How does one go from a life as a sea captain to that of a small-town newspaperman? For Capt. Larz Neilson, it was not an easy voyage.
After nearly 20 years at sea, he found himself cast ashore in the wake of World War II. During the war, he commanded Liberty ships and then Victory ships. But by 1948, ships were being mothballed and Larz found himself in a similar boat.
His first newspaper work was as a stringer for the Lowell Sun, covering Wilmington stories. His mother, Caroline Neilson, had been a correspondent for a Swedish - American newspaper, and she encouraged Larz to try a career in newspaper work.
He had a big break late in the winter of 1951 when Stanley Bocko hired him as editor of the Wilmington Crusader. It had once been called the Wilmington Mirror, filled with a lot of “canned” material. That changed in 1950 when Betty Downs was hired. With Larz at the helm, the Crusader soon became a must-read for everyone in town. Mrs. Downs would later come to work at the Town Crier, working with Larz for nearly a half-century.
Though he’d been at sea for many years, Larz had grown up in town. After covering stories for the Sun, he knew many officials. So he was well-suited for the job. He would often be found in a booth in George’s Restaurant, pounding out stories on a portable typewriter.
Four and a half years later he left the Crusader to start the Town Crier. In the fall of 1955, he leased the North Wilmington railroad depot from the Boston and Maine Railroad. In October, he resigned from the Crusader, and on Nov. 17, 1955, Vol. 1 No. 1 of the Town Crier appeared. The paper had a distinctive appearance, on crisp white paper instead of newsprint. It was printed at Offset Printing in the old U.S. Cartridge factory on Lawrence Street in Lowell.
It was a challenging venture. The type was set on a Varityper, a machine that could produce justified columns of type. However, each line had to be typed twice, a slow process.
Headlines were hand-set type using a system called Phototype. Pages were laid out on cardboard sheets with rubber cement, then cleaned with gobs of dried cement, known as “snotty oscars.”
The lead story in the first issue concerned four children who were left in a home on Grove Avenue in a frightful state of neglect.
There was one letter to the editor in that first issue. It read: “To the editor of the Town Crier: Knowing that a newspaper can be a strong weapon for the common good, let me wish you, as you enter on a new venture in your life, that you will be guided to serve your town and its inhabitants to the very best of your ability for the most good for the most people; to show firmness and mercy to all; to serve with sincerity and humility. — Your mother”
The North Wilmington depot was a great location for a local newspaper. It would serve as the Town Crier office for 32 years.
But the drafty old building had no heating system other than a pot-bellied stove. There wasn’t a square corner in the building. The attic had a half-century of coal soot that would filter down from the ceiling whenever a door was slammed. The nearest rest room was across the street. There was no cellar, per se, only a hole with some burned timbers from the old depot, which burned in 1912.
The Boston and Maine trains were still running, and the terms of the lease included a requirement to provide a waiting room for passengers. Five years later, the railroad sold the depot to Larz.
Some of the Town Crier’s earliest employees included Beth Wicks, Theo Kidder, Rae Burns, Arthur Allgrove and Sylvia Neilson, Larz’s sister.
Larz brought with him a few features he had used in the Crusader. His “Town Notes” column carried short items, often with an amusing angle. And he continued the Golden Pea Spoon award, for the gardener who picked the first crop of peas in June. There would often be information about some of the few farmers remaining in town.
On a more serious note, the second issue of the Town Crier had a detailed explanation of how Selectman Charlie Black and the town manager had saved the town over $30,000 in interest on bonds for the new addition to the high school.
The town was in a tremendous growth spurt when the Town Crier arrived on the scene. Subdivisions were replacing many old farms, bringing new families to town. After the moving van had departed, Larz would be at the door, welcoming the new residents and introducing them to the Town Crier.
He worked seven days a week for several years, often working all night to finish the pages. Evenings, when not covering meetings at the Town Hall, he would be at various functions, taking pictures.
About a year after the paper started, his wife, Elizabeth N. Neilson was at the office. She happened to look at the checkbook, only to realize that on its present course, the paper would soon be out of business. She took a night-school course in bookkeeping and became treasurer, later referring to herself as the “captive treasurer.”
Every month, she would sit down at her mother’s old L.C. Smith typewriter and send out the bills. This would be her weekend routine, 12 times a year for 30 years.
She had a routine where she would hand-deliver the bills to advertisers near the office in North Wilmington. She had an austere, scholarly appearance.
In the summer of 1963, she walked into Ralph’s Barber Shop. There were several customers waiting, including a stranger. Without a word, Ralph Allen walked to the cash register, took out some money and a slip of paper and gave it to Mrs. Neilson. She quickly signed the receipt and Ralph put it in the drawer. Not a word was spoken. After she left, the stranger said, “Boy, you’d never take her for a bookie!”