By Joey Del Ponte and Scout Staff
At times, this city’s past reads like historical fiction: Jonathan Franzen living down the street from fellow author Isaac Asimov’s old digs. A future-president studying the pinnacle of law at Harvard while living down the street from the garage where gangster Whitey Bulger once (allegedly) seemed willing to break every possible one. Neither could have known their futures would be intertwined, that Obama’s orchestration of Osama Bin Laden’s death would move Bulger to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list which helped to facilitate his capture.
How many future notable figures have passed great inventors on the streets of Somerville at one time or another?
Countless celebrities, companies and products got their start in our great city: from self-aware vacuum cleaners to an award-winning independent publishing company. And many great (and sometimes criminal) minds have passed through this city.
With an appropriately ‘Villen name, Powderhouse Productions has been producing documentaries and factual entertainment for nationwide networks and agencies since their start in 1994. The company, founded by Joel Olicker and Tug Yourgrau, is the largest independent producer of television in New England. Believe it or not, they got their start in the basement of Davis Square’s Dunkin Donuts. When the time came to upgrade to a bigger location, they didn’t go far. The company remained in Davis Square and their office now sits atop Citizens Bank. After years of hard work and thanks to their dedicated and creative staff, their work has been featured on A&E, The History channel, Animal Planet, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic and TLC.
While you may not have heard of them before, you’ve probably heard of shows they’ve produced. One of their more recent creations is a comedy reality show following a Boston family called “Southie Rules”. They are also the masterminds behind “America’s Wildest Roads,” “America’s Cutest Cat” and a number of episodes of “Build It Bigger.”
Just down the street from Powderhouse Productions, lies another hidden gem. Even the oldest Somerville residents might not know that Candlewick Press’ US headquarters is situated right here in our city. Behind the Somerville Theater on Dover Street hides an office complete with a cardboard cutout of Waldo from the children’s book series Where’s Waldo? — one of the most popular children (and, c’mon, adult) book series that company produces. Others titles include Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? written by Martin Waddell and illustrated by Barbara Firth. Candlewick also publishes collections and novels for young adults. Candlewick began in England in 1978 when Sebastian Walker began to publish books for children from a spare bedroom in his home. His enthusiasm and determination are what inspired other like-minded individuals to open up both Candlewick press in Somerville and Walker Books in Australia, in 1992. Candlewick press is independently-owned and run by their staff members in Somerville as the American division of Walker Books. After all these years of looking for Waldo, who would have thought he was in our backyard all along?
Winter Hill: Presidents and Mobsters
Winter Hill Gang
Speaking of looking for people: Although our city has its fair share of model citizens, our list of notables wouldn’t be complete without some infamy. The Winter Hill gang, with members like Whitey Bulger and Howie Winter, got its start in the ‘ville back in the 1950s. Since then, the notorious gang has been accused of bribery, arms trafficking, burglary, drug trafficking, contract killing, embezzlement, extortion, fraud, kidnapping, money laundering, theft, truck hijackings, racketeering, robbery and murder. Books, movies, documentaries and legends have made the gang and its members household names locally, and Bulger’s recent capture made world news.
President Barack Obama
Not all famous Somerville transients were bad news. Barack Obama lived in the big, ivy-covered brick building at 365 Broadway before he got his start in politics. From 1988 to 1991, the future president resided in a basement apartment while attending Harvard Law School. Former neighbors often reminisce about the time he spent in Somerville. Although he was just passing through our city for a short time, he’d go on to make history and inspire millions.
An Inventive Spirit
Enough about humans. Let’s talk Roomba. iRobot was founded in 1990 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticists (“robotics” of course, is a word whose creation often attributed to Asimov) Colin Angle, Helen Greiner and Rodney Brooks. The three recent grads had moved the startup’s headquarters from Cambridge to Twin City Plaza, where they developed their now world-famous Roomba vacuum cleaner. (The company grew rapidly and in 2003 ran out of room and moved to Burlington, then Bedford) Today, the company, worth more than $307 million, designs and manufactures some of the world’s most important machines. Their creations have been used to search the rubble at ground zero, study the surface of mars and explore the pyramids of Egypt. Keep in mind, iRobot also manufactures an automatic mopping robot, which may be a necessity if you plan on enjoying the next treat on our list.
Everyone seems to know something about Somerville’s ties to Marshmallow Fluff. Union square hosts the annual fluff fest and draws thousands to dress up, chow down and put the mushy marshmallow stuff in their hair. But many don’t know the story of how it all began. Before the first World War in 1917, a Somerville man named Archibald Query began making it in his home. Query sold it door-to-door until the war caused shortages and forced him to shut down. When the war ended, he was not interested in starting up his business again and sold the recipe for five hundred dollars to two enthusiastic young candy entrepreneurs named H. Allen Durkee and Fred L. Mower. We can thank this pair for going on to build fluff into the confectionary icon that has stuck around.
Grand Union Flag
Perhaps the most well-known thing to get its start in Somerville is the American flag. Not the one you’re used to seeing today, but one of its very first incarnations. Different cities constantly make their own claims as to who raised it first, but according to most Somervillians and many historians, George Washington raised the Grand Union flag, also called Continental Colors, on prospect Hill in 1776. January 1st was when the flag with 13 alternate red and white stripes and the British Union Jack in the upper left-hand corner, was evidently raised in Union Square.
Next, our journey takes us to McLean Hospital; a psychiatric hospital in Belmont noted for its clinical staff’s expertise and revolutionary neuroscience research. The hospital got its start in Somerville (then called Charlestown) in 1811. It was known then as the less than P.C. “Asylum for the Insane” and acted as a subsidiary of the Massachusetts General Hospital. The hospital admitted its first patient on October 6, 1818 when McLean was only the fourth facility in the entire United States to offer specialized treatment for the mentally handicapped. In the period leading up to 1860s, the asylum began losing its tranquil environment and plans were made to move to Belmont. The new hospital was opened on October 1, 1895, where it still resides to this day.
As we embark upon another year here in Somerville and residents set out keep those lofty resolutions — tinkering with that great idea, writing that book, honing that recipe, it helps to remember that we’re in great company.