Off the Beaten Path: Leominster, Mass.

Monument Square in Leominster, Mass.

By Anna Burkett

New England towns have plenty of vestigial British references. One of these is the suffix minster, as in Westminster, which designates a town with a monastic center or a cathedral.

Leominster, Massachusetts (see map below) cedes that distinction to its namesake in the old country, but does have an interesting history. It's the only town in the central part of the state that sits on land legally purchased from its former Native American residents.

For many years it was an agricultural center, but quickly transitioned to manufacturing during the industrial revolution.

The tolerance that made the town a center of activity on the Underground Railroad also attracted large numbers of Irish, Italian, and French immigrants. These old world craftspeople were skilled at making combs from animal hoof and horn, earning Leominster the nickname of the comb city. As the raw materials for this work became scarce, entrepreneurs took up a new substance called celluloid, and Leominster emerged as a center in the nascent plastics industry.

Among the early pioneers of this technology were Foster Grant, who made his fortune selling plastic sunglasses and Earl Tupper whose burping kitchen bowls were a staple of home parties in the 50s and 60s. As if that weren't enough, in 1956 local sculptor Don Featherstone created a mold based on a photo he saw in National Geographic and the pink lawn flamingo began to migrate across the globe.

It's hard to find physical traces of this former glory around town. The much-praised plastics museum has closed, and a fascinating display at the Fitchburg museum only makes occasional appearances. Don't despair, though, this town has several more surprises in store.

One of them is a historical marker and a model of the birthplace home of John Chapman. Chapman was an explorer in the early days of the westward expansion. He purchased land and planted orchards in advance of settlements. By the time the settlers arrived, the orchards were producing, and Chapman sold them for a handsome price.  Apples were important on the frontier because they provided something safe to drink as well as alcoholic beverages. You may think of him as a barefoot eccentric who married an Indian maiden, but Johnny Appleseed was a canny entrepreneur.

And everyone will find something to enjoy at the Top Fun Aviation Toy Museum.  The two septuagenarian operators of this storefront wonder, one a pilot, the other a historian, will take you through the development of aviation toys from rubber spaceships of the 1930s to the most modern Star Wars fighters. You'll see extravagant rare Polly Pocket and My Little Pony jetliners, and have the opportunity to compete in a paper airplane flying contest.  Operating on what appears to be less than a shoestring, here is a testament to the passion of eccentric collectors.

History is layers deep in the industrial mill towns of New England. Take time to do a little digging, and you can unearth a handful of gems wherever you look. And while you're looking, watch out for my parents, Patti and Tom Burkett, somewhere off the beaten path.