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Small town struggles as history falls

Some in Mendon fear development

MENDON -- Word travels fast in this town, home to two traffic lights and about 6,300 residents, most of whom seem to have a keen sense of history.

"What are they building there?" asked a man on a motorcycle yesterday at the intersection of Route 16 and North Avenue, staring at a pile of rubble where a nearly 160-year-old house stood until Wednesday. "A pharmacy?"

That is the fear of some in Mendon, a quiet, rural town about 50 miles southwest of Boston where residents are struggling to blend the town's historic past with the economic realities of its future.

The Silas Dudley Homestead, a Greek Revival house built between 1835 and 1845, was torn down Wednesday evening by its owner, Matthew Fino. Next door, the Rev. Simeon Doggett House, a Greek Revival house built between 1815 and 1830 and also owned by Fino, could be demolished any day now.

Although town officials say nothing is set in stone, many residents are convinced that the houses, located at a gateway to town, will both be razed to make way for a CVS store. The store would become one of the few national chains to open in Mendon, where a post office, realty business, coffee shop, and wine store line the main street.

"Those houses were the first thing you'd see when you came up the hill," said Carl Checkoway, who owns the wine store on Maple Street. "I think it's going to change the character of the town. We're used to not having a grocery store, not having a pharmacy, and we don't mind going to other towns to go to the store. A lot of people aren't going to be happy, but what can you do? It's his private property."

Finding supporters of the demolition was difficult in Mendon yesterday. But Lawney Tinio, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said the town is in need of commercial development and that a pharmacy could bring a level of convenience that doesn't exist there.

The rumors about CVS stem from a letter sent to town officials by a construction company inquiring about the availability of water and sewer service on the lots, Tinio said. The letter included basic plans for a CVS, but town officials do not know who might buy the land, Tinio said.

"Nothing has been officially stated," Tinio said. "Would common sense point to a CVS? Everything would point to a CVS if you're going to speculate, but that's just a guess. No [official] plans have been submitted."

Neither Fino nor officials with CVS returned calls seeking comment yesterday.

Talk of the demolition had swirled in town for weeks, but many residents said they were caught by surprise when the Dudley house was torn down Wednesday.

"I was coming through Mendon to check on the houses [Wednesday] night after work," said John Trainor, chairman of the town's Historical Commission. "I didn't notice any big equipment at the time. Fifteen minutes later, I was coming down and the giant claw was through the portico. I jumped out of my car and started screaming, 'Stop, stop,' and started taking pictures."

Fino has the permits required to demolish the houses, Tinio said.

"This is privately owned property, and we really don't have any leeway to stop them from doing what they did," Tinio said. "It was up to the discretion of the owner to make a decision as to when to act on the demolition permit."

Still, the fact the demolition was legal has not dissuaded Fino's opponents, some of whom formed an ad hoc preservation group last month and picketed yesterday across the street from the remains of the Dudley house.

"Mendon's been caught by surprise," said Gary Smith, who has lived in Mendon since 1962. "You couldn't get a CVS or a McDonald's or a bank to come into town 10 years ago. There just wasn't enough population or traffic. Now there is, and it's a snowball effect. It's CVS tomorrow, and then it's a Wal-Mart. It's sad."

Ryan Haggerty can be reached at