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Princeton Memories by Sylvia (Hultgren) Lee
Princeton was my only home until I was 18. My younger brother, Roger and I attended Princeton Center School through 8th grade and then Wachusett Regional High School where I graduated in 1963. Upon graduation, I went to live briefly in France and fell in love with travel and exotic places. I currently live in Honolulu, Hawaii but come “home” to Princeton nearly every year to visit family and friends.
My first job was at the Summit House on top of Mt. Wachusett where I worked for several seasons on weekends – the only time it was open. The huge house, with its massive fireplaces was a beacon for travelers from near and far. On cold days, we always had fires lit in those fireplaces to keep warm. The fragrant smell of fir souvenirs and hamburgers cooking permeated the house. The secret to our fabulous hamburgers? Celery salt. The most exciting day on the mountain was the day Martin Milner and George Maharis (sigh!) of the hit TV show, Route 66, came to visit. They were the heartthrobs of the nation and it took some doing to recover from that much excitement.
In Princeton, we lived on what I called the back side of Mt. Wachusett, five miles from the center of town, at the end of the paved portion of Thompson Road. Most folks from Princeton have probably never been to this part of town, but it was country at its best. I knew every inch of the woods for a couple of miles around, and would often wander off on my own, or with our dog, for a day in the forest. Today, much of the land off Thompson Road is inundated by swamps from the returning beavers. But in those days, it was beautiful and heavily forested. Further toward town on the unpaved section of Thompson Road a tall transmission tower was built. Rumor had it that that tower was the main telephone transmission line between the White House and the Kremlin. I never did know what it really was but it surely impressed me.
Our neighbors were few but memorable. At the end of the road were Professor Lawrence and Louise Chapman. I only remember them as retired. They were the epitome of elegance in their magnificent colonial home. Mr. Chapman was an avid bird watcher who annually hosted a bird watching event that drew people from all over the nation – or so it seemed. Mrs. Chapman was an artist and I still cherish the painting she did of our home with the big red barn, which is no longer there.
Carrie and Ben Nelson lived near to us as well. I always considered them “grandparents”. Grandma Nelson always had an after school homemade treat ready for me. They always invited us for breakfast on Sunday mornings. They were well into retirement already and had no transportation. Their two room house was heated by their big black, cast iron, wood-burning kitchen stove. Their privy was outside in the shed and always had a stack of Sears Roebuck catalogs handy. Once a week, Mr. Chase from the only store in the center of town, would bring them fresh produce and meat for them to buy out of the back of his antique black truck. Ben still worked the land with his magnificent Clydesdale horse. There were no finer or more loving people on earth than the Nelsons. Mrs. Nelson made the best fudge in the world, and I learned from her that you can eat dandelion leaves. I also remember that she wrote beautiful poetry about Princeton.
Further up the road, on top of the hill, lived the Thompson’s and Simpson’s in a huge sprawling farmhouse. They were dairy farmers and the cow barn was my favorite place in the world to play – often to their chagrin since I often managed to get in some sort of trouble. Like the time I fell into the empty silo and couldn’t get out. When Mrs. Stimpson made donuts and invited me to have some, it took every ounce of strength not to eat them all. Charlie Thompson also had a working team of beautiful Clydesdale horses – before tractors came along.
Down Rhodes Road lived Joe, in a small converted caravan. We thought of Joe as a hermit, but he was a good soul. As a young girl, I’d visit him and he would make me egg salad sandwiches. We’d chat for a while and then he always walked me safely home. His little caravan was cozy, immaculate, well provisioned and warm. Once a year his family would appear, have a big country style celebration, and then disappear for another year.
My parents, David and Rena Hultgren, worked in industry, but were also potato farmers. Besides acres and acres of our own land, Dad rented some land from Harrington farm for a few years. In the spring my job was to cut potatoes and ready them for planting, which was done by hand. We weeded and tilled the fields by hand, and in the fall, we hired college students from Holy Cross College to help with the harvest. As I recall, the college boys weren’t used to the hard labor, and I always managed to pick more barrels than they did. We got paid by the barrel. After harvest, I set up a roadside fruit and vegetable stand at the corner of Route 62 and Gates Road, next to the railroad tracks. As farmers, we always had some livestock which necessitated growing, mowing and baling hay. Haying season often coincided with hurricane season and one summer we barely had time to secure the bales under tarps in the field before running for cover from the hail into the barn.
In the fall, during deer hunting season, the men of our large extended family would arrive at the farm all decked out in their hunting gear. Being Swedes, they always knew when it was time for coffee – morning and afternoon. It was a particularly exciting time. I baked and had the coffee pot on all the time. What fun listening to their current and old hunting stories! Whoever bagged a deer would always share a piece with us. Mom made the best venison ever.
Looking back, life had to have been hard on all these families, ours included, but the warmth, the values, the morals, the honesty and sincerity was never a question. It was truly the best of childhoods with the best of family and neighbors who never received the thanks they deserved.