Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 16)

Published April 6, 2001 | Informational - Historic Articles | Automatically Archived on 6/3/2001

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Chapter 16

The World At Our Back Door

Dr. Stoyal Gavrilovic of Yugoslavia alighted from a State Police cruiser, climbed to the top of the fire tower on Nobscot Mountain and uttered the words that would send chills up the back of many Sudbury landowners:

We may be looking at the spot where man finally will achieve enduring peace and where all injustices to men will be corrected without conflict,
he said.

Gavrolic and the six men with him were members of the United Nations Organization’s (UNO) Site Selection Committee. Their whirlwind visit by blimp and motor car to Sudbury and the South Middlesex region on January 19 and 20, 1946, was meant to explore the possibility of locating the UN’s permanent headquarters here.

Sudbury seemed to have everything the UNO wanted. It was close to the academic and medical centers of Boston, yet not too close. A world-class airport, already being used by international transport planes, was available at nearby Bedford, and the rural nature of the area lent itself to the atmosphere of tranquility that the organization sought for its deliberations.

And there was another criterion that Gavrilovic and his committee felt was of the utmost importance. The Sudbury-Concord-Marlborough-Lincoln area was rural enough so that the UNO’s 40 to 50 square mile facility would displace “only 2,100” persons. Other sites under consideration by the committee would require the displacement of many more.

Following the Nobscot trip, Gavrilovic told reporters at a Wayside Inn luncheon of old-fashioned chicken pie that two separate sites were under consideration, one in Lincoln and another in Marlborough. Because these overlapped and covered an area of 70 square miles, Gavrilovic intimated that the UNO would settle for a 40- to 50-square mile area in between the two, placing the proposed headquarters buildings somewhere near the Wayside Inn. “The ground is excellent for construction and there are many other desirable features,” he said.

While columnists in the Boston newspapers trumpeted the region’s virtues, some citizens of Sudbury took an entirely different tack. Even as the Committee, shepherded by Governor Maurice Tobin, climbed aboard a Navy blimp at the South Weymouth Naval Air Station for an aerial tour of the site on January 20, 200 townspeople, a quarter of them returned servicemen, signed a petition directing the Selectmen to voice the town’s opposition to the UNO complex to Governor Tobin as soon as possible.

Selectmen Francis McGettigan, Lawrence Tighe and Aubrey Borden denied having any contact at all with the United Nations, but did arrange a question-and-answer session with the Massachusetts UNO Committee.

At the same time, a citizens group was attacking from another direction, composing a strong letter telling the UNO Sight Selection Committee in words of one syllable that the organization was not welcome in Sudbury. A few days later, groups from other neighboring towns followed suit.

Sudburyites had every reason to be concerned about displacement. Early in WWII the government took over 3,000 acres of land in the town’s northwest corner (the Fort Devens Annex which is now part of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge), evicting residents and paying them an arbitrary price for their land. Mr. and Mrs. Richard C. Hill of Candy Hill Road had been among the few Sudbury residents to have their house and land taken
and were afraid that the advent of a UNO headquarters here would trigger a similar exodus on a larger scale.

We got all excited,” Hill told The Middlesex Daily News in 1985. “It looked as if they were going to take over the whole town and everyone was going to be evicted.

The signers of the petition were conspicuous by their absence from the meeting with Massachusetts UNO Committee members Orson Adams Jr., Professor G. Holmes Perkins and Christian Science Monitor Managing Editor Erin D. Canham on January 30. Those that did attend, expressed their concern in two words: “How much?”

Professor Perkins pointed out that Sudbury had a relatively low assessment valuation–$3,680,000–and a tax rate of $31 which meant that a parcel worth $1,000 here might be worth twice as much in neighboring Wayland. All transactions would be between willing buyers and willing sellers, he added. Any disputes over land values would be settled by the courts to everyone’s satisfaction.

The Committee revealed that construction of the permanent headquarters would require at least three years with 1,300 persons on hand the first year, 2,000 the second and up to 3,000 when the project was completed. While construction was taking place, the UNO would operate from a 200-acre temporary site near Boston.

“The UNO Project is one of the most magnificent and challenging opportunities that has ever come to the United States,” added Canham. “It would mean that two to three thousand of the world’s greatest experts in the field of diplomacy would come here. A meeting of the General Assembly once a year would bring the cream of the world.

Meanwhile, the protestors themselves were coming under fire from another front. A letter to the editor of The Boston Globe laced them for their bad manners:

To the Editor–The vast majority of the citizens of Sudbury, both the descendants of the original settlers and those who have settled in this community during the more recent past since the Civil War, protest emphatically against the display of bad manners given by certain local citizens in affronting the state UNO Committee, the government of the Commonwealth and the distinguished guests of our nation, the UNO Committee on Sites itself.

We hope that the 50 nations associated with our beloved country in this enterprise of peace will not judge our historic community by this action or assume that it represents the old New England courtesy of our people.

This whole agitation is the work of local land barons who do not seem to care about the future prosperity of our town any more than they care about its repute for generosity or good neighborliness toward visitors. What an example to give to our youth!!

What an insult to the sons of Sudbury who served in the war for human freedom and now return to find a group of stuffy, middle-aged standpatters who didn’t fight the war trying to destroy what the dead died for!–A Group of Sudbury Citizens

In the end it was not Sudbury, but the National Knights of Columbus meeting in Boston that nixed the UNO headquarters project once and for all. The K of C denounced “Godless Russia” and its part in the United Nations Experiment. Soviet Union delegate Gorgi Saksin was so incensed that he refused to consider any site in Massachusetts. When the matter finally came up for a vote, the Russians and Scandinavians supported New York while Great Britain held firm for Massachusetts.

What finally turned the tide for New York and the site that the U.N. currently occupies was an $8.5 million grant from John D. Rockefeller Jr. to purchase an 18-acre site on the East River, leaving Sudbury wondering just what might have been.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.