Longtime Resident Stan Babcock Shares His Memories of Old Allston
This is one of a series of interviews by local historian William Machione with long-term Allston-Brighton residents about the changing face of the community.
Stan Babcock, who turned eighty earlier this year, spent the first seventy-five years of his life as a resident of Allston Street near Union Square. On Thursday, December 3, 1998, Mr. Babcock recounted the following recollections of the Allston neighborhood in which he grew up:
B.M.: How far back do members of your family go in Allston-Brighton?
S.B.: My mother and father were born in Newfoundland and they emigrated to the states in 1910, and started to raise a family of seven.
B.M.: What brought them here?
S.B.: I would say the motive was basically economic, the opportunity that was available for my father to use the ability he had had as a carpenter-builder; he saw that there were better prospects in the United States, and Boston was the nearest part of the states.
B.M.: And where did they locate here in Allston-Brighton?
S.B.: In the Allston Street area. First, in a house that stood in the present Ringer Playground, and later on Allston Street.
B.M.: Where on Allston Street?
S.B.: The second house on the left after you make the turn off of Brighton Avenue.
B.M.: And your father was a carpenter?
S.B.: Yes. He was a member of the team of builders that worked on the Egyptian Theater (in Brighton Center), the Capitol Theater (on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston), and Braves Field (now B.U. Field), and he also worked on the renovation of private homes. There was a period of time which he spent in the employment of the Stone & Webster engineering firm, but later he built and renovated homes on his own.
B.M.: What was your father's full name?
S.B.: Leander Babcock.
B.M.: And what was your mother's maiden name?
S.B: Harriet White. Both were old Anglo-Saxon names.
B.M.: When and where were you born?
S.B.: I was born on May 22, 1918 in the house on Ringer Playground, but we moved to the Allston Street house when I was a few months old.
The Ringer Playground of that day was quite different. It had a quarry on its southeast side, and at the foot of the quarry were two homes. One of them was my dad's, and the other belonged to the Ringer family that the park was later named after. One of their son's was killed during World War I leading a charge up Chateau Thierry---Stanley Ringer (the namesake of the park). Incidentally, he was the first Allston volunteer for the armed services in World War I.
The park had a different configuration in my youth. A fence extended from Imrie Road all the way around to Griggs Place, and then came into the park about a hundred yards. There was a lampost light there which would be lit by a lamp lighter each evening. The bad feature, was that when guys played ball there, there wasn't much room to maneuver because of the projecting fence. The park was smaller then. Also there was one more house on Griggs Place, on the left, as you entered it from Allston Street. Another Babcock family lived there, and they had a white fence around it that would keep the kids from chasing balls into their back yard.
B.M.: Was there anything unique about the Allston neighborhood back then?
S.B.: One thing that made the area quite unique was its political character. Of all the wards that made up the City of Boston back then, Allston (Ward 21) was one of just three that was controlled by the Republicans. The other two were the so-called "Silk stocking wards" on Beacon Hill and in the Back Bay. The ethnic makeup of the neighborhood was primarily Anglo-Saxon/ Yankee. Later the immigration of Italians and Irish changed the politics of the area. The Republicans elected in that period included Charlie Ferguson, who was State Representative, and Louis Lobel, who owned a Plymouth dealership on Brighton Avenue.
B.M: I believe Lobel was one of the first Jewish elected officials from the area, wasn't he?
S.B.: Yes, he was. He and Martin Hays, who lived on Parkvale Avenue, were Jewish. Hays was the majority floor leader, or whip, in the state legislature. Remember, the Republicans controlled the legislature back then. The Boston City Council was predominantly Democrat. Another local Republican leader was John Agnew. Eddy Wolf was involved, but he wasn't an elected official. Wolf took over the Chrystler dealership after the Lobels. Those were the Republicans who controlled Ward 21 back then.
B.M.: Where was the Lobel Chrystler dealership located?
S.B.: On Brighton Avenue, where Osco's is today. In fact, next door to them was the home of a Mrs. (Janice) Chubb, an old Yankee, and she had pear and apple trees, and used to spend the summer chasing kids from getting pears and apples from the trees in her back yard.
I remember when the entire north side of Brighton Avenue from the Moskos block (now the Kells) all the way to Union Square was strictly residential, with the exception of one commercial building opposite the Allston Street intersection. Moskos was quite a fancy restaurant. It was a great restaurant!
B.M.: Do you have any other special memories of the area?
S.B: I remember the Brighton Avenue Baptist Church burning down. I think it was on October 20, 1929. I was only a kid, but I heard the fire engines and ran down and sat on the curbing and watched them and watched the Salvation Army feed the firefighters all day long. It was quite a battle. They had an old wooden furnace---a stoke type furnace---and I guess they stoked it too much. Of course, everything was made of wood in those days, even the ducts, and the fire just went up and broke through. The size of the auditorium produced a wind shaft that expedited the flow of the flame to grow bigger and bigger.
And then I remember the Brighton Abattoir. Many a night we heard the sound of the siren which meant there was a fire at the abattoir and you'd hear the engines right after that responding. And later on when I owned a store on the corner of Quint and Brighton Avenue (an ice cream store), every once in a while, we'd look out and the police would be chasing one of the cattle that broke loose from the stockyards. They'd be trying to lasoo it. They used to call the local police the 'cowboy cops.'
B.M.: I've never heard that expression.
S.B.: I also remember the huge fire at the Metropolitan Driving Club, adjacent to the Charles River Speedway down on the river's edge in North Brighton. It was a horrific fire, and the pages of the newspapers were filled with it for weeks afterwards.
B.M.: Can you describe it for us?
S.B.: They used to have harness racing down on the Charles River Speedway every Saturday afternoon, and many of the local people and folks from all over would come to watch them. The Metropolitan Driving Club had its stables adjacent to the speedway, where WBZ is located now. I'm not sure how many horses were kept there, probably hundreds, sleek, beautifully groomed animals.
On the day of the fire, I think about fifty horses were killed. I remember going down there and they had these big hoists, that they used to lift the carcasses of the charred remains into trucks to haul them away. If you like animals, or have any kind of a sympathetic feeling for them, it was a terrible sight to see.
(B.M. The fire in question occurred on Sunday, August 14, 1932. It destroyed both the Metropolitan Driving Club Clubhouse and Stables buildings, killing 44 valuable racing and saddle horses).
The Metropolitan Driving Club's North Brighton Clubhouse, which sat on the site now occupied by WBZ-TV. This building and adjacent stables were destroyed in a spectacular fire on Sunday, August 14, 1932, in which 44 horses were killed.
B.M.: Where did your family do its shopping, Stan?
S.B.: There was the Mohegan Market on Harvard Avenue, and two local First National stores, one in Union Square, and the other on Harvard Avenue near Commonwealth. Also, at the corner of Harvard and Brighton Avenues, near Parkvale, there was a big open space, where they had two gigantic tents. We used to go there for our fruit and vegetable shopping on Saturdays.
B.M.: An outdoor market?
S.B.: Right. My parents would bring the kids, and if we were good, they'd take us for ice cream afterwards to Brighhams or Morgan Brothers.
B.M.: Where was Morgan Brothers located?
S.B.: On the east side of Harvard Avenue a short distance from the Brighton Avenue intersection. Morgan Brothers was one of the biggest chains for milk, butter, and eggs in New England. Another interesting local store stood around the corner on Brighton Avenue, near Quint, the Adams Brothers Store, which sold jellies and jams. They were there for quite a few years.
B.M.: What did your family do for entertainment?
S. B.: Mostly we went to Norumbega Park in Newton, and to Old Orchard Beach in Maine.
B.M.: Did you ride out to Norumbega by streetcar?
S.B.: No, my father owned a Model T Ford. He'd pack us all in the car.
B.M.: There was a streetcar line that ran down Commonwealth Avenue, wasn't there?
S.B.: Yes, there was. But we always went out by car. Norumbega was like our playland. It had amusements and a roller coaster.
B.M.: Are there any other recreational recollections you'd like to share with us?
S.B.: We were fortunate enough to have Braves Field in the neighborhood. One thing that the Braves offered the local kids was the Knot Hole Game.
B.M.: What was that?
S.B.: Just as soon as school was over, you went to the local playground, in my case the Ringer Playground, and signed up for a knot hole ticket. You paid a nickel. Miss Madigan, who'd been my second grade teacher, was the administrator at the playground. She ran the clubhouse and gave out the equipment, and so forth. You'd sign up, get your ticket, and she'd give you a white slip to go with it. You'd go down to Braves Field and they'd take the white slip as long as you showed them your card. You could go in and watch the Braves play for the whole season for that nickel card!
B.M. How did the community celebrate the Fourth of July in your youth?
S.B.: It was a big thing, real big! People would rush to get up to Ringer Playground on the night before the fourth. They'd have in the early afternoon, from one to three. Then we'd get ready for the band concert, from eight to ten. After that we'd walk down to Smith's Playground for the bonfire. And at the same time they had a carnival going, prior to the bonfire being torched at twelve. And they'd have these different tents and you'd throw balls and try to win money, darts and so forth. And then the following night they'd have the band concert down there to go with the carnival. Everyone was in a happy mood. Flags everywhere. Everyone had an American flag.
B.M.: What was your first regular job?
S.B.: I worked part-time in the store that I later bought, as a clerk in the ice cream parlor. It was called Hodges Spa. When I took it over I called it the Busy Bee.
B.M.: This was at the corner of Quint and Brighton Avenues?
S.B.: Yes.
B.M.: How old were you then?
S.B.: I was in my late teens and early twenties. It was while I was working there that I was called into the service.
B.M.: In what year?
S.B.: February of 1942. After my induction at Ft. Devens, I went to Camp Croft in South Carolina for basic training. In the next few years I did shore patrol in New Jersey, went overseas to North Africa, where I spent over two years as a mortar crew man. It was in Italy, as we were entering th Po Valley in pursuit of the fleeing Germans, in the final stages of the war, that I became a battle casualty.
B.M.: Tell us about it.
S.B.: The Germans were leaving us and fleeing north as fast as they could. But they always left a pocket of resistance to try to slow us down so their main body could escape. And they had this tank camouflaged under a tree and it shot at the twelve of us, and we jumped into this crater that our planes had created bombing them during their retreat. A few moments later the sargeant came over with some GIs to pick us up. He said, "You're wet," and I said, "I'm sweating." It wasn't sweat, it was blood, and I didn't even know it! They say that shrapnel when it first goes in is so hot that you don't feel it until seconds after. So they cut the sleeve off and put on an emergency bandage and took me by jeep to a field hospital and operated on me. And when I woke up I had no idea where I was or anything else, and I called out to the guy next to me, "Hey, where am I? What time is it?" He answered in German. I found out later that I was the only GI there, all the others were injured German prisoners of war. Then they took me to a hospital we'd taken over from the Italian government in Livorno (Leghorn) and I had another operation. I was there when the war ended.
Incidentally, of the twelve men that jumped into that hole, six got killed and six were wounded. I was very lucky. By the grace of God, I survived.
B.M.: Do you have any other memories of the war that you'd like to share with us?
S.B.: On a cold and dreary Christmas Eve, in 1944, I found myself nestled in a former German pill box on the slope of Monte Battaglia, one of Italy's towering mountains, preparing to be part of an offensive strike against the enemy. It was a time when loneliness and fear and freezing temperatures caused me, paradoxically, to recall Christmas eves back in Allston that abounded with the spirit of the Christmas season.
On the other hand, it was a great thrill for me to meet my brother Harold, who arrived in Italy several months later than I did. We were granted a special weekend pass to spend together before joining our respective units. He too later became hospitalized as a result of combat action.
B.M.: Tell us about your involvement with the Red Sox.
S.B.: I was involved in a chapel program for baseball players for quite a few years. The program was started by a retired Detroit sports writer named Watson Speolstra. Waddy got the idea of establishing chapels for baseball players who were on the road. I'd arrange to have a speaker for them at whatever hotel they were staying in Boston. Later Waddy appointed me Boston chapel leader. At first we provided programs just for the visiting clubs, but eventually extended it to the Red Sox as well. Later when I joined the Little League program, I was able to get front-line Red Sox players as speakers for the Little League, and they'd do it for nothing ---players like Jim Rice, Bob Stanley, Bill Lee, Rick Burleson, and Rich Gedman.
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