Westville, NH, Recollections of the 1930’s

This exhibit features an article written by Robert J. Gablosky in September 1993. Bob is a member of the Plaistow Historical Society and his contributions over the years have helped preserve and celebrate Plaistow’s history. His recollections of growing up in Westville, NH provide a rich account of days past.

I would like to introduce myself and give you a brief account of my background. My name is Robert J. Gablosky, presently of 94 Rosemont St., Haverhill, Massachusetts. I just turned 65 on Sunday September 12, having been born at Hale Hospital, Haverhill, MA. in 1928. I am one of five children in my family.

At the time of my birth, my family was living in Westville, NH. We lived there through 1942 when my parents, Arthur and Blanche bought a house on Emily St., in Haverhill. My father was a heeler in Haverhill shoe factories. The move to Haverhill brought him closer to his work.

The steady work in shoe factories in Haverhill hired my grandparents, Oscar and Anna LaVoie, to Westville from Canada, where work was scarce at the turn of the century. My grandparents lived in a cottage house on Westville Road, across from a large cow pasture, next to the Boston and Maine railroad tracks. The house, number 34, still stands today, but without its garage and several sheds that housed chickens, pigs, ducks, rabbits and a horse. Next to their home is a large three family house, known as the Coulombe Block.

My grandfather, at one time, ran a brickyard in that field across from his house. Bricks from this brickyard were used to build the old Holy Angels Church, just one hundred years ago, in 1893.

Holy Angels Church, May 1948

The church, where a gas station and a garage now sit, just north of the railroad bridge on Route 125, was demolished around 1964 when the new Holy Angels church was built at its present location on the Haverhill-Plaistow state line, on Route 121.

My family lived for a while in the so called Coulombe block, and moved when I was a young boy, to a house a little farther away, on what is now Old Westville Rd., next to Caillouette’s Pond in the back of the Westville Market. It was that section of road that was dead-ended in connection with the construction of the original railroad bridge in Westville.

Reconstruction this year of the Westville railroad bridge recalls for me the days of old time Westville and the changes that has taken place there, especially in recent years.

The old Westville bridge, as it was known, had to be rebuilt because of its deterioration since its construction in the mid 30s. The new bridge was widened to accommodate the increased volume of traffic in that area.

Construction of the old bridge was a major undertaking by the state in those days because it involved dead-ending of the Westville Road on each side of the railroad tracks. From Main Street, Plaistow, the new Westville Road veered left at the railroad, picking up an old tote road through the woods and coming out south of the new bridge next to the LaBranche house, by the barber shop.

Westville Railroad Bridge, August 1944

Up until that time, several young men had been killed when their cars were struck by trains at the railroad crossing on the old Westville Road. The last person to die there was George Yawnitz, brother of Katie Rowell, a member of this association and now of Atkinson, NH. His car was dragged several hundred feet by a fast moving, northbound train, after having been hit during a March snowstorm. There was very little protection for motorists at that crossing, to my recollection. There was one pole there from which a large pendulum swung out from an arm atop the pole. That and the clanging of a bell were the only warning to motorists that a train was bearing down on its way through the town.

I can recall the tote road through the Westville woods. During the winter I went there with my grandfather on an old sleigh pulled by one of his horses. My grandfather would spend the day culling trees and hauling the wood home to keep our houses warm during the cold winter months. I went with him to keep him company and help him in any way that I could. It is in these same woods that two housing complexes were developed and are presently known as Westview Park Condominium.

Across the railroad tracks from this area, on that dead-ended Old Westville Road, once stood a blacksmith shop, operated by Joe Boucher. People from all around that area came to his shop to have metal forged or their horses shod. He was one of the few blacksmiths around. The shop was later demolished after Mr. Boucher’s death.

Across from the blacksmith shop and next to the house where I lived, was a house in which the Martin family resided. During the summers, Mr. Martin was known to have grown his own tobacco which he processed and actually used for his own smoking pleasure.

In my home, we had no central heating, running water, or indoor bathroom facilities, we didn’t even have a furnace in our cellar. Our bathroom needs were met in an outhouse, attached to the rear of the garage next to our home. My father never had a car or a driver’s license, so our garage was used for storage and for a shop in which he repaired bicycles. In the winter months we heated only one room, the kitchen, in our five room house. We slept in freezing cold bedrooms under several layers of comforters.

When the ice was safe on Caillouette’s Pond next door, we would put on our ice skates in our home and walked only a few feet to the pond to skate for hours at a time. When we became cold, we’d walk the short distance to our home, warm our feet in the oven of the kitchen stove and return to the pond to continue skating until such time as we became cold again.

In those days, I can recall some rugged snowstorms with the snow, it seemed, being several feet deep. The snow was so deep I can remember having to tunnel through snow outside our front door. I can’t remember any snowstorms as severe in later years.

During the extreme cold months of January or February, when the ice on the pond was at least a foot or more thick, Levi Caillouette, for whom the pond was named, ran an ice cutting operation there. He harvested large cut up blocks of ice and with the help of horses, slid the ice into an ice house at the far end of the pond, just off route 125. The ice house has since been demolished.

Westville People, July 1939

Mr. Caillouette had a truck and sold his ice during the warm weather months throughout Westville and the surrounding area. He would go from house to house, chopping pieces of ice at the rear of his truck, and with ice tongs he would carry them into the homes, filling the top section of ice chests. A sizable piece of ice would last about 4 or 5 days, depending on the weather. A large block of ice cost 25 cents. This would just about fill the top section. Not many people in those days had electric refrigerator.

That pond today has been cut in half with gravel to be used as a road to get to a field on the other side, where a house was to be built. I’m told plans to build there were abandoned, but the pond remains in two sections. when I was a boy, we spent many hours fishing in that pond catching mostly horned pouts and feeding them to our cats.

When the original Westville Bridge was built, Mike Guards’ store, which was known even earlier as Fecteaus’ store, was displaced from its location next to the railroad tracks, on the south side. Mike ran the business and his brother, John, operated a post office in a corner of the store.

I recall that John used a tiny shanty across from the store, to await the trains that were passing through. He was responsible for stopping traffic when the trains passed through the crossing, by stepping out into the middle of the road and holding up a round sign on a pole that had the word “stop” printed on both sides. I don’t ever recall any accident at that location, so his one man traffic control operation must have been a success.

In running the post office, Johnny Guard, as he was known, would retrieve a canvas bag, containing mail, after it was thrown from a train as it sped through the crossing. we always considered it fun, running after the bag and taking it to Johnny. To send outgoing mail. Johnny used the same bag which he hung from the arm of a nearby metal post and which was grabbed by a protruding hook from a speeding train as it went by. The trains stopped at Westville Crossing only to pick up or leave off passengers. My father and others from Westville rode the trains to Haverhill, to work in shoe shops, and would return home on the trains. On many days however, my father walked home from Haverhill after a day’s work because he didn’t have enough money for a bus or a train ride back to Westville.

When I was growing up in Westville, during the 30’s, I had a paper route, delivering the Haverhill Gazettes through the town. I remember I had about 28 customers and that took in just about every family in Westville. The paper cost 3 cents an edition, or 18 cents a week. a few customers gave me 20 cents, which would represent a 2 cent tip. However, the housekeeper at Holy Angels church rectory, down the street from the church, always gave me a quarter a week, which I thought was a generous tip.

In those days the area of Westville was bounded generally from the west end of Pine Street, up Route 125 to beyond the old Plaistow outdoor movie theater, to the present Kelly’s Corner, along East Road to just beyond the Holy Angels Cemetery and along Westville Road to the bridge over Little River. Route 125 through Westville, in those days was known as Danville Road as far as Kelly’s Corner, where it turned North Main Street, Plaistow. To the older boys of the late 30’s, that section of Danville Road from the railroad tracks was called the speedway. This was the straight section where those fellows who could afford their first automobile had the opportuniiy to test the speed of their pride and joy, usually a Model “A” Ford, or a Chevy Tudor.

Coulombe Block, 38 Westville Rd

The old Westville School, built in 1890, was located on Route 125, across from the entrance to the present Westville Road, at the bottom of a mound on top of which sits the Purity Supreme Supermarket today. The school was a one room building, with no running water, and was heated by a pot-bellied stove in the rear. Four grades were taught there by one teacher, Miss Elizabeth McGagh. I remember the school had a two-seater outhouse attached to the rear of the building and that it was used by both boys and girls. I was in the fourth grade there, in the spring of 1939, when a fire of suspicious origin nearly destroyed the building, and we had to finish the school year at Pollard School, Plaistow. The cause of the fire was never determined. There was no electricity in the rear of the bulldng and that is the part of the school where the fire was confined. The time and date of fire, was listed as 7 p.m. on May 17, 1939.

I recall that at one time, while attending the Westville School, there were 14 students in all four grades, with 13 of us being related. All students there, after completing four grades, “graduated” and were transferred to the Pollard School in Plaistow, to complete their education through grade eight. After that, most students went to Haverhill High School, being transported by bus daily, at their own discounted expense of 5 cents one way.

Westville people had considerable pride in their town, especially because it was identified on travel maps since it had its own post office. And at one time, before my youthful years there, the town had its own Town Hall, situated near the rear of Mike Guards’ old store when it was known, I believe, as “Fecteau’s” store.

The building was relocated to an area on Route 125 at the corner of the old Westville Road, where I lived. The name was changed to Westville Market, a name that still exists today and one of the few places in town that identifies Westville and which keeps its identily alive.

According to old photos I have seen, Route 125 was a dirt road in the 1930s and beyond. I believe the beginning of the development of Route 125 through the town of Westville stemmed from the establishment in the 1940’s of the old Westville Drive-In Theater, which lies abandoned and in disrepair. Neighbors along that stretch of rood permitted the theater to be built by agreeing not to oppose its construction in an area not permitted by zoning regulations. That was the start of what we know today as the “Golden Strip” that has taken over nearly every piece of properly along Route 125, from the Massachusetts state line to Kingston and beyond.

Recollections of the old time Westville, in the 30’s and 40’s, would not be complete without mention of the old swimming hole, in the rear of that large cow pasture across from Joe Boucher’s blacksmith shop. The swimming hole was part of Little River, the unofficial dividing line between Westville and Plaistow. The braver boys using the swimming hole practiced their diving skills from several branches of a large tree that leaned over the water. More skilled divers were seen to soar from near the top of the tree, perhaps more than 40 or 50 feet high, and plunge into the deepest part of the pool below. There was an area nearby which was ideal for sunbathing or just relaxing, if the cows and perhaps a menacing bull weren’t around. I can remember only one tragedy at the old swimming hole and that was the drowning of a young girl named Rose Lobonte, who lived in Westville.

During World War II, Westville joined the rest of the nation in practicing wartime security measures. Several women, including my mother, Blanche, joined a force of so-called air raid wardens, who would be assigned to various sections of the town, making sure electric lights were turned off or covered, and seeing to it that all window shades in the houses were pulled all the way down. The wardens also made sure all people were off the streets after the air raid sirens were sounded. At that time, the top half of automobile and truck headlights had to be painted black to reduce glaring illumination that might be seen from the sky at night, in case enemy planes approached.

The World War II Memorial, standing in the Plaistow Town Hall foyer honors those men and women from Plaistow and Westville. There is no distinction as to which section of town the veteran was from. The people of both villages were united as one. We all struggled through that great strife with one thing in mind: Victory over tyranny.

Fecteau’s Store

Westville, in those years was a typical New England village. Although its people realized they were a part of the town of Plaistow, they more or less lived pretty much by themselves, very independently. Westville then, was predominantly Catholic while Plaistow was mostly comprised of Protestant families. That fact may have contributed to the feeling of separation between the two sections. I don’t recall that it was ever an issue, but it was an existing situation and everybody seemed to have gotten along well. You must remember that Plaistow did not have a Catholic church and there was no Protestant church in Westville. That situation still exists today.

The present Route 125 has become the major factor involving change to this community, as businesses developed in almost every direction and on nearly every piece of land along the way. It has virtually split the village in half.

The old Route 125 followed South Main Street, Plaistow to the center, then right on Elm Street and Kingston Road to the Kingston line, connecting to what is now the new Route 125.

The separation today between the Westville Village and Plaistow is not as strong, or noticeable, as it once was when living in either section was a proud part of the lives of their people. Westville, in those days, besides having its own church, had two stores, Mike Guards’ store which later became “Westville Market” and “Caillouette’s Store” near the old Holy Angels Church, its own post office, the “Hotel Maplewood” and two barber shops, a blacksmith shop, a swimming area, two dumps, a railroad line and a state road passing through it.

Today, however, Westville survives but not as it did in years past. Its village status has faded and the feeling of being autonomous seems to be lacking, as more and more businesses and housing complexes continue to develop or expand.

Westville, for may years, was a typical New England village. It no longer appears to share that distinction. (The Westville Market closed shortly after this article was written.)

Robert J. Gablosky
September 21, 1993