Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Young Ethel Toner, in the front wearing a black jacket, with family on Newman Street in North Cambridge in the 1940s. (Photo: Grace Toner)

On Newman Street in North Cambridge, right before you cross into Arlington, there sits a house that has been in the same family for four generations. Ethel Toner was born and raised in Cambridge, and her father bought the house from her grandparents. Ethel estimates that her father paid around $4,000 for the house, and even when Ethel bought it in 1979 it was a steal. Ethel now lives close by in an apartment building and her son lives in the house – and her grandson, Jack, claims he will be the next to live there. In a community and city filled with constant change, renovation and people moving on, especially with multiple colleges in the area, it is unusual and inspiring to see a family such as the Toners with such strong roots in the community. Ethel’s grandfather, who immigrated from Nova Scotia and became the gate attendant for the railway in North Cambridge, died saving a woman from an ongoing train. A plaque mark it on the gate pillars of the bike path toward Alewife, where the train tracks used to be.

In many ways, Ethel’s childhood was not so different from that of children today. She was born in the mid-20th century and grew up in Cambridge after World War II in a neighborhood that held get-togethers and helped each other when someone was sick. Many of Ethel’s fond childhood memories remind me of my own, such as playing in the streets or hanging out with nearby friends. 

 As a child, she collected dollhouses and remembers vividly rushing home to watch TV such as “The Howdy Doody Show” with her sister. Ethel recalls their father turning off the television once when they were trying to watch Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” At night, Ethel got scared of the mysteries her sister used to listen to in bed and would make her turn down the radio. In the winters, plows would pile up snow at the end of the street and they would jump up and slide off. Her father created an ice rink in their backyard. 

Ethel remembers around 40 kids living on Magoun Street alone. In good weather, they would crowd outside jumping rope in the streets daily waiting for the ice cream truck to drive by. In summers they would be out with a hose, going in for dinner and coming back out again right afterward. Ethel felt like she and many other kids had a lot of freedom. At a very young age, kids would get on the bus by themselves and go into Harvard Square. 

Toner enjoys summer with friends in Duxbury sometime in the 1950s. (Photo: Grace Toner)

As high schoolers Ethel and her friends hung out at local businesses rather than playing in their backyards. After classes, the cool kids used to hang out at Verna’s Donut Shop, which closed in 2016 after more than six decades in business. (Ethel has seen a lot of businesses move out of the area. There were once many more local barrooms on Massachusetts Avenue, and while local haunt Joe Sent Me is a rare example of a barroom that kept its use and a favorite local establishment for Ethel’s family, Ethel considers getting rid of the barrooms to be a good thing. There was great Chinese food her father would bring home from a local restaurant as a treat on payday, and a larger shopping area in Porter Square – she bought all the clothes for her four boys right at the Sears.)

Other fond memories include bowling and watching movies with stars such as Shirley Temple at the Capitol Theatre in Arlington. The University Theater in Harvard Square was more expensive; the theater in Porter Square used to have Saturday discounts for kids. After graduating high school, Ethel spent most weekends skiing in New Hampshire or going with friends to the Cape, and every Sunday still went to Harvard Square.

Toner’s Saint John’s High graduation picture. (Photo: Grace Toner)

She remembers it being a big deal to go out and get pizza in Central Square on Friday nights with her aunt. Families were close and got together a lot. Ethel and her sister used to put all 12 of their kids in the back of a station wagon and drive to Revere Beach for fun. Community members would gather to celebrate the Fourth of July and watch the fireworks on Cambridge Common.

Everyone used to know where everyone lived, making North Cambridge feel like a small world. More people had deeper roots connecting them to the area; they stayed in the neighborhood they grew up in, and those who moved there planned to stay long-term.

A lot of shifts between childhood in the 1950s and ’60s and now have to do with the change in gender roles, including the prevalence of stay-at-home mothers who would get to know each other more than some parents today. 

Church was also a larger part of people’s lives. Ethel attended through adulthood, first attending a grammar school run by nuns and a high school run by the church. Religion, specifically Catholicism, played a large part in Ethel’s day-to-day life; she remembers going to church every day for 40 days to celebrate Lent.

Even though Ethel grew up right after World War II, she remembers clearly not being taught about the war in school – teachers didn’t address the subject, teaching only about the Civil War. On the end-of-year test, students were expected to know about World War II by having read about it on their own. Today, one of Ethel’s many interests is reading books on the war, because she never learned about it. 

Another change from Ethel’s high school days involves rules regarding the prom: One could not just attend the prom without being asked by a boy. She felt lucky as a first-year student and junior to attend, but remembers never being asked her senior year, and it was unacceptable to show up without a date. (I never had a date to my prom either, but I was still allowed to go.)

Toner with husband Bobby at the French Club in North Cambridge. (Photo: Grace Toner)

I couldn’t help but ask Ethel where she and her friends would go to find eligible bachelors in the 1960s, or what else they did for fun in Boston. Ethel remembers going into Boston to see plays and Jerry Vale – whom I admit I had to look up, even though I pride myself on knowing older music. After a night out in Boston, Ethel and friends would take the midnight T back across the river. On Friday nights there was usually a school dance in a big hall, where everyone would partner up and dance. Some girls wore miniskirts, and while Ethel admits her skirt was never that short, dungarees were big, and bell bottoms. Most people dressed up and wore heels. Other spots to find a possible date were Revere Beach or Mosley’s on the Charles River, though Ethel would usually either meet young men at work or be set up on blind dates by friends.

She met her husband, Bob, through her cousin. Bob worked in the shipping department at Arthur D. Little, and he and Ethel went out for the first time to dinner in Porter Square. Three weeks later they were engaged! I was surprised at how fast, but Ethel told me that at the age of 24 she was considered an old maid. Besides that, she knew what she was looking for in a partner. Ethel’s father was also taken aback by the engagement – not because of its haste, but rather because Bob wasn’t Catholic. When Ethel told her father she was marrying a Baptist, he went straight down to her cousin’s house and talked to the man that introduced them. Bob began going to church with Ethel and ended up converting to Catholicism, and Ethel’s father and husband ended up good friends.

Ethel remembers getting a job one day from the Cambridge mayor’s wife in her own backyard: She and her friend Diane, young mothers at the time, were in the backyard after their kids went to school when the mayor’s wife yelled over asking if they wanted jobs. Diane got a job working the switchboard in City Hall; Ethel started serving lunches in the local school cafeteria, though her longer-lasting job was at W.R. Grace near the Alewife train station. Grace was a large company with locations around the country known for making the can-sealing compounds for canned vegetables.

After her husband died, it was nine years before she met her next partner, Jerry. Ethel’s sister, Claire, had stopped to chat with her own husband, who was sitting in a firetruck across the street from where Ethel and Claire grew up. Jerry was also in the truck, and when they saw Ethel walking home, one of the firefighters was joking around and told Jerry, “She’s not bad, you should take her out sometime!” (If only eligible men were hanging out in firetrucks down the street for the rest of us!) Movie-worthy meet-cutes didn’t end there for the Toners. One of Ethel’s relatives, who went to Harvard, found love at the Harvard Library, similar to the plot of “Love Story.” Ethel even got to drive her car in Harvard Yard during their wedding.

Much of her family has moved to other towns around Boston, but important dates and memories add color to Ethel’s life in Cambridge.

Toner at a recent birthday celebration. (Photo: Grace Toner)

I was especially intrigued by the importance Ethel placed on events in U.S. and Boston history. When the Boston Strangler was on the prowl between June 1962 and 1964, she remembers it being a scary time. Ethel was working late one night at W.R. Grace and had to go to the basement alone to get her coat, then walk home by herself. During this scary time, Ethel was 22, the same age as I am now. I would be terrified, and would probably call my sister as I got my coat and ran home from work, something Ethel clearly couldn’t have done in the 1960s.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 was another event that shook the community, especially as Kennedy was a Boston native. Ethel remembers the killing coming right before she got married; the area was frozen in mourning for four days. Her boss at Grace almost drove into the Charles River while coming back from the airport, despite not having been a Kennedy supporter. While Grace did not send anyone home from work, on the day of the funeral her boss said they could have extra time for lunch. A crowd went to Ethel’s house on the other side of Massachusetts Avenue and watched the funeral in her living room for three hours.“Everybody knows. You ask anybody who was from that era – everybody knows where they were” as news of Kennedy’ assassination broke, Ethel said. “They also know where they were when the lights went out all the way to New York.”

During the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Ethel was still at Grace helping with severance packages. She was on her way to the copier when a co-worker told her a plane had crashed into the Twin Towers. Ethel thought immediately of the time she visited New York City and ate in the tower’s restaurant. Not long after that, she had to pick up more copies and the same man told her a second plane had hit the other tower. It was then that she knew that it was an act of terrorism. She went to Radio Shack in Fresh Pond and bought a radio so she could listen. Nobody got off of work, but Ethel still felt the effect on the community. Quite a few people from the area were on one of the flights, including a girl Ethel had known from Acton.

Toner on April 15, 2002, with son Scott at the first of his six Boston Marathons. (Photo: Grace Toner)

Big changes are happening in North Cambridge. The site where W.R. Grace used to be is under construction as an office and lab space called Alewife Park. Ethel thinks the construction could be good in bringing business to the area, but there is the pressing issue of affordable housing to consider. The trend of houses being passed down from generation to generation seems to be dying. As the years passed, Ethel has felt like she knows less about her neighbors. She enjoys living in her apartment, seeing young families grow up and having kids run up and down her hallway, but prices continue to rise and she sees neighbors come and go. The neighborhood faces increased traffic and decreased street parking as development spreads and the population increases.

Ethel’s pastimes include reading and spending time with family and friends. Her sister lives down the street, and one of her sons still lives in the house in which she grew up on Newman Street. The family supports local businesses by going out to dinner at Frank’s Steakhouse, a North Cambridge icon. Ethel continues to love her life in Cambridge of growing up with cookouts in the summer, a pool to splash in in the backyard and adventures into Harvard Square. She’s watched her sons grow up and excel, running the Boston Marathon, going to Harvard, Boston University, Boston College Law School and Wesleyan University, and growing side by side with the community through both scary and hopeful times.

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About History Cambridge

History Cambridge started in 1905 as the Cambridge Historical Society. Today we have a new name and a new mission. We engage with our city to explore how the past influences the present to shape a better future. We recognize that every person in our city knows something about Cambridge’s history, and their knowledge matters. We listen to our community and we live by the ideal that history belongs to everyone. Throughout 2023, we are focusing on the history of Cambridgeport. Make history with us at historycambridge.org.

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Emily Harris is a volunteer for History Cambridge and a resident of North Cambridge.

This post was updated March 12 to correct that Ethel Toner did not remarry.