In Episode 231, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger search downtown Fitchburg, Massachusetts, for Rollstone Boulder; a 110-ton rock moved into a traffic island back in the late 1920s. This boulder was once perched on top of a hill overlooking town, but when stone quarries moved in, local and state politicians made a legendary effort to save this local landmark. But now that it’s been in the center of town for almost a century… no one cares.
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JEFF: So we’ll follow Boulder Drive here until the end where it turns into Main Street.
RAY: Okay, got it. What are we looking for in downtown Fitchburg, Massachusetts, today, Jeff?
JEFF: Today we’re on the hunt for one odd roadside oddities. Well, I guess the landmark itself isn’t so odd, but dear lord, its backstory is.
JEFF: Okay, make a left onto Main Street.
JEFF: There’s Rollstone Street on our left, so our destination is just two blocks ahead at the intersection. We can pull over there and walk the rest of the way.
[CAR STOPS/DOORS CLOSE]
JEFF: We’re heading out to that small traffic island at the intersection of Main Street and Route 31.
RAY: Okay… I see a big, round rock that looks like it’s cracked all over. It almost looks like the head of The Thing from the Marvel movies. The rock is about as tall as I am.
JEFF: This 110-ton boulder was brought here back in the late 1920s because it was once a significant landmark on the hillside of Fitchburg. People used to picnic around this boulder because it was sitting on a small foundation of stones, perched almost like a golf ball on a tee. When a quarry moved in, the boulder was in danger, so a Herculean effort was made to save it, and move it here to the center of town… where today… nobody cares.
JEFF: Hey, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 231 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about fifteen minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. Did you know most of our story leads come from you? This one did. Thanks to Anthony D. for telling us about this strange Fitchburg Boulder. If you’ve got an odd story to share with us, feel free to reach out to us through our Web site, through our super secret Facebook page, or by calling or texting our legend line anytime, at 617-444-9683. You can even leave our show closing on there for us.
JEFF: Before we tell you the odd history of this giant Fitchburg boulder, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. What is with New England and our rocks?!
JEFF: I get it, Ray. First, they are abundant. Our MOST abundant resource. And second, somewhere along the way we started paying attention to them.
RAY: Plymouth Rock, Profile Rock, Devil’s Foot Rock, Treasure Rock, Crying Rocks, Hospital Rock, Matinicus Rock…. Those are just some of the rocks we’ve explored, and that’s off the top of my head! I’m sure there’s a bunch I’m forgetting.
JEFF: You’re right. Something strange happens over time. Someone points to a rock. Plymouth Rock, for example, and says: This rock is important. Over time the word spreads that it’s important. And then it becomes a landmark. Give it enough time, it becomes sacred. Imagine if we all die out and a thousand years from now some alien beings sees the ruins of Plymouth Rock underneath those stone pillars and iron fence? The might very well draw the conclusion that this was some ancient temple.
RAY: But in the end it’s just a rock.
JEFF: Yeah, true. Rollstone Boulder here in Fitchburg isn’t too different from Plymouth Rock, it just never reached National Monument status. And now that it sits here in a traffic circle it likely never will. For one, Rollstone Boulder is bigger than its Plymouth cousin. About 110 tons. But how it got here, and the trouble folks went through in Fitchburg to make sure it survived is legendary. So let’s head back to 1850, and go for a picnic.
RAY: It’s September of 1850, and it’s a beautiful late summer day here in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. It’s a perfect time for a picnic, and locals know the perfect place, too.
JEFF: Rollstone Hill.
RAY: Rollstone Hill. This hill sits on the western side of town. From the top, you can see the entire town of Fitchburg. Plus, there’s a peculiar rock near the top of the hill. You can’t miss it.
JEFF: And that would be Rollstone Boulder. It’s call Rollstone Boulder because it’s so round, and it sits right at the very top of the large hill. It almost looks like you could get on one side of it, and if you pushed it hard enough, it might roll all the way into downtown Fitchburg.
RAY: [GRUNTING AND PUSHING OVER LAST LINE]
JEFF: Ray… it’s 110 tons, and has been here for more than 10,000 years. You don’t have a chance.
RAY: I had to try.
JEFF: That’s fair.
RAY: As I look around, I can see other Fitchburg locals have come up here with blankets and picnic baskets. Some of the kids are climbing up on the boulder and playing King of the Mountain. This really is a nice spot.
JEFF: There have been marriage proposals up here, plenty of great memories and family time. It’s a beloved spot. But….
RAY: There’s always a but….
[CHISELING AND HAMMERING ON ROCKS FAINT]
JEFF: But there’s an awful lot of granite in and around this hill.
RAY: And progress can’t be stopped. Granite is coming out of this hill by the ton, and being used to construct buildings, bridges, and other structures. Two different quarry companies are chipping away at all of the stone underneath our feet.
JEFF: It’s not the biggest deal, though. The quarries are pretty far from the summit, and there’s plenty of rock to go around.
RAY: Years pass, and now Rollstone Boulder isn’t the most ideal place for a picnic anymore.
[CHISELING AND HAMMERING ON STONE]
RAY: Those quarry companies have made their way up this big hill. Plus, by 1899, there’s another problem.
RAY: Rollstone Boulder is cracking.
JEFF: That makes sense. The elements are taking their toll, and now there are some pretty large cracks in the rock.
RAY: That’s when Thomas Archibald of nearby Lunenburg, Massachusetts, springs into action. He fills in some of the large cracks with cement. Then he constructs an iron band to surround the boulder like a belt.
JEFF: The rock is so fragile, Archibald is nervous it could crumble at any time, and then this picturesque landmark would be lost forever. He’s so careful. Placing the band on the rock, then cementing it into place.
RAY: Rollstone Boulder is then lifted onto some exposed stone pedestals. Once it’s done, the monument is truly a sight to behold. I mean, you almost don’t want to touch it because it looks like it could fall apart at any moment. But after a few weeks, folks seem happy that their boulder is here for now. Nature’s slow and steady, but still relentless fury has been put off for another day.
JEFF: More years pass, and more and more granite is extracted from this area. Even the George Washington Bridge in New York City owes some of its granite to this hill in Fitchburg. But now the quarry companies are drawing dangerously close to Rollstone Boulder. The quarries intend to pull all of the granite from this hill before they’re forced to shut down and move along, but to get to it, Rollstone Boulder has to go.
[QUARRYING AND JACK HAMMERS]
RAY: For years, Fitchburg locals have been watching the quarrying draw closer and closer to Rollstone Boulder. If they don’t act now, it’s going to be gone. All of those memories of picnics, pleasant hikes, and gentle New England days spent admiring nature in the shadow of this rock could be nothing but stories.
JEFF: This rock is more than a landmark. It’s a marvel of science! One geologist suggests that this boulder was scooped up by glaciers during the ice age. The glacier came along, picked up the boulder from Mount Monadnock, 25 miles away to the northwest in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, then gently placed it at the top of this hill in Fitchburg. A gift from God, really. It MUST be saved.
JEFF: Still, the quarries are getting closer.
RAY: State Representative Louis Des Chenes yells that this boulder must be saved! Fitchburg mayor Joseph Carriere screams the same thing, he calls it practical to save the thing and he encourages Fitchburg residents to financially contribute to saving it. So using all the power of local and state government, the quarry companies are forced to halt operations until Rollstone Boulder can be moved.
JEFF: It’s 1929. The plan is to get the boulder moved to downtown Fitchburg where it can continue to be admired by everyone.
RAY: How are they going to do that? The boulder it huge! 110 tons!
JEFF: The plan is simple, Ray. They number each of the chunks of rock around the many fractures. They take photographs from every angle. And they draw a map of where the stones are placed. Once they pull this iron band off the rock, it’s going to crumble. They’ll move each piece to downtown Fitchburg, and reassemble the whole thing. Simple!
RAY: This is a lot of trouble for a rock.
JEFF: It is. But now it’s a point of pride and identity. Okay… we should stand back. They’re about to cut off the iron band holding it together.
RAY: I can see they’re almost through!
JEFF: Okay… the band just fell to the ground. Watch out Ray!
RAY: Okay… I’m watching, Jeff.
RAY: Uhhhm…. Nothing’s happening.
JEFF: Yeah, I see that. Okay, Marc Leblanc, a local stone mason is going to give it a whack with his hammer and a chisel. Stand back!
RAY: Yeah… nothing’s happening, Jeff.
JEFF: Hmmm, this may be harder than everyone thought. Okay… I can see they’re not messing around. They’re bringing in black powder charges now. It looks like they’re going to blast this thing into smaller pieces. Okay… stand back, Ray!
RAY: Wow! Okay, the dust is settling… let’s see what’s left… (PAUSE) Uhhhmmm… the boulder looks exactly the same to me.
JEFF: You’re right. The blast did nothing. Okay… they’re bringing in even more black powder. They’re going to try again. This is starting to feel personal.
RAY: Okay… I see some bigger cracks.
JEFF: Finally, after multiple attempts to dismantle Rollstone Boulder with explosives, the boulder crumbles into enough pieces that it can be moved down to the Main Street traffic circle in downtown Fitchburg, where stonemason Marc Leblanc is ready to get to work putting it back together.
RAY: Great! Seems easy enough.
JEFF: So Leblanc is setting the stones together in their proper order…
[STREET CARS AND TRAFFIC NOISE]
JEFF: But it isn’t easy doing such delicate work in the middle of traffic. The street cars rumble the intersection when they go by. Causing the boulder to fall to pieces again. This goes on for a month, and Leblanc is getting nowhere, and the $1100 dollars the city set aside for this project… most of that money being reappropriated—possibly illegally by the mayor—from the Post Office Park Fund… is running out.
RAY: So now we have a pile of rocks in the middle of a traffic island. A frustrated town, and mayor who is feeling kind of foolish. But there’s hope! When civic projects fall apart, sometimes there’s only one thing to do?
JEFF: What’s that?
RAY: Form a committee!
RAY: U.S. Senator Marcus Coolidge heads up the committee along with State Rep. Des Chenes. They want to get this project finished. It’s an embarrassment all around. So they ask the important question. Arguably the most important question in politics!
JEFF: What question?
RAY: How can we do this on the cheap?
JEFF: Yeah, that IS an important question.
RAY: That’s when Leblanc comes up with an idea. If he just used the outside pieces of the boulder, he could secure them together with iron rods, then fill up the middle with cement, and boom! You have a Rollstone Boulder that mostly looks like it did before… it’s just… you know… empty inside.
JEFF: It’s 1930 when the reconstruction is complete. A ten year effort to save and move this local icon is finished, as the local politicians nearly throw their shoulders out shaking each others hands and congratulating themselves. A plaque is mounted to the boulder.
RAY: The plaque reads: Quote, This boulder, carried by the last glacier from Mt. Monadnock, New Hampshire, to the summit of the hill whose name commemorates it, was for centuries a land mark to Indian and Settler. Threatened with destruction by quarrying operations, it was saved by popular subscription and reassembled here. 1920–1930
JEFF: And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Funny story, it’s doubtful this boulder was carried here from Mt. Monadnock, that’s just the closest iconic mountain. In reality, it WAS brought here by a glacier, but more likely from central New Hampshire. But that does sound as sexy as Mt. Monadnock.
RAY: It seems like at some point, once they committed to moving this thing, there was no turning back.
JEFF: I’m sure that was part of it. Politicians stepped in and made a commitment to save a landmark and they followed through, by gum! They even named streets in downtown Fitchburg after this rock. There’s Boulder Drive and Rollstone Street.
RAY: And now that Rollstone Boulder sits on this traffic island on Main Street, it’s not nearly as majestic or interesting than when it once perched on top of a hill overlooking the town.
JEFF: Nope, now it’s a thing you try to avoid with your car when you drive by. But it IS Fitchburg’s rock! Their own version of Plymouth rock, and now sacred in its own way because of centuries of memories, and a decade of expense and effort to save a boulder from getting ground up in the wheel of commerce and progress.
RAY: It’s funny how a big ole rock in the middle of town can be seen by tens of thousands of people each year, but no one really knows its story.
JEFF: Everything has a backstory. That’s part of what we do here at New England Legends every day. And we can’t do what we do without the support of our patreon patrons! For just $3 bucks per month our patrons get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes and content just for them. These funds help our hosting, marketing, and production costs. It helps a lot. We’d appreciate counting you among our inner circle. Just head over toe patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.
RAY: We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and our theme music is by John Judd.
JEFF: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.