Josna Rege

69. Wonders in the Woods

In 1980s, Stories, United States on August 17, 2010 at 8:22 pm

photo from Moody’s Postcard Blog

Tucked into a corner of North-Central Massachusetts in the farthest reaches of Worcester County, Winchendon is rather like the Bermuda Triangle in its obscurity and extreme weather; people can vanish there. When we first moved out there from the Boston area in 1983, I was apprehensive about making friends and fitting in. In acreage, Winchendon is one of the largest towns in the state and probably one of the most wooded, but in population it is one of the smallest, and I was afraid that I would be entering a culturally homogeneous community where I would never be able to feel at home.

In some respects I was right, in that I soon found that only a native of Winchendon could ever really be seen to be from Winchendon; all others would forever be considered outsiders. With housing prices soaring in the Reagan years, Winchendon was fast becoming a bedroom community for people who worked in the Route 495 belt, Greater Boston’s outer ring road. For them, as for us, Winchendon was affordable. However, for Winchendon natives, this development was driving up housing prices to the extent that their own children would not be able to afford to live there, even supposing that they could find work in the area. It was only natural that they would be suspicious of us newcomers.

In the hope of being accepted more readily, I joined a local church choir and became a stringer for the town newspaper, writing news and feature stories. As a reporter it was permissible to call townspeople and ask them for personal interviews and they in turn had a pretext for inviting me into their homes. One of my projects—which soon put paid to my preconceptions of the town as culturally homogeneous—was a series of pieces on the different ethnic groups in Winchendon, starting with the Irish and followed by the French Canadians, the Finns, and the Cambodians. I remember a conversation with two of my readers, an outspoken middle-aged woman, who objected to the story about the French Canadians on the grounds that my main source was too critical of the mill owners, and her timid friend.

Woman: What gives her the right to speak? She isn’t even a native.

Timid friend: But my dear, her husband is a native, and she has lived in  Winchendon for 25 years, ever since her marriage.

Woman: But she was born in Holyoke!

Case closed.

Winchendon, along with nearby Athol, was an economically depressed community that had never recovered from the flight of Massachusetts-based industries to the South to avoid unions and fair wages for their workers. In fact, the first concert I attended in the area was a 1983 fund-raiser by Pete Seeger to benefit the workers locked out from an Athol factory. That factory never re-opened. Winchendon was still called Toytown, and had been known throughout the country in the 1900s for manufacturing wooden rocking horses, but that factory was long gone. Winchendon had been a big railroad junction, with trains stopping there en route to Boston, New York City, Albany, and Montreal. Sadly, by the 1980s, the old railroad tracks were being pulled up, and the commuter rail line from Boston stopped well short of Winchendon in Fitchburg, 20 miles to the East. A lone bus plying the route between Boston and Burlington, Vermont stopped there once a day, at the corner of Route 12 and Central Street, where the hitching posts of yesteryear still stood sturdily alongside the Johnny-come-lately parking meters.

As a newcomer myself, I was worried about becoming culturally isolated in Winchendon. But the first party Andrew and I were invited to, in the neighboring town of Royalston, was the ten-year anniversary celebration of a community of people who had moved out to the country in the early 1970s, reminding me that we were Johnny-come-latelies to the back-to-the-land movement; people had trod this path before us. I still remember finding my way back successfully from that party in the woods, driving down narrow, winding country roads with not one single street light all the whole way home.

Our next party, also held in the woods at night just a week or so later, was even more eye-opening. As I was picking my way round in the dark through a crowd of complete strangers, a figure loomed out of the shadows and introduced himself as Bill. I soon learned that Bill was on the verge of cracking the as-yet-unintelligible astronomical code of the Incas. When, in the course of the conversation, I mentioned that my father was Indian, he amazed me by breaking out into streetwise Hindustani, something I would have least expected in the wilds of North-Central Massachusetts. We would get to know Bill and his English wife Penny a little more over the next few years. She would order a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese from our preorder food co-op every month. And when he was not code-cracking, the multi-talented Bill was morris-dancing with a local troupe of merrie men who performed at the solstices and other pagan holidays.

But the biggest surprise at that party in the woods was yet to come. After Bill had drifted away, I thought I heard someone call my name. At first I disregarded it, assuming that I must be mistaken, since nobody there knew me, but the voice called out to me once again and I turned around to see Ginny, my sister’s contemporary and the younger daughter of a family whom my parents had first met in India when I was six months old. The father was Indian like mine, from the same part of the country and the same community, and the mother American, so that their children were half-Indian, as we were. I had played with Ginny’s elder brother Jimmy as a toddler, and then our families had lost touch for fifteen years; until, as a new immigrant to the U.S., my father had coincidentally spotted them crossing the street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, bringing their now-17-year-old son Jimmy to visit MIT. The second coincidence came some six years later on my sister Sally’s first day of freshman orientation at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. Somebody called our name, and we looked round to see this very family, our mysterious doubles, also bringing their younger daughter to her first day at Hampshire. Now here she was, some six years later still, inexplicably at the same party in the back of beyond. It turned out that she had moved to the town of Greenfield, some 20 miles further west, and had come with a friend who knew one of our hosts.

After that party, I no longer feared isolation in my new home. There were wonders hidden in the woods of Winchendon and its environs, the most fascinating people we could ever hope to meet. Today, almost exactly twenty years since we left Winchendon, some of them remain our dearest friends.

For another story about living in Winchendon, see

TMA 127. Going Up the Country

Tell Me Another

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  1. Such serendipity and in the woods of Winchendon, too. I love reading about this kind of coincidence. And the Bermuda Triangle aspect of Winchendon tickles. In your days as a reporter did you ever find out what Winchendon ( pr. Winching-don by many natives) means and why it was named ?

    • Yes I did, Norah–well, sort of. We visited its namesake in England in 1986, and I took photos that ran in the Winchendon Courier. Winchendon in England (in Buckinghamshre, near Aylesbury) is a tiny place, much smaller than ours, and divided into two parts, Upper Winchendon (pop. 119, as of the 2001 census) and Nether Winchendon (pop. 188). I’ve just looked up the name, and apparently it is from the Anglo-Saxon, meaning “hill at a bend.” But why our Winchington was so named, I don’t know.

  2. I loved reading this piece. It reminds me of how we met…and gives me some context for parts of stories I’ve heard you tell about Winchendon. I’ve never been there, though. Although I know a few towns in Massachusetts from having lived there for eleven years, most town I don’t know at all! How many people live there now? What brought you to Winchendon over a place like Greenfield or Athol?

    • Yes, of course, it was through one of those “dearest friends” that you and I met! Interestingly, she introduced us to your dear college friend’s parents within weeks of our arrival in the area, but we didn’t get to know them any further at the time. I think the population is pretty much the same now as it was then, although that bedroom community trend continued after we left, so it may be a bit (just a bit) more upscale now.
      Why we chose Winchendon? Well, for a number of reasons, but one was that it was within one and a half hours drive from Boston; that was important to us, because we and our friends did a lot of back-and-forthing. Another was that it was largely rural; as I recall, we were looking for a large farm with both woods and plenty of already-cleared acreage. One important thing we overlooked, though, was its climate; it was bitterly cold. Somehow–part of its Bermuda Triangle effect–it fell into the Southern New Hampshire climate zone, which meant that when there were two inches of snowfall in the rest of Mass, there were eight inches in Winchendon. It regularly got its first frost in the third week of August and its last in late May, so its growing season was ridiculously short. Still, I’m grateful I got to live there for seven years.

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