Sixteen Acres: our suburban oasis in a crime-ridden city. God’s little acres. Pleasantville. No gang activity here, right?
Wrong. The Acres has a long gang history. In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was the infamous Circle Gang, which hung out on benches inside a circular mound around an oak tree (pictured below) behind the Sixteen Acres Branch Library.
Photo: the benches and the circular mound around the tree are long gone: the city bulldozed the earthen berm to dissuade the gang from hanging out there.
The Circle Gang became known in the Springfield newspapers in 1970, when a brouhaha erupted after James A. Coleman, a physics professor at American International College, wrote The Circle, a book about his experiences trying to reform members of this rowdy group.
At the time, people were outraged by Coleman’s nonfiction account, which detailed the gang’s brawling, drug use, vandalism, and penchant for breaking into houses and stealing cars at the Eastfield Mall. Matty Ryan, the District Attorney, denounced the book in a letter to the editor of the Springfield Union newspaper.
Coleman insisted that the furor over his book began when his own daughter took a copy of The Circle to school one day and showed to a classmate, whose father was a police officer. After that, the Springfield Police tried to have the book banned from bookstore and drug store shelves, and The Circle disappeared for a while, only to come back when the publicity surrounding the controversy fueled its demand. Then Ryan complained that it was being sold “under the counter” and that the practice should cease immediately.
“The book is really NOT being sold ‘under’ the counter anywhere,” wrote Coleman in a rebuttal letter to the editor. “Copies for sale are, however, placed on top of the counter next to cash registers in most places in order to be under the watchful eyes of sales clerks.” It seems that more than a few teenagers, afflicted with a severe case of “light-fingeredness,” according to Coleman, were stealing The Circle.
Coleman also took Ryan to task for admitting that he didn’t actually read the entire book—just a couple of excerpts: “Isn’t it the duty of every district attorney to keep informed of crime and the conditions which produce it, especially in his own district, anyway?” he wrote. “Furthermore, if Mr. Ryan is half the man I think he is, he will want to apologize to me for his emotional outburst against the book and damning it so viciously without ever having read it.”
The Circle Gang was the Acres’ most legendary gang, but it wasn’t the only one. In the mid- 1970s there was the Rail Gang, a odd mishmash of kids from the Boston Road side of Sixteen Acres, as well as from the Colonial Estates Apartments.They partied in the woods next to the guardrail at the end of Blanche Street, right next to the North Branch Parkway.
Photo: The Rail Gang frequented the area behind the guardrail that divides Blanche Street and the North Branch Parkway.
There was also a group on Mallowhill Road, and a gang in the neighborhood behind the Eastfield Mall.
While we’re talking about the gangs of the early 1970s, let’s not forget The Treetops (Yes, that was the name of the gang!) from the Treetop Avenue area off Allen Street. One of the Treetops’ former members gained some notoriety 20 years later when he pistol-whipped his drug dealer to death after a coke deal went sour in a West Springfield motel. The trouble started when the drug dealer pulled a gun, and the former Treetop, who had been a Golden Gloves boxer, wrestled it away. Fueled by anger, along with a day-long binge of smoking crack at various houses and drinking at the Gaslight Lounge, he went ballistic, using the gun’s handle like a hammer on the guy’s head.
There were also gangs whose home bases were restaurants, including one at McDonald’s on Boston Road, and at Treats sandwich shop on the corner of Wilbraham Road and Breckwood Boulevard. The latter, a gigantic crew called The Clan, is also immortalized in the book The Circle, and one of its former members is featured in another blog entry.
To this day, The Clan guys are amused by the “fame” of the Circle Gang, whom they called “rinky-dink” at the time. The Clan considered the Circle Gang the wannabes of the older gang in Sixteen Acres Center, a group that didn’t have a name, although The Clan called them the “Motleys” because “they were such a motley crew,” says one former Clan member. The Motleys are referred to as the “Big Acres” in Coleman’s book.
One day, however, in 1969, all three gangs formed an unlikely alliance. The Clan, The Circle, and the “Motleys” all teamed up to fight the Orchard Gang in a historic “rumble” (yes, a Sixties term indeed), a gang war that was a year in the making. Coleman wrote about this fight in his book, but he changed the setting to Indian Orchard (it actually took place in The Acres), and he listed The Orchard as the winner, even though in reality it was outnumbered and lost the battle badly. This literary license was not taken well by the Circle Gang back then. Read The Circle, Part 2, as well as The Circle, Part 3, and an account of the tragic death of one of its members.
But I digress. When I write about the “gangs” of the Sixties and Seventies, these groups weren’t really like the “gangs” of today. No guns. No drive-by shootings. They simply partied, got in beefs once in a while—some of them serious—but mostly they just hung out.
“Gang” is a Relative Term, I Guess
You know, I’m kind of jealous. Why didn’t I join a “gang” back in the Seventies? Then I could say I am a “former gang member.” But no, I wasn't in a gang. True, we had our hangouts, just like the Sixteen Acres gangs. My friends and I from Maebeth Street gathered at The Pothole, our underground party “fort” in the woods next to the pond known as Putnam’s Puddle. And, later on, we hung out in front of The Gully on Fairlawn Street, across from Creswell Street. This wooded area was party central for kids in the immediate neighborhood.
And for a while we called ourselves the Maebeth Womblies. Why? The origin of that name is quite obscure. If I’m not mistaken, I believe it was in honor of a troublesome bit character in the Fat Albert cartoon series on Saturday mornings. Wombly (pictured below), with his smoking habit and bad attitude, was a bad influence on Fat Albert’s friends, and because of this, a couple of us idolized him for a short time.
Wombly blows a smoke ring in Fat Albert’s face after getting a stern lecture from him on the evils of smoking.
Remember the old Springfield police cruisers (above), just like the cop cars in Adam-12? You didn't want to see one of these Ford LTDs when you were partying. And you certainly didn't want to see one in your friend's driveway.
Then again, in a city that back in the day had such ridiculous gang names as the Treetops, Whop City (North End), and the Johnny Appleseed Gang (Appleseed Park-Lower Forest Park), I guess there might be room for a Garbage Gang.
So if the audience demands it, sure enough, the story will continue. Just vote with your fingers by posting a comment below.
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