Saving New England


NOT only is it affirmed in the Harvard song that the Cambridge shadows are more soothing, the sunlight more dear, ‘than descend on less privileged earth,’ but Harvard is urged to remain the bearer of sweetness and light

Till the stock of the Puritan die.

Whether the fact that the Harvard Botanic Gardens, founded in memory of Asa Gray for the study of hardy herbaceous plants, are now abandoned and overgrown with weeds, while the new School of Business rises in four-million-dollar majesty across the Charles, indicates a certain debility in the stock of the Puritans, who can say? Certainly the Cambridge shades are less soothing than they used to be; in fact in many places they are now nonexistent. Many sections of less privileged earth grow better trees than Cambridge. The famous elm beneath whose shade Washington is said (on somewhat doubtful evidence) to have taken command of the Continental army is no more. Its place is now occupied by a ‘billy-cop.’ Through ancient Brattle Street rolls, night and day, an endless procession of motor cars, cabs, trucks, and buses. Crossing Harvard Square is a nerve-racking adventure, and may well serve as a preliminary course in Harvard’s new School of City Planning. The stock of the Puritan has to be pretty spry in Cambridge these days.

Paul Revere rode out beyond Cambridge to Lexington once, and on toward Concord. That highway is now a through-traffic artery which eventually becomes the famous Mohawk Trail. Most of its length it is a swiftly moving steel and rubber river between banks of ‘hot-dog’ kennels, fried-clam stands, filling stations, and other odoriferous and ugly reminders of this progressive age. On past Hawthorne’s ‘Wayside’ and Emerson’s white dwelling it sweeps, and you wonder what would have happened to Hawthorne’s delicate nerves or Emerson’s serenity had those artists been forced to work beside this roaring torrent. Through the heart of Concord it goes, right, through the Mill Dam, trucks rumbling and rattling, buses honking and taking up two thirds of the road, pleasure cars by the thousand; and little old ladies of Concord, come down to the village to do some shopping, stand bewildered on the curb, wondering if they will ever get across. Then on it sweeps, to repeat the same performance in every town it passes through, till it reaches its grand climax on Whitcomb Summit. Here, after climbing up and up beside a tumbling brook, the highway comes out on top of Hoosac Mountain, and discloses that spectacular view to the west of Greylock, the deep hole which shelters North Adams, the collegiate towers of Williamstown, the tumbled ranges of the Green Mountains marching into the north. Here is the apex of the Mohawk Trail. Here is what thousands of the passengers in those whizzing cars have come to see — come from Boston, from Philadelphia, from Columbus, Ohio, from Weehawken and Pottstown. What do they see? Ilot-dog stands, filling stations, tumble-down shacks, scrawled signs on every tree, tin tags, old newspapers, lunch boxes, orange skins. Such is the climax of the Mohawk Trail. The human serenity and charm of Cambridge and Concord on the one end, the natural serenity and beauty of the mountain top on the other, alike are gone.

However, that does n’t stop New England from advertising itself. Even the Berkshires advertise. Fancy that! Internally and externally. Billboards in the most sightly landscapes proclaim the merits, not only of ‘national products,’ but also of local hotels; and pretty little park triangles at the forks of the roads sprout signs as thickly as Cadmus’s crop of spears: ‘Ye Waffle Shoppe,’ ‘Long Ago Tea Room,’ ‘Antiques’ — and so on, and so forth. The Polly Prim Tea Room, by the way, was recently raided, and the proprietress fined for selling liquor! Up from the south comes a main highway, bringing trucks and tourists. It lays its ribbon of cement for two miles between the elms of Sheffield. Opposite the former homes of General Barnard (who gave his name to Barnard College) and the Reverend Orville Dewey, friend of Holmes and Hawthorne, an ‘ex-pug’ from New York was permitted to erect a filling station and hot-dog stand. On it goes to Great Barrington, where William Cullen Bryant acted as town clerk for five years, before he descended on New York to spend the rest of his life trying to make his New England conscience prevail in New York journalism. Beyond Great Barrington it crosses a ridge of Monument Mountain, about which Bryant wrote a poem. The ridge is now crowned with a combined hot-dog stand, filling station, merry-go-round, and tourist camp. Then it enters the lovely main street of Stockbridge, where Jonathan Edwards wrote The Freedom of the Will, and where the inhabitants have some to this day, and presently reaches Lenox.

Lenox was once a collection of large and exquisitely groomed estates, spread over its wooded hills, and it maintained a haughty isolation. But trucks and tourists must be fed. Ye Log Cabin, Twin Maples, Joe’s Place, and a dozen more line the highway on to Pittsfield, and the highway through the town and up the hill past the white church where Channing preached his last sermon is black with endless traffic. Under the circumstances, haughty isolation is difficult. Recently no less than six of the large estates were sold to a speculator from Palm Beach, who combined them into a fancy club.

The Berkshires have recently spent thirty or forty thousand dollars in advertising themselves; and of course the more they advertise — if the advertising brings tourists — the less desirable the Berkshires become as a resort to the kind of people who built them up in the first place and established their tradition and atmosphere.

All New England, in fact, is advertising itself. This is known as ‘waking up.’ Thrown into a considerable panic by the desertion of the textile industry, New England became acutely conscious of the fact that it had a summer-resort industry which the South could n’t take away from it, and one which was enormously increased by the spread of the automobile. It kept the textile industry as long as it could find fresh supplies of cheap foreign labor. The stock of the Puritans had, of course, to pay dividends, even if the city of the Lawrences became 90 per cent alien, and the city of the Lowells nearly as much so. Nothing remained Puritan about those cities but their names — and the names of their absentee landlords. It is not at all improbable that New England will get a considerable amount of its textile industry back again when labor in the South becomes organized. But New England was too panicky to wait for that time to come. It saw the resort industry as something inalienably its own, and went Rotarian with a rush. Boost and advertise became the order of the day. Some states advertise with public funds, and maintain publicity offices at the capital. The railroads and steamship lines quite naturally help out. Various organizations of private individuals have been formed, also, to raise funds and advertise either New England as a whole or definite sections such as the Berkshires. The New England Conference, the largest and most active of these organizations, is devoted even more to increasing industrial prosperity than to swelling the number of tourists. It has also conducted a vigorous campaign to make New England ‘air-minded’ anti to inspire towns to buy and equip landing fields. Most of them, fortunately, are n’t yet used enough to make life hideous for the surrounding inhabitants.

Such a state as Maine, of course, has a great deal to offer the visitor. With its coast, its forests, its lakes and streams, and its lonely and beautiful mountains, all of which constitute its major wealth as resort attractions, it would be rather stupid if in this age of advertising it did not strive to make its attractions better known. But when a town like Revere, Massachusetts, comes into the lists, the thing becomes uproarious. Revere Beach is a splendid crescent of sand taken over by the Metropolitan Park Commission, which cleared it free of all structures and built, a boulevard at the top. But behind the boulevard is a vast collection of shacks, booths, roller coasters, and what not that make Coney Island by comparison resemble ancient Athens, and behind them is an unzoned and hideously unattractive town. To advertise such a place is worse than throwing money away, because it could only attract undesirables.


Zoning may be, as some think, merely a local treatment for deep-seated disease, but it does have decided advantages for the individual communities. Some twenty miles out of Boston is a pleasant and characteristically Yankee village, until recently unzoned. Off in the pine woods at one corner of the township is a pond. Suddenly a ‘realestate development’ started up on the shore of this pond. The first shack erected, on a pocket-handkerchief lot, the assessors decided could n’t be taxed for much more than a hundred dollars, or a return to the town of three dollars. Yet in the shack were several children, whom the town had to educate at a cost, of about two hundred dollars per child. The Puritan pocket nerve is considerably more sensitive than the Puritan æsthetic faculties, — wherein the Puritans don’t vary greatly from other people, to be sure, — and a zoning expert was summoned to save the village from progress. But in most places the effect of progress is not so directly registered in the town treasury, and nothing is done.

In Sudbury, Mr. Ford discovered that his ancient Wayside Inn was being shaken to pieces by the constant jar of heavy trucks lumbering past on the highway in front; nor was it possible, with the through road so near, and so full of Ford cars, to maintain the traditional peace and quiet of the Ford hostelry. So, at his own expense, he rebuilt a mile-long strip of the state road, taking it two hundred yards or more away from his dooryard. It probably cost him more than the Inn did, but it saved that lovely memorial of the old New England. A similar by-pass has recently been built by the State of Massachusetts behind the village of Deerfield. The elm shadows of Deerfield street to-day suggest even more privileged earth than Cambridge. And under them sit the ancient houses, proudly virgin of paint, doing their best to look exactly as they did in the eighteenth century. Some of them are occupied by an excellent boys’ school, and many of the rest by the descendants of the original owners. There is nowhere in New England a village street which has better preserved its characteristic flavor, showing the visitor at a glance the system of town planning, the architectural taste, and the general community atmosphere which our Puritan ancestors developed. But Deerfield had the misfortune to be on a main through highway, and it was fast being shattered by the roll of traffic and invaded by the roadside abominations through traffic brings.

The new by-pass shortens the through route, and eliminates four curves, which was no doubt why the state built it. But the result has been to save Deerfield. Scarcely one car in twenty (and of course no trucks) now turn off the through route to drive through the village. Those who do turn off really want to see the old town. Those who do not evidently don’t want to see anything. They just want to be on their way — which puts a somewhat new light on the motives of motor tourists, and suggests inevitably the course New England has got to follow if it wants to save itself.

Let us take one more example. The town of Petersham, lying on the northand-south route between Athol and Worcester, Massachusetts, — that is, on one of the main connecting links between the two major east-west motor routes of the state, — is a charming and aristocratic old village, its main street, running along the ridge of a hill between fine houses and then plunging down into a splendid forest, largely of virgin timber, owned by Harvard University. Through this forest the road winds between banks of ferns and cathedral columns of pine, to the town of Barre. The young man who suggested J. A. Mitchell’s once-famous book, Amos Judd, lived in Petersham. John Fiske made it his summer home. It boasts a fine inn. And the old Barre road, winding through the forest, is one of its crowning attractions — a cool and lovely and spiritually refreshing drive which is a priceless asset. But, to their horror, not long ago the people of Petersham found the state highway engineers staking this road, planning to widen it, to eliminate the curves, to drive a modern motor highway straight through the ferns and forest, and of course to improve the road through the village — getting ready, in fact, to release directly through this lovely town and its beautiful surroundings the usual roaring steel river. It meant the doom of Petersham as a high-bred New England residential and resort village, and it meant the doom of the wild beauty of that forest drive,

The highway engineers were at least temporarily called off, and efforts are being made to see if the new traffic artery cannot be diverted around the town and the forest. Whether it will be — of course, it can be — remains to be seen. That will entirely depend on how far New England, as a whole, is awake to its own danger. The danger is that it will rapidly lose its individual aspect and flavor, and hence lose not only what brings to it the larger number of its summer visitors but what actually makes it a rather precious heritage to the nation. In its haste to increase its resort business and to provide well-surfaced roads to handle motor traffic, it has given scarcely a thought to the proper entertainment of the visitors, and no thought at all to the battering effect of motor traffic on its ancient villages and its fair landscapes.


The natural heritage bequeathed by New England was maintained almost intact through the nineteenth century, in spite of intense industrialization. Just outside of Lawrence, for instance, were Andover and North Andover, where the elm shadows indicated almost as privileged earth as Cambridge. The highway from Andover to Boston ran south through pine woods, and past old white farmhouses. The boys of Phillips Academy went chestnutting or squirrel hunting, which was no doubt a poor substitute for organized athletics, but gave some of them rather pleasant memories. Not only the proud seacoast cities like Salem and Newburyport and Portsmouth, but scores of smaller towns and even villages presented rows of houses adapted, to be sure, from English Georgian, but with a unique individuality and charm of their own. They faced on tree-hung streets, or often around a central ‘common,’ and usually the community centre was dominated by a white church with a Wren spire. Sometimes, even in very small villages, these churches were architecturally a delight, as in the hamlet of Hancock in New Hampshire. Frequently in the villages there were certain squire families who had erected fine dwellings amid their neighbors in the early days of the Republic, or before, and in these houses their descendants continued to live. If you pass through Duxbury, Massachusetts, in the Old Colony, you will see four such houses, at each of the four corners of the main village crossroad. Each house is close to the narrow street, each is architecturally beautiful, each could have been built nowhere but in New England, and yet each is quite different from the other three. And each, we may add, is in danger, for at any moment, at the demand of motorists for wider highways to Cape Cod, the Commonwealth may jam a state road down Duxbury street, — so that the tourists can ‘see Duxbury,’ God help us! — and that road will not only shear off the picket fences and perhaps the very doorstones and porches of these houses, but it will render them all quite uninhabitable by the kind of people who now live in them and keep them in their ancient state, making them the focal point of the dignified charm which emanates from that Pilgrim village. (Not Puritan, mind you. In the Old Colony you must be careful of this distinction.)

Pilgrim or Puritan, New England unquestionably evolved an external civilization which was distinctive and delightful. Some hard doctrines may have been preached in the white meetinghouses, at any rate before they went Unitarian. But the meetinghouses were beautiful, they faced green commons of praiseworthy neatness, they looked across at houses gathered into a community which had grace and distinction, and which nestled into the enveloping landscape as happily as did the long-roofed farmhouses and big gray barns out on the country roads between. If anyone could show that Puritan repressions and intolerances were the result, of such gracious town planning and seemly living conditions, or that scrapping them in favor of hotdog stands, filling stations, and public camps would produce a spiritual awakening among New Englanders, resulting in several new Emersons, a Thoreau or two, and a couple of Hawthornes, then even we dyed-in-the-wool Yankees would cheerfully bid them good-bye. But nothing of the kind is possible. Scrapping them produces, in every community which has not already been spoiled by forces beyond its control, merely a dulling of civic pride and æsthetic sensibility, and an unpleasant sharpening of the instinct for immediate and personal gain.

One of those questionnaires of which college professors are so enamored was recently conducted by an academic Yankee among several hundred summer tourists who had motored into New England from as far away as Ohio. He sought to discover why they came. Much to his surprise, and to the distress of some of those who had prepared New England’s advertising copy, he discovered that ‘historic interest’ had influenced them almost none at all. Few had come primarily for sports, either. First of all, they had come, so they declared, to see an attractive country; and their secondary impulse was to travel where they were assured of good food. They sought the scenery of New England and desired a wellkept inn or boarding house at the end of each day’s journey. This indicates plainly enough that if New England is to maintain its resort prosperity it must retain its characteristic landscape, which, of course, includes its unique towns and villages, and that it must provide physical entertainment in keeping with them. The primary foe of landscape charm and village character, in New England as everywhere else, is the motor highway. The problem of saving New England is the problem of handling motor traffic.

Even in New England the bulk of traffic is not tourist. It is commercial or local — using ‘local’ to mean traffic from within the state or region. Everyone now admits, everywhere, that commercial traffic is not only a nuisance but a menace on ordinary roads, and more especially on the winding roads of New England. Even the most casual observation of traffic conditions near a city or on a through highway discloses the fact that the great majority of pleasure cars bear local plates, and the occupants are either out for a ride or, on a week day, bound on some definite errand. The genuine tourist traffic is the least burden on the roads, even in New England. The problem of maintaining an attractive region unspoiled, then, means much more the proper handling of commercial and local traffic than the handling of tourist traffic. As yet no whole-hearted and farseeing effort has been made to meet it, because New England, in common with most of the rest of the country, has been busy paving existing roads, never designed for motor vehicles or as great commercial arteries, and has not realized that they never were, and never can be, adequate for the new demands.

Almost every town now, like all our cities, is strained to capacity to handle the legitimate and immediately local traffic in its streets. All through traffic, except that relatively small body of tourists who are roaming to see the country, should be kept out. There should be, both for the salvation of the towns and for the efficient speeding up of business, through arteries across and up and down the states, built straight across country, as on railroad rights of way, with definite lanes for trucks and others for faster-moving vehicles. New England villages come on an average of every six miles. Every driver knows the slowing down that means on a hundred-mile haul. The economic gain for everybody using cars for business purposes would be almost incalculable, for those having business between near-by towns would employ the existing roads, now cleared of trucks and through traffic, and all those who are making longer hauls or trips, and who in states like Massachusetts and Connecticut constitute the great majority, would move out from their starting point on to the arterial rights of way and speed to their destinations. Connecticut has already made a tentative move in this direction by surfacing old roads through sparsely settled country, to get unimpeded through arteries, and Massachusetts is planning a very wide and straight motor way from Boston to Worcester, largely through open country. But much more drastic work is imperative.


The stock of the Puritan, of course, has been terrifically watered. Not only the textile cities, but Boston, Worcester, the Connecticut Valley towns, and scores of other towns and sections, have been so infused with alien blood that the Puritan element has been almost submerged, though we have to confess that Judge Webster Thayer raised his head to emit a characteristic remark or two. This relatively new type of population has motor cars — good ones. It constitutes a very high percentage of the traffic. It is responsible for most of that backwash from the cities which results in tawdry bungalows, dirty filling stations, hotdog stands, dance pavilions, and the other abominations which now line all our arterial highways. It does n’t fare forth in its cars to see New England, but merely to take a ride. It occupies, perhaps, most of the nineteen out of twenty cars which by-pass old Deerfield on a summer Sunday. It, much more than the visiting tourists, is responsible for the slumlike trail all our main highways have spread across New England.

But if this population can afford sixty-miles-an-hour cars, it can afford sixty-foot-frontage house lots. If it can enjoy the luxuries of motors and radios and movie palaces, there is no reason why it should continue to build slums to live in. There is no real reason why its backwash from the cities should progressively befoul the countryside. Adequate town zoning, combined with properly placed arterial highways, would save what is left of the older New England, and provide for a decent and civilized future growth in keeping with the deep traditions of the land.

If the New York Central railroad went through every town down the main street, as it goes through Syracuse, the Twentieth Century would take a week to get to Chicago. Arterial highways are now practically railroads, in purpose and potential speed of traffic, still attempting to function while passing through the main streets of every town. They have got to be taken out of the towns. Send them over wide rights of way, radiating from the cities and crossing the states, and three enormous advantages are gained at once. First, through traffic is greatly facilitated in movement. Second, existing towns are reclaimed to live their local life in accordance with their ancient plan of community coherence and dignity. Third, an expanding population, pressed out from the cities and made mobile by the motor car, can move in and out daily over these rights of way, turning down the side roads to new communities built under zoning laws and in the country, where there is room for decent planning. Owing to the present choked condition of our highways, suburban living is restricted almost everywhere to half its potential range and half its proper elbowroom, while village living has lost its character and charm. The country is rapidly being spoiled for tourists, and there is no compensating gain in the flow of industry or expansion of living range. We are being conquered by the automobile. It is our blind master.

Of course what blocks any adequate provision of proper radiating arteries to meet twentieth-century conditions is the expense. But the expense grows greater the longer we wait. Our American cities have already had to spend billions to carry their people about underground and to get them water from far-distant mountains. The automobile is now making cities of whole states, and the new problems can only be solved by large and radical methods. If need be, let the motors pay. If our prosperity is so great that every family can have a car, and many families more than one, a doubled or tripled registration fee is a small price to pay for a system of proper highways on which to operate them, and for the salvation of those natural charms and decencies of life which are a priceless heritage, and which only blind and parsimonious stupidity would throw away.