THE TRUE STORY ABOUT HOW A SEARCH FOR ROCKS
HELPED UNCOVER THE SECRET HISTORY OF A SCHOOL
Last year, I suggested that the senior class start a tradition of building a small section of stone wall in front of the school. The tradition would use a uniquely New England "folk art" form to pay tribute to the enduring quality of a Lincoln-Sudbury education. The idea came to me because it had become clear in the course of another project--the writing of the Echoes history of the school-- that L-S had few traditions or landmarks, architectural or otherwise. Indeed it was difficult for us to decide what picture should grace the cover of the book.
The "stonewall idea" also floated into consciousness as the result of a walk I took in the woods surrounding the school--the first in my twenty three years here. There I spied the indispensable ingredient for realizing my vision: rock, strewn right and left along the saddest, most tumbledown old wall you'll ever see.
In May, I presented my idea to the senior class and received a very positive response. About twenty-five seniors agreed to form the "Stonewall Taskforce," and were waiting for the signal to start hauling and building. There were, however, a few practical matters to resolve, such as: could these stones be lifted or were they simply too heavy to transport?
As there was hardly any stonewall building in my birthplace, the Bronx, NY, Jim Newton kindly consented to be my "native guide." On "Lunch Plus" day, we made our "plus" a walk in the woods to check out the stones. No sooner did we get to the area in back of the football/lacrosse field then it started to rain. After Jim assured me that it was only water, into the woods we went. Would impossibly enormous boulders crush my vision and relegate it to the junk pile of foolish dreams? Well, whew, the news was good! Yes, there were giant rocks, but there were also plenty of manageable 30-40 pounders. I began to sense the momentum of destiny. Someone up there loved a wall, and wanted us to build it.
Details quickly began to fall into place like the stones in my would-be wall: Dorothy Dickie kindly found for us two books and a video on stonewall building at the Sudbury Library. Bruce agreed to truck the stones from the woods to the front of the school. A former student with landscaping experience just happened to come by and offer help. Then someone told me that a former coach, Scott Burke, now of the Carroll School, was a veritable stonewall expert. I put a call into him. Things were moving. Gosh, the wall was practically built. I could already see students returning forty years hence, grey-haired and stooped, to show their grandkids "the wall that we built in '95."
"Practically built," but not quite. Jim Keith raised an interesting problem. The tumble-down wall serves as a property marker. How did the owners on the other side feel about our culling rocks from this wall? Would this not be a felonious assault on the institution of private property? I didn't know, but I had read Robert Frost's poem and sensed that, in New England, picking a few rocks off the pile might be barely a notch below stealing lobster pots. And we know what happens to people who do that. Jim suggested we buy the stone and avoid potential problems. I called up Precort in Sudbury and they were willing to part with enough stone for a ten-foot stretch of wall for a mere $800. Somehow I didn't think the regional school committee would be willing to invest this kind of money in pure rock. Nor did I see much hope for a Prop 2 1/2 override. It was back to Plan A.
I still had a week to go before Senior Week when the wall would have to be built, so I decided to go to the owners. Who were they? No one knew. I drove to the house nearest the land. Though I had been on this road a zillion times, I never noticed this house before. It's tucked off the road, an old farmhouse. I knocked on the door. No answer. A bare bulb burned on the porch. It looked like it hadn't been replaced in fifty years. I got a bad feeling, but I didn't know why.
The next day I went to the business office. Did they have a map which would show the abutters? No they didn't, but I received the helpful suggestion to call Town Hall, which I did. They told me to come in to the Assessor's Office ("We're open' till 5pm!"). After school on Friday, I went. With amazing efficiency, a long-time employee of the town showed me the map that told the tale: the land was owned by one Carrie Waite, but she had placed the 60-acre parcel in a trust controlled by her grown daughter, Mrs. Carol Wolfe, who lives at 636 Concord Road.
That wasn't too far from Town Hall, so I turned my Brookline-bound car around and off I went. I found the house and walked down an old sunken path. I recognized the "running brick" pattern. The house seemed much older up close. There were blankets in some of the windows. Very unsuburban, I thought. I knocked at the door. The only one who immediately answered was an enormous hound who clearly wanted to kill me. With a storm door safely between us, I got quite a kick out of his totally unprovoked fury. Then a man came. This was Mr. Wolfe. It was drizzling outside and he seemed to feel more comfortable joining me outside, under the porch roof. He also wanted to keep his dog away from me which he didn't immediately succeed in doing. The dog got out and made a lunge. Mr. Wolfe's hand was a mere half-second quicker I am happy to report, and he just managed to get Fido back inside
Mr. Wolfe was a very nice man, but clearly one not given to idle chatter. It was easy to imagine that I was the first visitor to stop by in years, perhaps decades. His quiet presence suggested I come to the point. I did. I explained the situation, how I found him, my desperate rock needs, the "stone wall tradition," etc, etc. My ingratiating tone suggested how nice I was to to go to all this trouble just to pay him this completely unnecessary courtesy call, all for a bunch of stupid rocks. I was expecting him to thank me, smile at the superfluousness of my visit, and send me on my way. I even said that we would only take stones from our side of the wall. (After all, didn't we have that legal right anyway?) Mr. Wolfe listened quietly and then began to shake his head. I started to get that sinking feeling like, you know, when a stone hits water.
He began to respond in his laconic way. His tone suggested this was a weightier matter than I could ever know. "No," he said, "I don't think she'll ever agree. She's never gotten over it." But who was "she"? And what was "it"?
She was Carrie Waite who was still very much alive, and she lived down the road. He pointed at her house. I couldn't tell if it was the one with the bare bulb. She was 92-years old and she probably wouldn't even agree to hear of my request. Nope. Not at all. I asked if I might speak to her directly. I was sure I could make her understand and appreciate the inspiring spirit of my vision. Nope, said Mr. Wolfe again, it'll just make it worse. She hates the high school, he said. It seems that Mrs. Waite has been nursing a grudge for a very long time and thinking often about us in this building.
While Mr. Wolfe spoke, it became apparent to me that our Echoes history had not been completely correct. In the opening chapter, the Echoes authors explained how the new regional school committee had purchased the land upon which our building sits from the Featherland chicken farm. This was correct, but it wasn't the whole truth. It turns out that there was another farm involved, and the owner didn't want to sell. That land was seized through the legal procedure of eminent domain and it provided our campus with some of its athletic fields as well as the surrounding woods. That land was part of the Pantry Brook Farm. It was owned by Carrie Waite and her family ever since they first came to Sudbury in the mid-17th century. She had loved the farm and particularly the wood lots which were taken. A few years later, the town seized more of her land to build an elementary school. I had inadvertently walked smack into a postscript of the very history book project I had advised.
Mr. Wolfe was sympathetic. (He was a member of L-S's first graduating class!) He would talk to his wife. Perhaps they would give me permission to take the rocks without speaking to Mrs. Waite, which he knew would do no good at all. He would tell me next week. As he bade me goodbye, he pointed out another large tract of land owned by the family. "We can't even find anyone to farm it anymore," he told me. But Mrs. Waite won't consider selling it off for development. She wants to keep the land open.
So this ends up being the story of how a teacher's idea to build a stonewall ran into the stonewall of history, and the long memory of a 92-year old woman who still wants her wood lots back. Whether in Bosnia or Palestine or on our own Concord Road, the past is not easily forgotten--or forgiven.
Bill Schechter/ History Dept.