In search of abandoned Bedford
Friday, May 2, 2014
Stone walls are one of the cliches of the New England “abandoned look.” Like purple loosetrife or ticks, they’re everywhere, including right here in Bedford. One runs right in front of my place on County Road.
With so much of our community being built up in recent years, you might assume the stone walls are new, too. Aren’t they just another quaint landscaping feature added when this or that field was cut up into house lots?
But no – most of Bedford’s stone walls predate our town’s development as a suburban bedroom community. They’ve endured even as Bedford has changed, a clue to our town’s agricultural past.
How is that? Because early New England settlers had to pull them out of the topsoil to make it easier to till. Often, a farmer’s first harvest was stones, and it was natural to assemble them into walls along a field’s perimeter.
But stone walls aren’t the only sign of abandonment in otherwise-brand-new Bedford. Look around and you’ll find other leftovers that lend character to our local landscape. And the best time of the year to do this is right now, after the snow melts and prior to green-up, when the local terrain is at its most revealing.
Not far from my place are a couple of landmarks of neglect easily spotted prior to the leaves sprouting. Let’s take a tour.
Head south along Nashua Road from the high school, and our first stop is just after the junction with Gage Road. As the Nashua Road crosses Riddle Brook, off to the right you can see a large retaining wall of granite blocks rising out of the woods off to one side.
This moss-covered relic is a bridge abutment erected about 1900, when the Manchester & Milford Railroad was built. The line through town didn’t last long, closing in the 1920s, and much of the route was obliterated by today’s Route 101.
But the tracks swung south along Riddle Brook, and portions of the abandoned right-of-way are still traceable. The sturdy stone abutment once supported a wooden span that carried Nashua Road high enough to allow trains to pass under.
Head south on nearby Wallace Road, and off to the left you’ll see one of my favorite pieces of abandoned Bedford. About 50 yards down a densely forested hill rests the blue-green body of an old car. It squats among the boulders, facing a bog further down the slope.
I noticed this vehicle the first spring after moving to Bedford, and I’ve looked for it every year since. It’s visible from Nashua Road only this time of year, and I’ve often wondered what its story was and how it got there. If nothing else, gravity certainly played a role.
Part of me doesn’t want to know. I grew up next to a dump, and the surrounding woods were filled with abandoned refrigerators and so on. There was no explanation needed in childhood, and I don’t really need one now. Some things are better left as is.
But still, curiosity got the best of me this spring. So early one Sunday morning, I bushwhacked my way down the slope. The car was (or is) a Chevy sedan of 1960s vintage, the wheels gone, the hood up, and the interior wrecked. It looked like it had been dropped from a great height.
I took a few photos, but otherwise left everything as is. After making my way back up to Nashua Road, I found I had actually taken a few souvenirs with me, in the form of about a dozen ticks crawling around my T-shirt. I took this as a sign from the gods of abandonment to keep away.
OK, moving on. Turn left on Beals Road and you’ll soon come to Jenkins Road. This intersection was once the site of a spectacularly unmaintained farmhouse.
Alas, it was razed about 15 years ago for a housing development, but it can’t help but remain in the memory of anyone who ever laid eyes on it.
The house, a large two-story clapboard woodframe job, had not seen a lick of paint in generations. When I first saw it, the place was so weathered, it looked like it was made of driftwood! Also, it all leaned slightly at an angle. It looked like the setting for a Stephen King novel.
I’m sad that this house is no more, but it was here long enough for me to play a good prank on my mother. About 20 years ago, after my wife and I had closed on our new home in Bedford, we put my mother in the car and drove her up from Nashua to check out our new place for the first time.
But instead of County Road, I came up on Jenkins, which at the time was dirt and completely washboarded. After a dusty and bone-rattling ride, I pulled up to the paintless leaning house, turned to my mother, and said “Well, what do you think?”
She was polite. But the look on her face was the same one I must have had when I found all those ticks on me.
Jeff Rapsis is a newspaper publisher, educator, silent film accompanist and caretaker of multiple dogs who lives in Bedford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.