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    Stoughton stirs memories with purchase of once-glorious resort

    Stoughton residents begin debating future use of lake, land at site of popular resort

    George Rizer for the Boston Globe
    Stoughton Historical Society vice president David Lambert at the shore of Glen Echo Lake. Stoughton bought 97 lakeside acres last year.

    S TOUGHTON - Go to the end of narrow Glen Echo Boulevard and you’ll find trees, brush, and the occasional rusted truck carcass before you get to the shore of a spring-fed lake that stretches to the town of Canton.

    It’s hard to believe from the quiet scene, but trolleys once ran here, bringing thousands of visitors from afar to play at Glen Echo Park - a resort described in a 1905 Boston Daily Globe article as “one of nature’s choicest spots’’ with “attractions for old and young’’ that included boating, swimming, bowling, dining, dancing, and a hotel.

    Glen Echo, which opened in 1895, prospered for decades - evolving from a teetotalers’ haven in the early years to a popular and more rowdy bar and restaurant - until its demise in the 1970s. The last building on the site burned to the ground on Halloween night in 1990.


    The town now owns the 97-acre property, buying it for $1.2 million with Community Preservation Act money approved by the 2011 Town Meeting. This spring’s Town Meeting, which starts May 7, will decide whether to spend another $20,000 to study what happens next with the iconic spot.

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    Not everyone agreed with buying the property - only three of the town’s five selectmen signed the deed - and chances are the Glen Echo debate at Town Meeting will be heated.

    “I think it will be somewhat contentious,’’ said Edward DeFelice, a member of both Town Meeting and the Finance Committee who said he opposes paying to study Glen Echo’s future.

    “We don’t seem to do anything as a municipality without spending money for a study,’’ DeFelice said. “A lot of these issues are pretty common-sense. I don’t think we need an outside consultant to come in and tell us what to do.’’

    And a deed restriction that prohibits any playing fields at the site until the death of the property’s former owner, 91-year-old Joanna Gibson, also precludes the need for spending time or money now, he said.


    That restriction might surprise many who were sold on the idea of a revived Glen Echo with both passive and active recreation, according to Francis Crimmins, Stoughton’s town manager until last week. He opposed the town’s purchase of the property, saying the price was too high, and the money could have been better spent repairing other historic sites in town, such as Town Hall, the old fire station, and the Stoughton Historical Society headquarters.

    Besides, the purchase was unnecessary because it was unlikely anyone could get permission to develop Glen Echo under current zoning and environmental rules, Crimmins said. “I’m not against the concept of open space, but we had open space [there] just by doing nothing. No one could develop this land because of wetlands issues,’’ he said.

    John Morton, who pushed for the town to buy Glen Echo as chairman of the Community Preservation Act Committee and a Conservation Commission member, disagrees.

    He said acquiring the acreage to officially protect it from development has been a goal of those groups for more than a decade. The effort “moved into high gear about four years ago when an ad appeared online offering the property for sale,’’ he said.

    Looking forward, Morton said he’s eager for a consultant to provide a concrete plan on the best uses for Glen Echo.


    “It’s so special,’’ he said. “It includes more than half of the waterfront on a beautiful lake. There are beautiful trails . . . some gorgeous upland areas, beautiful views of the lake. It has a beach that can and will be restored. We will have to explore uses and facilities, things like restrooms perhaps, maybe a bathhouse, maintenance of trails, parking. A whole bunch of things now have to happen.’’

    About 70 people met in February at the Stoughton Historical Society to share their memories of what happened in the past at Glen Echo. Their stories ranged from diving off Drum Rock, to winning a bottle of champagne in a singing contest at the inn, to roller-skating in the converted dance pavilion.

    Glen Echo “has a nostalgic place in the heart of a lot of Stoughton residents,’’ said Dwight MacKerron, president of the historical society. “It was really a local institution.’’

    Glen Echo, whose name was picked for its evocative quality, was built in Stoughton’s “Golden Age of Industry’’ by a man who’d made his money in rubber manufacturing, and was a “popular vacation destination for people from Boston who could come out on the trolleys and find their own little piece of Cape Cod in north Stoughton,’’ MacKerron said. The resort developed a more “rough and tumble reputation’’ after the Depression and still carries a mixture of dark tales and sunny memories, he said.

    One story relates how, in the 1940s, a man stopped at a local shop on his way to Glen Echo and moved a cache of guns in his car’s trunk to make room for the bag of groceries he bought, MacKerron said

    During the polio scares of the 1950s, parents kept their children away from the pond. Anita Silva, whose parents ran Glen Echo Inn in the 1960s, shared stories about the tranquil beauty of the spot mixed with live entertainment and freshly made pizzas; she also told of the night a body was found in the pond.

    “A fair number of people drowned there,’’ MacKerron said. “It has a reputation of being a dangerous lake to swim in because it has cold spots. People would get a cramp and drown. And it was a rite of passage for people to dive off Drum Rock, which sticks up about 25 feet, and some people drowned.’’

    Glen Echo also had a connection to the infamous Boston Brink’s robbery of 1950, MacKerron noted: Joseph “Specs’’ O’Keefe, a member of the gang that robbed a Brink’s truck, lived on Glen Echo Boulevard. After he turned state’s witness, the FBI spent fruitless hours digging up his yard looking for the missing loot.

    “I cannot think of another piece of land in town that has so many connections to different parts of our history,’’ MacKerron said.

    The Stoughton Historical Society has put together a booklet of Glen Echo memories and, with the Historical Commission, plans a hike of the property on Earth Day, April 22, at 10 a.m.

    Johanna Seltz can be reached at