“Contrary to opinion prevailing in some quarters, I am not a phenomenal walker, though walking itself is something of a phenomenon in our time,” wrote Willard de Lue.
A Boston Globe editor, he wrote a series on walking through Middlesex County in 1955, highlighting some old Wilmington landmarks.
It was the Middlesex Canal that brought de Lue to Wilmington, but he soon discovered many attractive features in the town. De Lue did not attempt to present an in-depth history of any of the points mentioned in his stories.
His style was anecdotal, telling of his experiences exploring the historical area. He told of coming face-to-face with a fox, while eating lunch on a rock by the old canal near Butters Row.
He wrote four articles on Wilmington’s casket lady, Dr. France Hiller. He told of the 16 ice houses that once stood at Silver Lake. There were two on the Baldwin Apple, along with mentions of cranberries, hops, a poisoning case at Aunt Lizzie Blanchard’s, the Billerica-Wilmington airport and other tidbits of Wilmington.
Another lunchtime acquaintance was a policeman wearing a badge that said Chief. Francis “Nifty” Hoban was at Huntley’s Lunch in Wilmington Square. Nifty told de Lue the best place to see an undisturbed section of the canal was at Lake Street.
De Lue discussed the history of the Baldwin Apple. Asa Sheldon wrote that it had been a wild tree taken from the woods in the south part of Wilmington on land of James Butters on Wood Hill, and transplanted by William Butters.
De Lue wrote that after studying a map, he wondered if it might have been found in Burlington.
“What a catastrophe indeed if the Baldwin apple, Wilmington’s pride, really came from the next town!”
He published a picture of the Butters farmhouse and the Baldwin Apple Monument, telling of the controversy regarding the discovery of the apple and the inscription on the monument.
“This pillar, erected in 1895 by the Rumford Historical Association,” it read, “marks the estate where in 1793, Sam’l Thompson Esq., while locating the line of the Middlesex Canal, discovered the first Pecker apple tree, later named the Baldwin.” (Since changed — Ed.)
Why, he wondered, did it give credit to Samuel Thompson? He then launched into a lengthy discussion of the history of the Baldwin apple.
He stopped at the Canal House on Shawsheen Avenue, where the Gillis locks of the canal are buried. The “Widow Gillis” house served as a halfway stopping point on the canal.
He walked down Main Street to Silver Lake, where 50 years earlier, he said, 60,000 tons of ice were harvested every season.
“Probably there are plenty of people around who can remember when the winter population consisted mainly of ice cutters,” he wrote.
It had been a popular summer colony, but was now mainly a suburb of Boston and Lowell.
He went up the hill on Harnden Street to Glen Road, past the Elms, an old summer boarding house with a barn that he said still smelled like a barn.
“From the big house, Glen Road descends to Lubber Brook, which comes along in a canal between two houses, and passes under a stone bridge.
“As I stood there, following the brook with my eye, a boy came across the road. He had on rubber boots and carried a rod.
“‘How’s the fishing been?’ I asked him.
“‘Rotten, so far,’ said he — he being John Bowen, 11 years old and still hopeful of better luck. He went down the brookside path to where fish might be lurking, and I would have liked to go along. What fishing I have done was as a boy like him. . . .
“Standing by Lubber Brook, John Bowen made those wonderful yesterdays seem near in me again,” de Lue captioned a picture of the young fisherman.
(Editor’s note: This was Jackie Bowen, outstanding WHS football player of the early 1960s, later a teacher at Shawsheen Tech.)
De Lue walked up Lake Street, “crossing the railroad tracks on an old wooden hump-backed bridge” to find a short section of the old canal. He later proceeded to Shawsheen Avenue to see the aqueduct at the Billerica line, which carried the canal over the Shawsheen River.
Willard de Lue worked for the Globe from 1907 to 1967, serving as overnight editor and then as Sunday editor. In 1946, he went to the Vatican for the elevation of Francis Cardinal Spellman. That launched a new dynamic to his journalism career: travel writing.
During the next 20 years, he traveled to and wrote about many countries. He wrote many articles about his walks around Ireland. In the spring and summer, he would write about walking through many areas around Boston.
His articles on Wilmington were published in the Globe on May 11, 13, 22, 23, 25, 29 and 30 and June 1, 3 and 5, 1955. The Middlesex County series began in April 1955 and continued into the summer.
The Boston Globe archives may be viewed at the Wilmington Memorial Library.