BRAINTREE — August J. Petersen is finally getting his wish — sort of.
Petersen was a tugboat captain from Braintree whose generosity is legendary in the community of 35,990. When he died on Thanksgiving Day in 1963, he left $65,000 to the town to build a swimming pool at Watson Park, a grassy recreational area on the bank of the Fore River, in the neighborhood of East Braintree, where he had lived. For nearly half a century, residents squabbled over where the pool should go, while Petersen’s gift sat in the bank and grew to about $2 million.
Now, decades later, Petersen’s dream will be realized, at least in part. On April 2, Braintree officials broke ground on a “splash pad” at Watson Park that will be named after Petersen. Town officials are also negotiating with a developer to build a swimming pool at Braintree High School that will bear his name.
Last week’s groundbreaking represents the start of a new chapter in the Petersen pool saga, and a somewhat happy ending to a debate that has dogged the town for years.
Braintree Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan said he believes the compromise of putting a splash pad at Watson Park and a swimming pool at the high school is the best way to make use of Petersen’s bequest.
In a few months, children will be able to use the fountain-like sprinkler system to cool off in the summer heat.
“I’m pleased that we’re finally going to adhere, in some form, to Petersen’s will,” said Sullivan.
As a lifelong resident of Braintree, the mayor is all too familiar with the town’s quandary following Petersen’s donation and the controversy over the pool’s location that lingered for so long.
“The siting was the most difficult part, from the get-go,” said Sullivan.
Watson Park is a busy area filled with baseball fields, tennis courts, a basketball court, and a children’s playground. In order to make room for a pool, something would have to be removed, which did not appeal to the park’s users. Neighbors were also opposed to the plan for a pool.
“I had wanted to adhere to Petersen’s will, and build the pool at Watson Park,” said Sullivan. But in a series of public meetings, he said, “the neighborhood soundly rejected” that idea.
“Candidly,” said Sullivan, “I got my head handed to me.”
In an effort to end the stalemate, town officials turned to the courts. The case went to Norfolk Probate and Family Court, and its decision gave the green light for the town to consider alternative locations for the pool.
Town officials ultimately chose the high school, as part of a plan for an athletic complex that will feature a skating rink as well as an indoor swimming pool.
Sullivan said $1.5 million of Petersen’s gift will go toward building the pool in the athletic complex, and $500,000 will be used to install and maintain the Watson Park splash pad.
Officials have lined up a developer to design, build, and operate the pool and rink complex at Braintree High, but Sullivan declined to name the company until an agreement is finalized.
Sullivan said the developer is expected to enter a 50-year lease with the town, with the arrangement including a requirement to provide community skating sessions and preferential ice and swim times for the high school.
Sullivan hopes to have construction crews start work as early as July or August. “That’s the goal,” he said.
“We are closer than we have ever been to getting a shovel in the ground, but we’re still not there yet,” he said. “People are very appreciative of the generosity of Petersen. . . . We need to get this done.”
Meanwhile, the 4,000-square-foot water-play area is scheduled to be completed by June 21, said Nelson Chin, Braintree’s director of recreation and community events. Situated between the river and the children’s playground at Watson Park, the fountain-like sprinkler area will have in-ground and above-ground water attachments, but no standing water, and will be enclosed by a chain-link fence. It will be installed by NELM Corp. of Carver, and the total cost of the project is $393,300, according to Chin.
The splash pad will operate seasonally, but the dates and hours of operation have not been finalized, said Chin.
Not everyone is pleased with the plan.
Wayne Martin, 57, who knew Petersen and whose grandmother was Petersen’s housekeeper, said he believes the swimming pool should have been put in the park a long time ago.
“I sat on the pool committee for years, trying to get this thing done,” said Martin, who now lives in Hull. “What he wanted to do for the kids of East Braintree isn’t coming to fruition, which is a sin.”
Martin said when the town accepted Petersen’s gift, there were fewer homes around Watson Park. “Nobody wants it there now, the Little League has taken over the park, and there’s no parking,” he said.
Martin believes that the location of Watson Park, because of its proximity to Fore River, was special to Petersen. He said that in an earlier version of his will, Petersen bequeathed his estate to the town to improve the park “on the bank of the river I so long travelled.”
“The river — that was the whole thing for him,” said Martin. “The high school is a long way away from the river. They should have never taken that money out of Watson Park.”
He said Petersen worked for himself and had his own tugboat. He kept it on the Fore River where the Metropolitan Yacht Club is located now, and used it to bring barges to a lumber yard and the municipal power plant.
Braintree is not the only area community to experience contentious fallout as an unintended consequence of a citizen’s generosity.
Milton, for instance, debated over what to do with a 34-acre swath of land it received from Governor William Stoughton in 1701 “for the use and benefit of the poor.” The town is in the process of selling 30 acres to a housing developer.
In Pembroke, Lydia Drake donated her home on High Street to the town in the 1937 so it could be used as a library. Attempts to close the facility in 1999 sparked a public outcry, and the Lydia Drake Library was reopened and is now run by volunteers.
In Canton, Ella White left her 26-acre property on Chapman Street to the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Trustees of Reservations in 1982. The preservation groups later decided to sell the land to a developer, upsetting town residents, according to a Globe report.
In Braintree, allowing Petersen’s gift to languish for so long at least yielded one significant benefit: Its value has skyrocketed.
Gary Steinberg, a spokesman for the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, said Petersen’s initial gift of $65,000 has the buying power of $493,163 in today’s dollars, and so, from a purely financial standpoint, the “town did better by investing the money since they now have $2 million to spend.”