Inspecting the sprouts from Boston’s seeds
One of the things about Boston is that there’s a bit of it wherever you go. Sox caps crop up in Chicago, Harvard T-shirts glide past on the Grand Canal, and when dessert is served in Georgia or Alabama, a chocolate-topped cream pie may appear.
Still, I was surprised not long ago to learn about villages in various states that had emulated Boston in name. Unfurling a wad of dog-eared road maps, I circled pinpricks named Boston or New Boston in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, even Missouri and Texas. The Hub’s geographical reach was more widespread than I had thought. Some states had two mini-Bostons, others more.
I began to wonder what life was like in these outposts. Did the towns have any links to New England — a special sense of history, a general store, a central green? Could I find New Bostonians with a soft spot for the
It would take a road trip to find out.
After loading up my
From other history buffs, I got a warning. Since mini-Hubs seemed pretty common, I would have to focus my drive on either Bostons or New Bostons and narrow it to one probable settlement branch. North by northwest looked best, so I traced a wobbly westward line between New Bostons in New Hampshire, the Berkshires, upstate New York, and Michigan.
It was only one thread. But it was one I could conceivably reel in during a week of driving. With my tennis pal, Jim, along for the adventure, I was off.
Wait a minute, says Jim, popping open the car door. What’s that last one about? We read some text etched on a granite marker and find out that Roger W. Babson, the founder of Babson College, had set up the Gravity Research Foundation here in the late 1940s.
Debbie Smith, a New Boston resident who works at Dodge’s Store, stifles a yawn when I ask about this. Apparently the foundation is a serious enterprise that is intended to encourage antigravity research. “I feel on the verge of floating right now,’’ I say, thanks to the smell of coffee and fresh popcorn near the store’s entrance.
Smith pours me a cup, and though the store is busy, owner Lisa Danzinger comes over to show off her upright rotary phone, still in occasional use, and a collection of antique Dr. Pepper bottles. Though nowhere near as old as the town itself, which was granted to a handful of Massachusetts families in 1736, Dodge’s dates to 1872 and, according to Danzinger, is the meeting place of choice for locals. Especially the porch.
“People from Boston — the big Boston — come through sometimes,’’ says Danzinger. “They’re out there on the porch with the old folks from town. It’s a pretty good mix. They root for the Sox, we root for the Sox. And if anyone from the city is rude to us, you know what we do? We’re extra nice back to them.’’
It’s growing dark by the time we get near and all we can see are trees. “This is the polar opposite of Boston,’’ says Jim. Sandisfield as a whole counts 769 residents and when we snake into New Boston, there are lights glowing only at the 1737 New Boston Inn. Signs and flags tell us the inn’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
We check in, despite being advised about a ghost that haunts and sings nightly in Room 4. According to the owner, Barbara Colorio, the Syfy and Discovery channels have done segments about this, and grinning, she hands me the Number 4 key.
No problem, I say. I’m more nervous about missing dinner — restaurants in town close early — and Jim and I are just in time to get pizza at a rustic pub called Tucker’s. Owners Scott and Deb Stone glance at each other when they hear about my New Boston quest.
“This town used to be a stop for the Boston-to-Albany stagecoach,’’ says Scott. “So, in honor of that I am making us a bean hole for the restaurant. A real one. With an iron beanpot, hot coals, the works.’’ Now it’s our turn to exchange glances.
I hear no singing during the night. But I am listening, not sleeping. The New Boston ghost may be a peaceful phantom, but it is effective. I wake up grouchy and ready to move on.
“We’ll see about that,’’ I say. After spending the night in the nearby college town of Cazenovia, we rattle off on a maze of dirt roads, whizzing past turnoffs, reversing direction, and screeching to a stop in front of a maple that has collapsed into the road. Like Boston, none of the villages we have visited are kind to drivers.
By a stroke of luck we find Dog Hollow Forest, pictured on the map, and get to a grassy hillside where Cuyler Hill Road runs into Randell Hill Road. “This is it,’’ I yell. “New Boston, N.Y. 13158.’’ Jim looks skeptical. There’s an old schoolhouse that someone is using as a home. A covered bridge has been abandoned and is without its stream. Two goats chew weeds next to a pond. And there’s a sort of farm.
I get out in the rain to ring the bell. Dogs bark inside and out, a chicken examines me from around the corner of a shed, and a man with a white beard appears, slamming a screen door. “Charles Gibbs,’’ he growls. “Who’re you?’’
When I tell him about my project, Gibbs’s eyes narrow. There is recognition. New Boston is real. “We was named for Boston, Massachusetts, way, way back,’’ says Gibbs. “This was a busy place once, full of activity.’’ Gibbs is remembering. His eyes are shut now. I can see the first subtle curvature of a smile.
But after our New York outpost, and the hamlets of New Hampshire and Western Mass., Michigan’s mini-Boston (population 9,056) comes across as a metropolis. Dating to about 1820, it’s got its own post office and is smack in the flight path of the Detroit airport.
I don’t find a Northeast-style village green, but there’s a busy corner with Gibbs Sweet Station (ice cream), McNasty’s Saloon (mostly beer), and Mary Ann’s Drive-Inn which, according to waitress Dawn Meksula, is famous for its home fries and pies. “Boston cream pie doesn’t sell too well around here,’’ she tells me. “This is apple-growing country. New Boston puts on an apple fest every October with a big parade.’’
At the New Boston Pharmacy, pharmacist Einar Tjolsen confirms this. “This is a town with traditions,’’ he says. “Apples, of course, and some families that have lived here for a lot of years.’’ I can’t help noticing a photo of Fenway Park tacked up by the counter, near some baskets overflowing with gum. “That’s my wife and me, last year,’’ says Tjolsen. “I do like Boston. I kind of feel at home there, and there’s so much history.’’
As much as this town? I say.
Tjolsen laughs. “Don’t tell anyone I said this,’’ he adds. “But maybe slightly more.’’
Peter Mandel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.