On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 15, 1923, an automobile accident changed the history of Andover. Killed was William M. Wood Jr., the 30-year-old son and heir apparent of his namesake father’s empire.
William M. Wood Sr. was one of the richest men in the world and the dominant voice in the textile industry. His empire included Shawsheen Village, a community he built.
Wood Jr. was driving his Rolls Royce sedan and killed with him in the front seat was his good friend, World War I hero Major Alexander Gardner of North Andover. Both men’s wives were summering in Kennebunkport. In the back seat was another friend, who was thrown from the car, suffering only fractured ribs.
According to eyewitnesses, Wood’s car was driven at a high rate of speed, and he may have been racing a Stutz Motor Car, known for speed and performance. Both vehicles were headed towards Andover on the Reading-Andover Road (Route 28) and were less than a half-mile outside of Reading’s center.
The two automobiles were side by side with one passing the other. Wood’s car clipped a smaller car going in the same direction, knocking it off the road. Losing control of the Rolls Royce, Wood struck an oncoming vehicle and caromed into a telegraph pole, splintering it. Major Gardner was crushed between the Rolls and the telegraph pole and Wood was crushed against his steering wheel. Both died almost at once. All other people in the accident survived with injuries not too serious.
The roof of Wood’s car was torn off, which allowed the backseat passenger to be thrown clear. The doors were ripped off, and the wheels, lights, and mudguards were reduced to a pile of junk. The crash was heard several hundred yards away in all directions and a large crowd gathered.
Shortly, William Wood Sr. arrived at the scene, accompanied by an ambulance that drove his son back to Andover. Hearing almost immediately of the crash, Wood Jr.’s wife chartered a seaplane and flew from Kennebunkport to Andover, landing on the Merrimack River.
A few days later, the driver of the Stutz, which was not damaged, was arrested and charged with reckless driving and operating his vehicle in a dangerous manner. He did not know Wood and denied that they were racing, as did Wood’s surviving passenger. In his early driving years, Wood Jr. had compiled a poor driving record, including several citations for fast and reckless driving, reported newspaper editor of the time John N. Cole; however, for eight years prior to the accident his driving record was excellent.
Cole, the editor of the Andover Townsman, wrote on August 18, 1923, “In a long newspaper career the writer can recall no event more startling in its impression than the tragic death of William M. Wood Jr.” Cole wrote of Wood Jr. at length, saying, “He developed quickly into a keen businessman and he developed, among other qualities, love for his fellow man that tempered his keen business instinct... The father was leaning more and more upon the son.”
William M. Wood Jr., born in Andover, and was a member of Harvard’s class of 1915. The next year, he married Miss Edith Goldsborough Robinson, from an elite Virginia family. Few people doubted the younger Wood’s genius, as he was an excellent student and a frequently published writer on the subject of economics.
Working in his father’s mills, he started at the lowest level to gain experience; it may have been in that period of his life that he learned good employer - employee relations and good working conditions are good business. He became his father’s right arm at American Woolen and was on the board of directors, although he was also involved in a business not associated with any his father owned, Edington and Co.
History says that Wood Sr.’s actions were a catalyst of Lawrence’s Bread and Roses Strike, but it sometimes omits that it was his leadership of the Lawrence mill owners that led to the end the strike. Wood Sr. had learned the hard way about improving employee relations and welcomed his son’s visionary ideas, which included on-site day-care at the mills.
After negotiating a contract with the War Department to provide woolen goods to the American Armed Forces during World War I, Wood Jr. signed up for the Navy and was sent back to Harvard, which was at the time training military officers. He was commended for his work in the Navy and after the war returned to American Woolen Company, which had moved to Shawsheen.
Young Wood was liked by everyone he met, and although it is impossible to predict what he would have accomplished had he lived, with his intellect, amiability, money, and connections it is hard to doubt that his life would have been notable. At West Parish, in a chapel William Wood Sr. had built and in the cemetery he’d improved, the funeral of his son was held.
The length of the list of attending notables was predictable, but not predicted was that 10,000 to 15,000 people appeared silently, with heads bowed, as William M. Wood Jr. was interred.
The youngest of William Wood Sr’s four children, Irene, had died during the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-1919. The loss of his son, when added to Irene’s death, was too much for Wood. In 1924, he had a stroke, and his doctor told him to retire. He was in a deep melancholy, and two years later, on Feb. 2, 1926, Wood’s chauffeured limousine parked on the side of a Florida Road. The self-made man, who had garnered an unimaginable fortune, stepped away from his automobile and unmade himself with a .38 revolver.
Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com.