Yesterday’s talk about the infamous Mothball Factory Jump of 1983 got me to wondering if the old place had any internet presence outside my occasional ramblings on this site. What I found wasn’t a huge shock, but it did startle me some.
The above passage comes from an EPA report cataloging the most prominent landmarks of the environmental legacy of Woburn’s days as a tannery town.
I make a lot of references to growing up on the fringes of a toxic hellscape. At times, it may come off as an affectation, an exaggerated bit of persona-building via regional identity. That may be true to a certain extent, but the reality outstripped any mythologizing by a long shot.
Up until I discovered the EPA report, I had no idea that the site had been flagged as a hot zone. It certainly wasn’t treated as such back when my friends and I used to run riot around the place, or attended family cookouts at the Old Weiss Manse a few hundred yards away from the old hide-drying structures and derelict storage pits.
For us, it was a parentally unsupervised paradise of old train tracks and abandoned roads that existed only on surveyor’s maps and as sandy trails ideal for dirtbike or horseback riding. It was wilderness, but one reclaimed from industrial developments that were fading out during my father’s late 1950s boyhood. Nature had taken much of it back, but ample traces of human handiwork remained beneath the stands of wild sumac and mash-loving cat-tails — crumbling concrete markers, skeletal remains of unrecognizable machinery, and other bits of barely concealed industrial jetsam.
As I child, I never pondered why the stretch of land running towards the Aberjona River was laid out in a rough grid, crisscrossed by sluggish russet-colored streams. Streams that used to permanently stain the tires of our bikes and rot the fabric uppers of our store-brand tennis shoes. Streams I only recently discovered were drainage channels for a cocktail of toxic sludge.
We waded in that stuff. We ate the sweet wild raspberries that grew alongside it. Hell, we probably even drank some of it during a thirsty summer afternoon when we were unwilling to abandon our explorations for a hit off my aunt’s garden hose.
I doubt we would have cared even if we know the truth. The hubbub over the contaminated well water and childhood leukemia clusters and lawsuits was centered around the the old East Woburn tannery sites, which might as well have been Mars to a North Woburn kid whose universe was almost entirely confined to a pocket neighborhood grown up around a single access road. Half buried sacks of arsenic and chromium tainted water were novel abstractions compared to everyday boyhood hazards like stepping on a rusty nail (me, a half dozen times) or getting your leg impaled on a rusty spike of metal (my little brother, once).
I’ve come to grips with surviving (for now, at least) the environs of my North Woburn childhood, but it was sobering just the same to discover how close the contamination truly was. This wasn’t like sneaking past the cordon around the arsenic lagoon (what, your town didn’t have one?) or old chemical works on a dare. This was the place where my friends and I played on a daily basis through much of the year.
They say you will always carry a bit of your old neighborhood with you for life, and maybe that’s what I’m really worried about.