Our hearts went out to the Rice family last week as they mourned the loss of Parker Rice, patriarch, and former owner of Hyland Rice on River Street, Fitchburg. Parker was 97 — three years shy of a century — and according to those who knew him for decades — a man who was always in a great mood.
“My Dad was a positive soul,” said his daughter Rebecca Rice, a third generation choreographer and dancer. “He had an answer for everything and that embraced being creative and finding ways to ‘make it work.’ On top of that, it was about getting along with everyone while staying true to ‘what was right and honest.’ Hard to do, but we honor him for that approach.”
June Flinkstrom worked at Hyland Rice from 1978 through 1994 as the store manager and reminisces fondly about “what a great boss he was. He knew what he wanted and how to accomplish it. We’d be at the weekly planning meetings and he would have written down and scheduled everything. He really knew how to keep his business going. And he valued the people around him and let it be known.”
Peter Timms knew Parker for decades and observed: “I never saw Parker when he wasn’t upbeat and positive — he was extraordinarily even-keeled. He dedicated a large part of his life to the Scouts and young people. I think the kind of spirit that you get from the Scouts he took very seriously right into adulthood.”
Parker had a lifelong love of the great outdoors and Romayne Timms recalls going to a fishing camp in Vermont with the Rices — a sojourn accompanied by torrents of rain. But Parker wasn’t put off — “he was really persistent with his fishing and come wind come weather he’d be out. On the last day he finally caught a salmon, so we had lunch. It wasn’t just the persistence, he was pretty damp when they came back.”
Even as Fitchburg’s Main Street suffered during the rise of exurban malls, Parker never lost faith with downtown and his community. “He was one of those people you really associate with the city and had a deep commitment to the region,” Timms said.
Parker wasn’t all business — he also loved to dance. His mother was acclaimed teacher/dancer/choreographer Marion Rice; his sister was modern dancer Carolyn Rice Brown, most famous for her work with Merce Cunningham, and he married Mona Irvine, who began the dance department at Cushing Academy, and taught in Fitchburg for decades.
Toddy Martel remembers him “from dancing school. He was a total gentleman and a beautiful dancer because his mother taught him from the beginning.”
“Dance was a vivid and powerful part of our lives,” Rebecca Rice remembers. “Fox trot, waltz, jitterbug, salsa … all of it. And my mom’s brother, Laurie Irvine trained in ballroom dance with my grandmother, and danced with Auntie Carol. Dance kept us all happy, connected, and in love.”
Heroes of the Civil War
I am at the Fitchburg Historical Society every week with my “research buddy” Dr. Joe Cronin, and we’re currently gathering stories for a future Stratton Players and Historical Society event: “Brothers in Blue — From the Battlefront to Main Street — A Salute to Civil War Soldiers Who Joined Fitchburg Police Department” (June 13, 2023).
Dr. Joe and I have identified seven vets who became police officers. These men fought in nearly every theatre of war, and some held rank in Fitchburg Police Department, such as Russell Obed Houghton, the first chief when Fitchburg became a city in 1872.
We will cover the distinguished career of Chief Houghton in a future column. For now, we have a mystery having to do with a sharp increase of Constables between 1875 and 1877. In 1875, there were 33 Constables; in 1876, 49 and in 1877, 58. What was happening in Fitchburg that required so many more officers in such a short span of time?
Next, we looked at the crimes. In 1876, non-violent offences ranged from “Gaming on the Lord’s Day” (4), to “Forgery” (3). However, “Drunkenness” had 290 offenders and alcohol related crimes (“liquor nuisance” and “selling liquor without license”) added eight more.
That is a lot of drunks, to be sure. And there were probably plenty of drunks who weren’t arrested because they stumbled peaceably home. Other frequent crimes include “Vagrancy” (79). But the violent crimes are significant: “assault and battery” (27), “with dangerous weapon,” (2), and “on officers,” (4) also suggests alcohol played a role.
For those local historians interested in this topic – we’d love your thoughts as to what prompted the sharp rise in officers. At the same time, Dr. Joe and I are also researching temperance organizations in Fitchburg — in 1879, there are seven, including “Woman’s Temperance Union,” and “Father Matthew Total Abstinence Benevolent Society.” Clearly, they were needed.
Sally Cragin is an award-winning journalist and a city councilor-at-large for Fitchburg