Spring flowers
autumn moon
summer breezes
winter snow:

With mind uncluttered
·  this is  ·
the finest season!

-Wúmén Huìkāi

Smoke signals

Before 9-1-1, the 4-1-1 on 5-1-1…

Lincoln has always been a town of volunteers. Lincoln’s Minutemen were first to arrive on April 19th, 1775. A few years earlier, the town itself had been conceived, negotiated for, assembled and established by a handful of families committed to local community. Lincoln as we know it now—preserving certain virtues lost to many other mature municipalities, and by others never known—is in great part the stacked fruit of devoted civic service by a few visionaries, master-planners and donors in each generation of the past five or six. (–Of “donors” more now, with assessed cost-sharing displacing the generosity of the resident 1%.) A bit more than halfway along that timeline, one local steward of an ancient and honorable lineage built Farrar Pond.

Back to our first first-responders, the National Park Service (may it persist through all adversity) informs us that

“… the Massachusetts Provincial Congress … called upon the towns … [to form] new, special companies called minute men. Minute Men were different from the militia in the following ways:

1. While service in the militia was required by law, minute men were volunteers.

2. The minute men trained far more frequently than the militia. … Because of this serious commitment of time, they were paid. One shilling per drill was average. …

3. Minute Men were expected to keep their arms and equipment with them at all times, and in the event of an alarm, be ready to march at a minute’s warning – hence they were called “minute men.”

Lincoln of a few decades past could, in most respects, be managed with little overt formality. Closer community ties, sparser population (a mere thousand by 1900, ca.  2500 in 1950, then tripling with suburban growth and the development of the Hanscom complex) plus a safe, sane, less-gray population and nil industry minimized homeland security needs. The police-and-fire station that preceded our spacious and functional current Public Safety Building was bungalow-sized and, starting with a single chief for both of these vital services, lightly staffed.

Payroll was contained in part by a quaint and personable institution, the volunteer on-call fireman. Reliable citizens with reliable automobiles, they would roll out of bed at any hour and in all weathers to meet the full-timers at a fire scene, and were paid their shilling for each such appearance.

This cadre of latter-day minutemen got its marching orders not by cell-phone or internet (neither existed), nor yet by expensive VHF walkie-talkie or cumbersome and indiscriminate CB radio. Rather, a fire’s approximate location was broadcast via serial blasts of a powerful klaxon—the same one that would have warned of impending tornado or incoming Soviet bombers—high atop Town (now Bemis) Hall.

With a dark and quiet town divided by few roads, only approximate location information was needed—nothing like ordnance grid coordinates or Zip+4, much less the new Eircode that specifies each dwelling. In any event, such could not have worked in a town that had yet to assign house numbers. Instead, supported by a continuity of family, property tenure and neighborly awareness now largely of memory, the main landmarks were the homesteads. And each edition of the exclusive Town phone book included a card-stock insert that looked like this:


Newer subdivisions somewhat complicated the picture. So where major intersections rated a “prestige” two-digit location, a complex development required a range of four-digit numbers. 51 was Lee’s Bridge, 511 perhaps the closest old Engine #1 could approach Farrar Pond for a top-up should the hydrants freeze, and 6112-6132 the new Farrar Pond condominia.


Woven through these simple lines is layer upon layer of history, both social and technological. How many of those places are still so-named, so-occupied? why was the emergency number 259-8111? It seems that when the Lincoln telephone exchange was established, with an operator-staffed switching office next to Center School (now Town Hall), line allocations began with CLearwater 9-8000. Standard rotary-dial telephones took many more tense seconds to dial a string of high numbers than of low, so instead of a row of 0s or 8s, as many 1s as possible was the preference for urgency. (Businesses were happy to take the naughts.) Like low license-plate numbers, the antiquity of a family or address was suggested by the number: 8000s expanded to 9000s, and then—as wealth and techno-employment drove both need and means to provide separate lines for children, fax machines, dial-up modems—the number of numbers multiplied far beyond the count of homes, or even residents. Post-breakup deregulation of networks and a growing preference for mobile or VoIP over land-line telephony led to a different kind of ownership and portability, so “Lincoln” numbers now show up all over the country, perhaps even internationally.

A smaller town was more connected and curious—dare one say “nosy”? Ask not for whom the bell tolls, but ask around the morning after for who escaped unscathed, who suffered loss, how one’s family might assist another with the aftermath. So we all “tuned in” when foghorn blaats rolled across the landscape, knew our own neighborhood’s codes, and sometimes looked up others as the signals arrived. (And were grateful if we lived near the edge of earshot.)

And some winters brought gladder tidings, for children if less so for parents and administrators: buried at the bottom was the real headline: 3-3-3, sounded thrice well before the bus was due, meant snow day and no school.


~ Suitable images/recordings of former fire station(s) or klaxon are welcome, and will be published with due credit. ~