Saturday, December 6, 2008

Telephone memories

Do you remember life before cell phones? Before push-button phones? Before area codes?

I'm not old enough to remember the big wall-hung phones with cranks (except as seen on TV shows like Lassie), but I do recall black phones with dials.

For December's column, published today, I wrote about the telephones of my early years:

When phone numbers were short and the phone was out of reach
By Sandy Nichols Ward

As a child I was told not to touch the telephone. It was a strange and important piece of equipment that only adults could use. It was black and sat on a high shelf in the hall, higher than I could reach. Even as I grew and might have reached it, the phone was definitely off limits.

I recall that our number was 2224 with a letter at the end. The letters designated different ring patterns on a single party line. We were 2224R, perhaps, and my grandparents next door had 2224M. Or maybe they were R and we were M. Since I never used a phone in those days, I didn't know exactly how it worked, but I often heard the adults say those phrases: 2-2-2-4, 2-2-2-4-M and 2-2-2-4-R. One of the numbers was for my father's small business, located out back in the "shop" or garage. That was why it was so important not to play with the telephone. The party line had to be kept available for other people, especially for business calls.  

My father installed an intercom from the house to the shop so that my mother, who did part-time office-work there during our afternoon naps, could hear when we awoke. We could call for her and she'd quickly return to the house. No need to use the telephone, which was out of reach anyway. That was a good system for a while. But one day one of us (my sister and I each deny being the one) got up, went into the bathroom, used the toilet, and soon called out, "MOMMY, come WIPE me!" This loud plea was heard via intercom by all the employees in the garage/shop. That was the end of the intercom!

Another embarrassing story comes from my early school years. I was in 3rd grade at Maple Street School. I was asked to help in the school office. It was the first time I had been selected for such a duty. I didn't know what to expect and wasn't given much orientation or training; I just did small tasks assigned to me. At one point, however, the adults left the room and told me to sit there, watching the office. Soon afterwards, the telephone on the office desk rang. I stared at the ringing phone. paralyzed. I had never touched a phone and didn't know what to do. The phone kept ringing for a while, then stopped. An adult ran back into the office and said in a sharp voice that I should have answered it. But how would I do that? I felt ashamed and scared. I didn't know which was worse, to have failed to answer it, or to admit that I didn't even know HOW to answer it.   They never asked me again to help in the office.

I did eventually, of course, become a user of telephones. I don't remember when or how, but I do recall the feel of the holes on the round dial, and the fact that it was much harder to dial a 9 than a 1 or 2. For a 9, you had to drag your finger (pushing the dial) all the way around – without knocking the phone off its narrow shelf. Today the push-button phones are much easier, though we do have many more digits to dial. I remember when Danvers numbers added the "Spring" exchange, so our number became Spring4-2224. This morphed to 774-2224 when all-number dialing became standard.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Blueberry leaves in the fall

This month's column is now available: "The color of blueberry leaves in the fall"

I have transplanted some blueberry bushes to our yard this fall, and hope to have a local supply of tasty berries and beautiful foliage next year.

The Color of Blueberry Leaves in the Fall
By Sandy Nichols Ward

A brilliant red bush caught my eye as I walked in the woods on a late October afternoon.  Deep red leaves, some almost red-black, others brighter, vibrant in the sunshine. I stopped and stared at the suddenly familiar leaf-shape and instantly recalled my mother's voice.

"The color of blueberry leaves in the fall!"

She loved blueberry bushes and had planted quite a few in our yard in Danvers. They surrounded her laundry yard and eventually grew so high that they shaded some of the laundry, but she didn't cut them back because she so enjoyed their beauty each fall.

We also, of course, enjoyed the fruit in summer. These were small blueberries of an old-fashioned or wild type, not the highly-cultivated ones that my grandfather grew along the path by the garden. His berries were huge and he was very proud of them, but my mother always thought her small ones were tastier. As a kid I wasn't fussy about the taste or size; I'd happily eat any blueberries.

Seeing the intense red color of blueberry leaves now brought to mind a different story, not the taste of summer fruit. I could visualize the hooked rug in the small living room of my childhood home and hear again my mother's tale of its creation. She hadn't made the rug herself, but she had directed its making. Strips of old wool cloth to be used in the hooking process were dyed various colors. Red was the main background color of the rug's design, and my mother wanted the red to match "the color blueberry leaves turn in the fall." She wasn't happy with light red or pink; the red had to be dark and strong. Many samples of dyed wool were rejected until just the right shade was achieved. That's the story I heard in my childhood about a rug created before my birth.

The resulting rug, hooked by Sadie May Morse of Marblehead, was unique and beautiful. Its design had been inspired by a "tree of life" pattern on a small Swedish rug. Sadie enlarged the pattern and incorporated into it various images and symbols that were meaningful to my parents. An image of them dancing together appeared near the center, not far from an image of their small house. The date of their wedding (1940) was hooked into one corner, their initials NPN and JCN in other corners, and the date of the rug (1942) in the fourth corner.

Over the years of living with that rug, we laughed often about its color and colorful history.  In truth, the red background color varied considerably. First of all, the wool strips had come from different sources and did not all take the dye in the same way. Later, sunshine from the windows gradually faded the dyed colors, so the rug became more muted in tone as time passed. There was also the unfortunate day when a house-painter and his can of white paint fell onto the rug. My mother was furious that he had leaned his ladder against the front door. The unlocked door burst open, sending ladder, painter, and paint into the living room! She cleaned the rug as best she could, and no evidence of the accident was visible for a while, unless you bent the rug and looked closely between the loops of wool. As the rug became worn, however, more and more of the white paint residue was revealed. Still, the dominant color was red, reminding us of the lovely color of blueberry leaves in the fall.

[published in the Danvers Herald in print and online November 6, 2008]

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Red leaves

On a recent walk in a wooded area near a reservoir, an intensely red bush caught my attention. I stopped to admire it and took this photograph. Such memories flashed in my mind! I'm writing about them for the next column.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Halloween Independence

This month's column in the Danvers Herald (first Thursday of the month) tells another Halloween story. Last year I wrote about the Screech Owl incident, which happened when I was very young; this time I've written about a Halloween when I was older and wanted to trick-or-treat without a parental escort.

See "Halloween Independence" (below), which was published online October 1, 2008.

I want to thank my friend Peggy Melanson for encouraging me to put this story down in writing. I attended one of her story-telling workshops several years ago and happened to tell this Halloween story when it was my turn to practice telling a tale. Ever since, Peggy has urged me to write it down and to submit it to my hometown paper. Finally I did.

Remembering Danvers
Written Oct 2007; revised slightly Sept 2008

Halloween Independence
By Sandy Nichols Ward

When my sister and I were young, but feeling old enough to go Trick-or-Treating on our own, we pleaded with our parents to let us go alone. We wanted to walk down Nichols Street in our costumes and not have parents in tow. Our parents were quite resistant to this idea, perhaps because of the long, dark, wooded section between our house and the cluster of houses to the south. All our friends lived down near Durkee Circle or beyond. No other children lived up near us. Our friends were able to go walk Trick-or-Treating without their parents; we wanted to do the same.

Today those woods are gone, eliminated by construction of Route 95, which divided Nichols Street into two disconnected segments. (The upper portion has been renamed Conifer Hill Drive.) I’m writing about the earlier era, when Nichols Street was continuous and had a stretch without houses or lights. Stonewalls, trees and fields bordered the road. Near the end of one field was a dirt pullout or parking spot that was often strewn with litter. It was by far our best hunting ground for collecting bottle caps, but that’s a story for another day. My sister and I rarely encountered people drinking there, nor did we have fears of the place, but no doubt our parents were concerned about possible dangers, especially at night.

I don’t remember what costumes we wore that Halloween, but I clearly recall the sequence of events in our steps towards independence. First we pleaded and then we negotiated. Our parents reluctantly agreed that we could venture forth alone, but they insisted that we go first in the opposite direction to Granddaddy and Nana’s house. That seemed reasonable, so we agreed. We prepared with much anticipation and set forth all by ourselves on the well-beaten path through our yard and around by the old garage towards our grandparents, who lived next door. The passageway between that garage and the stonewall was narrow, tree-covered, and quite dark. We strode along with confidence, happy to be on our own. 

A sudden deep “BOO!” shouted from the far corner of the garage stopped us in our tracks. Out jumped a strange and frightening creature! It towered above us with big silver eyes shining brightly, reflecting the light of our flashlights. “Boo!” it said again, and lowered its pointed head to inspect us. We were terrified!  Never had we seen such a creature, tall and white and angular. We shrieked and ran as fast as we could back to our house. No more independence for us, not with that scary thing out there!

Mommy reassured us and calmed us down. Then she let us in on a secret: Daddy was inside that creature. What a surprise! We never expected him to dress up for Halloween.  Well, that changed everything! We were quite willing to go Trick-or-Treating with him now. We were proud and happy to escort this creature down Nichols Street. It was such fun to watch the reactions of friends and neighbors. 

We all marveled at the costume Daddy created. It was tall, much taller than his 6-foot height; he looked out through a small hole in its chest. Inside, he used a pole to hold up and manipulate the head. Long sheets of white cloth (old sails from his boat) draped to the ground. Huge webbed feet, painted yellow, protruded in front. “Goon feet,” he called them. The Goon head was triangular with a long beak, and rectangular eyes made of aluminum cases (from his hearing-aid factory). As he lowered the head to “look” at small children, he could also wag a tail section of fabric behind him, using another hidden pole. The Goon was a very engaging, animated creature – fun to interact with after we had recovered from our fright.

I’ll never forget that Goon costume and the way it changed our minds about allowing a parent to accompany us on Halloween night. What a clever father! He used that costume again on other occasions. He even skied in it during ski carnivals at Locust Lawn. His Goon costume was always a tremendous success and he clearly enjoyed the role. I’m glad he chose such a creative way to confront our premature push for Halloween independence.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Another Nathan

A new member of our family has been given the middle name Nathan in honor of my father, Nathan P. Nichols.

This is my new grandson, Alec Nathan Singer, at the age of 4 days. I am currently with him and his family in California.

I hope someday to tell Alec Nathan about his wonderful great-grandfather. In the meantime, I'm writing the stories down.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

W1HVN calling...

My column about High Voltage Nick was published yesterday in the Danvers Herald, print and online.

High Voltage Nick
By Sandy Nichols Ward

"High Voltage Nick. This is Double-you One Aitch Vee En, Henry-Victor-Nancy,  W-1-H-V-N,  High Voltage Nick calling …"

I remember my father's clear and confident voice as he announced himself on the air waves, "This is W 1 High Voltage Nick." Daddy loved to talk on his Ham radio. He used a hand-held transmitter with a button on it and a long curly cord looping down to the box under the dashboard of his station wagon. He'd  hold the device near his mouth, press the button, and talk into it. "Calling CQ CQ CQ."

He probably also had radio equipment in the house, but my strongest memories are of the mobile unit. I watched and listened while riding beside him in the car. It sounded like "seek you, seek you, seek you." That is exactly what he was doing, seeking out someone in the invisible radio-land who might want to talk with him at that moment. "Calling CQ and waiting for a call."

It was a game with a language of its own, which I barely understood. But the patter of it became familiar, the sing-song repetition of cryptic phrases that composed a conversation between Hams, the amateur radio operators.  "K Please." "Over."

How many callers could he find? How far away were they? How well was his radio working? "Thanks for the call."  "So how do you copy?" As an electrical engineer, Nick liked tinkering with and improving his equipment. Could he get a good signal from a far-distant location?  One day he was excited that he had reached someone in Russia, another day Germany.  He had a collection of postcards displaying call signs from other Ham operators, evidence of long-distance connections made.

Much of the activity, however, was local. He volunteered regularly for Civil Defense exercises in Danvers. I heard many stories of the Monday nights practices. Hidden transmitter hunts were his favorites, judging by the twinkle in his eye as he told of the adventures. One ham would hide his car and transmit signals while the others tried – using the radio transmissions – to locate him. Nick often won these hide-and-seek contests, especially when it was his turn to hide. You might think it hard to hide a whole station wagon, especially one transmitting radio signals and required to be within the boundaries of Danvers. Not so. Nick enjoyed selecting clever locations. The huge gravel pit north of our hill worked well (blocking signals on south side), as did a spit of land in Danversport accessible only from Peabody, but with strong signals directly across the river in Danvers. High Voltage Nick was actively transmitting, but could not be found within the allotted time. He relished telling these tales.

Beyond the fun and games, Ham operators performed important services. Nick was proud whenever Ham operators helped in emergencies or at public service events, using their skill and equipment to relay messages. Remember that this started long before cellphones became common. My father's mobile unit and his Amateur Radio license allowed him to participate in a very useful, alternative, communication network. This network  still continues today. The North Shore Radio Association ( holds monthly meetings and helps provide radio communication for public service events in Essex County.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ham Radio

I'm writing now about my father's hobby as an amateur radio operator. As I search the Internet to learn more about Ham Radio and be sure of appropriate wording, I have found interesting articles and websites. I was particularly curious about the hide-and-seek games my father had played in Danvers. These are called "Hidden Transmitter Hunts" or "hidden mobile transmitter hunts" or T-hunts, for short. The paragraph below, quoted from an article "Let's Go T-Hunting" copyright 2001 by Joseph D. Moell of California, could have been written about my father, who often won the Monday night contests in Danvers by successfully hiding his station wagon and its mobile radio:

"T-hunters have become very sophisticated at finding dastardly hiding places. With the right combination of location and antenna, they make it difficult for hunters to get reliable bearings. Like a ventriloquist, a good hider can make the signal appear to be coming from some other location. With careful planning (and a little luck), the signal's characteristics can cause the hunters to approach the transmitter from the most difficult direction, with impassable roads or other obstructions, even though the T may be easily accessible via other routes. Perhaps the hider will camouflage the setup so well that the hunters won't find the transmitter unless they literally trip over it." by Joe Moell KØOV

Monday, August 25, 2008

George and Pat Ruth

Today I am remembering George and Pat Ruth, who lived for many years in Danvers and were very close friends of my parents. As a young couple they lived near Essex Aggie school. My father met them and invited George to coming sailing. Years later George described the thrill of that first race in my father's 16-ft Town Class boat. Pat and George became enthusiastic crew members for years of sailing. They also were avid skiers and dancers. They loved life and were devoted to each other.

Years later George and Pat lived in Torrington, CT, where he taught school. My father and I visited him there sometime after Pat had died of cancer. George, retired, was pursuing his passion of restoring an old airplane. When he finished his plane, he was delighted to fly again. (He had been a fighter pilot in WWII.) In 2000 he moved to WindSock Village (West Ossipee, NH), a community designed for pilots of small planes. Every house has its own hangar and roadsigns announce "Yield to Crossing Aircraft." I visited George in June 2007, sat in his hanger, and watched airplanes taxi by. By then he could no longer fly, but he was happy he had lived "0 to 80 in perfect health".

Yesterday I called to ask George something about my father's Ham radio hobby (another interest they had shared), but his phone had been disconnected. Oh, no. I've learned that he died on July 3rd, age 85. I found his obituary online. His belongings will be sold in an estate sale at his house in WindSock Village tomorrow.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Don't step on the snakes!

This month's column describes some encounters with snakes at our home in Danvers.

Don't step on the snakes!
By Sandy Nichols Ward

"Don't step on the snakes!" my mother said as we headed out the front door. She was a nature lover who taught us to respect wildlife. A family of garter snakes had taken up residence under the large granite block we used as our door step. The snakes liked to bask there in the sun. We learned to open the front door slowly and give the snakes time to slither out of the way. It was fun to watch  them move, especially the little ones.

The snakes caused us no harm and we were not to harm them. My mother never expressed fear of snakes, so we weren't afraid. As children we had a healthy curiosity about the snakes who shared our yard. I must confess that sometimes I may have scared or traumatized a young snake as I picked it up to examine or put in a box to keep as a pet.  I liked the yellow stripes along the body and the smooth feel of its skin. My mother had mixed feelings, though, about captive snakes. She encouraged our interest in wildlife and was glad that we wanted close-up experience. After all, she was the one who initiated the capture of polliwogs each spring and set an aquarium on the kitchen table so we could watch them grow into frogs. She helped us feed lettuce to the turtles we captured and kept in a box. So the idea of keeping a snake in a box seemed acceptable, at least for a while. But when we discovered the box empty and could not locate the escaped snake,  my mother was upset. Whether she was more concerned for the poor snake or had qualms of her own about a loose snake inside the house, I never knew. I was preoccupied at the time with the loss of my little pet.

On one occasion my mother did express serious concern about a snake and told us to stand back while she called Gilbert Merrill, a friend and naturalist who worked at Boston's Museum of Science. This snake was large, much larger that any garter snake. And its coloration was different: brown with mottled patterns shaped somewhat like diamonds across its back. It was coiled in a deep pile of leaves in a small space behind our house bounded by the main foundation, the el extension on the kitchen, and the concrete steps from the back door. In other words, the snake was cornered in a three-sided pocket. We had run up the steps suddenly and startled the snake, which then shook its tail in alarm, making quite a rattling sound. Thus my mother reported a possible diamond-backed rattlesnake in our yard. Gibby responded excitedly: if we really had a rattler,  he'd drive right out to see it; rattlesnakes were so rare in New England! He described to my mother the characteristics she should look for to distinguish it from the more common Eastern Milk Snake. A milk snake could shake its tail like a rattler, and if in dry leaves, a rattling sound might be produced. Milk snakes hunt and eat mice and other small rodents, so they are considered beneficial to have around houses or barns.   We were pleased to discover that the big snake by our back door was indeed a milk snake. We let it remain, and from time to time would see it again in our yard. We learned to walk carefully and be observant of nature around us, so as not to step on snakes in our path.

Thursday, August 7, 2008


I've been sailing in a small cruising boat this month: 5 days in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and then 5 days sailing from Salem Harbor to the coastal waters of New Hampshire. These trips have brought back many memories of sailing with my father. It was exciting to sail in Salem Harbor and see Marblehead Harbor --where my father kept his boat-- in the distance. I'll probably write something soon about sailing...

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Backyard Swings

Today's column describes the special swing my father hung in our backyard.

A Short Rope Created a Wonderful Swing!
By Sandra Nichols Ward

My father decided to hang a swing from the ash tree behind our house. He prepared a wooden seat and acquired a long strong rope. Partway through the process of hanging the swing, however, he commented that the rope was too short. One end of the rope was already tied securely around a very high branch. I don't know how he managed to do that; he must have climbed up the tree and crawled far out on that big limb. The other end of the rope had been threaded through the wooden seat – down through one hole, across the bottom under the seat, and up through the second hole. But there wasn't enough rope to reach back up to the overhead limb. Oh! What now? My father tied the loose end, as high up as it would go, to the rope on the other side. This created a triangle about five feet tall in which we could sit or stand. We then tested the swing and began to discover the joys of a one-rope swing.

A swing with two parallel ropes would move back and forth, back and forth, in a predictable pattern. But this new swing could move in any direction! You could be pushed around in a huge circle and then spin as you moved. Fun!

All ages enjoyed our swing.  The littlest child could be held on a parent's lap while swinging gently. A young child could be pushed in a small arc, or pushed back and forth like a traditional swing. Older children invented many ways to play with the swing. I remember flopping across it, letting the seat support my chest, then running with my legs until launched like an airplane, flying around with my arms out-stretched. Whee!

The most exciting swing experiences started at the tree. A step ladder leaned up against the trunk. One of us would climb the ladder, while another handed up the swing. If you stood near the top of the ladder, you could then put the swing's triangle over your body until the seat was behind you, grab the ropes, lean back slightly and swing down away from the tree. Whoosh! The joy of launching successfully from the tree was splendid and you had the maximum swing out across the yard. On the return swing, however, you had a challenge. That very big ash tree was coming up fast; you had to be careful not to leave your head or feet sticking out too far. To avoid crashing into the tree, we learned to push a bit sideways as we launched. Then the swing would move in a curved path and just brush by the tree as it circled back.

The boldest kids in the neighborhood would climb beyond the ladder, scoot out sideways onto a large branch, positioning the swing below their legs by holding onto the side ropes, and then jump. That initial drop was thrilling or terrifying, depending on your age and perspective.

One of the games with the swing involved clothespins. A clothesline ran from the ash tree to the pear tree. It was out of the way of the swing, but if you swung in a wide enough circle, you could touch it. If you were quick and clever, you could capture a clothespin from it, or add a clothespin onto the line. The next person on the swing could add, or take, another one. I don't recall the scoring system, but I do remembering enjoying this clothespin challenge.

Oh, the fun we had with that swing! I'm glad my father's rope was too short.

Recently I sent a draft of this column to several old Danvers friends who had played in our yard. I asked about their memories (if any) of the rope swing. Janet wrote, "Oh yes do I remember. The many bruises on my knees hitting the tree on the way back. I remember the boards ... laid on the ground so our feet wouldn't hit the mud on the rainy spring days."

Gordon remembered that we also had a glider swing next to the path to my grandfather's house. He would swing on that while waiting for us to come out and play. Gordon also recalled the trapeze over by my father's shop. "Ray Dirks and I would hang by our heels upside down to see who could stay on the longest. We would hang by our toes also."

I had almost forgotten about that trapeze! I loved to swing on it and to hang by my knees, letting my long hair and arms hang down and almost brush the ground. I never attempted the more daring positions the boys tried.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Which Joshua Ward?

The question, "Which Joshua Ward?", has surfaced several times in my life. Today I have posted a webpage with photographs and my musings on the subject, prompted by a recent visit to Salem. I hope you enjoy it; see Which Joshua Ward?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lace from Orient?

No. The wedding veil I wore in 1965 was not from the Orient, though my mother thought so at that time. It made a good story for the newspaper: "Sandra Nichols, Wearing Antique Lace from Orient, Weds ..."
"Her veil of luminous lace was brought from the Far East in a clipper ship by her great-great-great-grandfather, Joshua Ward, for the marriage of his daughter, Mary Holyoke Ward, in 1833 to Andrew Nichols, son of Major Andrew Nichols of the American Revolution." Don't believe everything you read! The veil was probably imported from Europe, according to a textile expert I later consulted. That style of veil was used in Massachusetts in the 1820's and 1830's.
Other corrections: The sea captain was Mary's grandfather (my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Joshua Ward).

Friday, June 6, 2008

Wedding Anniversary

Happy 37th Wedding Anniversary to Emily and Tom Haggerty! Emily wore the "Nichols veil" on June 6, 1971. (Photo at Glen Magna reception.) She was the 6th bride in the Nichols family to do so. I was the 5th. This month's column is about that veil: "A wedding veil from 1833 survives today."

For more information about the veil and links to more photographs, see my webpage on An Old Wedding Veil.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

1833 veil

This column was published in the Danvers Herald June 5, 2008.

A Wedding Veil from 1833 Survives Today
By Sandy Nichols Ward

"What Nichols veil?," asked my mother just days before my wedding. A great aunt had mentioned the "Nichols veil" and wondered if I wanted to wear it. I had been attempting, without much success, to sew my own veil, so I was eager for a solution. Borrowing an old veil seemed worth a try, though my mother fretted that its color might not match my gown. She need not have worried; the antique veil turned out to be remarkably white, and a perfect complement to my dress. 

I learned that four brides on my father's side of the family had worn this veil before me, starting in 1833! I was thrilled to be wearing it in June 1965. The beautiful patterns woven into the silk looked especially nice against my long brown hair and simple gown, and I enjoyed the fact that I was wearing a family heirloom. I didn't at the time investigate the history of the veil or the brides before me, other than to note the interesting coincidence that the first bride was a Ward marrying into the Nichols family, while I was a Nichols marrying a Ward!

After the wedding, my mother intended to return the veil to Aunt May's bureau drawer, but Aunt May, then in her 90's, preferred that we keep it. My mother took care of storing it, and later lent it to another Nichols bride, my cousin Emily. She married Tom Haggerty on June 6, 1971; they are celebrating their 37th anniversary this week. 

Emily's older sister Nancy had worn the veil in 1955. Nancy and Emily's aunt, Florence Ballou Nichols, had worn it in 1931. Florence's aunt, Nellie Chapman Nichols, had worn it in 1903 as she married Charles Henry Preston. According to a newspaper account,  "The bride … wore white silk and a veil of lace which had been worn 70 years ago by her grandmother." That grandmother was Mary Holyoke Ward (1800-1880) of Salem who married Dr. Andrew Nichols (1785-1853) on October 3, 1833. Their son Andrew built a cottage in Danvers in 1861. Thus began "Pine Knoll", the Nichols family homestead at 198 Preston Street where Nellie and her many siblings – including my great aunt May, my grandfather William, and Emily and Nancy's grandfather Joshua – were raised.  The veil was kept in that home for years.  

Today this veil from 1833 rests safely in an acid-free box at the Danvers Historical Society. Emily and I donated it in January 2000. We had become convinced that it was too fragile to withstand further wear and tear. That it survived this long is quite surprising, given the many more substantial objects that have vanished since 1833. Aunt May died in 1966 and the wonderful old Pine Knoll house, full of antiques, burned to the ground in 1975. The knoll has been flattened and covered with condominiums. Nichols Street, on which I lived from birth 'til marriage, was cut apart by Route 95 and most of Nichols Hill, including the old barn built in 1856, was destroyed in that highway construction. Since 1965, I have moved many times. The veil remained with my parents in Danvers for some years (in a house that no longer exists), but later it was stored, rolled on a tube, in a closet in my California home. It moved back to New England with me in 1992, but was ignored until 1998, when my daughter began planning her wedding. I consulted experts and had the veil carefully cleaned before taking it to California for her to examine. The airlines even lost the package for a while! My daughter chose not to wear it in 1999, so I brought it back to New England. I was quite delighted to return this special wedding veil to Danvers for safe-keeping.

Click on the image to enlarge it.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Pine Knoll Re-visited

Throughout my childhood I visited "Pine Knoll", the old house hidden in pine trees on a knoll at the corner of Preston Street and Route 1. People told me that it was my great grandfather's house, but I never met him. He had died in 1921; my visits were in the 1940's, 1950's, and 1960's. To me, it was the home of (great) Aunt May, (great) Aunt Margaret, and cousins Annie and Marion. These nice old ladies served lemonade in summer and ribbon candy at the holidays and sometimes let me play with an old doll house, or little kittens on the porch. Cousin Marion taught me to knit. Cousin Annie taught me to play piano. Their parakeet could say "Pretty, pretty, pretty bird!" and "Merry Christmas!" The house had many rooms, most of them quite dark and overfilled with family furniture, portraits, and history. It was a place where time seemed to stand still.

I re-visited Pine Knoll this week. I walked among the pines, took photos of what remains (not much), and looked again through my files of old papers about this family homestead. I re-read an 1881 newspaper article entitled The Nichols Museum. This detailed description of the house and its contents matches what I remember! In the 1960's the Pine Knoll house was like a museum. My father found an 1899 photograph of the parlor and took a similar photo himself. He observed that two chairs had changed places and a few other details varied, but the scene was remarkably unchanged.

Change, of course, is what I notice now. I'd been away for decades. As I walked around "Hathorne Greene", the condominium development now on the Pine Knoll land (which formerly was the Prince farm), I met a resident who described it as one of the most beautiful places to live in Danvers. He's been there since 1988 -- that's 20 years, about the same length of time in which I experienced Pine Knoll.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Prince Burial Ground

Today I found some notes relevant to this month's column:

"...the Prince Burial Ground at Beaver Brook in Danvers... about 300 ft east of the Station called Ferncroft on the Boston & Main Railroad (Eastern Division)."

"Robert Prince who came to Salem 1656 and bought the Prince Farm of one hundred eighty acres where St. John's College now stands. He married Sarah Warren daughter of John Warren of Watertown. She was 'cried out as a witch' and was removed to Boston jail where she died awaiting trial."

[These notes I had copied some years ago --at a cousin's home-- from a fragile old notebook written in 1922 by my great aunt Mary Eliot Nichols.]

I also found a photocopy of an article in the Danvers Mirror dated May 7, 1881. The article describes a visit to the home of Andrew Nichols. The opening paragraph contains several mentions of the "Prince farm": "This farm originally extended... " (see whole article).

Monday, May 5, 2008

May 5th

On May 5th I always think of my mother. Many of her favorite flowers are blooming: daffodils, bleeding hearts, and Lily-of-the-Valley. She was particularly fond of Flowering Dogwoods; we often drove south at this time of year to view the large dogwood trees lining the streets near her childhood home in Connecticut. She transplanted several dogwoods to Danvers, where we enjoyed their blossoms each May.

May 5th was her birthday. She would have been 96 this year; unfortunately she died just short of 64. I have reached the age of 64 and am glad to be in good health, able to work in the garden and appreciate the beauty of this wonderful season in New England.

This month's column mentions my mother in the opening line, but is really about my own discovery of some earlier family connections. It was published in the Danvers Herald May 1st, titled "John Prince mystery solved."  2015 update: the link to the 2008 published version no longer works, so I've replaced it with a copy of the text from my computer:

John Prince
By Sandy Nichols Ward

"We would have named you John Prince if you had been a boy," my mother said as we stood in front of a headstone in a small graveyard near Spring Street. Me, with a different name? Me, as a boy? Questions swirled in my young head, but I didn't speak. I was too busy thinking about my mother's comment and wondering why anyone would select a name off a gravestone. Perhaps she liked the sound of a name like John Prince Nichols.  The moment passed and she never again mentioned this name possibility.

I wish I had thought to ask, Who was John Prince? Are we related to the Princes? Those questions didn't occur to me until many years later, long after my mother had died. I was then living in California and preparing to make a trip back to New England. My sister and I planned to visit Danvers together. She was living in New Mexico. We had often thought it would be fun to make a joint visit east, but we were busy and years had passed. Finally, we decided to give ourselves a deadline; we chose to attend the May 1992 unveiling of the Salem Village Witchcraft Victims' Memorial. We were glad that Danvers was publicly acknowledging this controversial history and we were interested in witnessing the 300th anniversary ceremony.  

As we prepared for the trip, I became curious about whether we were really related to one of the accused witches. We'd heard some talk (or whispers) in the family about a possible connection, but lacked details. I hadn't paid much attention to family genealogy. We used to joke about the idea, and then shrug it off with some comment about being glad to be on the innocent side (accused of witchcraft), rather than being related to an accuser. In 1992 I pulled out a file of family genealogical papers my mother had left me and began to look through the names. The strongest clue I found was a Sarah Warren  marked "d. in jail 1692."  I went to the library and looked through books about Salem witchcraft history.  Book after book, index after index – no Sarah Warren. I almost gave up, but tried one more book. Aha! The index listed Sarah Warren as the maiden name of Sarah Osborn.  Oh, my! I recognized that name, as many of the books had had whole chapters devoted to Sarah Osborn(e) or Osburn. I began reading…

I learned that Sarah married a man named Robert Prince and had two sons, James and Joseph. After her husband died young, she needed help with the large Prince property, and hired a servant named Alexander Osburn. He lived in the main house "without benefit of marriage" – a scandal in Puritan society. Sarah was not well-regarded and did not attend church. Later she married Osburn. By some accounts she was mentally ill, or old and unhealthy, by the time she was accused of being a witch. She was taken to jail in Boston, and died there on May 10, 1692 before she was tried. Sarah was thus the first to die in the Salem witchcraft crisis. Her sons later sued in court to regain control of the Prince property, which had shifted to Osburn because of their mother's remarriage. I am descended from Joseph Prince.

Where was this Prince property?  I assume it was along Spring Street and included the graveyard of Prince headstones. Sarah's house used to be there, but was moved to 272 Maple Street by 1914, according to a photo my sister and I saw at the Danvers Historical Society. We found an identical  photo among our family papers, with clear writing on the back by my great aunt indicating that Sarah had been taken as a witch from this house in 1692. So my "discovery" of this family connection to Sarah wasn't new – just new to me.  During my 1992 visit, I tried to find the Prince gravestones, but did not know exactly where to look. Now that I am retired, perhaps I should try again. I'm still curious to learn about John Prince.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Pond memories

Last month's column about the pond on Nichols Street continues to draw comments (posted on the Danvers Herald site) from people with very fond memories of childhood experiences in that neighborhood. The idea of a mini reunion has been expressed. I'm delighted!

Saturday, April 19, 2008


While visiting a cousin in California April 9th, I showed him the Danvers Herald website and my recent column. Someone had added a Comment below the column. We both enjoyed reading the comment and recognizing that it was written by another cousin who lives far away. We all remember that pond in Danvers!

Today I re-visited the webpage and discovered another Comment. [To view the Comments page, click here.] I wrote in response:

Thanks for your comments! I enjoy reading about YOUR memories, too. So many of us skated, or tried to, on that pond. I remember awkward attempts with double-bladed skates tied on the bottom of my boots. My grandfather (William S. Nichols) also skated with clip-on skates, but he was good at it. My parents loved to play ice-hockey, both on this pond and down on the meadows (off Spring Street? and next to former railroad bed). My mother was proud of her hockey skates -- never used figure skates. I was happier when I finally had my own figure skates, tho I never was as avid a skater as my mom. We also skated on a pond on Ferncroft Road. That's where I learned to skate backwards [see my first Remembering Danvers column, March 1, 2007].

We were very fortunate to grow up with so much space to play in and explore. The pet racoons were mine, found in the trees nearby. Yes, I remember the cows grazing in the fields across the street. My mother told me she once saw a cow looking into my baby carriage; she was worried that I'd be scared, but I was smiling. I recall a Mr. Hooper bringing the cows, and once he stepped on a beehive and had to be hospitalized to recover from all the stings. Years later I remember the sadness of so many cows killed all at once, and the oddity that one calf survived. How strange that the lightning reached the cows down in that hollow; they must have been very close to a tall tree.

I'm glad the little pond survives. So much else has changed beyond recognition.

Friday, April 4, 2008


I'm delighted to see the Danvers Herald article posted online today about the Archives: History lives at the Archives. Mr. Trask has been helpful as I've researched background information for some of my columns.

High Water in Spring

Every spring when I see rising water in rivers or ponds I recall childhood memories of our pond. This month's column, "High water in spring brings happy memories," includes a photo of our little house by the pond.  (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Here is the text I submitted to the paper:

High Water in Spring
By Sandy Nichols Ward, 4/1/2008

This old photo has been sitting above my desk for several years. It shows the little house that was my home as a child. The view is across the pond in springtime, when the water was high. Today driving in western Massachusetts, I saw high water beside the road almost touching a little garage and I thought back to the spring times of my childhood when pond water rose into our yard.

I love this photo and the memories it brings of that house, yard, and pond. I lived there 14 years, growing from baby to teenager. I experienced many a wet spring, wading around in rubber boots, catching polliwogs in the pond with my mother, and hauling the pails up to the house. We put our catch into a small glass aquarium and watched each day as the tiny tadpoles grew. They gradually developed legs and turned into tree frogs, at which point we had to catch them again and release them outside.

My sister and I had many opportunities for water play, not only at the edge of the pond, but also along the street and in our cellar. We lived below a hillside spring. My mother waged an on-going battle with water drainage along Nichols Street, trying to divert the small but steady flow away from our house. We often heard our parents talk about our wet cellar – how to drain it, or dry it, or seal it to prevent the entry of more water. Over the years we came to understand the futility of our efforts and the certainty of a wet cellar. When my father applied a waterproof paint to seal the floor, a long thin crack broke the surface and let the water seep in again, often making a faint "singing" sound. The pitch of the water song changed slightly as we stepped near the crack. My father drilled a drain hole in the south wall to let the water flow out towards the pond, but sometimes rising pond water came IN that way!  I remember watching my mother do laundry, standing there in her boots in several inches of water as she pulled the wash from the washing machine and fed sheets and towels through the wringer.

In spite of the high water that sometimes invaded our yard and cellar, we loved that pond.  We watched muskrats swim across the pond and build themselves a home. We set up a wood duck nest box (constructed from a recycled World War II ammo box, following instructions from the Boston Museum of Science) and watched generations of wood ducks come and go. In winter we skated on the pond; in summer we rowed or paddled in small boats with my father. In August when the loosestrife plants bloomed, my sister and I walked among the hummocks and examined the now-dry pond bottom.

My father took photos of the pond from our house in all seasons; we delighted in showing that series of seasonal slides to visitors. But this photo is not by my father, and it is the opposite view, probably taken from the edge of the hay field behind my grandfather's house next door. On the back of the photo frame is the date May 4, 1941, and the name of the photographer, Bill Goding, Yonkers, N.Y.  I recognize May 4 as my grandfather's birthday, and Yonkers as the address of my uncle Edward H. Nichols; I'm guessing that the photographer was a friend of Edward's who traveled up for a birthday visit. This little house by the pond had been built by my grandfather in 1940 as a rental. My parents, married in 1940, started in this house while seeking other housing. What started as a temporary convenience became home for our family until 1957, when we moved across the street into a large new house on the hill, safely beyond the reach of rising pond water.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Making Maple Syrup

'Tis the season of warming days and cold nights, when the sap in the maple trees flows up and down. I have fond memories of my mother making maple syrup for our family. As a child I took this for granted, just a routine activity that any family with access to maples trees would do. Later, when I heard that a Danvers Girl Scout troop was coming to watch Mrs. Nichols make maple syrup, I realized that this was a special skill from the past. Please read this month's column, published today under the headline "Making Maple Syrup."

Here is the text I submitted to the Danvers Herald:

Making Our Own Maple Syrup
By Sandy Nichols Ward

Every spring my mother made maple syrup. I helped hang the coffee cans, blue Crisco cans, and other saved cans onto the collection spouts on the sugar maple trees. My father had drilled holes for the taps, and put a metal spout in each. We used the big maple trees that grew along both sides of the old carriage road, or 'back avenue', of the former Locust Lawn estate. My parents said we couldn't tap the young trees, only the older ones that had sap to spare.

The sap was a disappointment at first. I thought it would be sweeter. It tasted mostly like water, just slightly sweet. Better than the sap were the icicles sometimes found hanging from maple tree branches. I liked to hold the sap icicle ('sapcicle') in my mitten and suck on it. Of course, best of all would be the maple syrup, but that came later, after much more work.

First we had to gather the sap. My sister and I helped to empty the cans of sap into a larger pail. We carefully picked out twigs and moths that had fallen into the cans, which lacked covers. (Years later I helped in a sugaring operation in Vermont, and saw the metal coverings that slid over real sap buckets, but at home in Danvers we were simply using available cans and pails -- not special equipment.)

My parents used old bricks to build an outdoor fireplace within the foundation of the former mansion overlooking Locust Lawn. The mansion had been torn down in 1944. Huge granite cornerstones and sections of foundation walls remained, providing shelter from the wind. A stairway of granite steps led from the ground level down into the east end of the foundation. That's where we brought the pails of sap.   My mother set a large rectangular metal pan on top of the brick fire pit.  She poured sap into the shallow pan and waited for it to heat to boiling.

Tending the fire in that outdoor stove was a big part of the operation. We had to gather lots of wood. "Go get the dead wood -- the grey, not the green, so it won't get too smoky," she'd say to neighborhood children who came to watch and help. There was always some smoke, of course, and it often blew right into our faces as we stood watching the hot sap. The trick was to move to the other side of the pan, away from the smoke and steam. Shifts in air currents frequently changed where the smoke rose, so we'd move back and forth, trying to protect our eyes from the sting of too much smoke. I don't think we children stayed there very long. The job of stirring the sap while it boiled down to syrup was really my mother's job. She had the patience for it, and knew just how long to keep the process going.  It took hours! The hot liquid had to get to a certain consistency. To test, she would lift the stirring spoon above the pan and watch how drops formed and moved along the edge of that spoon.  The slower the drops, the thicker the liquid, and the closer it was to real maple syrup.

I remember fondly the sweet smells of boiling sap and wood smoke, and of course the sweet taste of the syrup we ate on our waffles and pancakes. My father even liked to pour maple syrup on vanilla ice cream! We never used store-bought cane-based syrup; it didn't taste right. Some of my parents' friends in New Hampshire and Vermont also made maple syrup and gave us beautifully packaged cans, so we always had a bountiful supply. Delicious!  

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Photos of Nick

This winter while writing about my father's business and skiing, I also sorted through old boxes of papers and photographs. I have now created an album of photos of my father -- too many to post in this blog. This has been fun, and I hope you enjoy the results.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Ski tows

My father was clever at constructing ski tows. According to an old (1939?) newspaper clipping, he and his friend Karl Struss built a portable tow that could be taken wherever snow conditions were favorable. "Calling themselves the Hub Portable Ski Tow, 'Nick' and his partner have considered their first season...a success and have enjoyed business amounting to well over a hundred skiers a day. They have operated in Bristol, N.H., Newton and Reading, and have received very favorable comment by several leading sports writers and columnists in Boston papers. A picture of their tow in operation at the Braeburn country club, Newton, their latest resting place, was featured in the Christian Science Monitor of Feb 2." [1939]   See scanned image of the photo my father sent me (in 1988) along with the old article, which might be from the Boston Herald or the Danvers Herald.

In Danvers, I remember a portable ski tow engine mounted onto a toboggan. My father would bring it down through the Locust Lawn woods to a steep, short hill we called "Cranmore" (located just east of "Grandmother's Rock"). He would tie the toboggan securely to a tree at the top of the slope, then unwind the ropetow and attach its pulley to a tree at the bottom of the hill. As I recall, the tow gave me a FAST ride up the hill, but for an average adult, the engine slowed down. When a heavy-set person needed a lift, my father would assist the engine by grabbing the return rope and skiing DOWN as the other person came up!

For the Locust Lawn Ski Club, the ski tows were fixed in place. First there was a Model T Ford running the tow for the big open slope. A second tow was built to serve the trails down through the woods. Our old 1950 Buick was parked in the woods and used to pull that longer rope. Some years later an electric motor replaced the Model T. My father called it his "electric pogo stick" because it was mounted high on a pole.

In 1996 John Nutter, a family friend, gave me this photograph of our old car "Oswald" being used as a ski tow in early 1940's. I had never heard of that! John said that he and Nick had promised in advance to bring the portable ski tow to Russell's in N.H. for a specific date, assuming that there would be no snow (thus no need for the tow) in Massachusetts. But good snow came; they didn't want to move the tow. Instead, they drove Oswald to N.H. and temporarily converted it (installed and running in 3 days) into a tow! See my previous writings about this car: Oswald in 1961 and An old family care named "Oswald" (June 7, 2007 column in Danvers Herald).

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Learning to ski

In this month's column I wrote about learning to ski at Locust Lawn. It was published in the Danvers Herald February 7, 2008 with a photo of my father holding me in his arms as he skied down the slope.
Click on the image above to enlarge it.

Or, for another look at the photo, see another version of this piece posted on this website:

In 2002 I created a webpage about skiing at Locust Lawn and sent a note to have it included in the inventory of the New England Lost Ski Areas Project (see NELSAP website).

I've also written an essay called Free Skiing, remembering the work we did to prepare for this no-cost skiing at Locust Lawn.

Home of UNEX

Here is a drawing of the "new" Nichols and Clark factory on Route 1.

Friday, February 1, 2008

An old map!

[CLICK on image for a larger version.]

My father drew this map, probably in the late 1930's or early 1940's. It shows the location of our home ("120" on silver arrow) and his business (then called "Pure Tone Hearing Aids"). It also shows the contours of the nearby hill where he and friends were developing ski trails called "Suicide Six." 

This is before the creation of the "Locust Lawn Ski Club," and before the widening of Route 1.  

This 3-fold card was probably used as a Christmas card or an invitation mailed to skiing friends. 

Here are more views of it:

Thursday, January 31, 2008

News article about Nichols & Clark

I have found an old newspaper article that gives the identity of Mr. Clark. It is undated, but I assume it is 1939 or 1940.

"... it took two enterprising Danvers young men to utilize the very latest in radio equipment in developing a device which according to recent tests should prove a boon to the many unfortunate people who are hard of hearing, and who because of limited financial means have been unable to procure adequate hearing devices.
The two men in question are Nathan P. Nichols of Preston st., Hathorne, who also recently developed a portable ski tow, and Leslie A. Clark of 26 School st. Working together since about last Christmas these two men, both of whom have had considerable experience in radio engineering have developed a marketable hearing aid which is reputed to be the first low cost wearable hearing device using the new radio tube amplifier."

[To see the whole text, click here for more legible version.]

Saturday, January 5, 2008

In his own words

My column has been published this week in the Danvers Herald:
"In his own words: my father's business."

I quoted heavily from a piece my father wrote in 1996, about six months before he died. If you'd like to read his original piece, click here.

In His Own Words: My Father's Business
By Sandy Nichols Ward

"How did you get into the hearing aid business?" I asked my father one day. I'd always known him as president of his own company, Nichols and Clark, Inc., which designed and manufactured hearing aids. I wondered what came earlier, before the years I could remember. He enjoyed answering my question and wrote a brief summary of his working life. Here are words directly from my father, Nathan P. Nichols:

"How I slipped into the Hearing Aid business goes back to my early interest in radios…  I liked to build, innovate, and experiment with mechanical and electrical things while still in grammar school. Popular Science and Popular Mechanics were my favorite reading magazines in the Library. In the early 20's at age of about 10, I succeeded in winding coils on oatmeal boxes, using World War One earphones, and a ‘cats whisker’ hitting a hot spot on a galena crystal, to make a home made radio work."

"At Mass State College I passed my Amateur Radio Operators license, and made my first code and voice contacts, and was the first person to graduate with a full major in Physics."

"I landed my first job as a "stock picker" at Lafayette Radio in New York City for $15 a week! After 6 months I had enough of city life and returned to Danvers producing radio tubes at Champion Lamp Works. When they went broke, I moved to Raytheon, pumping amateur and high power tubes. I later transferred to Hytron Radio in Salem, and helped my friend Ed Dillaby join Hytron too. He designed the first miniature radio tubes in USA to be small enough to make a wearable hearing aid practicable.  … As my Aunt Oda had a very severe hearing loss I started making aids. … My bedroom, then my father's specially built four room garage served up to six friendly employees! Gradually I built up a small business of fitting custom aids mainly on recommendations of local or Boston Doctors, and maintained a Boston office during the War. … After the War the invention of the transistor by Bell Labs revolutionized all radio products and inspired me to design a whole series of smaller and smaller one piece hearing aids. We outgrew the garage, bought an old roadside fruit stand on Route I for about $250, and move it down Maple street to its present location next to the Hathorne Post Office. We employed about a dozen people, adopted the name "Unex", and sold aids nationally thru established dealers."

My father told me the name meant "UNexcelled" and he was very proud of the quality of the Unex products. He never claimed to be good at spelling, and I'm sorry (as daughter and Scrabble player) to report that "unexcelled" isn't in the dictionary.

Nick later built a new building, UNEX Laboratories, on Route 1 and expanded to about 30 employees. Thus over the years Nichols and Clark had four locations, all in the Hathorne section of Danvers, and all within walking distance from home.  Nick even walked home for lunch, too.  My mother also worked there, and I recall that they frequently discussed work issues, especially financial concerns, at lunch.  (The only concern that generated more daily discussion was the weather and its possible effects on plans for various outdoor activities they loved.) My mother joked that people called her Mrs. Clark, since she was so involved in Nichols and Clark. I never heard much about the real Mr. Clark who must have been present originally. I did hear the tale of how my mother had "temporarily filled in" one week in the 1940's, and had been there ever since. She did office work, accounting, and became Treasurer. She worried more about finances than Daddy ever did. His interests lay in inventing new things and pursuing sailing, skiing, and Ham radio hobbies.  

In his own words, "My interests were in innovations and not building a big company. I took in a business partner, Jim Woodbridge, who did double our business in about eight years, dropping hearing aids, and eventually selling the electronic products to Dodge Morgan and the Plastics Department to a Leominister group. It was a slow growing but interesting business, gave employment to a nice group of local people and friends, and I feel privileged to have lived to see such dramatic changes in my life time."

Nick lived from January 1912 to September 1996, a span of 84 years.

For links to some interesting webpages I found in 2007 as I researched details in his history, click here.