cigar), which is the name I recall from my youth. With the cigar market floundering, Culbro expanded into several unrelated markets, including nurseries, forming a partnership with Imperial Nurseries, according to Culbro's web site. Imperial Nurseries operates a business directly across from Railroad Avenue today. Along the western edge of the bike trail is a business listed as Monrovia Nursery Company. I'm unclear on whether the two nursery companies, which have pretty massive operations in East Granby, are related.

To cap things off, here's Eric Burdon and War doing a blazing 14-minute version of John Loudermilk's "Tobacco Road," a song covered by numerous artists over the past six decades.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Sad Gobble

From Dave Brigham:

I wasn't one of the countless loyal customers of Owen's Poultry Farm, but I will miss it nonetheless. Located in Needham, Massachusetts, for 80 years, the farm closed last fall due to a mix of rising costs, difficulty in finding dependable employees and the lack of a fourth generation to whom to pass the business.

I never stepped foot in the hen house, took my kids to see the turkeys or other animals, or bought anything from the store, but I've eaten turkey and sides from Owen's, because my mother-in-law would shop there on occasion. I loved the idea of a farm located in the middle of several residential neighborhoods, a slice of the region's rural heritage holding fast.

The farms' owner sold the property to the town, which will raze the buildings and build a much-needed elementary school, according to this Boston Globe article.

I did a little research and was happy to see there are other farms in eastern Massachusetts that sell poultry and other livestock products, such as Lexington's Meadow Mist Farm, Dartmouth's Copicut Farms and Clark Farm in Carlisle.