John McLane, age 89, retired Boston fire fighter and life-long resident of Allston-Brighton
John McLane, was 89 years of age in 2001 when I conducted this interview. He had lived in Allston-Brighton his entire life, residing during his first ten years (1912-22) in the Lake Street area of Brighton (the neighborhood in which I also grew up, albeit at a much later date), and the remaining nearly eight decades on Gordon Street in the Allston section of the community.
This portion of the interview deals with the Lake Street neighborhood. Part 2, which I will post shortly, focuses on the the Gordon Street neighborhood of Allston where Mr. McLane lived for so many years.
This interview is an extremely rich source of historical information. Its richness underscores the importance of engaging in oral interviewing as an integral part of the mission of uncovering and preserving the past.
The McLane interview can be found in the archives of the Brighton-Allston Historical Society at the Brighton-Allston Heritage Museum.
1909 map of the Lake Street neighborhood of Brighton where John McLane resided as a child
Bill Marchione: When were you born, John?
John McLane: I was born February 3, 1912, in a house at 10 Taylor Street (now 10 Trapelo Road) and I was the first of seven born in that particular house.
BM: Would you describe the Lake Street area as it was in your childhood?
JM: Yes, to describe Lake Street coming in from Washington Street, first on the left was Rogers Park. Then the first house set way back, was the Flewelling House (217 Lake St.).
BM: Is that the house at the corner of Rogers Park Avenue?
JM: Yes, but there was no Rogers Park Avenue at that time. The first Street on the left would have been Taylor Street, which is now Trapelo Road. And on the right hand (opposite the Flewelling House) lived Alice Chadburn at 222 Lake Street. Now she had the whole field where those three decker houses are now all the way from Lake Street beyond Turner Street. It was a big field with cows.
A contemporary photograph of the house that was owned by Alice Chadburn during John McLane’s youth, together with all the land to the immediate north of this residence extending all the Way to Washington Street. This house, dating from before 1850 and the adjacent acreage, had at one time comprised the Nonantum Vale Nursery, an enterprise owned and operated by James Lloyd Lafayette Warren, one of Brighton’s premier horticulturalists, who relocated to California in 1850 where he became the state’s foremost agriculturalist, sometimes referred to as “The Father of California Agriculture.” One source tells us that the first tomatoes raised commercially in Massachusetts were grown at Brighton’s Nonantum Vale Nursery. An article on the life and career of J.L.L.F. Warren will shortly be appearing on this blog.
BM: Is that the house that stands directly opposite Rogers Park Avenue?
JM: Yes it would be just about there.
BM: That’s the old James L. L. F. Warren house, the home of one of Brighton’s leading horticulturalists. Warren had a nursery there (the Nonantum Vale Nursery) that extended from his house to the corner of Washington Street, but the nursery went out of existence about 1850 when Warren relocated to California.
JM: Is that so? Well my experience was long after that, of course, and we knew it only as the Alice Chadburn House. If we had to go to the store at the corner of Fairbanks Street we would cut through that field.
And then, next, coming up the hill was the Cenacle Convent and the stucco house that’s there now (formerly the caretakers residence) on the present EF Language Institute property. That was where Mr. Sweetman lived, who was the custodian or the manager of the Cenacle. The nuns had cows, horses, pigs. About everything that was on a farm could be found in and around the Cenacle residence.
The Cenacle Convent came to Lake Street in 1910, at first occupying an old farmhouse that had belonged to Benjamin Paine, a well-to-do merchant. The north wing of the convent, pictured here, was built in 1912, the year of John McLane’s birth. A matching south wing was added in 1922. This building was designed by the noted architectural firm of McGinnis & Walsh (a firm that designed countless Roman Catholic buildings). The structure now houses the EF Language Institute.
BM: Do you remember the old wooden building that stood up there where the Cenacle building is now, the Benjamin Paine House, or had it come down by then?
JM: I’ve seen pictures of the old house, but no, it was before my time. As a kid I used to go up there. I was probably 5, 6, 7 years old. And occasionally we’d have a long ride on Mr. Sweetman’s tip cart. A tip cart is a small cart with one horse, with a control on a swivel. The front end would lock down, and if you had a load of gravel, the weight of the thing would tip backward and the whole load would go flying off.
A toy model of a tip cart
Now, as we continue up Lake Street, after the Cenacle Convent came a field, at the corner of Kenrick Street, in which the cows that were not milking from St. John’s Seminary would graze. There were other cows in there too. A man named Brady kept cows there also.
A map showing Chandler’s Pond in the foreground and Strong’s Pond beyond, two man-made ponds created in 1855-65 period for ice cutting by noted horticulturalist/ entrepreneur William Chamberlain Strong. Strong leased and then sold the more easterly of these ponds to Malcolm Chandler. In John McLane’s childhood Strong’s Pond bore the name Downing’s Pond, named for its owner at that point, ice dealer J. R. Downing.
BM: You know, on that parcel of land, at Lake and Kenrick Street, there was an ice house for the ice cut at Chandler’s Pond.
JM: Yes, I saw it. As a matter of fact, skaters on Chandler’s pond used the wood from the dilapidated ice house to make bonfires to keep themselves warm.
BM: So it was a ruined building at that point?
JM: There was a lot of debris that we used to burn to make fires to keep our feet warm.
Then going further up Lake Street, on the right hand side, there was nothing much until you got up as far as J.J. Sullivan’s (numbers 58 and 54 Lake St. ) almost to Undine road. For a young kid that was kind of a far place to go.
[BM: The Sullivan family were contractors, who did much work for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Family members built three handsome stucco residences, which still stand, just north of the Undine Road intersection.]
This incredible photograph includes four historically significant structures. In the the left foreground one sees the home of the caretaker of Chandler’s Pond on Kenrick Street, built circa 1855, the oldest residence on that street. The large building on the opposite side of Chandler’s Pond is the principal structure of St. John’s Roman Catholic Seminary, called Theology House, dating from 1881, with its adjacent 1899 chapel, the most beautiful building on the St. John’s campus. A matching west wing would later be added to the Norman Chateau-style Theology House. In the background at the far right hand corner of the photo are two more buildings, the Seminary’s Philosophy House, dating from 1899, which was destroyed by fire in 1936, and across the way on Lake Street, the residence of ice dealer Malcolm Chandler, also dating from the 1850s.
BM: The old Chandler House (70 Lake St.) was up there as well, the home of the man for whom Chandler’s Pond was named. It’s now painted white. It’s a wooden house.
JM: I didn’t know that. But I remember that on the left hand side was a house occupied by the Maloneys.
BM: On the Seminary grounds?
JM: Yes, that was the only house on the left. It was pretty far back on the Seminary grounds.
Going back down the bottom of the hill, on the left side of Lake Street beyond Trapelo Road, the first house (185 Lake St.) was occupied by another Maloney family, and the second house (181) was the Battle house. Jimmy Battle was my playmate until I was 9 or 10 years old.
Then, of course, came the Seminary grounds. In the Seminary grounds were chestnut trees, not horse chestnuts, but real chestnut trees. That was before the chestnut blight, which came through in the early 20s and killed all the chestnut trees. We used to go up there and get these beautiful chestnuts and bring them home and roast them.
A contemporary photograph of St. John’s Seminary’s Theology House, a Norman-style puddingstone structure built from stone quarried on the seminary grounds.
In those days they didn’t block off the Seminary grounds. There were so few kids that we spent much of our time there. As a matter of fact we used to go around in back to the kitchen and they’d hand out cookies. One of the nicest things was a monsignor, who later became bishop up in Manchester, N.H. I don’t recall his name. He would see the kids and invite us in. That was the first time I ever walked on plush carpets. He was a real nice man. The seminary had its own cows, horses, pigs, and chickens in the back.
BM: Do you remember the stream that flowed out of Chandler’s Pond (Dana Brook) as an open stream, or had it been placed underground at that point?
JM: No, it was underground. But I recall distinctly the cast iron cover in the field below the seminary building and that we could put our ear to it and hear the water running. Yes, the seminary was a major part of our lives.
The magisterial William Cardinal O’Connell, who presided over the Archdiocese of Boston from 1907-1944. In 1927, a Italian Renaissance-style palace was built as a residence for the Cardinal at the upper end of the Seminary, facing Commonwealth Avenue. Interestingly the headquarters of the Catholic Church in Boston was thereafter commonly referred to as “Lake Street.” The seminary grounds, comprising some 40 acres, now forms part of the Boston College campus.
I remember that once a year the Cardinal would walk the seminary grounds with, I suppose, his assistant, and in full uniform, the big hat, and everything. As kids, we’d say, “What are we supposed to do if we see him? A Cardinal?” I suppose what he was doing was inspecting his property. He was quite an impressive figure, especially to us children.
BM: This was prior to the construction of the Cardinal’s residence at the top of the hill? I think that was built in 1927.
JM: Oh, yes, indeed.
BM: Do you remember the Gifford Home for Animals (commonly known as the Cat Farm) up on Undine Road?
The Gifford Home for Animals
JM: Yes, as a matter of fact, Patty Brett was in charge of that, and he had twins. Occasionally, we’d go up there to visit. He would come down Lake Street with his horse and wagon about one o’clock every day, and if we were on time (we were on our lunch hour from school) we could ride his team up to Brighton Center. Where he was headed from there we don’t know. It was always a secret. He had what we thought were dead animals, and we supposed he was bringing them to the Abattoir or someplace. They were in big sacks. They would be piled in the front of the wagon, and we would sit on the back and get a ride down Lake Street and up Washington St. And then of course we’d get off at Brighton Center and go back to either the Winship or the Bennett schools.
The handsome Winship Elementary School as it looked in John McLane’s time. It was built in 1901 on a hill overlooking Brighton Center. John attended this school until grade 3, then transferred to the nearby Bennett School on Chestnut Hill Avenue for grades 4, 5, and 6. The Winship School, named for the family that founded the Cattle and Horticultural industries of Brighton, sat on the site where Agricultural Hall had once stood, the exhibition hall of the Massachusetts Society for the Promotion of Agriculture. Here were held the first state fairs in Massachusetts. The school was named for Francis Winship, a former Boston School Committee member.
BM: What about the other ice house, the one between Chandler’s and Strong’s ponds on Kenrick Street that belonged to J. R. Downing? Do you have any recollections of that site?
The J. R. Downing Ice House situated between Chandler’s Pond and Strong’s Pond (also called Downing’s Pond).
JM: Oh yes. You want to hear an amusing story about J. R. Downing? This is a story that my father used to tell me. J.R. Downing was, of course, the big ice man of the area, and in the 1890s he was one of the first ones that got a telephone in his office. He had trouble getting the operator one day. He kept getting the wrong number. He was so exasperated with her that e said, “Oh, go to hell!” and slammed down the receiver.
So a few days later someone from the telephone company called and said. “you swore at one of our operators. Now, you will either apologize to this lady, or we’re going to take the telephone out of your office.” Downing refused.
“Well, in that case we’re going to be there tomorrow to disconnect your telephone.”
“Well, hold on” said Downing. “What’s her name?”
“Her name is Alice.”
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll call her.”
So Downing picked up the phone. “Let me talk to Alice.”
“This is Alice.”
“Alice, this is J. R. Downing. You’re the one I told to go to hell?”
“Well, you needn’t bother!”
A J. R. Downing ice delivery wagon on Kenrick Street, circa 1910