Short Stop

Gaffeys

I almost got run over on Patriots’ Day. Ironically, right in front of Gaffey’s Funeral Home. Not by Paul Revere, although he was the last to pass by before the incident, a few minutes before. It was the first car to drive down First Street after the road was opened to traffic following the ceremony. I never saw it coming when I was crossing the street. It screeched to a stop.

Earlier, I listened to Paul Revere (depicted in full costume by a member of the National Lancers) as he spoke to the crowd gathered in front of Gaffey’s. Next, the Mayor of Medford spoke from the same podium. “This is my first Patriots’ Day as mayor. I hope it’s the first of many!” she said. Then the mayor introduced two school children who each read half of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. There were about a hundred of us gathered around to honor this

Massachusetts state holiday marking the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Following the poem, Paul Revere mounted his horse and headed for Arlington, then Lexington and Concord. We all know what he was up to. Behind the horse, many went into the funeral home for complimentary wrap sandwiches, bags of chips and sodas. It was pure Americana and I was lucky to stumble upon it on a drawing day.

In 1775, this house was the home of Captain Issac Hall, a rum merchant, and it was an important stop on Paul Revere’s ride. Hall was the leader of the Medford Minutemen. In Revere’s own account, he wrote, “I went through Medford over the bridge and up to Menotomy. In Medford I waked the Captain of the Minute Men, and after that, I alarmed almost every house till I got to Lexington.” Hall and his men saw battle with the Redcoats the next day, and fought again in the Battle of Bunker Hill, a few months later. The tall house stands as the oldest in historic Medford Square.

As I sat and drew—watching the clean-up crew from the city lift the speaker’s podium away—I attracted a couple of visitors. First came a woman who said she was an artist, too. She’s the one who tipped me off to the free lunch inside the funeral home. Next came an older couple. The man asked if I was “doing that for someone?” I said, “No, I’m just working for myself.” He then said, “When I used to do that, I noticed that the cars came in threes.” Then his wife turned to her partner and said firmly “He’s drawing a picture!” “Oh!” said the man, “that’s more interesting!” I told him that I found his “cars come in threes” observation pretty interesting, and they walked away. The whole day was interesting. I’m glad I survived it.

Church of Stones

Church

Just outside downtown Medford, on the road that Paul Revere took to Menotomy (now called Arlington) sits a rustic church of stones, as if from the European countryside. It’s the Grace Episcopal Church built in 1868 by the important American architect H.H. (Henry Hobson) Richardson early in his career. Actually, it’s his oldest building still standing.

Richardson is most well known in Boston for his landmark Trinity Church which was built a decade later in Copley Square—home of the Boston Marathon’s finish line. There are lots of Richardson-designed gems in the region, as his practice was in Brookline, Massachusetts. That said, while he was a local architect, his reputation and influence was certainly national. He, along with Chicago’s Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, are often considered the holy trinity of American architecture.

Medford’s Grace Episcopal Church is a bit unusual, in that it preceded his signature “Richardson Romanesque” style of architecture. This church was created in a Gothic Revival style, perhaps reflecting works the young architect saw in Europe when he was a student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The structure surface features rough-cut glacial rocks and granite blocks. The roof is of gray and red slate.

With the Church, stands a tall tower holding nine bells which were originally hung in 1873. The largest was given by the city of Medford to be used as the city’s fire bell. The bells were cast by the Blake Brothers Company who were successors to a famous bell foundry in the North End of Boston, founded by none other than Paul Revere himself.

 

The Lost Convent

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This is where the convent was, but that was a long time ago. You wouldn’t know it if you didn’t read the stone marker in front of the library, around the corner. Then again, the convent wasn’t here very long. Now it’s all multi-family houses.

When Paul Revere rode by, nearby, on what’s now Broadway, this was just a big empty hill called Mt. Benedict. In the late 1820s, a convent and school was built here by the Ursuline Sisters, a Catholic order of nuns who had outgrown their space in Boston. At the time, this was part of Charlestown; now it’s what’s referred to as East Somerville.

Boston and its suburbs have a large percentage of Catholics now, but up through the Revolutionary War, Catholics were not very welcome in this Puritan-founded area. Nonetheless, the Ursuline school quickly established itself as a place for educating the daughters of wealthy families—Unitarians, mostly.

Meanwhile, tensions were growing in Boston due to the newly arriving Irish (Catholics). The working-class Protestants saw them as an economic as well as a cultural threat. Preachers and publications fanned the anti-Irish hatred. There were attacks on the streets.

Soon the Ursuline convent became a object of resentment, too. This school for the rich, run by Catholics, became the subject of rumors and suspicions. There were calls for investigations following accusations of children being forced to convert, and women being held against their will. The convent was accused of being immoral and un-American.

Things boiled over on the night of August 11,1834. A riot of locals set fire to the convent. When firemen came, they chose not to act, and joined the growing crowd. Within hours, the convent was a smoking ruin.

An investigation led to some arrests, but juries failed to find anyone guilty. No compensation for the tremendous loss was ever made. No one was punished.

In time, the entire hill was taken away along with the ruins. A highway was built. A neighborhood grew.

As I walked the streets, I noticed that the intersections were named for war veterans. Irish names. Italian names. On front doors, hung palm branches from Palm Sunday. The Catholics had returned.  And on this hill of hate, a diverse neighborhood grew. I saw lots of types come and go from these houses.

After drawing, I had a burrito at the nearby Taco Loco. There, everyone spoke Spanish but me. This place attracts all the Latino immigrants. In the age of Trump, I fear that they are the new nervous.

Sinners, Saints and Subs

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I met a woman once who told me that a long time ago, she lived in an apartment above Leone’s Subs, on Broadway in Somerville. (It’s along the route that Paul Revere took to warn that the British were coming – a drawing project of mine.) She remembered that at the time, the owner of the Leone’s was asked if he’d mind if a few wires were run through his property to bring cable t.v. service to the auto body shop behind his property. He obliged without any hesitation. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what that place behind was the headquarters of the Winter Hill Gang – Boston’s Irish mob. Perhaps you’ve heard of the gang’s most famous member – Whitey Bulger. He’s the ruthless killer who was protected by the FBI  for quite a while (in exchange for information). He was tipped off, too, and escaped arrest – living for years on the run before capture in California, where he lived with his girlfriend by the beach. He’s now in jail for the rest of his life. Jack Nicholson’s role in Martin Scorcece’s film “The Departed” was loosly based on him. “Black Mass”, the actual story of Whitey Bulger, was recently filmed here in Boston and will star Johnny Depp as Whitey.

 

The Winter Hill Gang is long gone now. And their hangout on Marshall Street, behind Leone’s, has made quite a conversion. It’s a Pentecostal church now, serving an immigrant population. The neighborhood has changed. The little store that I drew in front of, was “El Valle de la Sultana Market”, with plantains and big bags of rice in the window.

 

As I drew, I watched firemen and truck drivers stop in for subs up ahead, under Leone’s big, funky neon sign. Quite a few times, some tough-looking African American guys with neck tattoos snuck up from the barbershop behind me to see what I was up to. They came back from time to time to check on my slow progress. The owner of the barbershop started coming over too, but he never smiled. He just squinted at the drawing. After a couple of hours the light had changed too much to continue, so I decided to finish things at home. The boss came over to get a last look as I packed up and I told him that I’d send the finished image by email if he’d give me his address. He went back and then returned to give me his business card. 

 

I was more than happy to send him the drawing scan. After all, I’m not stupid. His shop is called “Goodfellas Barber Shop”. 

The Cemetery Shortcut

Cemetery Tree loPaul Revere ran right through here in the still of night—right by where I was sketching. It was a cemetery then, too. He was not on a horse and he was not alerting the locals that the British were coming. Later, the British would indeed come and leave eight colonists dead and ten wounded on the Lexington Green, just a stone’s throw away.

Revere was racing back to the Reverend Jonas Clark House, where he would help usher John Hancock and Samuel Adams out of town. It would be the second time he warned them of the oncoming British. The first time, hours before, was on his famous ride. That ride had ended abruptly with his later arrest in Lincoln, Massachusetts. (Revere had decided to race on to warn the town of Concord, too, of what trouble marched in their direction.) His British captors released him soon after when they realized they had bigger things to worry about—a gathering storm of revolt. Revere hustled back to Hancock and Adams, cutting through this cemetery, a perfect shortcut. They all escaped before the British finally arrived at dawn—just hours before the Battle of Lexington.

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On a beautiful summer afternoon, I sat in the Olde Cemetery Ground drawing peacefully among many of the victims and participants of that famous battle. Captain John Parker, the leader of the Patriot troops, is buried here. So is Reverend Jonas Clark, under a large table-like marker, which, it turns out, I had used as a table for drawing. Among the gravestones I sketched is that of Jonathan Harrington, who, after being shot, crawled the short distance to his home, only to die on his doorstep before his wife. She’s buried here too, along with their relatives, in graves embraced by the roots of the huge maple tree before me.

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As I drew, tour buses came and went down the road, just out of sight. I could hear the muffled voices of the visitors as they walked around the Lexington Common. But, behind the church, only I disturbed the patriots that afternoon.

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Over the River

Image

bridge copy

The Mystic River is only seven miles long and it’s not very wide. But, it played a large role in American history. The name itself may sound familiar, as it was the title of a popular movie directed by Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn. The movie was an adaptation of the novel by Dennis Lehane, the bestselling Boston author.

On his way to Lexington, Paul Revere crossed the Mystic River by way of what is now the Cradock Bridge in Medford. The first bridge built here, in 1637, was a wooden drawbridge: the first toll bridge in New England. It was rebuilt in 1880 and 1909 according to a nearby sign. Plans are currently underway for another upgrade, at an estimated cost of 8.5 million dollars.

It was along the Mystic’s banks that Massachusetts’s first ship was built in 1631. It was the first of many. Over 500 clipper ships were built here through the 1800’s, many designed for the China trade.

This area was also known for its rum. Old Medford Rum was popular and advertised as “the best rum in the states”.

But most interesting to me, is the connection between this bridge and a song from my childhood: “Over the River and Through the Wood.” The song, which we sang in grade school, was originally written as a poem by Lydia Maria Child, the 1800’s women’s rights activist and abolitionist who grew up in Medford. In the rolling song, Child describes her Thanksgiving trip to her grandparent’s house, over an earlier bridge at this same spot.

Over the river and thru the wood, 
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh,
Thru the white and drifted snow, oh!

Over the river and thru the wood, 
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes,
 And bites the nose,
As over the ground we go.

Over the river and thru the wood,
To have a first-rate play;
Oh, hear the bell ring,
”Ting-a-ling-ling!”
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day-ay!

Milling About

When Paul Revere rode through Arlington, Massachusetts (then known as Menotomy) warning of the approaching British troops, he passed by a some old water-powered gristmills. Old to Paul Revere, that is. English Puritan colonists had first settled in the area in 1630’s and by 1637 the first mill was built, powered by the briskly running waters of the Mill Brook which drops over 150 feet in two miles. Soon others were built.

The Olde Schwamb Mill is the most well known old mill in the area. The site of the mill stands is considered the oldest continuously operating mill site in America. The mill that stands there now dates from 1864. It was rebuilt after a fire and became, under the ownership of Charles Schwamp, the foremost creator of oval picture frames in the country. Their frames can be found in nearly every major museum in the United States as well as the White House, The Vatican and Buckingham Palace. The mill avoided demolition in 1969 by a community preservation effort and appears today as if untouched for a century. It welcomes visitors as an all volunteer mill-museum.

Closer to the route of Paul Revere’s ride is The Theodore Schwamb Mill (pictured here) named for Charles Schwamb’s brother. This mill is older then the Olde Schwamb Mill and was also powered by the Mill Brook, which was reduced to trickle on my visit. Theodore’s mill manufactured high quality piano cases for the burgeoning Boston piano industry. For a time, it was the largest business in Arlington. The Schwambs, five brothers in all, were immigrants from Germany in the mid-1800’s and they employed many skilled fellow German immigrants in mills that they owned. The invention of the radio hurt the piano business and the mill turned to architectural woodworking, surviving into the 1970’s. Today, the connected mill buildings house small businesses and artist studios.