Editor’s Note: Imagine Nashua: Then & Now is a weekly photo column by Don Himsel. Each week, he will feature an old photo within a more recent photo and an explanation of how he got the shot.
The last time I received a letter, I mean one on paper, handwritten in ink, was probably when I was in college. It was written by my mother, now in her early 80s. Since then, I’ve had short notes and such but nothing really relating a story.
A couple of weeks ago, Roger Carroll, our editorial page editor, walked over to my desk and said I needed to see something.
“Attention Don Himsel, Rocky Morrison and Jesse Bourque,” the letter started. The writer noted that she had read my recent story about the Nashua River’s low level and the work going on to clean the banks and bottom while the dam was being upgraded downstream. Rocky and Jesse had been doing the work.
“I am an old ex-Nashuan, having grown up on 39 Pine Hill Ave, corner of Briston St. on the north end,” she wrote. “Sometime around the middle or late 1930s or early 40s, there was a similar dredging down by the end of Franklin St. – whether a river cleanup like this or some dredging for the Nashua Gummed and Coated Paper Co. I do not know but the dredges found, sitting in the bottom of the river, a tip-cart in A-1 condition and of course, wondered how it came to be there. I know not if they raised it or left in there.
I KNOW HOW IT GOT THERE!!!”
Now, let me explain. This letter was penned by Pauline Fifield Kenick, born in Hudson 103 years ago.
“The house is still standing. It’s on the corner of Library and Water streets,” Kenick said.
She now lives in Wilton under the care of her daughter, Lois Kenick. She can recall many things, though keeping organized and retelling it all may take a little while.
Pauline can tell you a story about living at 4 Fairmount St. in Nashua as a child and the mailman at the time. His horse was named Molly, and how Molly loved sugar cubes. Most important here, she had a great story about that tip cart ending up in the drink off Front Street. In shaky but clear cursive handwriting, she shared it with me and the two men I had written about, who were hard at work at the time picking years of accumulated junk from the mucky bottom.
Here’s more of what she wrote:
“The local boys, including my father, (of Front Street area) had a swimming hole down there someplace. There was a farmer who lived adjacent to their swimming hole who did not want the boys down there, so he scattered broken glass all over the area. It just happened the farmer had a brand new tip-cart. So one dark night the boys (my father Pliny Fifield among them) got the new tip-cart, dragged it to their swimming hole and sent it to the bottom of the river. No one ever saw it again and it was a mystery – ‘what ever became of the farmer’s brand new tip-cart?’ ”
Pauline continued, “I’ve always regretted not telling them how it got there at the time it was found. So here you have it straight. My father seemed to enjoy telling it to us.”
Before signing off, she added, “It had to be before 1898 since Pliny Fifield grew up and enlisted in the First N.H. Volunteer Company in the Spanish American War.”
Just after I received her letter, Rocky called me. He said the project was finishing up and he had some things to show me. I said I had something of a treasure for him, too, and headed down one morning to meet him on the riverside near the Cotton Mill project. He showed me the muddy motorcycle he found. He showed me some old bottles. I told him about the letter.
A few minutes later, after digging around one of the piles of trash he and his crew had hauled out for disposal, he produced a small, half-rotten wagon wheel and hub. A muddy miracle.
Rocky said he found it near Front Street. Could it be from Pliny’s prank? Maybe. There’s no way to know for sure, of course, but that didn’t keep me from trying to get a sit-down with Pauline.
With help from Roger and Jesse Salisbury in Lyndeborough – who, of course, when I called knew exactly how to reach Pauline and her daughter in Wilton – I made arrangements to meet her last week. In my trunk was a bag with the wheel and a small token of my appreciation for my new friend.
Pauline’s home is cozy and as bright as her smile. It seemed that a lifetime’s worth of accumulated memories and life’s necessities were within an arm’s reach of her easy chair. Our visit was long and the conversation, facilitated by Lois, spanned decades. I heard detailed stories about her family, particularly her father. I wanted to better understand who he was and how he may have lived back when he was a youngster in a very different Nashua.
Lois said Pliny’s mother brought him and his two brothers, George and James, from New York after their father died of typhus. She had lots of family here and began a new life. “The place was swarming with relatives,” Lois said.
Pliny joined the army as a young man. Lois said his mother told him “you bring George back or you don’t bother to come back yourself.” Taking a train from Nashua, he and his brother mustered in, in May 1898 in Concord. The soldiers took a train to a rallying point in Chickamaugua, Ga., where according to a New York Times story from Sept. 8, 1898, conditions were terrible. They left before seeing action and were mustered out back in Concord on Oct. 31 that year.
Pliny met his wife-to-be Mina in Boston after the army. They lived with his mother on Front Street in Nashua. “The house where (Pauline’s) sister was born in was demolished to build the transformer station there,” Lois said.
Pliny worked at the card factory in the city and eventually spent many years with the B&M Railroad as a foreman on a painting crew. “He was a laborer. Where the work was, he went,” Lois said. In her slow but deliberate tone, Pauline went into great detail about his weekly routine centering around his boarding car, a group of three railroad cars used as a work train.
She remembered meeting her dad, who she calls Papa, at the Union Station at the end of his work week and walking to John Lesage’s 10 Tolles St. market to put in the crew’s food order for the week. Her mother’s own grocery order would be waiting and the pair would then get a ride home in John’s son, Romeo’s, automobile. A sight to be seen in the area at the time, she remembered, is the filling in of the canal that once ran along Canal Street.
Pauline told of Papa’s horrific fall at a job site near Epping where his crew was “red leading” a bridge. The fall broke his body and kept him from working for about a year. He waved off the thought of amputation, vowing to walk again, which he did. Quiet benevolence from the community, notably grocer Lesage, helped him provide for the family, Lois said.
That was a common theme in the sprawling conversation we had that day. People helping each other, formally through organizations and kind acts – like Lesage sliding Pliny $100 while he was laid up to help his family.
“She is very connected to the past,” Lois said. “I’ve spent a good chunk of my life trying to figure her out. She can see things pictorially. She’s got a screen here,” she said, motioning to her eyes. “She struggles with language. She is a bridge.”
“An incredible bridge,” to be specific, Lois said of her mother. I asked her why these bridges are important. Lois repeated the well-used adage “those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” She explained, “some of those things that we may be condemned to repeat – the looking after each other – are beginning again, and it’s a good thing. People being used as chattel is not a good thing.”
“We need to know who we are. If you can’t know who you are, you can know who she is,” Lois continued. “We still need the connection.” Reading the letter and hearing a little bit of Pliny’s story “might help them understand what Nashua was like, might help them understand what their grandparents were doing and seeing.”
My head was full of stories as Lois joined me at Pauline’s door to walk me to my car. Before I went, I left my small gift: a rough copy of a Nashua Public Library photograph of the First N.H. Volunteers marching down Chestnut Street. At some point over the years, someone had painstakingly written the names of each soldier above their heads. In the first row, second from the left, marches Pliny. Next to him is George. Off to war, transitioning from prankster boy threatened with reform school, to young man.
At the car, I took the bag from the trunk and opened it. She confirmed that it could be a wheel hub from the cart Pliny and his friends pushed into the river. She was going to take it home as a backyard decoration.
I recall what Lois said earlier that day of Pauline being a bridge to the past. “It gives you strength,” she said.
Don Himsel can be reached at 594-6590 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, follow Don on Twitter (@Telegraph_DonH).