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Worcester neighborhood shaped for generations by company

December 31, 2018

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Jack Stankus grew up on Crerie Avenue, off Barber Avenue, next to Dodge Park on the southern edge of the city’s Greendale neighborhood.

And like so many of his generation, Mr. Stankus’ father worked most of his life at Norton Co. — 35 years to be exact — raising six kids on that blue-collar paycheck.

It was the ideal situation — a good job, big family and lots of friends.

“We had eight houses on two streets and probably 40 kids,” Mr. Stankus said. “One family had 12 children. We had six. We had so many kids on a dirt road. Those were the days when you came in when the streetlights went on.”

Those were also the days when Norton was not only the king of the neighborhood, but the entire city. At its peak in 1952, the company employed 5,500, most of whom lived close enough to walk to and from work.

Kenneth White was one of those people. He grew up on Marshfield Street, right behind the former H.E. Holbrook Drop Forge factory, now Kom Tek Technologies. He woke up every day the same way — to the sound of industry.

“Every morning at 7 a.m., boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, that’s what you’d hear all day long, two shifts, the Drop Forge, the hammers, the doors would be wide open in the place,” Mr. White said. “You had the Holbrook Drop Forge right there, loud all day. You had Vellumoid Gasket at the end of the street. And you had Walker Magnetics.”

Spread across four square miles in northern Worcester, Greendale extends from Barbers Crossing (near the intersection of West Boylston Street and Gold Star Boulevard) on the south to the Summit (the area where East Mountain, West Mountain and West Boylston streets meet) on the north, and from West Boylston and Burncoat streets on the east to Mount Ararat or Indian Hill to the west.

Mr. White worked at Norton for 32 years, mainly as a carpenter. In his youth, he played baseball at Kendrick Park on Brooks Street, which is now home to Joe Schwartz Little League.

In 1951, Mr. Schwartz, a foreman at Heald Machine Co., organized the league and helped build two baseball fields, one big diamond and one small.

“Some of my fondness memories of Greendale is Joe Schwartz buying a three-decker every year and burning it at Kendrick Park,” Mr. White recalled. “That was the Fourth of July celebration. It was a big bonfire right where the ball fields are on Brooks Street.”

Mr. White said everyone from the neighborhood would bring their old furniture and throw it into the fire to burn.

“In the end, they walked around the fire with cans of diesel fuel and that thing would erupt into flames,” he said. “It was exciting.”

Exciting times

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were exciting times for the Norton Co., too.

From its humble beginnings with a $10,000 investment and 13 employees in 1885, in just five years the company grew to become the nation’s most successful grinding-wheel producer with 30 percent of the market and more than 200 on its payroll.

In 1915, the company built 59 houses for its employees on Indian Hill, which was redubbed “Norton Village.”

By 1919, sales were more than $3 million a year, and in 1931, Norton purchased the Behr-Manning company of Watervliet, New York, adding coated abrasives and sandpaper to its line. These became two of Norton’s more successful products.

Growing up in the city, especially Greendale, Mr. White said there were always industrial jobs to be had.

“I graduated trade school, Boys Trade,” he said. “Norton Company supported that school. There was probably 20 of us from Boys Trade that got hired. My father worked in the machines-tools division for 35 years. One day, he comes home from work and I’m on the couch reading the paper or something, and he goes, ‘Norton Company is hiring.’”

The next day, Mr. White said he applied and was hired.

Norton maintained its strength for decades. However, in 1985, 1,200 Norton employees lost their jobs in a restructuring.

The company’s 105-year reign as a proud independent company ended in April 1990 when it was purchased by Saint-Gobain of France for $1.9 billion.

In 2017, Saint-Gobain still employed 1,572 in Worcester — a significant drop from the 5,500 who worked at Norton in the ’50s — but the company remains the city’s seventh-largest employer and by far the biggest industrial company.

Quinsigamond Community College, which is in the heart of Greendale, employs 1,088, 10th most in the city. Known as QCC or Quinsig to most, the college has an enrollment of 8,582 and offers associate degrees and certificates in 12 fields.

One of the city’s last remaining Papa Gino’s restaurants sits across the street.

Quinsigamond CC was also the epicenter of the city’s worst natural disaster — the Worcester Tornado of June 9, 1953.

The tornado tore off the roof and much of the top floors of what was then Assumption College, killing a priest and two nuns. When it was done 84 minutes later, 94 people were killed. Forty people died in the nearby Uncatena-Great Brook Valley areas alone. It also badly damaged Norton’s then new $6 million plant on Brooks Street.

Robert P. Converse, 82, lives on Kendrick Avenue in the house that his parents bought in 1937.

“I just got home from a paper route. I was sitting at the back steps. The clouds looked very strange,” Mr. Converse said. “The night before there was a huge tornado in Flint, Michigan. It was on the front page of the paper. And my mother assumed something, took us down the cellar.”

Susan A. Gurry, a 13-year-old Lorion Avenue resident, who lived a block away from the Converse family, was one of those who perished in the tornado.

“My brother practiced that afternoon with her for a play at school the next day. I guess they left each other at 4 o’clock,” Mr. Converse said. “Just before the tornado hit, she went inside her house and got trapped upstairs. The rest of the family was all right.”

Greendale Mall

While Quinsigamond CC is thriving, attracting students young and old from throughout Southern Worcester County, the Greendale Mall is not.

Built in 1987, the mall was once a destination for Worcester shoppers, but has fallen on hard times in recent years. Today, the once vibrant 300,000-square-foot space has lost much of its business to the newer Solomon Pond Mall in Marlboro and sprawling Shoppes at Blackstone Valley in Millbury.

With empty storefronts and only two vendors in the food court, the Greendale Mall seems to be clinging to life. Meanwhile, next to the mall, Reliant Medical Group just opened a new facility — they share a parking lot — on Neponset Street.

In the shadows of Saint-Gobain — its iconic twin “Norton” smokestacks still billowing white smoke on a rainy morning — Abby Kelley Foster Charter Public School recently celebrated its 20th anniversary on New Bond Street. Norrback Avenue School on Malden Street is the neighborhood’s elementary school.

With fewer factory jobs, Mr. White said Greendale has lost much of its identity, including the smaller community stores that used to be as common as streetlights.

“We used to have Hamill’s Market right on the corner of Greendale Ave. and Airlie (Street),” Mr. White said. “And you had the smaller Fortin’s Market. You had the Greendale Spa right at the corner of Fales and West Boylston streets. There was Carol’s Restaurant down by New Bond Street.

Mr. White remembered Carol’s as a popular hangout for the Norton employees.

“And Art’s Diner, too,” he said. “You had the Coach And Six. You had Stuart’s Diner. You had Nick’s Bar. They had a lot of local barrooms if you wanted to go to, Even Steven’s which is Greendale’s Pub now. For the kids, we had the Boulevard and then we had the Greendale Spa.”

When Mr. White started at Norton there were still barracks that housed many of the men who worked there — the majority Swedish immigrants — like the company’s founders.

“It was the Swedish spirit, traditions and relationships that inspired the family culture and traditions of Norton Company in the early years,” Brenda A. Heller, manager of communication and community relations at Saint-Gobain Worcester said. “Norton Company was not only its own community, but it viewed itself as one big family. Norton took pride in the abundance of amenities and services it provided on what is known today as the Saint-Gobain Greendale campus ... Norton rarely missed a chance to celebrate and bring families together.”

While the Swedes dominated the Norton workforce in the early days, the neighborhood was, and still is, a destination for those of Irish descent. McGovern’s package store, Quinn’s Irish Pub and Smitty’s Tavern are longtime West Boylston Street staples.

Higgins closed

As a kid, Mr. Stankus took advantage of living a stone’s throw away from the Higgins Armory on Barber Avenue and regularly took a shine to the museum’s world-renowned collection of centuries-old armor.

“Higgins Armory was always free. You didn’t pay back then,” he said. “So you go in there any time. And the neighborhood kids would just swarm in there and play hide and seek.”

Higgins closed in 2013 and its collection moved to the Worcester Art Museum. The building was sold the following year and now hosts various events.

Like the sale of Norton’s, it was the end of an era for the neighborhood.

“I was there the last day,” Mr. Stankus said. “I actually went to the back stairs to the third floor and wrote my name and the date in the dirt and the dust on the window.”

With some of the Greendale of his youth gone, Mr. Stankus said he worries about the neighborhood’s future.

“I love Greendale,” he said. “I’m still friends with people I knew in kindergarten.”

There was once a time when a person could live their entire life in Greendale without having to leave. Like many of the city’s other large neighborhoods, it has its share of churches — Our Lady of the Rosary, Greendale Peoples Church and Zion Lutheran to name a few — and schools, as well as a public library — the Frances Perkins Branch — and post office (01606).

In Greendale, it is also common to find families who still live in the house they were born into.

Anna G. (Ek) Marsden, 90, grew up on Airlie Street and remembers a childhood of community and sense of security.

“You knew everybody. You knew the kids’ parents, their siblings,” she said. “You knew their animals. You knew the teachers and the ministers and the priests. We frequented each other’s homes. We played with them. We played out on the street. You just knew everybody and you felt safe and loved.”

Living on Airlie Street, Ms. Marsden said no one had cars and everybody walked wherever they went.

One of five sisters, Ms. Marsden fondly remembers ice skating on a grassy field across the railroad tracks on West Boylston Street and the city closing snow-covered streets so you could slide on them.

“They didn’t clear the streets like they do now,” she said.

The oldest of four siblings, Mr. Converse said there were kids in the neighborhood that would regularly play outside.

“I had friends on Summerhill (Avenue). I had a lot of friends on Whitmarsh (Avenue). There were a lot of kids in the neighborhood,” Mr. Converse said. “We used to slide from Whitmarsh, swing down Claffey (Avenue) and come down Kendrick (Avenue). There were no cars, hardly. The lady on the white house down here (pointing down the street), her husband was a janitor at one of the schools. She put sand down to stop the sliding. However, the first time I saw TV was in her house. We used go down and watch The Milton Berle Show.”

While neither of his parents worked at Norton, Mr. Converse had a lot of friends who had parents who did. A lot of them were “Norton families” who walked to work. Then again, most people didn’t have cars, he said.

Diverse neighborhood

Growing up, Ms. Marsden said Greendale was made up of predominantly white, working-class families.

“There were Italians, Irish, and a lot of Swedish people because they worked at Norton,” Ms. Marsden, who is of Swedish and Norwegian descent, said.

Today, Greendale is much more diverse with whites (50 percent), blacks and Hispanics (12.5 percent each) making up most of the neighborhood.

Greendale is also affordable today, as it was in Norton’s heyday, with the average cost of a single family home ($218,798) — everything from a colonial to a three-decker — well below the statewide average ($451,214).

Greendale is also more affluent than many of the city’s neighborhoods with the average household earning $67,043, compared to the Worcester median of $44,020.

Ms. Marsden, whose mother worked at Norton, said the company made a big impact on the neighborhood by hiring many who lived there.

Ms. Marsden’s husband, the late Rev. Ralph E. Marsden Jr., was a minister at Garden Villas Community Church in Houston, Texas, for seven years and Windom Community Church in Orchard Park, New York, for 11 years, but they would often visit Ms. Marsden’s parents who still lived back in Greendale.

The couple moved back to the area in 1970 and Rev. Marsden served as a co-pastor at Greendale People’s Church for 28 years, retiring in 1998. Even today, Ms. Marsden is an active participant at the church.

As for the biggest change in Greendale in the last 90 years, Ms. Marsden said there is certainly less open space, more houses and no readily available wild blueberries to pick for homemade pies.

“When I lived on Airlie Street, there was a huge field behind with blueberries and raspberries that is full of houses now,” Ms. Marsden recalled. “My mama would say, ‘If you get me enough (blueberries), I’ll make you a pie.’”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2BVSy1M

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com