June 19, 2021

I never dreamed I’d live and work in so many places. Part 4

By John Guy LaPlante

In Part 3 I told you how at the Worcester Telegram I did extra things for extra money.

For instance, starting a weekly column on camps and camping and writing it for 10 years.

I did another thing. Our Sunday Telegram had a section called House and Home.

Nothing new about that. Every Sunday newspaper in the country has such a section. True today.

On its front page, it would feature a detailed story with photos of a beautiful home, or of a home quite different in some significant way.

I would search for such homes in Worcester and nearby towns that we covered. And I did find one that was quite different. Quite interesting.

In speaking with its owner, he explained that yes, it was different and in a totally significant way. His story wowed me.

He told me that instead of having been built in the conventional way, one board at a time, so to speak, his house had been built in a huge shed where the carpenters built houses the way Detroit builds cars.

They adopted some mass production methods. And didn’t have to worry about rain or snow and lose a lot of time that way.

They would build the house in sections, load all the sections on a truck in a certain order, and deliver the house to the customer’s house lot.

Meanwhile, the customer could prepare. Build a foundation, say. Make sure electric lines were available. Put in a well, for instance. And so on.

The name of the company was Hilco, which stood for Hog Island Lumber Company, located in Philadelphia several hundred miles away.

Hilco had a catalog of house plans. You could study the catalog and choose the floor plan you wanted.

(I previously wrote a bit about Hilco: http://johnguylaplante.com/wp/2017/02/02/an-email-from-a-total-stranger-and-my-reply/)

Furthermore, it offered an architectural service. You could make any changes within the floor plan.  For instance, make the kitchen bigger by cutting the square footage of the living room. Or, instead of three bedrooms, you could change them into two bedrooms. And so on.

And Hilco would send you a new set of plans at no extra charge.

All of which saved the owner a ton of money.

Pauline and I were living in Webster, Massachusetts. About 20 miles from Worcester. It would take me close to an hour to get to work.

She was teaching in a public school there.

We had no children thus far.

We were thinking of buying a house in the Worcester area. Much closer to my job. But too expensive.

It turned out that Hilco would not be just another interesting story that I would write up.

Sure, I would write it up. But for the first time, I’d be writing up our house!

And here is how we would start.

Pauline and I would find a nice house lot, choose the Hilco plan that would work best for us, modify it if necessary, and set it up on our new house lot.

All big decisions!

So instead of looking for a newly built house ready to move in, we would be looking for a nice lot on which to build our Hilco home in the town of Auburn.

As I said, we were living in Webster and it took me an hour to get to work at The Telegram and Gazette then an hour to get home at the end of my day.

Now it would take me just 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes in the evening.

We looked for the right house lot. We looked at several. Finally we found the one that was perfect.

It was on Millbury Road, a quiet, twisting two-laner that led to downtown small Auburn a mile and a half away. A full 15 or 20 minutes could go by before a car passed by.

There were just a handful of houses farther down Millbury Road.

But it wasn’t a house lot. It was an acre of a large dairy farm out in the countryside.

I looked up who the owner was.

He wasn’t just a farmer. He was a gentleman farmer, and there’s a difference. His name was Adna Cutting, and he ran the farm as a sideline.

I called Mr. Cutting and told him I wanted to build a house and would he sell me an acre of his land.

There was a very long pause. Obviously he was thinking a mile a minute.

Finally he said yes, but he would have to approve the house plan, of course.

That really impressed me.

To prepare for this, I had gone to the bank right next door to the Telegram and Gazette. I used to go there to deposit my T&G check.

Nearly all of us working at the T&G had an account there.

I was well known there as the editor of the Sunday Telegram’s Feature Parade. Bottom line, I didn’t have much of a problem arranging for a mortgage to cover everything.

I met Mr. Cutting at his farm on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning. On the very acre that appealed to Pauline and me. I was alone with him.

We sat on a boulder under a huge oak tree. Nice and shady.

In the northeast I could see the taller buildings of downtown Worcester.

Around us, Mr. Cutting’s prized Golden Guernseys were contentedly munching the grass.

Some 500 or 600 yards to the south I could see his beautiful white barn.

It was really a showplace farm. Now and then teachers at the grade school would bring their little students to show them how the cows got milked.

I showed him the house plan of the Hilco Home we were going to buy.

And I showed him where it would be oriented on the acre we wanted.

He examined it most carefully, and he asked a question or two. I had carefully written out the details of the deal that I was hoping he would agree to.

I asked him to sign his name to this very important document. He read it twice. Slowly. Had no questions to ask me.

I gave him the check that I had brought along and handed it to him. He smiled and wished me the best of luck. And extended his right hand and shook hands with me.

I was delighted. There could have been no better way to complete our transaction.

Along Millbury Road was a stone wall that kept his Golden Guernseys from playing hooky.

He told me that on Monday morning he would have one of his workers come with a tractor and cut an entrance 30 feet wide to make what he felt would be the best place for a driveway for me. I studied the area and agreed that would be the best place for our driveway.

And there would be no charge for that!

I was tickled. I just couldn’t wait to get home and tell Pauline the whole story. Within a few days I made a deal with a local contractor to begin taking the first steps to put up our Hilco Home when it arrived.

The next day he contacted the Power Company to extend its service to our house lot.

Then he had a bulldozer in there preparing the foundation. It all happened.

The address of our Hilco home is 160 Millbury Street, Auburn, Mass. It’s a beauty.

Yes, Millbury Road has become Millbury Street.

You can Google it.

As it turned out, over the years we had to modify it to meet interesting new needs.

I will be telling you all about that in a minute or two.

Pauline became a public school teacher in Auburn.

Our three children, Arthur, Monique, and Mark, were all born there and graduated from the Auburn Elementary School and High School.

One day I heard that at the next Auburn annual Town Meeting a new director would be elected to the Auburn Public Library. I ran for the job and was elected.

It was the only time I have run for a public office.

I thought we directors would talk about books. I thought that would be important. Nothing doing!

What we talked about was should we find a new janitor, or should we increase fines for lost books, or should we put in two additional handicap parking spaces. Things like that.

Anyway, what was really astonishing was the key role that lovely Hilco Home got to play in our lives for some 20 years.

Especially when I decided to go into the public relations business as well as fundraising for non-profits.

I’ll be getting to that in a minute or two.

Oh, I should tell you that living closer to Worcester led to some other very nice experiences.

On the east side of the city was a very long, narrow lake. It was called Regatta Point because college sculling meets were held there. Holding regattas.

Sculling has very little to do with the wind. It’s several athletes sitting one behind the other in a long, narrow boat and propelling it by using two short oars.

The lake was perfect for that. But it was far more difficult for anyone to sail up the lake and down again because it was so, so narrow.

And that’s why Regatta Point Community Sailing was called that.

A membership cost just a few dollars. Regatta Point would teach you how to sail, and then after you had passed a technical test, starting with proving that you could swim at least 100 yards, you could go there at any time and take out a sailboat for an hour or two.

It had a dozen sailboats, all identical sloops. Know what a sloop is? No?
I suggest you look it up in your dictionary. You might like to learn to sail one.

When I heard about it, I went and interviewed Alan Fearn, the very capable manager and a very capable sailor. And I wrote a long article about it for Feature Parade Magazine, along with half a dozen photos.

And that’s how I got the idea that I would enjoy learning.

I had learned to swim as a kid, so no problem there.

But tacking and jibing and running in a stiff and shifting breeze were a different matter, and I flunked the first technical test. Very embarrassing. I had to retake it. This time, I passed.

Practice makes perfect, as we know, and I got the hang of it.

My three children, Arthur, Monique, and Mark, all took sailing lessons there.

I took a great interest in Regatta Point Community Sailing as a fine and worthwhile program. And I thought the world of Alan Fearn.

I was invited to join the board of directors and one year was elected president. Then re-elected for another term.

The officers and directors were all working people. So meetings had to be held at Regatta Point on Saturdays. That was no fun. They wanted to be out sailing.

And Alan Fearn was tied up running the program. 

So I got the idea of inviting them to my Hilco Home in Auburn on a workday evening, along with Alan. They thought that was a good idea.

One more thing. A few years earlier, at a different lake, I had become a competent canoe oarsman.

Sailing and canoeing, along with swimming, were interests of mine for many years. In fact, at one time I owned and enjoyed a sailing canoe. That was really something!

One year I even built one. Once I proved to myself that it would really float, I held a nice big party and broke a bottle of champagne over its bow. I had invited 25 or 30 friends to see me do that and enjoy the party.

By the way, I could also row my canoe. That was always quite a workout.

If you know anything about rowing, you know that you can’t tell where you’re going exactly. There might be a rock in the water straight ahead, or a log or something.

One day I went to an auto junkyard and bought a nice pair of rear-view mirrors. You know, one for the left side and one for the right side.

And used them on my canoe when I went rowing. They were so wonderful that I should have patented them!

Anyway, what was really astonishing was the key role that lovely Hilco home played in our lives when I got into the public relations business as well as fundraising for non-profits.

I built up an impressive list of clients, as I told you.

I would write up a press release, for instance. Or I could develop a fundraising plan, say. I could do that just about anywhere — wherever I could use my typewriter.

And then hand-deliver the press release to whatever editor or reporter or radio station director I felt I had the best chance to “sell it to”, so to speak.

Or get them to write a feature story about it. My client would love that!

Or if I had developed a fundraising plan to some business or institution, I could go to the president or board of directors and present it.

It might get approved then and there.

Oh they might demand some modifications.

I would get paid for all that, of course. That’s what they paid me to do.

But often some supporting materials would be needed.

A newsletter. Or a four-page or a six-page booklet.

I would type up all those myself.

In the case of that New England-wide 

Franco-American Fraternal Society in Woonsocket, RI, that awarded me a scholarship, I developed a bi-monthly tabloid newspaper.

The Union Saint-Jean-Baptiste d’Amerique (USJB) was founded on May 7, 1900 in Woonsocket, RI. The USJB was a fraternal organization for Franco-Americans living in New England, and other states with large Franco-American populations. The USJB promoted the social and moral welfare of its members, helped their sick and poor members, as well as the relatives of deceased members.
Source: https://library.assumption.edu/unionstjohnbaptiste

For the Town of Shrewsbury School Department, which became one of my clients, I would prepare a four-page tabloid for the beginning of each semester.

So for all these, I would do the writing plus the layout of the text, the columns, the headlines, the photographs, the captions, and for every page of course.

Then I would send this off to whatever printer I felt would do the best job.

I would get the printer’s bill, mark it up a bit, which was all kosher, and send it on to my client.

Then I got a terrific idea. I would expand my services. Do everything I used to do plus everything the printers used to do for me. Right to the final product.

I could even prepare a mailing list for my client, pay for the postage, and even get all the copies to the post office for the date my client had specified. I made a list of the staff I would need to get all that done.

A secretary. Maybe a writer who would do rough drafts under my supervision. A designer to make my booklets and reports and tabloid papers look good with the right typeface, the right headlines, the right photos and captions, maybe even a colored ink or two to make my black- and-white tabloid more impressive.

And I would need typesetting equipment. Maybe even someone to process film and make beautiful photo prints I needed for my publications.

But where to do this? Yes, where?

This could run into a lot of money. 

That’s when I thought of our Hilco home in Auburn. On a quiet country road. Just 20 minutes from downtown Worcester.

Our home had an extra-large two-car garage under it. Large windows for sunshine and fresh air in nice seasons. And It had a large parking space for several cars.

I and my family would continue to live in our home. That would now be the second floor.

I would convert the garage into an attractive office with an attractive front door for my workers and occasional clients.

I even built a large separate room at the rear of the house, not visible from the street.

I mapped out a separate office for myself, one for my secretary, the typesetting equipment, and the other work that would need to be done.

This would now be the first floor. Our residence upstairs would be off-limits to my staff.

I would build a separate, attractive three-car garage 150 feet back, with a large loft with big windows where I could store seasonal equipment.

I would park my car inside in the first space, Pauline would park hers in the second, and the third would be for our lawn mower and snowblower and our kids’ bicycles and sleds and so forth.

Steadily I got more and businesses and institutions to work for. Two banks. A co-ed Catholic prep school called Marianapolis in Thompson, Conn.

Seven hospitals, would you believe, including the Conn. Natchaug Psychiatric Hospital.

Also St. Francis Home, a Catholic institution for assisted living operated by a community of nuns.

Also AdCare Hospital in Worcester, the largest hospital for alcohol and drug abuse care in southern New England.

After getting my staff started, I would go off to visit my clients, hoping to return for lunch.

In some cases, for clients many miles away, I might not return till 3 in the afternoon.

Pauline would continue to teach in the Auburn Elementary School. And our three children would go off to the Auburn Elementary or High School.

The day came when I needed even more office space.

I built a large addition in front of the office I already had. Very attractive with a handsome office door, and large picture window with matching shutters and flower box. 

Very quiet. No close-by neighbors. The Auburn Town Attorney told me it was okay to build that big addition.

And this time Adna Cutting, the gentleman farmer, did not ask to see my plans.

My business prospered. But then changes became necessary.

Some good, some not so good.

By the way, if you are curious, you can still get to see the Hilco Home that I started out with, and the additions and other changes that I made one by one as my business expanded. Even my three-car garage.

Just Google “160 Millbury Street, Auburn, Massachusetts.”

Yes, Millbury Road became Millbury Street.

And the Golden Guernseys are still there, I believe.

Comments

  1. Bev Miller says

    I remember working at your house in Auburn. I loved it there, the farm was so nice, your house was beautiful and it wasn’t far from Auburn Mall and the center of Auburn. You had a great team of people. I was a little disappointed when we moved out of there but that I’m sure is the next part of your story. I was very grateful to you and Monique for giving me a chance to learn a new skill. And Ray had a lot of patience as well. I also remember when you took us out sailing, a first for me and we had a really nice time. I really enjoyed working for you.

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