WINCHESTER – When the town adopted its first zoning map in 1924, it was clear that industry was to be strictly controlled – no more factories with smoke stacks belching out black clouds into the air, rubbish heaps leaching chemicals into the ground, or waste polluting the river.
What would be allowed came to be called light industry, though the first zoning term was “unobjectionable manufacturing.” This, it turns out, opened the door to a variety of modern and successful manufacturing and technology plants locating in town.
Though the planners who created the district saw the benefit of businesses within town providing jobs and tax revenue, the district has been whittled way down and may lose more area on River Street.
River Street was never a heavy-industry site but does illustrate how land use changed due to the varying interests of the town’s evolving population. Prominent in its history are Irish immigrants and patent-holding industrialists.
The industrial possibilities for River Street went unrealized until the 1950s. Before then it was residential and farm land.
When Winchester was incorporated in 1850, the section of Cross Street where River Street would go was open land. Only two homes stood anywhere nearby.
In 1851, Patrick Crowley arrived from Ireland and, like many Irish who settled in northern Winchester to be near the factories, he first worked as a laborer. In 1864, he acquired four acres of tillage and nine acres of pasture on Cross Street. His house was located between the two old homesteads.
For about 10 years, Crowley farmed the land–and engaged in the bootleg liquor trade. Though Winchester was a dry town, violations of the liquor law were frequent. Late in 1873 police seized three barrels of ale and two demijohns of whiskey from Crowley’s wagon. The usual punishment for a “liquor nuisance” was a fine, not arrest, which may have contributed to his falling into arrears with his property taxes. In Oct., 1874, he suffered a heavy loss due to a barn fire. Then his farm changed hands.
Purchasing a half acre of the former Crowley place in 1878, Irish huckster John Daly built a house off Cross Street. River Street originated as a path to his home (#24 River, demolished in the 1970s).
But the major land owner abutting River Street was George D. Nelson. After emigrating from Ireland, Nelson settled in Woburn where he worked in a tannery, became a citizen, got married, and began a family of 11 children. By 1870, after a few years in Burlington (and a stint in the Dedham jail on a charge of distilling illicit whiskey), he settled in Winchester where he first worked as a currier. Beginning in 1882, the Nelsons acquired over 18 acres of land on Cross Street, on either side of River Street, and George took up farming.
The Nelsons had three homes on Cross Street (248, 258, and 266). The land behind #266 on the west side of River Street was in the name of the eldest daughter, Bridget.
The heavy industry which the white-collar, commuter segment of the town wanted to eradicate was located along the river (used for power) and railroad (for transporting freight). In 1924, the new manufacturing zone encompassed not only the old factory sites north of the town center but also a wider, abutting area of open (often marshy) land.
Any new industry in the zone had to be “unobjectionable” (e.g., not tanning, iron smelting, sugar refining, or manufacturing such items as gelatin, glue, ammonia, chlorine, cement, rubber, metal, candles, dye, oil, paint, fireworks, fertilizer, linoleum, soap, polish, chewing tobacco, yeast, pickles, sauerkraut, and vinegar).
The old factory sites were actually not re-used for light industry but rather for the Parkview Apartments, Transfer Station, and Soccer Club. Not needing the river or railroad, light industry concentrated around Holton, Baldwin and East streets, the industrial park on Lowell Avenue, and River Street. Further lots zoned light-industrial were rezoned for the Muraco School, The Village, The Willows, and the Transfer Station, shrinking the light-industrial zone to a fraction of its previous area.
Under the new 1924 zoning plan, the Nelson houses were zoned residential, but the back land was put into the manufacturing zone. Bridget Nelson’s land remained undeveloped and in the family until 1952 when Nicholas & James Fitzgerald acquired it from the Nelson estate.
The Fitzgerald Brothers (both former selectmen) did not build on the land either but sold to people who did in 1956 (#19 River St.) and 1958 (#35). Then the industrial development of River Street began.
Wire Belt of America
The first industries built on River Street were run by men invested in the town whose companies needed space and room to expand. And they were exactly what the town wanted – innocuous, reputable businesses located within buildings which were modern, low-cut, and landscaped to blend into a residential town.
The Wire Belt Company of America was created in 1947 as a division of the J. W. Greer Co., which had been manufacturing confectionary and bakery equipment in Cambridge since 1919. A major early product was the patented Greer Chocolate Coater.
Using Flat-Flex invented by Fred Greer, the conveyor belt on the Greer coater became a product with a division of its own and then, as conveyor belts were constructed for a wider range of continuous-process industries, a separate company.
In 1956, the Wire Belt Company moved into a new building at 19 River St.
“The decision to locate our plant in Winchester was, of course, based on a number of economic factors and was made only after a thorough analysis of alternative sites,” an unnamed company official was quoted in The Winchester Star. “To us it represents a nice compromise between city living and country living, each of which has advantages for an industrial concern.”
It also so happened that Winchester had been the home of company vice-president Don Greer (1908-1991) since 1936. Greer served on the Finance Committee and Board of Selectmen as well as the Board of Directors of the Winchester Trust Company (and was also president of the J. W. Greer Co.).
When the decision to locate in Winchester was made, it was important that the company be able to expand, even triple its employees. In fact, the company did grow, leading to the construction of additions in 1961, 1965, and 1968.
Wire Belt remained in town until 1989, when it moved to Londonderry, N.H. There it is still family owned and reportedly thriving.
In 1997, the Winchester property was deeded to 19 River Street LLC and was used for many years by Peterson Party Center.
Diamond Antenna and Microwave
In 1958, the Whitten Brothers bought 35 River St. and built a one-story structure which allowed another light industry to relocate to Winchester, the Diamond Antenna and Microwave Corporation.
“Rapid growth of the firm and greatly increased business made it necessary to expand beyond the potential of its Wakefield site, and an exhaustive search and consideration of sites available had resulted in the choice of Winchester as the firm’s new headquarters,” The Winchester Star reported in 1959.
As of 1961, the Boston Globe reported, Diamond employed more than 50 engineers, scientists, and technicians. The firm designed and manufactured microwave components, test equipment and accessories for industrial, laboratory, and military use.
“Diamond has done a good deal of pioneer work and its efforts have been spread over a wide span of achievement, from small missile-type applications to huge ground-type installations. The firm has developed antennas, slotted lines, Doppler systems, high power diplexers, a complete series of broad band rotary joints, filters, directional couplers, attenuators, mixers and frequency meters, to name a partial list,” the Star stated.
The company founder and president was Albert S. Hovannesian (1924-2016) who became involved with the community as a director and president of the Winchester Rotary Club (installed 1969).
In 1996, under new ownership, the company moved its operations to Lowell and later to Littleton where it reportedly continues to grow.
Although the early River Street businesses are prospering and even winning accolades in their new communities, the area and the buildings they left behind may not be as agreeable today as when the businesses were first welcomed to town.
The industrial zoning of River Street has been questioned. The Planning Board’s 1997 Triangle Master Plan recommended that it be designated for long-term residential use “so as to eventually remove this negative influence from the residential community.” But this change has not been enacted.
In 1998, Universal Polymer Technologies proposed to purchase the property, take down #19 while expanding and rehabilitating #35. Residential neighbors at the public hearing said they did not want any business there at all. Since the use was allowed, the ZBA seemed on the verge of voting approval when the company withdrew its application after finding a suitable property in another community.
While the above case was being reviewed, a group of citizens placed an article on the warrant of the November 1998 Town Meeting to rezone an area including River Street (bounded by Cross and Swanton streets, Loring Avenue, and Conant Road) from IL to RG. The motion was indefinitely postponed, and no similar motion was proposed to a later Town Meeting.
Now a proposal for a 147-unit residential project has come forward for #19-35 River Street. It remains to be seen whether the town will see the change to residential effected through the opportunities afforded developers by the state’s Ch. 40B statute.
The Zoning Board of Appeals’ public hearing on the proposed five-story multi-family residential building with 211 surface-level parking spaces at 19-35 River St. is scheduled to open on Sept. 16.