Category Archives: Billerica

The Day North Billerica’s Hospital Nearly Burnt Down, 1938

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane:  Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane: Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

In the wake of the New England Hurricane of 1938, Oscar Grenier found work with the W.P.A. cleaning up storm damage near the Farnan Private Hospital for the Aged on North Billerica’s Mt. Pleasant Street.  Grenier first noticed the smoke rising from the hospital just after 10 AM on September 30, 1938.  He, George Lindsay, and Robert Louvering, all W.P.A. workers from Billerica, rushed into the burning hospital, up to its second floor, and discovered flames engulfing a bedroom.  The men began pulling the patients, all between 60 and 92 years old, through the smoke and flames to the safety of the hospital’s porch.

Oliver Damon, of Mt. Pleasant Street, saw the commotion, ran 500 yards to the corner of Mt. Pleasant Street and Billerica Avenue and pulled the alarm box.  Rushing back to the fire, he helped the other men carry patients, some against their will, from the burning hospital to his house across the street.   Some were in their beds, others in their wheelchairs.  Some were blind or suffering from shock.  One had no legs.

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas.  At the time, the future Farnan Hosptial was owned by F. Clarke

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas. At the time, the future Farnan Private Hosptial was owned by F. Clark.

Meanwhile, Billerica’s fire department answered the alarm, from the Billerica Central and North Billerica stations.  Chief Bartlett arrived to find flames shooting from the hospital’s eaves.  He immediately sought help from Lowell, which sent five more engines to the two-alarm fire.  Hose lines were laid from every hydrant.  Ladders were raised to every section of the roof.  For a while, the fire threatened to engulf the entire building.

Hundreds watched the firemen’s progress from Mt. Pleasant Street.  Inside the Damon home, Louise Saber, the nurse-in-charge, directed the care of the patients, and ensured that the beds and cots were set up.  First aid was administered.  Quickly, the nurses  determined that the patients had suffered no serious injuries.

The "Red Gables", as it appears today.  (Image Credit:  Google Maps - May 2009)

The “Red Gables”, as it appears today. (Image Credit: Google Maps – May 2009)

In the end, the firemen extinguished the flames, and Merle Farnan promised to quickly rebuild her hospital.  Even in 1938, North Billerica valued the historic building, which had been built as the Red Gables estate of Frederic Clark, a Talbot Mills treasurer, superintendent, and president.  Investigators later traced the cause of the fire to the open flame of a first-floor fireplace, which had shot up the partitions, and burst into the second-floor bedroom entered by the W.P.A. men.  At the time of the fire, the fireplaces were being used for heat because the building’s electrical service was out due to the recent hurricane.

Merle Farnan did rebuild her hospital.  During the rebuilding, North Billerica showed its generosity and hospitality when the Damon family and other neighbors took in the hospital’s patients.    The following Independence Day, in 1939, Farnan treated hospital patients, and their gracious neighbors, to an elaborate display of fireworks.  The building still stands today on Mt. Pleasant Street and is an apartment house.


The Opening of the Billerica Mall, 1975

Billerica Mall, May 2012 – Photo Credit: (John Phelan via Wikimedia Commons)

A roll of quarters went a long way at Fun Time Amusements at the Billerica Mall.  And the pet store in the mall often offered a look at Billerica‘s latest group of adoptable kittens or puppies. Today, the mall still stands just off Boston Road, on the southern approach to town.  Fun Time is gone.   The pet store left too.  Even Papa Gino’s packed up and left after 25 years at the mall.  It’s hard to remember the Billerica Mall’s heyday today, even with the ongoing redevelopment efforts.  Until the early 1990s, though, the mall continued to be a vibrant member of Billerica’s commercial community.

When Musgrave’s Dairy closed in the early 1970’s, the Billerica Mall rose in its place.  By 1974, construction of the mall began on land owned by J. Everett Farmer.  Excitement abounded as the mall arose on Boston Road, across from Charnstaffe Lane.  Planners reported that the L-shaped mall would border St. Theresa’s on the north, and the town’s massive water tank on the south.

Townspeople prepared to welcome the mall’s two anchor stores, the A&P and K-mart.  K-Mart, the mall’s largest store, boasted some 84,000 square feet of retail space.  The A&P, the second-largest, had 50,000 square feet.  The mall location would be one of three Greater Lowell locations planned for the chain, which was re-entering the area after seven years away.

Papa Gino's

(Photo Credit:  Flickr: Svadilfari)

Planners announced an August 1975 opening.  In addition to the A&P and K-Mart, 40 additional shops were planned, including some familiar tenants like Radio Shack, Papa Gino’s, Fanny Farmer, and Fun Time Amusements.  Others like My Store for Levis and Smart Look had much shorter tenures at the Mall.

The mall’s architecture, reflecting its mid-70s origins, was touted by its developer as ‘reflecting a growing awareness of the relationship a mall has with the community it serves.’  He contrasted that with the shopping centers of thirty years earlier that ‘were an ugly convenience, the symbol of unplanned growth, suburban sprawl.’

Dark Corridors Abound at Billerica Mall

(Photo Credit:  The Caldor Rainbow)

The mall aimed to lessen the mall’s impact on the community.  Its comparatively narrow 25-foot wide hallways brought shoppers closer to the stores’ merchandise.  To avoid a “sea of glass”, storefronts were purposely staggered to create visual breaks.

An ad for the A&P Market in Billerica, ca. 1976

Billerica embraced its mall, which thrived until the early 1990s.  Stores came and went.  The A&P became Market Basket.  Almy’s evolved into a Burlington Coat Factory.  Falling foot traffic, and later a failing roof cost the mall additional tenants.  Today’s mall, known as the Shops at Billerica, has kept K-Mart, an original tenant, as well as Burlington Coat Factory and Market Basket.  Attempts to revive the aging mall have been made in recent years.  The results are starting to show with the addition of Planet Fitness and Big Lots to the mall.


The Billerica Car Shop Murder of 1918

As news of World War I and Spanish flu filled the local papers, the first headlines related to Billerica’s car shop murder almost could have gone unnoticed.  In fact, the murder itself went unnoticed for several days.  The last anyone had seen of Fred Soulia, an employee at Billerica’s Boston & Maine car shops (today’s Iron Horse Park), was when he began walking home from work on a Thursday evening in early November.  Somewhere during the two-mile walk to his home on Oak Street, Soulia disappeared.

Front Page Headlines – Lowell Sun – November 5, 1918

His coworkers noticed his absence on Friday morning, grew concerned, and went to his home that afternoon.  No one answered the door.  Then, Fred Soulia didn’t come to work on Monday either.  His two friends walked to his home again and knocked.  Again, no one answered.  Soulia lived alone and had no family in Billerica; maybe he had gone home.  One of the men noticed blood on his walkway.  The men followed the blood stains out to Oak Street.  A half-mile away, the trail ended in a mound of loosened earth.  The men called the authorities.

Officers O’Brien and Livingston responded and investigated the loosened earth.  They soon found Soulia’s lunch pail.  Then, they found his spectacles and hat.  When they discovered the blood stains on his hat, they scoured the area.  They found another patch of loosened earth, further from the path.  The officers didn’t have to dig far before they found Fred Soulia’s body, still clad in his work clothes, so bloodied that they couldn’t determine just what had killed him.  The killing marked the town’s first in almost 25 years.

The officers summoned Lowell’s medical examiner Dr. Smith, who soon found another spot, a quarter-mile away, where the ground had been trampled.  He found more blood there – and a path of blood, showing where Soulia’s body had been dragged past his house, and to its shallow grave.  Dr. Smith surmised that the body had been buried first, the hat, pail, and spectacles later, when they were found – to hide any evidence of the crime.  An autopsy later revealed that Soulia had been shot three times and stabbed fifteen.

Finding a motive for the murder stumped Lowell and Billerica authorities.  Soulia, 50, lived alone, in a quiet little house he had built himself on Oak Street, in what was then a sparsely populated area of Billerica.  Of French descent, he had lived in Billerica only a few years – working a while for the Tewksbury constable, and then the most recent two or three years at the car shops in its scrap reclamation department.  Everyone liked him, though no one knew if he had any relatives in the area.  He was a faithful attendant of St. Andrew’s Church.

Theories soon emerged around potential motives for the killing.  Soulia was found with one of his pockets turned out, and without money.  Perhaps he was killed for his cash.  Or, some news was emerging from the car shops that a large theft of brass had occurred from his scrap reclamation department.  Maybe he knew something about that.

Days before he died, Soulia had been walking to work, on a forest path between Oak Street and the car shops, when he came across a culvert and some men who were contractors at the car shops.  Soulia struggled to see past them into the culvert.  The men tried to obstruct his view, but he saw enough to spot some of the brass that had gone missing at work.  He left, but later brought the foreman of his department to retrieve the stolen brass – over a ton of stolen brass, in fact.  The car shops retrieved the brass and didn’t involve the police – until Solia turned up dead a week later.

Lowell Sun – November 6, 1918; Page 1

Investigators soon found three sets of footprints leading away from the murder scene, to a road nearby.  Billerica Police began looking at the men Soulia had turned in for the brass theft, contractors from a Reading construction company.  Billerica police visited the home of Joseph Cordio, who lived on Oak Street near Soulia.  A search recovered a long knife and a revolver.  When police found his shovel coated with the same type of sand found in Soulia’s shallow grave, Cordio grew nervous and his story fell apart.  Investigators next identified the other two men, Lawrence brothers Francisco and Luigi Feci.  At Francisco Feci’s home, they found a shoe matching the footprints found at the murder scene.  A gun found in his coat had recently fired three shots.  And a Zira cigarette box found in the woods near the body matched the many cigarette boxes found in Feci’s home.  Police arrested Francisco Feci;  his brother Luigi fled before he could be captured.

The trial lasted six weeks, ending on May 18, 1920, when Francisco Feci was found guilty.  His brother Luigi, having fled, was not tried.  Due to a lack of evidence, Joseph Cordio was found not guilty.  Francisco Feci was sentenced to death, and, despite a somewhat credible last-minute appeal to Governor Coolidge, died by electrocution on August 16, 1920.  He went to the chair smiling, professing his innocence, and insisting that it was his brother Luigi who had killed Soulia, not him.


A (true) story about Victorian Billerica Center, a church and its scandal

Familiar sites greet you as you step from the twenty-minute electric car ride on the Lowell & Suburban into the Billerica Center of 1896.  Like today, Town Common dominates the view, its Soldiers’ Monument and flagpole just now disappearing behind the late spring foliage.  The Unitarian church and Town Hall (now the Library) bookend today’s Masonic Hall building; in 1896, it houses Frederic Morey‘s General Store.  Looking north, past the Bennett Library and Fred Parker’s home, you see the Stearns Boarding House at River Street.      

You sidestep the ruts left by passing horse traffic on Bedford (now Concord) Road, brimming with stagnant water from yesterday’s rain.  Passing south by the future site of the Council of Aging building, you see instead two residential homes and, beyond that, the First Baptist Church.  Despite threatening clouds overhead, a crowd has gathered outside the church to learn the charges against its pastor, Reverend Samuel D. Anderson.  Reporters and onlookers wait under the 44-star flag on the Common and shuffle about the street, as they steal anxious glances at the sexton, seated on the church’s front porch, blocking its locked doors.  He ‘politely’ advises them to ‘view the beauties of nature outside while the meeting is in progress’.  Several, hoping to hear the proceedings inside, approach the church’s windows only to be disappointed to find them closed due to the cool weather.

The men, in bowlers, and the women, in long dresses with exaggerated sleeves, chat around McKinley’s recent presidential nomination and the supposed atrocities committed by Spanish troops in their Cuban territory.  Not much time passes, however, before conversation returns to the church and Rev. Anderson, who is inside defending himself against these hushed charges.  Rev. Anderson has been reticent to speak on the subject in the weeks leading up to this meeting, saying only that the “church is the proper body to consider reports about him”.

The townspeople, each with their own versions of the case, talk in hushed tones so that the press will not reveal Billerica’s matters to the wider readership.  Increasingly emboldened by the passage of time, however, the papers grow critical of the insular nature of the ‘peaceful, little village’,  ‘its trim housewives’ and their efforts to keep the ‘rude and outside public’ ignorant of the case and begin to speculate in print.  They hint that a fellow church member, a former deacon, has brought the charges months after the alleged event was said to have occurred.  The ex-deacon, they say, has ‘good reason’ to be upset as he is ‘a man of family’.   A seemingly misplaced sentence in one article informs that the man’s daughter had been an organist at the church.

When the 30 or so members leave the church meeting 90 minutes later, several report that the charges were not actually heard; instead, the opposing sides tried, unsuccessfully, to agree on a moderator.  When questioned later, both the ex-deacon and Rev. Anderson state that there is ‘nothing for publication’.  This disappoints the crowd outside and rumors emerge that the ex-deacon brought the charges to light now because he lost his position within the church to a black man.

Confronted by the press, the ex-deacon denies the rumors and tells his story, and says that he had been treated unfairly in the recent election of church officers.  He waited to present the charges, he says, because he learned of them only after his wife’s recent death.  His daughter, the charges do involve the former organist – the paper leaks, told him that his late wife knew, but did not tell him.  Now, knowing the complaint, he must present it to the church, and not to the police.

On July 3, 1896, after several weeks of speculation, the charges are finally read to the church and revealed publicly.  Once, approximately two years before, the pastor ‘acted improperly’ toward the man’s daughter.  Several witnesses are called.  Mrs. McCoy, a boarder at the ex-deacon’s house, states that the woman confided in her after the event and that she, in turn, confronted Rev. Anderson, who admitted his fault.  The woman herself testifies that she cannot remember the event’s actual date, but that it did indeed happen.  Then, Rev. Anderson testifies, stating that the woman had ‘gone absolutely silly over him’ and that she said she ‘would seek revenge if she did not get him’.  He admits the conversation with Mrs. McCoy, but denies admitting any fault.  A last parishioner, siding with Rev. Anderson, speculates that the ex-deacon was angry with Rev. Anderson after he had been dropped as the church deacon and Sunday school teacher, and replaced by a black man.

With the testimony concluded, the church votes and Rev. Anderson wins by a vote of 25-3.  He is invited to speak the following Sunday; the Sun reports and then speculates that he would not stay long in Billerica.  Indeed, he does not.  The town directory shows another pastor leading the church just five years later.  The church itself closed due to decreasing membership in 1923.  With time, the 1896 church scandal faded from memory; today, it provides an interesting insight into Billerica Center society during the Gilded Age, their views of the larger Greater Lowell community, and how that larger community viewed them.


Billerica, 1904: The Peddler’s Sons and Their Buried Treasure

In May 1904, ten yards beyond a barbed wire fence in the East Billerica woods, James Marnell stumbled over a small mound of dirt, uncovering an ornate silver serving tray.  “Sanborn’s treasure!” Marnell, a railroad worker, excitedly deduced.  Townspeople knew Sanborn’s treasure to contain silverware, jewelry, and furs stolen the year before from Billerica’s plush Talbot and Holden estates and valued at some $10,000, a worthy sum when $13 was the average weekly wage.

Edgar Sanborn (Credit: Lowell Sun, 3/22/1904)

Two months before, Edgar Sanborn had confessed to ten high profile heists in five cities, including the Talbot and Holden burglaries, spanning a six month period beginning when he escaped from the Insane Asylum in September 1903.  He was also wanted for an arson of the Auburn railroad station house in that Worcester suburb.   A cunning negotiator, Sanborn had won a high price for that confession.  Held for breaking and entering in Mt. Holly, NJ, law enforcement officials there had not yet determined his true identity when they began sending circulars to local police departments to determine if he was wanted elsewhere.  Some police departments of the time saw these as excellent opportunities to enhance their salaries with bonus reward monies.

One such circular found its way to Worcester police officials, who contacted Mt. Holly about their captive, who they believed to be the Sanborn they wanted for arson and burglaries in Massachusetts.  Mt. Holly officials were quite responsive to Massachusetts inquiries until they learned there was no reward offered for Sanborn’s return to Massachusetts.  Enter Sanborn’s stellar negotiation skills.  For his written confession to the burglaries and arson, Sanborn gave Deputy Sheriff Fleetwood and NJ State Detective Parker his personal assurance that he would lead them to the site of his buried plunder.  And surely the Talbot and Holden estates would pay a reward for the return of their stolen valuables and heirlooms.

The Sanborn House (Credit: Lowell Sun, March 23, 1904)

Fleetwood and Parker graciously (and promptly) accompanied Sanborn to the family’s East Billerica homestead – so prompt, in fact, that they did even notify Massachusetts that they were returning Sanborn.  Upon arriving at his home, Sanborn sent Parker inside to retrieve two revolvers while he led Fleetwood into the woods.  Surely, the next step or turn would lead to the treasure, Fleetwood hoped.  They meandered near the train tracks.  At last, they came to the barbed wire fence.  ‘It’s right there.’ Sanborn told Fleetwood, pointing to a spot on the other side.  Sanborn watched as Fleetwood slowly climbed the fence, carefully negotiating the handcuff attached to his wrist.  At a precise moment, Sanborn shoved him and wrenched the loosely fastened handcuff from his wrist.  Fleetwood landed with a thud as Sanborn escaped into the woods.  Fleetwood fired one shot into Sanborn’s arm before Sanborn disappeared from view.

When Fleetwood did not return, Parker feared he had been murdered and uncomfortably reported to local police their surreptitious effort to return Sanborn to Massachusetts.  A 24-hour manhunt through Billerica, Tewksbury, and Wilmington ensued.  Ultimately, local officials found Fleetwood the next day, disgusted, tired, and perhaps ashamed, still in the woods, cursing his bad luck.  Sanborn was found shortly after, at a friend’s house four miles away.

That capture in Tewksbury presaged his third return to the Worcester Insane Hospital.  His first had started after a standoff with his parents occurring during Christmas 1896.

Seven Years Earlier

Lamps at the eyeglass peddler’s house on East Billerica’s Gray Street flickered brightly late one night.  Inside, his grown sons, Edgar and Arthur Sanborn intendedly studied their Greek bibles, each trying to produce the best English translation.  An argument about God’s nature ensued, each brother increasingly vexing the other.  By the time Mr. and Mrs. Sanborn quietly stole worried glances into the room, their sons had climbed atop their chairs, flinging their books into a pile.  Horrified, they watched as Edgar and Arthur jumped to the floor and began an “Indian dance” around the pile.

Arthur Sanborn (Credit: Lowell Sun – March 23, 1904)

At this, they intervened, trying to calm their sons.  The men suddenly grew sullen, and secured the family’s two revolvers.  Their parents stared in disbelief as Edgar and Arthur stood shoulder to shoulder, soundlessly, in the middle of the room, pointing their revolvers at their parents.  Neither responded to their parents’ pleadings.  Neither spoke at all.  Hours began to pass.

Eight Hours.  Sanborn and his brother, Arthur, stared down their parents through the length of their revolvers.  At dawn, the brothers weakened, allowing their parents to wrench away the revolvers.   The respite was brief, however.  The next night, their sons again experienced a fit of insanity, violently descending into their home’s cellar.  There, with crowbars, they began digging twin three-foot deep pits.  Were they graves?  Their parents fled and contacted town constables, who rammed through the house’s door the next morning.   Constables Livingston and Conway eventually subdued the men, after four hours, but not before the Sanborn’s dog tore Conway’s clothing and one Sanborn nearly bit off Livingston’s finger.

Edgar Sanborn spent most of his life in insane asylums – Worcester first and Bridgewater later.  Arthur too was committed to Worcester briefly, but never again fell afoul of the law.  He lived on Gray Street with his widowed mother until her death in the thirties.  He died in Boston in 1945.  And the treasure?  No further mention is made, prompting one to wonder if it still lies in Sanborn’s woods, which today are bucolic backyards in East Billerica.


Downtown Lowell’s “Uncle” Dudley Page: The Man behind Page’s Clock

From the 1939 Lowell City Directory

If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve surely passed Page’s Clock in Kearney Square on Merrimack Street.  The clock, refurbished in the 1990’s, has been a Downtown Lowell landmark since the D.L. Page Company moved its operations into the nearby building at 16-18 Merrimack Street in May 1913.

As its advertisements claimed, the D.L. Page Company had been “makers of fine candies since Lincoln’s Time.”  By the time the late 1930’s had rolled around, Dudley L. Page had run his business for nearly 75 years.

“Uncle Dudley”, as he was affectionately known throughout Lowell, always proudly recalled that his first day in business was March 17, 1866, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.  Uncle Dudley founded his first candy shop on the corner of Lowell’s Middle and Central Streets, in the basement of a building that then housed Richardson’s Clothing Store.  He had returned from service in the Civil War just one year before.

In its years before the move into its Merrimack Street location, the D.L. Page Company housed its operations in various Downtown Lowell locations:  the basement of the Hildreth Block, a store opposite St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street, on the street floor of the Fellows Block, and in the old Masonic Building, also on Merrimack Street.  Uncle Dudley also opened branch locations at 9 West Street in Boston, as well as in Lynn and North Chelmsford.

Lowell Sun Advertisement for DL Page & Co, March 16, 1931

Born in New London, NH in the mid-1840’s, Uncle Dudley moved to Billerica when he was six.  At an annual meeting of the Lowell Historical Society in 1934, he delivered a paper on his childhood in Billerica recalling his boyhood ambition, which was not to be a baker and maker of fine candies, but to be a locomotive engineer.  In the decade before the Civil War, Uncle Dudley recalled a life where stagecoaches were the preferred manner of travel to reach the outskirts of town and where he followed the actions of Wendell Phillips, the ‘crusading abolitionist’.  He also recalled timeless childhood antics like skipping school in favor of visiting the swimming hole and hobbies that don’t seem so timeless, like catching eels in the Shawsheen River and pitching quoits.

Barely a decade later, Uncle Dudley went on to join the Union army, and even stood inspection before President Lincoln.  Soon after returning from his Civil War service, Uncle Dudley opened his store, and went on to specialize in candies of all kinds.  Over the years, he added a restaurant and  a luncheonette to his shop.  In the late 1870’s, he even completed a Doctor of Medicine degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson College.

Even as he neared his 100th birthday in the 1930’s, Uncle Dudley continued to actively bake, make candy, and oversee all of the daily activities of his shop.  And, with each year, Uncle Dudley celebrated the St. Patrick’s Day anniversary of his store with special offerings, including stick candy.

Well into his nineties, Uncle Dudley was often seen pushing slush from his store’s sidewalk, and was used by downtown officials to encourage his fellow merchants to do the same.  He figured prominently into the city’s social scene too.  In August 1934, local papers ignited with the gossip that only scandal brings when Uncle Dudley secretly wedded Miss Ella Calderwood.  Miss Calderwood had been a bookkeeper for his firm for several years, but had retired some 15 years before.  In her retirement, she worked as a piano instructor, and had acquired a reputation among local musicians.  Miss Calderwood had also served as a housekeeper for Uncle Dudley for some time.  Their marriage in August 1934 satisfied the rumors about their romantic involvement.  When they married, she was 85; he was 89.

Dudley L. Page (Courtesy: Lowell Sun - 8/11/1934)

After more than 75 years in business, Dudley L. Page died on November 20, 1942, at his home at 427 Andover Street in Lowell’s Belvidere section.  He was 98. At the time, he was one of the last two remaining Civil War veterans living in Lowell and had served as an honorary marshal in the city’s Memorial Day parades for years.  He had retained active management of his store up until his very last years, and kept an active interest in the store up until his death.  The store held on for a short period afterward, but in December 1947, the location was sold, and eventually became Brigham’s.

Uncle Dudley’s clock remains on Merrimack Street outside his store’s former building.  The clock fell into disrepair for a while in the late 20th century, but since its refurbishing in the 1990’s, it has once again rejoined the Downtown Lowell landscape as a link to the area’s vibrant past and to one of Downtown Lowell’s most influential long-time merchants.

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts. Page's Clock appears in the middle left of the photo, along the sidewalk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, John Phelan)


Yesterday’s Telephone Numbers: GLenview, MOntrose, and ULysses

In those long ago days before cellphones, speed dialing, and stored numbers, folks like Tommy Tutone telephoned girls like ‘Jenny’ by actually dialing 867-5309.  If he was a modern type, he may have even punched the number into the telephone’s touchtone keypad, an innovation that was several years old by the time the song was released in 1981.

And, 20 years earlier, in 1962, Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes sang of a woman who urged men to call her at BEechwood 4-5789 so they could “have a date, any ol’ time”.

A generation before, in 1940, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, memorialized the phone number of Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania with the song PEnnsylvania 6-5000.

Do you find it easier to remember the telephone numbers of your childhood home or friends, than those of any one of the ten cellphones and landlines in your family today?  There was something about dialing a telephone number (or even punching it into a touchtone number pad) that helped commit it to memory.

The telephone companies didn’t always think so, though.  As seven-digit phone numbers were introduced during the middle of the 20th century, companies like New England Telephone and Telegraph added exchange names to existing phone numbers to help people remember the two digits added to the beginning of their phone numbers.  Locally, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company called its telephone exchange names ‘central offices’ when they were implemented in the early 1950’s.  In September 1954, in Massachusetts, along came GLenview for Lowell, ULysses for Tewksbury, NIagara for Tyngsboro, and MYrtle for Westford.  (ALpine for Chelmsford came soon after.)  The two initial letters of the central office names, always capitalized, represented the two initial numbers of the phone number to be dialed.  Hence, as it’s explained below, GL3-2181 becomes 453-2181:

New England Telephone, 1954

The idea behind central office names, beyond helping memories and expanding the pool of available numbers, was to enable ‘wide range dialing’, or allowing people to dial American and Canadian numbers directly into their telephones, without the assistance of an operator. The new system also standardized the numbering system and ensured that each telephone received a unique number.  Under this system, telephone numbers contained three components:  an area designation (now known as an area code), a Central Office designation (consisting of the first two letters of the central office name and the first number thereafter, and the station number (or the last four digits of the telephone number).

New England Telephone and Telegraph, 1964

So, how did it work?  If you were dialing within a central office (or telephone exchange name), you needed only to dial the five figures, as explained above.  If you wanted to call outside of your central office, the two letters were added.

There’s something nostalgic and ‘mid-century sounding’ to a phone number like BEechwood 45789, or more locally, GLenview 8-6361, which was the telephone number to reach one of Lowell’s largest department stores, the Bon Marché.  Today, in an era of Skype and email and text messages, it’s hard to imagine the same sort of nostalgia being attached to a phone number.