The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Friday, August 22, 2008

Miller's Archives

The postcards.

Veteran reporter Mike Dobbs, the brains behind The Reminder publications, has a new book coming out about Springfield postcards. According to a review by Bill Dusty the book is a treasure chest of images from Springfield's lost glory days.

Chapter One features images of Springfield’s historical landmarks, including vintage images of the Municipal Group (City Hall and Symphony Hall) and Court Square. Chapter Two delves into the city’s downtown, with photos of street cars trundling along Main Street and rare images of hotels and theaters - some lost to history, others still with us today. Chapter Three, “Around The Town,” takes readers on a trip around Springfield’s neighborhoods, while Chapter Four features images of the city’s manufacturing past. The final chapter, Five, treats readers to vintage shots of Forest Park, including images of the Barney Residence and the old Forest Park zoo.

“Springfield” will be on sale starting August 25, 2008, for $19.99, and can be purchased at local and online bookstores, as well as at Arcadia Publishing’s website (

This valuable new book reminds me of the postcard collection of the infamous Attorney J. Wesley Miller, whose collection I once viewed. I even wrote a review and scanned a few of the cards. Dobbs new book gives me an excuse to reprint it. I'm not sure of the date, probably around 1997.

No one encountering local attorney J. Wesley Miller in full regalia will soon forget him. The 56 year old arts and copyright lawyer typically appears at public forums throughout the Valley in what might be called his uniform; a mohawk haircut, black leather jacket, combat boots and a "Public Enemy" t-shirt topped off with a metal chain link necklace.

The total effect is not just radical, it's disturbing, a kind of mental case chic that can be quite intimidating. The generally well-dressed, respectable activist and establishment types who attend public meetings usually don't know what to make of a person like Miller, and observing people's responses to him can be genuinely amusing.

The most interesting reaction to Miller's persona that I ever observed came from WGGB personality and consumer activist Pricilla Ress, who upon encountering Miller as I escorted him through the Channel 40 newsroom, responded with an expression of what appeared to be genuine fright. I had to laugh inspite of myself, having never before seen fear on the face of the generally unflappable Ms. Ress.

Yet Miller is more than just the subversive court jester of local politics. He is also believed to possess the largest single private library in the city of Springfield. Among the thousands of books and publications he possesses are a collection of artifacts and memorabilia relating to local history. His collection is so extensive and rare that local historians such as Richard Garvey and Francis Gagnon might weep with frustration over their inability to obtain access to it. In a manner maddening to local scholars, Miller is extremely choosy and idiosyncratic about whom he allows access to his multi-faceted collections.

Therefore I was somewhat surprised and flattered when Miller recently offered me the opportunity to examine his collection of Springfield related postcards, believed to be the most extensive of its kind in existence. Miller informed me that he was loaning me the collection so that I could see for myself "the glory that was once Springfield, but is no more."

Going through Miller's collection is indeed a sobering experience. While some of the collection consists of such rarities as the former Studebaker dealership in Pine Point or Lam's, a long forgotten pioneering Chinese restaurant on Bridge Street, most of the cards display the images of major structures that once stood where today's modern skyscrapers now stand. Were there really once such mobs of pedestrians on Main Street?

Priceless artifacts mysteriously disappeared in 1959 as the Everett Barney mansion was torn down in order to make way for a highway that many still argue never had to pass through the Barney estate in the first place. Many local historians consider the loss of the Barney mansion and the never explained disappearance of its artwork and antiques to be the true beginning of Springfield's downward spiral at the hands of its corrupt government. Even today one still hears the city's elders whisper, accurately or not, that the highway's destructive path was secretly insisted upon by political insiders precisely so that the Barney estate could be looted.

If so, that wouldn't be any more scandalous than what happened to the Unitarian Church. Once located directly across from the City Library, the church was so famous for its beauty that it was a regular destination of architectural classes from Harvard and Yale, who came to admire what was considered one of the state's premiere architectural marvels. Sadly, city planners and business insiders put together one of their infamous "public-private partnerships" and the church was razed in order to prepare for construction of a government subsidized high-rise. But the deal fell through and the skyscraper was never built. In a bitter irony, the red sandstone steps that once led to this now vanished architectural treasure remain to this day, only now those steps lead only to a parking lot.

The devastation of Springfield at the hands of economic planners is made all too real by an inspection of Miller's postcard collection. What one gets from looking at the Barney Mansion,

the Wesson Mansion,

or even the original entrance to Pine Point's Saint Michael's Cemetery, whose ornate marble gate tops were mysteriously stolen,

and the countless individual buildings and even city blocks that were destroyed in order to construct generic modern structures - none of which have half the class of the buildings they replaced - is not a feeling of nostalgia. Instead it inspires a feeling of anger over how the glory that was once Springfield was systematically sold-out over the years by dishonest politicians and the greedy contractors and business people who feed on public economic development funds. Everybody had the same goal, to do a dirty deal in Springfield and then run to the suburbs.

Perhaps it is best that Attorney Miller keeps so much of his collection out of public view. If the people of Springfield ever fully realized what was taken from them, there might be rioting in the streets.

So buy Dobbs' book, and I'll meet you at the riot!

A fixture on Boston Road in Pine Point since the early 1970's was Richard Doyle, better known as the The Twig Painter, who used to sit out on the sidewalk in the warm weather months painting. The first week he did so, around 1972, a cop gave him a hard time. Doyle went straight downtown and demanded to see then Mayor Frank Freedman. When he told the Mayor what had happened, Freedman told him to go back on the sidewalk and all would be taken care of. Doyle was never bothered again and stayed on the sidewalk every summer until he was forced into retirement a couple years ago by diabetic blindness.

However, the Twig Painter did have occasional problems, like in 1998 when they widened Boston Road. The plans called for a traffic light to be erected in the exact spot where Doyle always sat. He painted the following image of the traffic light passing through his body and sent it to all the local politicians.

The plans were soon changed to relocate the traffic light.

Doyle always feared that some out of control vehicle would swerve onto the sidewalk and strike him where he sat painting, but he couldn't convince the city to put a guardrail in front of where he worked. In frustration he came up with a great prank to illustrate what might happen.

He got Jay Libardi to pull his pick-up truck up on the sidewalk, while Doyle knocked everything over and splashed red paint on himself before lying down. As a final touch, he lit a smoke bomb. The result was this very realistic crash scene: (click to enlarge)

It worked a little too well. Cars screeched to a halt, creating a big traffic jam. People frantically called 911 and women screamed. However this prank did not result in Doyle getting his guardrail. What he did get was a citation for disturbing the peace and a stern warning that any further stunts of that sort would result in his arrest.

Speaking of Jay Libardi, here is a picture of me and him in 1984.


LarryK4 said...

“Learning to live without you,” IS indeed the hardest thing. Life goes on…but we ALWAYS remember.

God bless them all.

Mary E.Carey said...

That's a sweet photo of you and Jay Libardi. By the way, do you know anything about Vincent's Steakhouse? I remember my family stopped there a few times on our way back from Cape Cod to Pittsfield and we were so enchanted with it. I think they had big popovers or something that we were in awe of. That would have been in the late 60, maybe early 70s. For all I know it could be still be in Springfield but I doubt it.

Tommy said...

I remember the name, but Vincent's Steakhouse would have been too expensive for my family.

Mike Dobbs said...

Thanks for the plug Tommy. A number of the cards I bought are stamped with Miller's name on the message side. The dealers from whom I bought the cards said that Miller always treated him right, but he didn't tell me where he got the cards clearly from Miller's collection.