Tag Archives: Billerica Massachusetts

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.


When Eastern Massachusetts was the Frontier, 1695

Maybe you’ve come through Billerica.  On the northern approach, near the North Billerica commuter rail station, lies the site of the John Rogers homestead, marked by a sign erected by the Massachusetts Tercentenary Commission in 1930.  The sign memorializes an event that happened even longer ago on today’s Billerica Avenue.  Early in Billerica’s history, during the Indian Massacre of 1695, the homestead of John Rogers was destroyed.  The sign once reported that the entire Rogers family was killed.  Later, those words were grayed out after researchers learned that several of the Rogers’ children had escaped and survived.

Photograph of the sign marking the site of the John Rogers Homestead, courtesy of Elizabeth Thomsen (Flickr)

That’s only part of the story.  The massacre at Billerica in 1695 was just one of a series of ‘Indian raids’ that formed part of King William’s War.  Relations between the colonial powers of France and England had been strained since 1689.  Both countries encouraged their respective American Indian allies to raid the other’s colonies in New France (now Canada), Acadia (now Canada and Maine), and New England.  As the war between France and England wore on, the raids crept closer and closer to Billerica and the town militia fervently guarded its borders.  Prior attacks had hit Dover (New Hampshire), Salmon Falls, and Falmouth Neck (today’s Berwick, Maine and Portland, Maine, respectively). Even though Billerica residents had felt themselves safe from the raids, being far south of the frontier with the French colonies, they still cringed at stories of English colonists in the more northerly settlements being killed, or captured during the raids and sold into captivity.

Map of Massachusetts, 1827, Anthony Finley (1790-1840)

With a wary eye, Billerica learned of the raids growing increasingly closer.  During September 1691, two raids hit Dunstable (Mass.).  A raid attacked Lancaster, Mass. less than a year later in July 1692.  The raids did come to Billerica – in 1692, three years before the raid on John Rogers house.

In August 1692, the town’s first massacre occurred near today’s Pollard Street.  Surviving records record little.  Indians raided two households near the current site of the North Cemetery.  In the first, Joanna Dutton, a widow whose husband had died of smallpox, was killed.  Her children, Mary and Benoli Dunkin were also slain.  In the next household, the raids claimed Ann Shed along with her daughters Agnes and Hannah.  Both mothers were 36 at the time; their children ranged in age from two to 16.  Mrs. Dutton was survived by five of her children.  Three of Mrs. Shed’s children survived.

The second, larger massacre occurred in early August nearly three years later, in 1695.  Town records recorded 15 people dead or taken captive, from four of the few houses that then stood east of the Concord River, in Billerica’s northern section.  According to the contemporary account written by Dr. Mather, the Indian raiders came upon the townspeople at high noon and in broad daylight.  The home of John Rogers, its site marked today by the Indian Raid sign, was raided first.  They found the farmer asleep in his bed and shot him through the neck.  Rogers awoke, ripped the arrow from his neck, and died holding it in his hand.  A woman, witnessing the attack, only survived by escaping through a window and hiding inside a pile of flags in the yard.  The Indians scalped a second woman, who survived and lived for many years afterward.  John Rogers’ son, Daniel, 12, and his daughter, Mercy were captured by the Indians.  Another four children escaped.

"The Abduction of Daniel Boone's Daughter by the Indians" by Karl Ferdinand Wimar, 1853

The raid fell upon the home of John Levistone next.  Levistone’s mother-in-law and his five young children were killed.  Another daughter, eleven-year-old Sarah, survived, but was taken captive.  The third house raided belonged to John Rogers’ younger brother, Thomas, who was killed along with his son.  The last home raided belonged to Mary Allen, whose sister, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in Salem in 1692, and whose husband, Dr. Roger Toothaker, had been accused of witchcraft there and died in prison soon after.  Mary Allen died in the Indian raid; her youngest daughter was captured.  Word of the attacks soon reached Billerica Town Center, whose residents chased after the fleeing Indians.  The Indians easily escaped into the woods.  Town residents soon realized that the Indians had planned their escape well and had even muzzled their dogs.

Today, the sign near the North Billerica commuter rail station memorializes the site of the John Rogers homestead, the only raid site that has been definitively identified.  The identification was possible because, at least as late as the 1880’s, a well used by John Rogers was still visible.  Also, bricks that had been brought from England were found in the homestead’s cellar.  Historians have since proposed that the Levistone household was located  southeast of the Rogers Homestead, perhaps along present-day Mt. Pleasant Street or High Street.    Estimations of the locations of the homes of Thomas Rogers and the Toothakers have placed them at the site of the present-day MBTA west parking lot and the point where the Middlesex Canal leaves the Concord River, respectively.