Friday, July 6, 2007

Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July

The Danvers Herald has published my column for July under the title "Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July." I like this title better than my original, which was "Route 1 Hills and July 4th Picnics." I notice that the online version was posted July 3, in advance of the printed paper on July 5. The Danvers Herald recently announced that their website would be updated more actively in order to provide late-breaking news stories. Well, my column isn't news, but I'm glad it was posted in time for the Fourth of July holiday. You'll find it in the Lifestyle section.
Or, follow this link to Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July.
[Update 2015: that link no longer works, so I am inserting the text below.]

Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July

Recently I was driving up and down a hilly section of Route 1 in Maine, and it brought to mind the old hills in Danvers. Up and down, up and down, went Route 1 in my childhood before the road was widened and the hills leveled. My grandfather, too, reminisced about the hills and told childhood stories of sliding a sled down that road in winter. He and his friends did not need to worry about oncoming traffic, he said, because they could hear the sleigh bells coming from a distance and get out of the way!  

My grandfather, born in 1872, was the youngest of eight children raised at Pine Knoll, the Nichols family homestead at the corner of Preston Street and the Newburyport Turnpike (Route 1). He described the location as halfway from Boston to Newburyport, since the halfway marker was nearby. I grew up less than a mile away. By the time of my childhood, traffic had increased considerably and horse-drawn vehicles had disappeared, so I was amazed by Granddaddy’s tales of playing on the Turnpike. He himself expressed amazement (in 1957, the year before his death) that he had witnessed so many changes along that section of road on one lifetime.

Watching holiday traffic on Route 1 was especially interesting in the days of the steep hills before 1950. The family homestead, being on a knoll near the crest of one of the hills, offered a good vantage point. Looking down the slope to the south, one could see the traffic light at the Maple Street intersection in the bottom of the valley, and the far hill climbing up by the Danvers State Hospital.   July 4th was a time of particularly heavy traffic, and also a time when our family gathered on the knoll. 

A big family reunion and picnic was held outdoors at Pine Knoll every 4th of July. The great aunts prepared sumptuous food. Aunt Margaret made a strawberry-based punch that was very popular. Aunt May created a beautiful fruit basket carved out of a watermelon and filled with delicious fruits.  Cousins came from far and wide to enjoy the day of family activities. There was a tennis court near the pine grove, and enough space between the house and barn for a softball game. Children enjoyed watermelon seed-spitting contests, chasing kittens, and looking at old stereo postcards through an antique viewer.  The Pine Knoll home, originally built by my great-grandfather Andrew Nichols in 1861, was full of treasures from the past. Modern traffic, however, was not far away.  

The traffic sounds carried to our ears, especially when cars collided. Men from our family would rush out to assist after an accident and help get the traffic moving again. That’s probably how the spectator sport of watching traffic began. My father and other men would set up lawn chairs on the knoll facing the road, and pass the afternoon watching. Collisions were quite frequent and predictable because of the big hill and the stoplight in the valley below. When that light turned red, traffic stopped and backed up far up the hill towards Pine Knoll, sometimes almost to the crest of the hill. Meanwhile cars coming south from Topsfield drove quickly over the hill unaware of the column of stopped cars just ahead. Many “fender-benders” resulted. Cars in those days (1940’s) were sturdy and able to withstand such collisions. No serious casualties, just interlocked bumpers. My father and his cousins became experienced at unhooking bumpers!  By July 1950 a cloverleaf system had replaced the traffic light and the hills had been cut down, so the problem of July 4th traffic collisions was solved. The picnics on the knoll continued for some years, until the aunts became too old and younger generations lived far away.

1 comment:

Rich said...

I remember my brother and I riding in the rumble seat of my grandfathers Model T Ford with my Dad and Grandad all the way to Maine, and the trouble we had getting up some of the hills you are talking about. Remember the big mirror on top of one of the hills, near Newburyport I think.