The Nashua River ran red with pollution before Marion Stoddart began her campaign to save it.
The Nashua River ran red with pollution before Marion Stoddart began her campaign to save it. (Courtesy of 'Works of 1000')

It may be hard to believe, but it's all true: Marion Stoddart, a housewife from Groton, successfully spearheaded the cleanup of the Nashua River, and then the passage of the state's Clean Water Act in 1972.

Stoddart brings her story to the Berkshire Athenaeum tonight at 7, along with a screening of "The Work of 1,000," an award-winning documentary about her life, her fight to clean up the river and the work that followed. The program is free and open to all.

The Nashua, a tributary of the Merrimack that runs through New Hampshire and Central Mass., once was classified as one of the country's 10 most-polluted rivers. Its 37.5-mile waters used to be filled with runoff and dyes from the area's paper mills, and it would run red and thick, sending a noxious smell into the air near the river.

The turnaround was surprisingly quick. Stoddart moved to Groton -- about three-quarters of a mile from the river -- with her husband and three young children in 1962; the river was swimmable by the 1980s. She still lives there.

Today, the river is blue, the garbage is gone, the Nashua River Watershed Association oversees the river and provides educational programs -- and they "are putting 2,000 children a year on the Nashua River the idea is that once they get to know the river and enjoy it and love it, they will come to protect it," Stoddart said.

Now 85, Stoddart says the question she's most often asked is "How? How did you do it?"

But the answer is simple: she made a decision that cleaning up the Nashua River would be a long-term goal, and she stuck to it.


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"You don't have to be someone super smart or super anything to make a difference," she said.

Before she moved to Groton, she was active with the League of Women Voters in Sudbury and had helped organize a group to protect land around the Sudbury River. When she moved, people in Sudbury told her "We know what you're going to do when you move to Groton -- you're going to clean up the Nashua River."

"I was looking for some greater purpose in my life.

I wasn't feeling that it was satisfying enough for me to be a wife and a mother," she said.

She had a lot of help. Volunteers formed the Nashua River Cleanup Committee, which gathered more than 6,000 petition signatures presented to the governor. Stoddart said the committee spent a year contacting organizations and communities along the river, gathering signatures, and contacted all the state's legislators and asked them to be present when the petition was presented.

"It was quite an impressive presentation," she said.

She also brought along a "horrible-looking" jar of Nashua River water to present to the governor. He kept it on his desk "to remind him of what needed to be done."

The cleanup effort drew international attention. Stoddart was recognized by the United Nations, appeared on national talk shows and news shows and there is now a children's book that is a standard in most fourth-grade classrooms about her efforts.

The story is inspiring to anyone who lives near a once-beautiful natural resource. Marilyn Manning, a retired Pittsfield public school teacher and the adult program director for the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum, set up Thursday's program and said she is "hoping very much that people who love the Berkshire rivers" will attend.

Manning had originally aimed to show the film and called the producer, Susan Edwards, to get a copy.

Edwards is formally trained as a librarian, but she was inspired by Stoddart's story herself. She called Stoddart to ask for her permission and cooperation to make a film.

"It came as a big surprise to me," Stoddart said.

Stoddart wasn't initially interested -- but she was swayed when Edwards told her it was her vision to make the film.

Stoddart said she has always told people they should create a vision of what they want to have in life and enlist other people in their vision, and she wanted to help Edwards.

"I felt I had some responsibility for supporting her in completing her vision," Stoddard said.

If you decide on something you want to complete in your lifetime, "you can do it!" she added. "People are very, very powerful and power lies in numbers. They just need to create a vision of what it is they want and stick to it and enlist other people. Once they've made a commitment, they will find a way."