WINCHESTER — A century ago, the New Year ushered in historic elections, the continuation of a recession which developed the year before, an epidemic scare, a variety of successes and misfortunes, and ended with the most destructive ice storm Massachusetts had ever known.
During the first part of the year, the recession of 1920-1921 lingered. Beggs & Cobb, a leading local industry, announced in January that wages were being cut 10 to 26 percent. The Whitney Machine Co., which had been running for several weeks with reduced numbers, closed temporarily. In February, the Building Trades Employers’ Association (encompassing eight communities) met in Winchester and voted to cut carpenters’ wages from $1/hour to 90 cents.
Fortunately, the national economy improved later in the year. But there were other troubling matters.
A year after the great Spanish Influenza epidemic tapered off, suddenly 14 cases of diphtheria were reported in April. Epidemic proportions were reached with 18 cases. It was fortunately short-lived but was something of a mystery. The cases were scattered.
Since they lay along one particular milk route, the dairy was investigated, but no one there was ill and none of the cattle exhibited signs of diphtheria. The Health Officer immediately ordered the milk pasteurized. The outbreak subsided, with another serious rash of cases not occurring for 10 years, at which time the best defense discussed was not pasteurization but immunization of the school children.
Another danger continued to threaten the safety of Winchester residents—the railroad. On Aug. 1, a 35-car train was headed south to Boston. As it passed through Winchester center at 8:23 p.m., “With a splintering crash that could be heard for miles and which attracted hundreds to the scene, four freight cars, one a big oil tank, left the tracks…bowled over a 30-foot maple tree and then piled up in a heap,” The Boston Globe reported.
Although The Winchester Star reported the wreck did not make much of a noise, it did make a massive mess and attracted crowds which thronged the common until after midnight.
Several people at the scene narrowly escaped injury. All within the path of the wreck saw it coming and ran. The gate tender and a trolley employee were forced to jump to safety. The occupants of three autos standing at the gates dashed from their cars to places of safety. At least one car was showered with splinters from the wreckage.
The gates were destroyed. The gatekeeper’s shanty was buried. Part of the tracks were twisted and turned out of shape. The various newspaper reports varied in some details, including the cause of the accident. All agreed that the oil tank jumped the tracks.
“As the tank car reached the footpath,” The Winchester Star reported, “it plowed into the walk, making a furrow waist deep and cutting off one of the fine maple trees at its base. A following car of pine flooring was split open and turned at right angles to the track, it wrecking the outward track, and behind this the two other cars piled up. Both tracks were blocked and electric car service stopped for the night.”
Many saw one of the heavy car wheels fly through the air over the top of a maple tree.
“The whole centre was littered with broken iron, splinters, car parts, dirt and cobble stones.”
All the newspapers wrote that it was amazing no one was injured.
In November it was reported that twice more a railroad car jumped the tracks in the center, though not with such disastrous results.
One suggestion to improve pedestrian safety at the railroad tracks, an underpass at the center station, went to voters as a ballot question. Although the $30,000 question won a majority vote, it was not a sufficient majority for a bond motion.
A renewed attempt to authorize the Board of Selectmen to issue movie theater licenses in the town failed. A third ballot question, whether the town should erect a War Memorial on Manchester Field in the form of a building housing an auditorium, athletic field house, and concrete stand capable of seating 8,000, was soundly defeated.
As for the races for elected offices, the elections in 1921 were historic, the first since the 19th Amendment was ratified. The first woman candidate for the Board of Selectmen was put forward, Lorence Woodside. She had impressive credentials—a college degree, two years special work in Chicago University, plus varied experience in teaching and business—and was endorsed by presidents of The Fortnightly, League of Women Voters, Mother’s Association, Winchester Teacher’s Club, Visiting Nurse Association, and various individuals both male and female. She came in sixth in a field of eight vying for the five-member board.
Though unsuccessful at getting a seat at the selectmen’s table, women regained spots on the School Committee. Though state law made them eligible for election since 1874 (and some had been elected), they were essentially excluded after Town Meeting in 1888 reduced the number of members from six down to three. In 1921, they went back onto the School Committee with the election of two other well qualified, educated, and civic-minded women, Stella Root and Aurora (Rho) Zueblin.
Some familiar sites made the news in 1921. The Methodists sold their property on Mount Vernon Street to the adjacent Winchester Laundries, which used the building for their offices. It was demolished in 1958, since when the site has been standing open, though proposals have arisen to crowd in another building.
The Sanborn House was in the news several times in 1921. In January, the Star announced the sale of the home. Readers may then have been puzzled when notices appeared during the year of various events at the house arranged by Rena Sanborn, such as a lecture/recital in April to benefit the Winchester post of the American Legion and a candy and doll sale/musicale in November to aid the Franco-American baby clinic in Paris.
But the most ambitious and splendid event was a horse show to benefit Winchester Hospital. Suggested by Helen Sanborn, an avid horsewoman, and actualized by the resourceful Mrs. Sanborn, it drew thousands to the High Street grounds and became an annual tradition for almost two decades, though it had to be moved in 1925 to a local riding school and later the grounds of the Winchester Country Club.
“Big Storm, Worst Known”
At the end of 1921, nobody could be sure their home was safe. For four days the whole town, along with much of eastern New England, was trapped under an ever thickening coat of ice. Great trees were destroyed. Power was lost. Travel was treacherous. Homes were damaged and threatened.
The storm began on Saturday, Nov. 26, with a heavy snow fall. At about midnight it turned to rain which froze as soon as it fell. Conditions grew steadily worse on Sunday. Calls to the police and utility companies about falling wires and branches started about 1:30 Monday morning.
“Few, if any, slept much after two o’clock,” the Star reported. “A rising wind accompanied by a torrent of rain brought limb after limb crashing to the ground, each one cracking with a report like a pistol and making a great racket with its breaking ice, which slithered over the frozen, icy ground.”
In the morning, every town department and every man available were clearing away wreckage, but “the damage did not stop. All day long tree limbs continued to fall, carrying down with them telephone and electric wires…. One could constantly hear the splitting wood and crashing of boughs.”
In some instances, falling wires took large pieces of the houses’ side walls with them.
Monday night was worse than Sunday. All night long, tree limbs fell. The poles also began to go, burdened with the heavily coated wires. Due to the danger from the fallen wires, light and power service was cut off. The town was in utter darkness during Monday and Tuesday.
“Tuesday morning presented a sight never before equaled in this town. Trees, poles and wires were down everywhere. Quantities of streets were impassable.” And still the storm went on.
“Many people feared for their safety where big trees overhung their houses. Windows were broken in many places from falling branches, while in other instances, heavy trees crushed in parts of houses, such as piazza railings and cornices.”
Factories without power shut down. Many businesses closed after dark, but the hardware stores did good business, selling out of lamps and lanterns by Monday afternoon. As soon as it was known that the hospital was without light, residents and town departments rushed lamps and lanterns over there.
It was impossible to hold school. However, once they could venture out, the children discovered that the coasting was exceptional. Social functions were cancelled. Trolley service was discontinued and train service was irregular.
In the end, “thousands of dollars in damage was done and thousands of beautiful trees were ruined, many of which will never be restored to their former beauty during this generation.”
It took the town’s Tree and Highway departments three weeks to clear away the wooden debris.
If there was a moment of irony, it was that the controversial elm which stood in the middle of Church Street and had been saved so far by sentimental regard when many a motorist would have rejoiced to see it brought down escaped almost without harm.