Norwood Looks Forward
By Anne Wyman
Photos by Jock O’Connell, Globe Staff
Norwood, until 1872 a part of Dedham, today appears a town that was built-and divided-by a railroad.
But unlike many New England towns that boomed early in the Industrial Revolution and then declined, Norwood has continued to prosper as an industrial center.
While only four trains a day now stop at the depot at the foot of Winter st., the tracks of the New Haven Railroad which brought factories and shops to the Neponset Valley town in 1848 still separate the well-to-do residential area from the industrial section.
The early prosperity has taken its toll on 20th-century Norwood.
The community grew like Topsy, with no thought of municipal planning.
The town square is a bleak agglomeration of two-story shops, churches and business buildings overlooking the railroad bridge and the sprawling wooden factories beyond.
The municipal building, constructed as a memorial to the soldiers of World War I, has dark wooden paneling and a massive stone-towered exterior modeled after the halls of Yale University.
Placed at the north corner of the square, it shuts off the extension of the business area along Washington st., according to one resident.
To the east, Rte. 1 traverses the lands bordering the Neponset. Formerly farming country, this area is now dedicated to second-hand car lots and other small businesses.
Beyond it are the Norwood airport and the nationally-famous stock car raceway, with zoning for single residence, general residence and manufacturing.
Between Rte. 1 and the tracks, in an area known as “The Flats,” are the multiple-family homes of the Syrians, Poles, Lithuanians and Italians, who came, wave after wave, to work in the tanneries, roofing mills, ink works and printing presses which grew up around the railroad.
The older homes of the Yankee bosses and most of the new suburban residential development are on the other side of town.
Here the late George F. Willett conceived the town’s first planned subdivision in the village of Westover.
Norwood’s first philanthropist, Willett planned a town square with central town house overlooking handsome buildings in the foreground.
When the town would not appropriate funds to widen Washington st., Willett himself put up the money.
The son-in-law partner in the Winslow tanneries, Willett built a pond at the edge of town, designed to serve as a water source for the mill as well as a recreation and beauty spot.
Part of the $1 million he spent to improve the town went toward financing the privately-owned Norwood Hospital, which today serves 10 communities.
His fortune and industries were wiped out in a 1924 stock suit, however, and Willett, who spent his last 12 years in Brookline, died nearly penniless in 1962.
Since Willett’s efforts, the town has twice turned down a master plan.
Although when it was proposed in 1953 and in 1956 the master plan would have cost only $3500, the meeting members evidently felt that, with most of the open land already gone, the professional survey would be too expensive.
The town was still very much in the black, with new diversified industry replacing some of the old mills. At the site of Willett s old Winslow plant there are some 30 to 45 new businesses today.
Bird & Sons, Inc., founded in Needham in 1795, last year sold its Norwood floor-covering plant to a New London firm which retains the same personnel of about 350. The firm’s roofing plant has an additional 250 workers.
The Plimpton Press, founded in 1897, employs more than 1000.
In addition, four plants, paying a total of $220,622 in taxes, have opened in Norwood since 1950. One of these saw its fourth plant expansion here last January.
Factory Mutual, which opened its Norwood plant in 1950, has 200 employees, pays $77,066 in taxes.
Mason-Neilan Regulator Co. came to Norwood in 1956, has 600 workers, pays $63,207 in taxes.
Nortronics, a division of the Northrop Corp., opened its Morse-st. plant in 1957, now has 984 on its payroll, pays $43,764 in taxes.
Raytheon opened its Norwood division in 1960, has 785 workers, pays $36,585 in taxes.
To attract two of these plants, the town’s Industrial Development Commission, headed by Albert P. Nelson and dating back to 1892, searched out dozens of old, one-acre titleholders with land on the site desired by Mason-Neilan, and fought a town meeting and referendum to allow rezoning and town road building on the Nortronics site.
Nelson, a realtor, points out that the town spent $120,000 to build the road for Nortronics and has received nearly twice that much in taxes over the seven-year period.
Because of its early prosperity and steady industrial growth, Norwood had schools ready to meet the postwar population expansion.
“It is catching up with us again now,” says Town Manager Walter A. Blasenak, a life-long resident.
Nearly 700 one-and-two-room apartments are presently under construction in one development on the Walpole line. “We have been told these won’t boost the school population, but I’m not so sure,” says the 58-year-old Blasenak.
With nearly half of the town’s 5750 dwellings built since 1945, it is estimated that only 435 house lots remain open in the 10-square-mile township.
Most of these lots, zoned for 10,000 and 15,000 square feet, are on the rock-ledged Forbes Estate at the north end of town or in two small areas east of Rte. 1.
The residential growth is already reflected in school building.
The opening of a new wing on the 4-year-old senior high school in January, 1962, doubled the capacity of the school and ended double sessions for the 1500 students.
A junior high school, built in 1917 and expanded in 1930 to accommodate 750, now has 673 students. Authorities predict the seventh and eighth-grade load five years from now will be nearly three times this figure. And School Supt. Dr. Philip O.Coakley is looking for a sec ond $2 million junior high school this year. Norwood has seven elementary schools. Dr. Coakley, a Norwood High School graduate, predicts at least one more elementary school, and possibly two, will be required in the near future.
Dr. Coakley points out that the new Oldham school was paid for in cash, through astute financial planning started 2 1/2 years ago. The building of the school was held up one year so that the town would not have to incur any debt for the construction.
But the outlay for the $795,000 facility wiped out the town’s surplus funds for the immediate future.
And the Planning Board, headed by James T. O’Sullivan, is taking a harder look at the town’s zoning regulations which have remained unchanged since they were first drawn up in 1927.
Having twice turned down master plans, the town voted in 1960 to hire a professional engineer to study the community.
His report, which cost $4200, and the proposed revisions to the zoning bylaws were accepted at a special town meeting last year.
The Planning Board must now study the revisions and relate them to the zoning map, with such changes as they deem appropriate.
The biggest issue will be planning for the Neponset plain area. “If and when the state goes through with plans to lower the Neponset, this will be one of the best industrial areas in the country,” O’Sullivan states.
The town now receives about 45 percent of its income from industry. With increased protection of residential areas and further provisions for limited manufacturing and office research zones, Norwood should continue to prosper.
Its Federally-aided municipal airport can handle any propeller-driven plane including four-engined craft, and proposed state legislation under which the state would pay 40 percent and the town only 10 percent of matched Federal funds would spur improvements already planned.
The new Rte. 95 will go near the South runway. And the Rte. 128 station of the New Haven Railroad is a scant 15 minutes from Norwood Center.