When I asked long-time Norton residents about examples of past conflict between Wheaton and Norton, a few mentioned greyhound racing in the 1930s. While none were alive for the debate itself, they still considered it a notable example of a town issue that Wheaton became involved in. Understandably, none could name the technicalities of the event as it can not be found on the internet or even the Wheaton Archives. But, they did remember the manner in which Wheaton approached the town, one that came from misunderstanding and self-importance. I wondered specifically what Wheaton said or did to leave an impression that sustained 80 years. To my luck, the Norton Historical Society had old newspaper clippings deliberately covering the greyhound racing issue.
During a March evening in 1939, the Norton town hall overflowed with about 500 people including residents, professors, and even some students. The hot topic bringing the usually quiet college town alive was the potential implication of a greyhound racing track in the middle of Norton.
The Norton selectman granted a dog racing company a license to build a track in the town, but a second license had to be passed in order to determine the times and dates in which the track would operate. A public hearing was held to decide on this second license, but the main controversy was the placement of a gambling arena in the first place.
The greyhound track offered the appeal of lowered taxes for residents and a potential influx of jobs, but according to the Attleboro Sun, “The churches, the college, and 90 percent of the manufacturing firms of the town are all lined up against the dog track as a destructive force, as not productive of taxes but headaches, as a destroyer of the peace and calm of an ancient town.”
Keep in mind, this is 1939, so those who opposed gambling for moral reasons weren’t doing so because of animal cruelty, but rather the moral ethics of gambling and potential vices that accompany gambling. Norton church officials called it “organized evil”. Townspeople who opposed the racetrack brought up the disruptive yelping of dogs, rowdy crowds, and questionable smells that gambling attracts.
The Attleboro Sun journalist covering the meeting referred to the moral dilemma of gambling as the question that “turned Norton into a community of cracker barrel philosophers.”
It is well documented that Wheaton was concerned about the town’s image. During town hall meetings Wheaton’s president at the time, J. Edgar Parker was admittedly anti-racetrack. According to the Attleboro Sun article, he said:
“It would be inhuman to place a dog track in Norton.” Park also expressed that, “a famous New York writer referred to dog racing as the lowest form of sport.”
The track ended up being voted down at the special town meeting 241–87 and people moved on. The dog-track company went to Taunton instead.
Town issues like this come and go over the years and sometimes the college gets involved. In this case, Wheaton didn’t single-handedly push the dog track out, both the college and a majority of the town opposed it.
Wheaton and Norton residents’ reasoning for opposing the track came from different corners. Wheaton was worried about the image of the town when parents came to visit, but the townspeople were worried about how the rowdy crowds would affect their everyday lives. Also, when it came to the argument of the morality of gambling, President Park’s approach may have struck some nerves. He claims that a writer thought dog racing was the lowest form of sport. However, when it comes to issues pertaining to their town, residents sitting in a town hall are very likely impartial to what a writer 200 miles away thinks. The writer may be an expert in his/her niche and an excellent scholar, but what does a New York City writer know about the affairs of a rural front yard?
“How would you like to dream all your life of the little home you’re going to end your days in and then realize it only to find a dog track in your front yard,” said one resident.
President Park’s reference to a New York City writer and heightened concern as to what Wheaton parents think is far from what most Norton residents care about today and 80 years ago. Wheaton’s inability to see the priorities of Norton can come off as aloof, making the colleges’ approach to a simple event like this one historically significant to those outside the bubble.
Howard Street: A Soap Opera
The racing track squirmish of the 1930s was short-lived, confined to its time, and largely unknown. The soap opera that is Howard Street is the more well known town and gown issue that persists to this day.
Wheaton, in many ways, has built itself as a self-sufficient institution, not needing to rely on the town for much, but Howard Street has been a point of contention for years. The first street ever named in Norton, between route 140 and 123 in the town’s center, Howard Street happens to cut through a section of campus in which Wheaton has slowly acquired all of the surrounding lands over the years.
In 2004 Wheaton president Dale Rodgers Martial failed to negotiate ownership of historical Howard Street. Martial asked the town selectman if they could give Wheaton the road since Wheaton has owned the surrounding land since the early 1990s. The college had also paid to have a waterline placed in Howard Street at the cost of $500,000 (although it was mostly at the benefit of dormitories) and According to a Sun Chronicle article, President Martial said the town had spent an estimated $10,000 in the past 12 years or more to plow and police the street.
“Thus for all practical purposes, Howard Street is a college street,” said Marshal.
For the college, the appeal of owning Howard Street would be that they would no longer have to deal with the town every time a modification is made, but townspeople and some selectmen opposed the idea of giving away Howard Street at no cost.
“We will not be abandoning the street until we know what Wheaton is offering,” said selectman Bob Kimball.
Finance committee member William Goveia saw the transfer as reasonable, “This is not a big deal.” He said Wheaton “has done as much as any organization does in town”.
At the end of the day, however, the fate of Howard Street was in the hands of residents in the town hall that day, and Wheaton’s offer of $200,000 was determined to be not enough. The proposal did not receive the necessary votes to pass.
Selectman Bob Kimball who supported the transaction after hearing Wheaton’s selling price wrote in 2021,
“This issue [Howard Street] has been a long tenacious conversation between the college and the town” He continued, “The old townies, most of which have passed on and moved on, always had an issue with the college and the lack of real estate taxes paid to the town, even though the college is one of our larger taxpayers.”
Howard Street remains an unresolved issue to this day.