Wednesday, September 21, 1938, broke still and cloudy. There were signs that the rain of the past three days had finally moved out to sea. At the Wayside Inn, hostesses Priscilla Staples and Muriel DeMille were welcoming back guests who had spent the summer on Cape Cod and the Islands or in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. Bob Johnson fired up his touring car for a business trip to Boston. As a breeze picked up in the early afternoon, Barbara Eaton decided to walk up to visit friends near the Wadsworth Cemetery and fly a kite.
There had been warnings on the radio that a tropical storm had hit Miami, Florida, over the weekend, and could possibly be a threat to New England, but nobody paid much attention. The storm had gone out to sea–out of sight, out of mind.
It had been a wet summer in southern New England. By July 25, the total rainfall for Massachusetts was 9.28 inches including a 2.31-inch downpour on the 21st. Rivers and streams were overflowing. The Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs were full and the earth had absorbed every drop of water that it could handle.
The first kite-flying breezes freshened rapidly and soon leaves and tree branches filled the air. By 4 p.m., it was apparent that the “predicted storm from Miami“–what would come to be called the ’38 Hurricane–had arrived.
Guests arriving at the Wayside Inn reported narrowly missing being crushed by falling trees and the roaring of the wind down the ancient fireplaces reminded some of banshee wails. At 5 p.m. the power went out, but the Inn staff was equal to the challenge, breaking out candles and flashlights and making room for transient motorists who sought a place of refuge.
“It was agonizing to watch the trees struggle against the wind,” Staples wrote in the Wayside Inn Diary. “The symmetrical maple outside the small dining room fought bravely to survive. The trunk would sway from side to side, then with a swirl of branches and leaves, would right itself again. It seemed like a slender ballet dancer with lacy skirts, swirling, bowing and pirouetting with a final bow from which it did not rise. Its top-most branches brushed the roof of the ball room, but the only damage was a few broken window panes.“
The hostesses took turns in the doorway warning visitors coming up the driveway of the danger from fallen trees. A huge Balm of Gilead, after struggling for half an hour, snapped from its base. Mercifully, its towering trunk fell clear of the building, across the driveway onto the lawn toward the East Wing of the Inn.
Leona Johnson recalled cowering with her children in a room called the Den in her old farmhouse on Lancaster Road and watching objects fly past the window. “We saw a man’s hat fly by and I said to the kids, ‘That looks like Daddy’s hat.’ That’s what it turned out to be. My husband drove all the way from Boston, sometimes cutting across people’s lawns to avoid fallen trees.“
Mildred Davis Tallant was returning from her daughter’s dentist appointment in Hudson when she noticed the wind increase in velocity and broken branches falling on the road. When she returned to her home near Sudbury Center she found a large maple tree that she and her husband had planted in the fall of 1918 fallen across Concord Road.
Phyllis Eaton and Gladys Page were enjoying a well-deserved treat, watching a movie at the Wellesley Theater. When they bought their tickets, the weather was calm and cloudy. When the movie was over, the storm had arrived in full force.
The largest death toll in Sudbury was not human but bovine. The high winds knocked Aubrey Borden’s dairy barn off its pinnings. The building collapsed, crushing 50 cows and temporarily trapping three farm hands inside. State police sent ambulances to the scene, but the men were able to escape without serious injury.
The storm departed just as quickly as it had arrived. In the morning the sun shone brightly on a washed-out, cloudless sky. “It was if nothing had happened,” wrote Miss Staples, whose cottage was diametrically across Dutton Road from the Redstone school house. “We looked out our window to see if that group of tall, stately pines on the top of the hill (behind the school house where the Martha-Mary chapel now stands) were still standing. No, not one. There was nothing there but a heap of green.“
Indeed the huge pines that had covered the knoll were scattered helter-skelter like so many giant jackstraws, some pointing to the east and others to the west. When Henry Ford arrived to survey the damage two weeks later, he decreed that these trees would be used to build a chapel for the Wayside Inn. His instructions were that the building be constructed of material found on the Wayside Inn property by people who lived, worked or went to school there. Aside from the organ, the rugs, the slate roofing, and a crystal chandelier, his wishes were granted.
Ford interrupted his inspection tour to join Wayside Inn Manager Ralph Sennott in a visit to the International Engineering Works in South Framingham, where he purchased a steam boiler to power the Inn’s portable sawmill.
“I can’t see where the hurricane caused any serious damage in this section,” he told the Sudbury Beacon. “It just proved the survival of the fittest; took out the weak and left the strong to continue on. We’ve got hundreds of trees down on these properties, and today, Mr. Sennott and I went to Framingham to buy a boiler for our new sawmill here at Wayside Inn. We’re going to put those trees to work.
“New England just needs to wake up to the fact that here is the greatest potential source of living anywhere in the world. These green fields and natural resources make it one of the most desirable places in the world for industry and agriculture.“
While the big pines were the first victims because of their short taproots which the winds could pluck out of the ground like so many carrots, other old trees were damaged too. “Everywhere we looked, the lovely old trees were down, their dusty roots exposed to the white, fleecy clouds,” Miss Staples remembered. “Everywhere great branches and huge tree trunks were scattered about like fallen nine-pins.
“Here and there were groups of men and boys with axes, but they seemed like midgets trying to cope with what appeared to be a gigantic task. There was a feeling of excitement in the air. Schoolchildren were in the streets shouting and yelling. People were rushing from one spot to another–‘See this!! Would you believe that!!’ Ohs and Ahs were heard from every direction.“
Newspaper reports the morning after revealed the storm’s devastation. Six hundred and fifty lives were lost up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Property damage in Sudbury was extensive although the Board of Selectmen reported with pride that all major roads in town were open for traffic the next day.
A survey by Tree Warden Charlie Brackett revealed that 650 trees had been blown down by the storm, 300 more were considered dangerous and 8,000 needed some kind of work. The Boston office of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) immediately assigned all of its workers to hurricane cleanup with no restrictions.
There was good news for many customers of the (Howard) Goodnow and Russell Insurance Agency who had been persuaded to purchase windstorm insurance riders to their fire insurance policies. Two days following the storm, the firm had insurance adjuster Norman R. Crane of Boston in town to settle most claims for hurricane damage on the spot.
It soon became apparent that something had to be done about all the fallen trees. Only so many could be cut up for firewood, a tiresome process that took both labor and time. The federal government assisted by establishing a field sawmill on the farm of Everett Haynes. The mill, owned and operated by the H.K. Operating Company of Sherborn, turned out planks and boards from hurricane timber.
The U.S. Forest Service estimated that enough timber was knocked down by the storm in New England to build 200,000 five-room houses. Some of the destroyed trees were famous ones, including the Avery Oak in Dedham which was spared in 1796 from being used as timber for the U.S. Frigate Constitution.
Some of the straighter pine logs in South Sudbury were drawn to the vacant lands to the rear of the Goodnow Library where volunteers later constructed a cabin for Sudbury’s Boy Scout Troop No. 1 (now Troop 61). Other hurricane timber was milled and used to construct an overnight cabin on Nobscot mountain land donated by Charles O. Parmenter.
Scouting was very much in the news in the fall of 1938 after Loring Smith, son of Mr. and Mrs. Dutee R. Smith of Old Lancaster Road, proved himself a real hero by rescuing fellow scout Charles W. Buzzell Jr. from drowning in Blanford’s Pond after their canoe was upset by a gust of wind.
Smith, Buzzell and Roger Thayer of Cambridge had been canoe sailing when the incident occurred. At first they laughed at their predicament and Smith dived to the bottom to free the mast so that the canoe could be righted. Buzzell started to sink in the mud and grabbed Thayer to no avail. By the time Smith resurfaced, Buzzell was stuck in the mud under water.
Smith and Thayer muscled the 160-pound Buzzell to the surface and carried him to the canoe. Sending Thayer for help, Smith commenced the (now outdated) prone method of artificial respiration. By the time the Fire Department arrived with a pulmotor, the rescued boy was breathing faintly. The firemen administered further restoratives and then transported Buzzell, 19, to his home on Framingham Road.
Dr. William Dahill of Wayland was called and, after examination, said that the treatment administered by young Smith had saved his chum’s life. Smith, 16, was nominated for and later received the Gold Medal for Saving Life from the National Court of Honor of the Boy Scouts of America.
Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.