In Episode 285 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger cheer Westford Academy’s football team in Massachusetts. Their mascot is the Grey Ghosts. How they cam e to be called that has been a point of controversy in recent years, but part of the backstory leads us to the haunted Roudenbush Community Center in Westford where we explore a Civil War legend.
In this episode we mistakenly mentioned that the Roudenbush Community Center was the site of the original Westford Academy. Please forgive our mistake. That building was actually the second location of the Westford Academy. The first is still standing and is the current Westford Museum building on Boston Road. Thank you do Bernadette Dureault for pointing out the error.
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[CROWD CHEERING HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAME]
JEFF: Ohhhh! He broke a tackle… He could. Go. All. The. Way!
RAY: He’s in the end zone! Touchdown, Westford!
RAY: That was a great game!
JEFF: It was! I think it’s great seeing so many young people involved with their school athletics. My daughter’s on the track team back home.
RAY: And I’ve got one kid who’s a swimmer, and my daughter does cheer and softball.
JEFF: But our kids don’t go to schools with mascots anywhere near as cool as the mascot here at the Westford Academy in Massachusetts.
RAY: What IS their mascot, anyway?
JEFF: Westford Academy is the Grey Ghosts.
RAY: I love it! I bet there’s a story there.
JEFF: I bet you’re right! It’s a story that goes all the way back to the Civil War, and the ghost of a woman who waited for her fiancé to return.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and you’ve landed on Episode 285 of the New England Legends podcast.
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. A big thanks to Josh French for the story lead.
JEFF: We love it when you reach out to us with your own tales of local weirdness through our Web site. It takes a community of people to find and share these stories. We’re glad you’re in our tribe. The more people you tell about our show, the more you share, subscribe, and review our podcast, the more stories we get. Our Web site is also the place to see video clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime, and see dates for my ongoing story tour, plus dates to see Ray’s band the Pub Kings.
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RAY: So we’ve come to Westford, Massachusetts, to search for the grey ghost?
JEFF: We have.
RAY: And not the Grey Ghost mascot of Westford Academy.
JEFF: No. But this haunting specter is definitely part of the back story of how Westford Academy came to be called The Grey Ghosts.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: Sometimes a legend becomes so prominent you can either scream and protest about it. Or throw your hands up and own it. Westford has owned this one, and I for one applaud them. To find out what happened, let’s first take a short drive to Main Street.
RAY: While we head to where we’re going, here’s a little more info on the town of Westford, Massachusetts. This was originally known as West Chelmsford, but the village grew large enough to become its own town in 1729. The population hovered around two thousand people all the way up until the 1970s when the town grew again. Today the population is about 25,000. So still a relatively small town.
JEFF: Right. It’s a good-looking town too. Very well-preserved New England. (BEAT) Okay, we’ll pull into this parking lot here on the right.
[CAR STOPS / DOORS]
RAY: So this is the Roudenbush Community Center. It’s a rather stately building with a fancy cupola on top.
JEFF: This building wasn’t always a Community Center. It was originally the Westford Academy, a private school, and then later the public high school until a new school was constructed down the road. It’s served a lot of academic purposes for many years, AND the building has a haunted reputation. They say it’s haunted by a grey lady.
RAY: Ooooooo I’m starting to see the connection here.
JEFF: So let’s head back to the spring of 1862 and find out what happened.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1862 here in Westford, Massachusetts. These are troubled times because…
[CANNONS AND MUSKET FIRE]
RAY: America is at war with itself.
JEFF: The Civil War began about a year ago on April 12, 1861, when shots were fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. The country had hopes that maybe the differences between the north and south could be settled quickly. But a year in, it’s clear this is going to be a long and bloody battle between the Union and Confederacy. Men are signing up. Almost every town is recruiting, and some of these boys are NOT going to come home.
RAY: Which brings us to the center Westford. It’s early morning. And a local woman named Jenny is seeing her fiancé off to war.
RAY: The young soldier assures his beloved that he’ll be safe and hurry home to her soon.
JENNY: I’ll be right here… waiting for you when you return.
RAY: And with that… the soldier is off to fight for the Union Army.
[CANNONS AND MUSKET FIRE]
JEFF: Months go by, and Jenny’s love writes her letters when he can. He assures her that he’s safe and doing his part for the cause.
[SUMMER / BIRDS FADE INTO WINTER WIND]
JEFF: Months pass, as do seasons. And suddenly the letters stop coming. Agonizing days melt into weeks. Everyone fears the worst. But Jenny is resolute. Her love WILL return. Each day she strolls down to the place where she said her goodbye.
JEFF: And each day he’s not there.
RAY: By the time the war ends in 1865, Jenny has become a fixture in Westford. Everyone in town seems to understand that her fiancé must have been one of many men killed and buried on a battlefield somewhere unknown and forgotten. Their heart breaks for Jenny who keeps her daily vigil the rest of her days.
JENNY: I’ll be right here… waiting for you when you return. [FADES OUT MAKE THIS A LITTLE MORE FAINT? MAYBE A LITTLE REVERB?]
JEFF: Decades pass. It’s now the fall of 1897 when construction begins on a grand building.
[SAWING / HAMMERING]
JEFF: The Westford Academy opens on the very grounds where they say Jenny said her last goodbye.
RAY: The Westford Academy long outlasts Jenny… and THAT brings us back to today.
JEFF: Okay… this is where we tell you that we don’t know if that really happened.
RAY: You’re saying the Roudenbush Community Center isn’t haunted?
JEFF: I’m not saying that all. Quite the opposite. This building IS haunted. More on that in a minute. I’m just saying that this Civil War back-story is just speculation.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: As we mentioned, this community center was constructed in 1897. It was the original Westford Academy. It was a private school until 1928 when it became the town’s high school until 1955 when a new school was built. It was renamed the William C. Roudenbush School in honor of principal Roudenbush who served here for 25 years between 1912 and 1937. This building closed as a school in 1973. At that point it began its transformation into a community center which is what it still is today.
RAY: A HAUNTED community center, though.
JEFF: That’s right. A grey lady ghost has been reported in this building. Especially in the upper floors. Another theory on the identity of the feminine gray ghost is that it’s the spirit of principal Roudnebush’s wife roaming the halls looking for him as he works long hours for the sake of the kids and school.
RAY: So we checked around and found plenty of stories about this community center’s haunted reputation.
JEFF: We did. A lot of people in town seem to know about it.
RAY: One story we heard was about two custodians in here one evening after the building was closed. Inside the building, there are two curved staircases leading to the upstairs. These staircases are the only ways up or down. On this particular evening they heard footsteps upstairs. They assumed some kid must have hidden out up there, or maybe a young person had taken a nap and people forgot about them. So each custodian went up different staircases knowing they’d meet at the top and the young person would be spotted by one or both of them. As one custodian reached the top step, he saw the back of a woman’s long, greyish dress glide by. The dress then seemed to get sucked up into attic and was gone. The rattled custodian asked to be transferred to a different building after that.
JEFF: A 2016 Sun Newspaper account mentions how the Executive Director at the time was walking on the third floor where they keep their preschool items on a shelf. She walked around the corner and saw a woman in a high-necked blouse with puffy sleeves and a billowy skirt turn to look at her before she vanished.
RAY: Disembodied footsteps and strange noises seem to be the norm around here and lots of people talk about it on the record.
JEFF: So the building’s haunted reputation is cemented at this point. Okay… back to the Westford Academy’s school mascot.
RAY: Right. The Grey Ghosts!
JEFF: How they came to be the Grey Ghosts made the news not long ago because of a little controversy.
RAY: Controversy because not everyone believes in ghosts?
JEFF: Controversy because the Grey Ghost mascot came into being here in the late 1950s. Westford’s uniforms used to be black. And they were known as the Black Knights. In the late 50s, Football Coach Chet Steele…
RAY: That’s a great name! Chet Steele.
JEFF: I know, right?! So coach Steele change the uniform colors to grey. They say one rainy, foggy afternoon the team was practicing, and someone commented that they looked like grey ghosts on the field.
RAY: That doesn’t sound so controversial.
JEFF: It’s not. But back in the 1950s there was a CBS television show called The Gray Ghost, featuring Col. Mosby who was played by a heartthrob of an actor named Tod Andrews…
RAY: Chet Steele is still a better name.
JEFF: Agreed. In the show, Andrews’s character was nicknamed the Gray Ghost because he was a Confederate officer who was cunning and could slip through the landscape. The show ran for nine months between October 1957 and July 1958. It was one season and 39 episodes.
RAY: So some claim the students picked the Gray Ghosts as their mascot because of this show based on a Confederate officer.
JEFF: Right. And if it’s Confederate, it must be racist.
RAY: And this made the news just a couple of years ago because of that one reference to a television show that ran one season back in 1957 and 1958.
JEFF: Right. That’s what the fuss was about.
RAY: But the most prominent theory at this point is that the name Grey Ghost came about because the original school building is haunted by a grey ghost.
JEFF: That’s the way I heard it. And the Civil War backstory of Jenny keeping her word to wait for her love to return from war continues well into the afterlife.
RAY: Got it. So, the original drawing of the mascot looked so much like Casper the Friendly Ghost that it was deemed a copyright infringement. So they changed it to the current version which is a hooded ghostly grim reaper type figure with his arms crossed looking menacing. I like it!
JEFF: I do too! And though the exact origins of the mascot may have been lost to time, the ghostly legend of the original Westford Academy survives. We can’t help but want to identify what bumps in the night, even if we may be wrong. It gives us a sense of some control over something that can’t be controlled.
RAY: I’m not sure who Westford Academy is playing next, but we’re the kind of guys who will always… root for the ghosts!
JEFF: That we will! And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and often veer off course.
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We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals. Thank you to our patreon patrons. Thanks to Lisa Strykowski for lending her voice acting talent this week, and out theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.