WINCHENDON — At the elbow of the bar, where afternoon regulars with calloused hands gripped $3 longnecks, the consensus was clear in the Toy Town Pub: America needs President Trump’s business smarts.
The country needs Trump’s tell-it-like-it-is bluster because politicians who told us what we wanted to hear got us into this mess. It needs Trump to build that wall along the Mexican border to protect Americans who can’t find jobs.
Most of all, America needs Trump to restore prosperity to forgotten places like Toy Town, the nickname Winchendon acquired a century ago — before the toy industry left.
That sense of being ignored may be why, for the first time since 1988, most Winchendon voters backed a Republican for president.
And after Friday’s inauguration, this Massachusetts town looks ahead, not with the trepidation evident in the state’s dominant liberal enclaves, but with tempered hope that Trump will deliver on his promises.
“Any change is going to be a good change,” said David Lord, a 67-year-old tree surgeon who a few days before the inauguration kept one eye on the Keno screen above the bar. “It’s got to be better than it was. The hole we’re in, it didn’t start with Obama. It’s been going on for years.”
Trump’s America extends beyond the Rust Belt and the Deep South. The president’s campaign also resonated along Route 2 heading out of Boston, past the leafy well-to-do suburbs of Lexington and Concord. If Paul Revere kept riding, he would have hit places like Leominster (later nicknamed “Comb City”), Gardner (“Chair City”), Athol (“Tool Town”), and here in Winchendon.
But some of those nicknames ring hollow now. Although locals still manufacture combs and tools, jobs making chairs and toys have vanished. These worn working-class mill towns tell the same American story, with the same anger and anxiety, as tired towns in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
It is these towns — the part of America between the nation’s booming big cities — where Trump’s message took hold, propelling him to the White House.
At the Toy Town Pub, a digital clock counting down to “Obama’s Last Day” sat on a shelf between a bottle of Patron Tequila and Crown Royal whiskey. The clock struck zero Friday, and, at noon, as Trump took the oath of office on television, Robert Peterson raised his pint of Bud Light in triumph.
“Retirees are getting stepped on,” said Peterson, a 67-year-old retired high school custodian who voted twice for Obama but backed Trump. “People have lost faith in government.”
Across the bar, patrons stuffed losing lottery tickets under their drink coasters.
Victoria Pisani Douglas shrugged. The 61-year-old voted for Hillary Clinton, but Douglas said she “had no choice other than to be hopeful. We’ve got to give Trump a chance.”
Trump’s inaugural pledge that “forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer” resonated with retired mechanic Gary Bosworth. He has lived all of his 64 years in Winchendon, which is “at the end of the line and forgotten.”
“I want him to create jobs for the poor guys,” Bosworth said. “Not computers. Not technology. Jobs for guys who can punch in and work on a machine.”
Political commentator Mike Barnicle grew up in Fitchburg and described this stretch of Route 2 as a “100-mile cemetery” after decades of lost jobs.
Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont thrived during last year’s presidential primaries, Barnicle wrote in the Daily Beast, because the polling booth is “one of the last places where people can vent their hostility to politicians who have abused them with neglect for decades.”
Along this corridor near the New Hampshire border is Winchendon, a town of just over 10,000 where a giant wooden rocking horse memorializes those jobs lost long ago. It is a vestige of postcard New England, an old mill town where lights illuminate a white church steeple at night. Nearby Mount Monadnock adds an air of rugged grandeur.
“People here are friendly,” said David Demirjian, a recent widower who moved to town in August after 55 years in Needham. “They converse with you. You don’t see that in Boston. And you sure don’t see that in Needham.”
They know Demirjian by name at the new Hometown Cafe, a shoebox-sized diner with four stools and 10 tables on Central Street. During Trump’s inauguration, cook Jesse Algarin sweated over a five-burner stove and electric grill.
The retired Navy chef opened the cafe with his girlfriend in 2014. They monitor success on a mustache-shaped chalkboard tracking pounds of corned beef sold as homemade hash and Reuben sandwiches. The tally has topped 1.5 tons.
Algarin said his vote went to Trump because of the New York mogul’s business acumen and his willingness to give voice to what others think but don’t have the guts to say.
“I’m looking at another Ronald Reagan as far as I’m concerned,” Algarin said between breakfast orders.
“That’s the only time the economy was worth a damn thing,’’ he said. “That’s the only time we had a country that nobody messed with us, everybody feared us.”
He wants the new president to cut taxes, roll back regulations, make health insurance affordable. Algarin said he has kept his small staff at the cafe part time because he can’t afford to pay for their health insurance. He noted that Canada, which has nationalized insurance, has figured out health care. Why can’t the United States?
Outside, Central Street once bustled with two shoe stores, two hardware stores, car dealers, grocers, and more. But now, for every two occupied storefronts, one is vacant. The recession hit the town hard and foreclosures flourished.
Still, the economic recovery they talk about on television has finally begun to take hold. Property values are rising. Some local businesses reported that 2016 was their strongest showing in a decade.
Realtor Richard Morin, watching traffic pass from his glass storefront, said he had a good year. A conservative with a strong libertarian streak, Morin settled on Trump after the first debate. He said he hopes Trump uses his real-world experience to roll back regulations and make government more efficient.
Morin did not under any circumstance want Clinton to win, but he also voiced concern about the new president. Morin does not like the Goldman Sachs executives among Trump’s Cabinet picks. Money has corrupted politics, he said.
“I don’t expect a great deal,” Morin said, “but I haven’t expected a great deal for a while.”
Out on Maple Street, former selectman Norman R. Norcross lay flat on his back fixing a royal-blue wood chipper. Norcross wore a denim “Make America Great Again” Trump hat and had planted a homemade sign along the road that declared: “Thank You!! Trump Trump.”
“I don’t care what he does as long as he replaces Obama,” said Norcross, 78. “I just want somebody other than what’s been happening.”
The same delight in the establishment’s defeat pervaded the voice of Cliff Lupien, a small-business owner who was cooking cornbread at home for his wife. He is a Howie Carr and Rush Limbaugh radio devotee, a Tea Party conservative with a devotion to the ideal of individual freedom.
The 68-year-old grandfather has traveled a long way on the political spectrum: Lupien was raised a Democrat by a father who was a union steward and welder at General Electric in Fitchburg before it closed.
Lupien said he knocked doors for Jimmy Carter “and then suffered under him” when his house in Winchendon came with an 18 percent mortgage rate. He voted twice for Reagan and has never given a Democrat another look.
His first presidential choice was businesswoman Carly Fiorina. His second was Senator Ted Cruz. And with Trump, Lupien said, “I’m still not sure he’s fully sane, but I like the Cabinet he is pulling together.”
Here will be his test: Government regulations and a lousy economy have cost him clients that close or move overseas, Lupien said. Will that continue? Or, with Trump at the helm, will more startups expand? He has faith, but not necessarily optimism.
“If Trump makes no attempt to do any of the things he has promised, then he’s a [expletive] and he will go down in history as one,” Lupien said.
“If his effectiveness is limited because Democrats and the elite establishment in Washington, D.C., continually torpedo him, then that’s all the more reason that we should seriously be considering having a revolution. Thomas Jefferson said every once in a while, blood must flow.”