Joe Nelson, 102: A giant among men, a savior of our millyard

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Manchester-Boston Regional Airport is a boon to this city for many reasons.

Yes, it provides a convenient alternative to Logan Airport – I sound like a commercial, don’t I? – and yes, it serves as a great economic engine for the city, but another reason I like the airport is because, in its earlier incarnation as Grenier Field, it brought some great people to Manchester.

Joe Nelson
Joe Nelson

Consider Joe Nelson.

Back in September of 1945, Joe was a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps.

With World War II at an abrupt end, the Bronx native drew a really glamorous posting – he found himself in an office on Silver Street in Manchester working for the North Atlantic Division of the Air Transport Command – and with that posting came a bunk in the barracks at Grenier Field.

For those of us who love the Millyard, it was serendipity.

No one could have known it back in 1945, but Joe Nelson’s brief posting to Manchester would result in a promise that would bring him back here many years later.

See, Joe fell in love with a pretty switchboard operator here in town – the former Ruth Ball from Lake Avenue – and when Ruth agreed to marry Joe and follow him back to New York where an engineering job awaited him, Joe vowed that, one day, he would bring her back to her home town.

And again, for those of us who love the Millyard, it was serendipity.

Joe and Ruth didn’t come back to Manchester until 1968, but when they did return, it was just in time for Joe to take the job as director of the Amoskeag Millyard Redevelopment Project.

He came back here at a pivotal time.

For years, the Millyard had festered.

It was an overcrowded, under-maintained complex that had suffered from benign neglect for more than 30 years. Many building owners were unwilling or unable to pay for much needed upkeep – let alone improvements – and for those of us who call this place home, there was that constant negative vibe, a lingering animosity “by Manchesterites who (were) still bitter about the abrupt liquidation of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co.,” according to Time magazine.

Yes, when it came to the Millyard, people in Manchester were divided into two camps.

The Manchester Housing Authority, which was assigned to oversee America’s first “Urban Renewal Project of Industrial Rehabilitation,” went so far as to acknowledge that divide.

“Those critical of city policy favor two very different solutions,” the MHA reported. “One (group) desires the preservation of the Millyard in its present form due to its great architectural and historic value, while the other group, in contrast, supports the total destruction of all mill buildings.”

King Solomon couldn’t have found middle ground with that crowd.

Joe Nelson helped pull it off.

It took 12 years of his life – and more than $28 million in federal funding – and he did it for less money than you’d pay for a decent used car these days.

“Counting the time before I went into the service,” he once told me, “I had been working in New York for 32 years. I had worked on the Queens-Midtown Tunnel and the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and when they passed the Housing Act in 1949, I was the administrator for all of the Slum Clearance/Urban Renewal projects in Manhattan for Robert Moses.

“At one time, we had 27 projects going,” he added, “and my claim to fame is that, when we came up with another project north of Columbus Circle, I came up with the name for Lincoln Square.”

He made that claim modestly, and modest was the word for his first salary request in 1968.

“Before we moved here, we came up on vacation and my brother-in-law said I should call Romie Dorval with the Housing Authority,” Joe said. “They were looking for a project manager for the Amoskeag Millyard, so I had this interview.

“They asked me what my salary was, and when I told them it was $17,000, it was ‘Oh, no! We can’t afford that!’ The offer was for $13,000.

“Thirteen thousand?” he laughed. “I was 54 years old and we had five kids, but I had a pension coming from New York, so I figured I could swing it. I told them I’d take the job for $13,000, but if they hired anybody who was making more, I had to get the same thing.”

But oh, the things he did.

From his first day on the job, there were 35 properties to be acquired, and landlords balked. A total of 61 companies were to be affected, and owners squawked.

There were stagnant canals to be filled and sewage tunnels to be drilled. Yes, some structures had to come down – consider the curve ball that came his way when they found anthrax in the Arms Textile Mill – but there were other buildings to be saved and roadways to be paved and Joe gave as good as he got in his dealings with the intractable B&M Railroad.

Joe would be the first one to tell you didn’t take on Goliath by himself – Union Leader reporter Maurice McQuillen once called the project “Manchester’s most ambitious and costly federally financed urban renewal project ever” – but I’ll bet Joe always had a slingshot in his pocket.

A few years back, we were looking at a pocket-sized version of the Millyard.

We were at the SEE Science Center at 200 Bedford Street – I didn’t even think about asking Joe for his take on the building’s ultra-modern glass and steel facade – and we were looking at the spectacular scale-model Lego recreation of the Millyard.

As I looked at Joe with the miniature Millyard in the background, it occurred to me that the setting made Joe look like a giant.

And then it struck me.

For those of us who love the Millyard, Joe Nelson was a giant.

He passed away on March 9 at the age of 102, and while he will be missed, we should be grateful every day for the part of our heritage that he helped save.


Click here for Joe’s obituary and services.


John Clayton

John Clayton is Executive Director of the Manchester Historic Association. You can reach him with your historical (or existential) questions at jclayton@manchesterhistoric.org.


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