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My Days at Laurelbank...
The full memoir  by C. William Lakso recounting living at Laurelbank Farm during the Great Depression

I did not know it as Laurelbank Farm, for I was much too young, at five years of age in the fall of 1934. I don't believe my parents were familiar with the name either, having just moved into the vacant farmhouse off Pleasant Street in Lunenburg from the adjoining city of Fitchburg. 

It was easy to determine how the name originated, for spread below and beyond the house on the steep incline toward the pond was a beautiful stand of mountain laurel. 

The term Laurelbank first came to my attention nearly 80 years later when I signed on as a volunteer at the Lunenburg Historical Society. To my surprise and amazement, the society's headquarters building was made possible by a legacy left by John Duncan Brown, whose family owned the former farm, now known as the Laurelbank Conservation Area.

I have often stated that my three years of childhood at Laurelbank have provided the most pleasant and happy memories of all my years of growing up during the days of the Great Depression. 

The fields of hay, the scent of pines, the squirrels, rabbits, snakes, frogs, turtles, deer, birds and other fauna roving and rollicking in their native habitats drew me into the fields and woods almost daily. I recall one day rummaging at the edge of the pond, attempting to catch the elusive frogs or turtles, and I turned over a stone. There revealed was a wet and shiny, black snake with yellow spots, or so I thought. Of course I learned later that it had been a spotted salamander, not an unknown species of snake.

A cart road branched from the gravel driveway near the south side of the house, leading to a meadow. On the way, down the incline to the right was a cranberry bog. I remember well, a clump of huge white birch trees at the edge of the road, with branches arcing tunnel-like over the road. 

I often walked to the meadow carrying two tin cans, one with holes punched into the bottom. Coursing through the meadow was Baker Brook, quietly meandering through the tall grasses. Across the meadow, smoldering on the hillside was Fitchburg’s Kelley Avenue dump. At the brook's edge I could see tiny minnows swimming in the shallow water. Here is where the perforated can was put to use. A quick swipe among the school of minnows often met with success, and the catch would be transferred into the second can filled with water. 

I have always found it interesting that my parents allowed me, at age five or six, to roam the woods and to visit the brook without supervision. They apparently felt that I had common sense adequate to avoid danger.

That confidence of theirs was reinforced by allowing me to build a fire in an outdoor fireplace near the front door of the house. On that open fire, on many Sunday mornings when my parents slept in, I would prepare coffee for them. Once the water reached boiling, into the pot would go a measured amount of coffee grounds, allowed to boil for three minutes and then served to my waking parents. I often wonder how many parents today would allow such activity by a child.

There were no children with whom to socialize, as the farmhouse was rather remote, having a narrow gravel driveway nearly a half-mile in length to its juncture with Pleasant Street. I was a “loner" for sure. Even today I tend to be extremely independent in many of my activities. A true introvert!
Mother and I often walked to meet my father as he returned from work in the Ford Model "T" coupe. How the three of us fit on the single narrow seat of the car will always be a mystery to me. Although my father was strong, very fit and muscular; my mother's similar attributes had long since left and she was now a rather rotund lady, four feet, eleven inches tall and carrying about 250 pounds! Obviously, I could not sit, but stood on the floor.

One day we met the car and my father had a bundle on his lap. As we entered, he passed it to me – a warm, black, furry, whimpering puppy to care for and to become my partner. Mickey Mouse was a favorite in the comics at the time, and since the pup was a female, I called her Minnie. It brought a great thrill at the moment, plus many years of companionship to follow. I now had a friend to come with me on my never-ending explorations about the farm.

The farm did not have electrical or telephone service. School work and reading were done by kerosene lamp light as needed, depending on the season and available light. A frequent treat was toasting marshmallows over the heat from the lamp. Without electricity and refrigeration, ice was delivered periodically, and the one-hundred pound cake placed into the oak ice box. 

Running water was available by means of a unique system: at the base of the hill below the house was the well house, equipped with a gasoline engine and pump. Once each week the engine would be started by my father, the pump engaged and water pumped through a pipe up the hill and discharged into a large wooden tank in the basement of the house. With no automatic shut-off, it was necessary for my mother or me to carefully observe the level of water, and alarm my father to shut down the pump as the water level approached the tank’s capacity. 


The fields of hay, the scent of pines, the squirrels, rabbits, snakes, frogs, turtles, deer, birds and other fauna roving and rollicking in their native habitats drew me into the fields and woods almost daily. I recall one day rummaging at the edge of the pond, attempting to catch the elusive frogs or turtles, and I turned over a stone. There revealed was a wet and shiny, black snake with yellow spots, or so I thought. Of course I learned later that it had been a spotted salamander, not an unknown species of snake.
A cart road branched from the gravel driveway near the south side of the house, leading to a meadow. On the way, down the incline to the right was a cranberry bog. I remember well, a clump of huge white birch trees at the edge of the road, with branches arcing tunnel-like over the road. 

I often walked to the meadow carrying two tin cans, one with holes punched into the bottom. Coursing through the meadow was Baker Brook, quietly meandering through the tall grasses. Across the meadow, smoldering on the hillside was Fitchburg’s Kelley Avenue dump. At the brook's edge I could see tiny minnows swimming in the shallow water. Here is where the perforated can was put to use. A quick swipe among the school of minnows often met with success, and the catch would be transferred into the second can filled with water. 

I have always found it interesting that my parents allowed me, at age five or six, to roam the woods and to visit the brook without supervision. They apparently felt that I had common sense adequate to avoid danger.

That confidence of theirs was reinforced by allowing me to build a fire in an outdoor fireplace near the front door of the house. On that open fire, on many Sunday mornings when my parents slept in, I would prepare coffee for them. Once the water reached boiling, into the pot would go a measured amount of coffee grounds, allowed to boil for three minutes and then served to my waking parents. I often wonder how many parents today would allow such activity by a child.

There were no children with whom to socialize, as the farmhouse was rather remote, having a narrow gravel driveway nearly a half-mile in length to its juncture with Pleasant Street. I was a “loner" for sure. Even today I tend to be extremely independent in many of my activities. A true introvert!
Mother and I often walked to meet my father as he returned from work in the Ford Model "T" coupe. How the three of us fit on the single narrow seat of the car will always be a mystery to me. Although my father was strong, very fit and muscular; my mother's similar attributes had long since left and she was now a rather rotund lady, four feet, eleven inches tall and carrying about 250 pounds! Obviously, I could not sit, but stood on the floor.

One day we met the car and my father had a bundle on his lap. As we entered, he passed it to me – a warm, black, furry, whimpering puppy to care for and to become my partner. Mickey Mouse was a favorite in the comics at the time, and since the pup was a female, I called her Minnie. It brought a great thrill at the moment, plus many years of companionship to follow. I now had a friend to come with me on my never-ending explorations about the farm.

The farm did not have electrical or telephone service. School work and reading were done by kerosene lamp light as needed, depending on the season and available light. A frequent treat was toasting marshmallows over the heat from the lamp. Without electricity and refrigeration, ice was delivered periodically, and the one-hundred pound cake placed into the oak ice box. 

Running water was available by means of a unique system: at the base of the hill below the house was the well house, equipped with a gasoline engine and pump. Once each week the engine would be started by my father, the pump engaged and water pumped through a pipe up the hill and discharged into a large wooden tank in the basement of the house. With no automatic shut-off, it was necessary for my mother or me to carefully observe the level of water, and alarm my father to shut down the pump as the water level approached the tank’s capacity. 

Gravity provided a flow of water from the tank to a metal tank, equipped with a hand-pumped air compressor. The pressure within the tank then caused water to flow to faucets, tub and toilet on the first floor. Hot water was heated on the wood-fired kitchen stove.

I recall two particular holidays having memorable moments. The first was a Thanksgiving, when my father came home with a turkey. However, this turkey was a live one! It had to be kept overnight prior to being processed for roasting. In the basement of the home was a separate closed room. This was where my father had his numerous gardening, woodworking and machinist’s tools stored – an ideal area to keep the turkey secured. However, it seems that no thought had been given to the fact that turkeys eat, and that their food is digested and eventually the waste discharged. The following morning brought out the chopping block and the axe in preparation for the initial step in preparing the turkey for dinner. Entering the room occupied overnight by the turkey, it was discovered that the turkey had literally “whitewashed” the work bench, the floor and many of the tools! 

The second memorable holiday was Christmas Eve. Without electricity, how was the Christmas tree to be illuminated? No Christmas tree can be more glorious than one festooned with candles! I’m certain many family members were present, perhaps with buckets of water at hand, “just in case.” But imagine, on Christmas Eve, a remote farmhouse, no telephone, situated three or four miles from the unstaffed fire station, a minimal volunteer fire department and candles burning on a highly inflammable fir tree! Truly a recipe for disaster! But it didn’t happen.

My father came from a family of six sisters and four brothers, most of whom lived in the Fitchburg area. As a consequence I had many cousins. Weekends at Laurelbank frequently found many aunts, uncles and older cousins gathering on Saturday evenings. Always, there seemed to be a stoneware crock near the kitchen stove, with something brewing, and mother had stashed in the basement, after bottling and capping, a supply of what was produced. Apparently, Saturday night is when that product was sampled and consumed with a great amount of accompanying merriment. An aunt played tunes on the square grand piano left by the Browns and there would be a grand sing-along. My father had learned to play the violin and joined in. Much too young to stay up with the adults, in my upstairs bedroom I would lay awake, listening to the music downstairs. Today, I still remember many of those old popular songs of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

What would John Duncan Brown and his family have thought of these goings-on at Laurelbank?
Would they have joined in with the Lakso clan or would they frown upon such Saturday night
parties? I suspect they might have joined in, for as I have learned, John’s father, James, once crafted an unusual eight-string violin, which is on display at the Lunenburg Historical Society. I also recall that in the “upper” attic – the house had a small attic above the main attic – there was 
a stack of organ pipes! Not huge pipes, but perhaps up to about six feet in length, and of a light blue color. In addition to the piano, had there been an organ in the house at some time?

To this day, I recall rummaging through the remnants of several chicken coops, then only ghostly shadows of their past. Yet the ever-present and not unpleasant aromas of long-composted chicken droppings permeated the air, and I could visualize the nesting boxes, accessed by inclined, cleated “staircases” and imagine the flurry of wings and feathers when feeding time came. Then there was the huge, white barn with steep slate roof topped with a cupola and weathervane. Sliding open the huge door instantly released typical old barn odors of horses and cows of long ago. To the left were several horse stalls, some with remnants of feed. Not far distant were the stanchions for cows, and of course opposite the stanchions, that trough through which waste materials were pushed daily to be deposited in the manure pile outside. Above were the typical hay mow and a door, covering the opening at the end of the barn near the peak of the roof where, with a grapple hook, loose hay was brought in and stored for winter feed. 
​​
One winter, and perhaps more, ice was harvested from the pond by my father with the assistance of brothers and nephews. The hand sawn blocks of ice were lifted with tongs out of the water and into the home-made truck body attached to the Ford Model “T” coupe. Up the hilly driveway chugged the Model T, past the house and into the cellar of the barn. The blocks were stacked solidly with vast quantities of sawdust for insulation for use in the oak ice box the following summer.

A portion of the farm bordered Lunenburg Street in Fitchburg, where Baker Brook crosses the street. Cows were pastured there in the open fields. After he reached age 70, John Duncan Brown had erected three houses where the former Thunderbird Motel once stood, and at the time of this writing, were automobile dealer Ron Bouchard’s property. One of the former houses remains, and is the building housing Vitelli Monuments. It was originally built to be a gasoline filling station. Across the street was the home of Sarah Ellen Brown, where once each month, my father delivered his ten dollar rental fee. This house was later moved to Montrose Street, and another to Edlee Street, both in Fitchburg.

October 1937 arrived, and three years had elapsed since we first occupied the farmhouse. My parents had made a decision to return to Fitchburg, and the home they had built years earlier and rented during those difficult years of the depression. As I began to attend third grade at the Center School, that what I considered to be an idyllic lifestyle at Laurelbank Farm came to an end, Moved? Yes. Forgotten? Never.​