Imagine finding a headline saying your grandfather had been fatally injured. That would be a real shocker, especially if the accident took place 14 years before your own father was born. Needless to say, he survived.
“Peter Neilson fatally hurt” was the headline on a small story in the Boston Globe, March 4, 1897. It was one of three stories that appeared in the Globe about my grandfather at various points in his lifetime.
Neils Peder Nielsen was born in Denmark in 1876, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1892. His older brother Christian had settled in Woburn, later moving to Chestnut Street in Wilmington. That is where Peter lived when he first came to the U.S. He moved to Woburn to be closer to employment.
He was 20 when he was injured at the W. P. Fox & Son Tannery in Woburn. The Globe story reported that he was at work feeding a bark mill, and it was supposed that he fell into the hopper. Two physicians were summoned and they were obliged to cut him out of the machine. His shoulder blade was crushed, his right arm was reported to have been torn off, also the flesh on his back.
He never talked much about the accident, but his nephew Carl had some information, recounted in a family history by Pete’s daughter Sylvia. He was apparently caught in a conveyor which whipped him to the ceiling. The first physician fainted dead away at the sight of his injuries. He was placed on a stretcher, carried to the baggage car of a train and taken to the Mass. General Hospital. It was weeks before he could lie on his back. He spent months in the hospital.
What is quite amazing about his recovery is that he later became a highly proficient stone mason. He did not lose his arm, although he had no shoulder blade. He lived for another 56 years after the accident.
In 1904, he married Karolina Sjoberg. They had three children, Larz, Sylvia and Bernice (Anderson.) Larz founded the Town Crier in 1955.
Many years later, Dr. Ernest MacDougall of Wilmington, upon seeing the scars on his back, said that he should probably have never worked another day in his life.
The next story ran in the Globe on Nov. 30, 1903, when he was a candidate for mayor of Woburn, on the Socialist Worker ticket. He had become an American citizen in 1900. The story reported that there were two other candidates. A fourth candidate later entered, and fourth was where Peter ended up in the tally. His photograph, taken at age 20, accompanied the story, one which I had never seen.
In 1907, his brother bought the old Henry Harnden farm near Silver Lake. Pete bought land from his brother in 1912 and built a house. It is on Glen Road, opposite Miller Road. The house is the distinctive work of a stone mason, with a large fieldstone front porch and fireplace. The house itself was built with cement blocks manufactured on site with sand from the excavation. In his career, he built many fireplaces, rock gardens, greenhouse chimneys, foundations and other works in the area.
12 years later, he again ran for public office, this time in Wilmington. In 1924, he became the first immigrant ever elected to office in Wilmington, serving on the School Committee for three years. He was elected to another term in 1934. In 1928, he was elected to the Board of Library Trustees, where he would hold a seat for 18 years.
Sylvia Neilson wrote that he always took a large number of books for extended periods, taking full advantage of his position as a library trustee to escape fines. He became a very well-educated individual, usually reading constantly during the winter months.
The third Globe article ran in 1940 after his truck was hit by an express train at the North Wilmington station. The truck was demolished, but he and a companion were unhurt. I had never realized that the accident was at North Wilmington, exactly where we had the Town Crier office for more than 30 years.
Sylvia Neilson’s book, “Lars and Dorothe’s Kith and Kin” is in the historical section of the Wilmington Memorial Library. Sylvia taught at Wilmington High School in the 1930’s.