Author Archives: Forgotten New England

Merrimack Valley Magazine Feature! Remembering Lowell’s Prince Spaghetti

We made the latest issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine, with an article featuring Lowell’s Prince Macaroni Company!  With all the talk around Sacred Heart lately: the changes to the old school and parish grounds, and the Neighborhood Endowed Scholarship at UMass Lowell, as well as the sale of the old Prince Macaroni pasta plant last June, who can’t help but think of Prince and recall its famous slogan?

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Or, its iconic 1969 TV spot?

Lowell’s Prince Pasta plant closed in 1997, almost 20 years ago, but its memory lives on.  Check out Merrimack Valley Magazine’s November/December issue, and remember when Lowell was Spaghettiville and Wednesday was Spaghetti Day.


Remembering Lowell’s Giant Store

Giant Store logo, ca. 1961

Giant Store logo, ca. 1961

Do you remember shopping at Lowell’s Giant Store?  For decades, the Giant Store promised ‘giant savings’ and helped form the core of Downtown Lowell’s department store heyday that included other iconic shops like the Bon Marché, Pollards, and Cherry & Webb.  The Giant Store sat on the edge of Downtown Lowell, at the corner of Dutton and Broadway, and offered the latest in just about everything, at discount prices.  The Giant Store’s five floors offered electronics, clothing, food, paint, sporting equipment, and more.  if you needed spray paint, wallpaper, curtains, rugs, transistor radios, or even moth killer, chances were you would find it on one of the Giant Store’s four upper floors.  And, in the basement-level garden shop, you could pick up fertilizer spreaders, bird baths, trellises, or grass seed at prices that seem quaint by today’s standards.

A Giant Store Ad from July 1943

A Giant Store Ad from July 1943

1952 houseThe Giant Store ran frequent ads in the local papers, but seldom made news itself – with the notable exception of a November 26, 1951 robbery where two men stole so much cash from the Giant Store that it could have bought and furnished a fairly comfortable home.  At the time of the robbery, in the early 1950s, an enterprising young couple could buy “a beautiful new home” on nearby Tewksbury Center’s Newton Avenue for just $10,900.  That five-room ranch would have boasted the latest in suburban accommodations:  hardwood floors, automatic heat, baseboard radiation, and even formica countertops.  And, if you added just $300 more, you could have upgraded to a six-room Cape Cod style house.  But, where could you get that kind of money?  In the early fifties, the average US family brought home some $3,900 annually.  That meant that that family would have had to spend nearly three years’ salary buying that home in Tewksbury.

If you did your research, though, you could find a faster way to gather enough money to buy that house.  It was not such a well-kept secret that the Giant Store regularly sent two stock-boys to the nearby Wamesit branch of the Union National Bank with the store’s cash receipts.  It was also no secret that those cash receipts would be even bigger after a weekend of post-Thanksgiving Day shopping.   So, if you were to pick the Monday after Thanksgiving weekend in 1951 to stage your hold-up, you would have gotten away with $20,000 in cash.  Today, that would be worth the equivalent of $183,000.  That would have bought a house, maybe even two, in 1951.

And, that’s precisely what happened, on November 26, 1951.  When news of the robbery hit local headlines, the Lowell Sun called it “one of the most fantastic and incredibly easy stick-ups in Lowell history”.  Local police raced in quickly and confidently in the minutes afterward, and even identified some clues.

The Giant Store, as it appeared in 1973.  (Courtesy:  Lowell Sun, Oct. 14, 1973, pg. E4)

The Giant Store, as it appeared in 1973. (Courtesy: Lowell Sun, Oct. 14, 1973, pg. E4)

Lowell police teamed up with Massachusetts state police and questioned the likely suspects – parolees and ‘known hoodlums’.  They also searched local rooming houses for bad apples who might have perpetrated the attack, or at least knew something about it.  Police even set up roadblocks in the hours after the robbery, which later was expanded to include a search of 13 states.Local investigators always felt it was a local job, though, organized by someone who knew the Giant Store and its operations.

The two stock-boys were both Lowell residents and students at Lowell High School.  At 2 PM, cars were parked bumper to bumper on a deserted Dutton Street.  The two gunmen emerged from between the cars and told the stock-boys to ‘hand over the money’.  One man approached from the front, brandishing a gun.  The other came from the rear.  They both eyed the canvas bags carried by the two stock-boys, each clearly stamped with Union National Bank’s name.  Once the stock-boys handed over the two unsealed canvas bags, full of fresh cash, the gunmen instructed them to “turn around and walk back the way you came.”  The stock-boys did just that, and walked about 100 feet, when they heard the getaway car race away.

From a 1936 city atlas, the location of the Giant Store is marked with a large black arrow.  The smaller black arrow marks the location of the Wamesit branch of the Union National Bank.

From a 1936 city atlas, the location of the Giant Store is marked with a large black arrow. The smaller black arrow marks the location of the Wamesit branch of the Union National Bank.

As the car sped off, the stock-boys ran back to the Giant Store, and shouted the alarm to a ‘girl office clerk,’ who called the police. Police got descriptions of the robbers:  the man in the front had held a small automatic pistol, and appeared to be between 45 and 50 years old.  The stock-boys remembered that he stood about 5 feet 10 inches tall and had gray hair and a medium build.  They also remembered that he was clean-shaven and spoke ‘good English’.  They never saw the guy behind them.

The scene of the Giant Store robbery, as it appeared at the time.  The entrance to the store, and location where the hold-up took place are marked.  (Photo Credit:  Lowell Sun, Nov. 27, 1951, Front Page)

The scene of the Giant Store robbery, as it appeared at the time. The entrance to the store, and location where the hold-up took place are marked. (Photo Credit: Lowell Sun, Nov. 27, 1951, Front Page)

More clues started to emerge in the first days after the robbery.  A car, belonging to a Dracut man, had been reported stolen from a parking space off Thorndike Street.  It was later found on Moody, abandoned.  Another man claimed he had been cut off by a maroon sedan, near the Giant Store, around the time of the robbery.

The case made the TV news.  On December 1, the holdup was featured on the “Public Prosecutor” show on WBZ-TV.  Police soon deduced that the robbers knew what they were doing, striking on a Monday when weekend cash receipts would be brought to the bank.  Police interviewed sales staff and executives to determine if there were disgruntled former employees, suspicious loiterers, or anyone they could focus their attention on.

1949 GIant Store

The Giant Store Logo, ca. 1949

Police looked into the robbery for weeks, and eventually exhausted all leads.  One clue, and then another withered and died. It turned out that the maroon sedan had nothing to do with the robbery.  And the fingerprints found in the stolen car led to nothing.  Police eventually resorted to hoping a phoned-in clue might lead to arrests.  But, those never came, and the case remained unsolved, and does to this day.  Later robberies were compared to the Giant Store heist in the years following, but eventually, the case faded from the headlines.

Drive down Lowell’s Dutton Street today and you can’t miss the building that was once the Giant Store.  It forms a five-story wall that lines one of the main roads leading out of Lowell’s downtown and into its Acre neighborhood.  Today, it houses the 305 Dutton Street Lofts.

November 16, 1951

November 16, 1951

The Giant Store was founded by Ben Swig and incorporated in 1933.  By 1934, though, the Giant Store building was already a local landmark.  The building known today as the Giant Store actually came into existence when it was built for the Saco-Lowell Shops, in the years following the first World War.  The Saco-Lowell shops added the Giant Store building to its complex around 1920 and called it the rather plainly named Building #15. The Saco-Lowell shops had been around, at the point, for about a century, dating back to 1824, when the Merrimack Manufacturing Company formed the company to make mill machinery to support Lowell’s growing mill industry.  By the late 1920′s, the Lowell Machine Shop was closed and its large collection of  buildings were being demolished, except for #15.

The Giant Store moved in around 1933, and lasted nearly forty years.  By 1972, though, the Giant Store found itself on the brink of bankruptcy.  The Lowell store was gone by the next year, when Joan Fabrics moved into its Dutton Street site.  The Lowell community welcomed the new Joan Fabrics facility which promised to employ over 100 people.  At the time of the sale, four other tenants were at the Dutton Street location including Big Jim’s Department Store, WLLH radio, and Offices Unlimited, Inc.  Around the same time, also in 1973, as the Giant Store worked through its bankruptcy proceedings, the King’s Department Store chain bought the Giant 1973 Giant Store Joan FabricsStore’s 425,000 square foot warehouse in Chelmsford at 9 Stuart Road.


From the Curator’s Desk: The Wooden Stake in our Collection

During these last few weeks, we’ve been busy at the Lowell Historical Society. As we near the end of our 2013-2014 year, we had our annual meeting last weekend at Lowell’s Pollard Memorial Library where our society’s Vice President Kim Zunino spoke about some of the fascinating finds she’s encountered in the attic of Lowell’s City Hall.  With our new year, we are also welcoming a new member, Kathleen Ralls, to our board.  And, last, but never least, we continue to work feverishly on integrating new collections and artifacts into our archive. Look for more on that soon!

Naturally, as we move into the future, we continue to study the past. And in processing, organizing, and better cataloging our collection, we find some pretty intriguing items.  Take this one, for instance:

This wooden pin was once part of the Central Bridge.

This wooden pin was once part of the Central Bridge.  (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

At first glance, it looks like an old wooden stake, rounded, with some fire damage evident at its edges. The stake looks old, feels old, but still retains just a hint of a smoky, burnt wood sort of odor.

But, before you ask. . . No, it’s not one of the last surviving wooden stakes left over from the Victorian vampire epidemic rumored to have hit Lowell in the 1890s. It’s actually a wooden pin retrieved from the ruins of a fire that ravaged Lowell’s Central Bridge on August 5, 1882. Although largely forgotten today, the fire caused quite a stir in Lowell back in those days.

Much better known today as the Bridge Street Bridge, the span connecting Lowell’s Centralville section with its downtown mainly goes unnoticed these days, except for the occasional traffic jam which gets it into the news.  These days, when the cars begin to back up, you can drive your car along the river for a couple of extra minutes, and cross the Merrimack River at the Aiken Street Bridge, or at the Hunts Falls Bridge.

A section of an 1882 atlas showing the vicinity surrounding the Central Bridge, Lowell.

A section of an 1882 atlas showing the vicinity surrounding the Central Bridge, Lowell.

But, when the Central Bridge burnt down on that August night 130 years ago, folks who found themselves on its Dracut side had a real worry. How were they going to get to work?

In a time before vacation days, workers who walked the Central Bridge to earn their bread in Lowell’s mills watched in disbelief as flame consumed the bridge in 1882. The first of them noticed the fire in the quiet of a summer night, just a few hours before sunrise when the first flames were seen at the south end of the Central bridge, the section closest to downtown.

When he saw the flames, he ran and told the nearest policeman, who ran to the nearest fire alarm. The fire brigade came soon after, but their progress wasn’t fast enough to prevent the spread of the fire beneath the bridge. As they made their valiant efforts to put down the fire on top of the bridge, the flames spread nearly half its length underneath.

The men slung the fire hoses across the bridge, and also battled the flames from the nearby Boott mill.  Another hose carriage fought the flames from the Centralville side.  The fire kept advancing, though, and just an hour later, flames were engulfing the entire span of the bridge, and lighting up the night sky.

Central Bridge, 1882

Central Bridge, 1882  (Source:  NYPL Collection)

From the downtown end of the bridge, the firemen made one last push to save the structure, climbing into the burning bridge, and trying to put down the fire.  They fought until the end, until the bridge itself failed and fell into the river below, throwing five firemen into the dark waters with it.

- James Halstead, foreman, Hose 4
- Edward Meloy and William Meredith
- William Dana, Steamer 3
- James McCormack, Hose 6

A sixth man, Capt. Cunningham, who had been fighting the flames from the roof of the bridge, caught onto the cross bar of a telephone pole as he fell and clung to it until he was rescued.  All of the men survived, but several sustained injuries.

As the bridge failed, spectators on both sides of the bridge watched a gas pipe explode in a blinding flash as firemen called out to their brethren in the dark waters below. They feared for the men flailing about in the water.  They also feared that the Boott or the Massachusetts mills would be next. They shuddered as their watched the windows of the Boott mills smolder, and then ignite.

During the fire, and the days and weeks following, all speculated on what might have caused it. The going theory was that it had been caused by the sparks thrown off by some machinery used by the Boott mills. Some even came forward to say that they had seen the bridge catch fire a few days before, and that workmen from the mill had put it out.

In the end, though, it didn’t matter. The bridge was a total loss, leaving more than 8,000 Centralville residents cut off from Downtown Lowell and their livelihood.  Those with horses, the wealthier in Centralville, were able to go a few minutes out of their way and enter the city by the Pawtucket bridge, but most of the people who depended on the bridge walked to work.  And they were out of luck.

The only way left across the river appeared to be by boat, which harkened back to the days of Bradley’s Ferry, before the bridge was built.  In the days following the fire, the City Council discussed and approved plans to lay a footbridge across the ruined bridge’s span. It was quickly put into place, and Centralville residents were thankful – even if it didn’t have a cover, which drew a little bit of ire among Centralville residents.  By March of the following year, townspeople were known to remark that the builders of the old bridge knew what they were doing when they made it a covered bridge.

The relics of the old bridge quickly became popular. A January 1883 Lowell Sun article recounted how City Marshal McDonald was presented a ‘finely finished white oak club’ made from the timbers of the old bridge, which had been under water for 54 years.  The novelty of the ruined bridge wore off quickly, though.  Lowellians grew impatient with the builders as the months following the fire wore on. By September 1883 a Lowell Sun writer stated that ‘whoever drew up the contract between the bridge company and the city of Lowell for the bridge’s iron work ought to create a new one, and then tie a handkerchief around his eyes and jump into the river.” The writer went on to say that the delays had hurt Centralville residents and city traders, and that the contract offered the city no recourse in addressing the delays in the construction of the bridge with the builders of the bridge.

In the end, though, the bridge reopened.  It took almost a year, but a new iron bridge reopened in the old wooden bridge’s place.  That bridge stood for over half a century, before being washed away in the Flood of 1936, and replaced by the bridge that still stands today.

Wooden Pin Label, 1882

Wooden Pin Label, 1882 (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

And that’s the story of the wooden pin in our collection, contributed and tagged so long ago.  (The tag itself is almost as interesting as the pin itself.)  The pin is just one of the items in the collection that we’re currently researching.

Watch here for future updates on other items we find in the collection.

 


The Early History of Lowell’s Hi Hat Rollaway

Hi Hat Guy - From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

Hi Hat Guy – From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

In our last post, we revealed how we learned that the Hi Hat figurine within our collection was carved in the likeness of former Hi Hat owner, Mo Rochette, who was also famous as the ‘old guy’ behind the snack bar at the Hi Hat during the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

But to get there, we had to research the long history of Lowell’s Hi Hat, which dates back to the days of Prohibition in the 1930s.  Few Lowell institutions evoke memories as fond as those associated with the Hi Hat Rollaway, once located on Princeton Boulevard. But, as we have seen before, even something as seemingly fun and innocent as a roller skating rink can have its detractors. Up until the summer of 1964, the Hi Hat hosted not only roller skating, but also record hops, or dances, as we call them today. Until late August that year. Just as the summer was coming to a close, the Lowell License Commission suspended the dancing license of the Hi Hat, one week after a group of 500 teenagers ‘jeered and threw stones’ at Lowell Police as the record hop let out one night. The lasting damage from this angry horde? Damage to a police cruiser and five arrests for disorderly conduct. But, it was enough to lead the Hi Hat’s neighbors to collect some 170 signatures on a petition demanding an end to the record hops.

According to a Lowell Sun article from the time, there were some strong opinions among Outer Princeton Boulevard residents about the teens frequenting the Hi Hat. And not many of them were positive.  As the Lowell Licensing Commission was deciding whether to permanently revoke the dancing license of the Hi Hat, one neighbor worried that “all Hampton Beach” would be at the record-hop the following day, if it were allowed to happen. Another neighbor complained that she had found “lovers” in her car after a recent record hop, and that the “whole affair was just filthy.”

Even the city’s mayor, Ellen Sampson, didn’t have much nice to say about the Hi Hat. She complained that the teen girls there wore short shorts and the boys always wore dungarees and had their shirts untucked. She concluded by saying that “as a mother,” she would never allow her “daughters to step foot inside” the Hi Hat.

It’s no wonder that the Hi Hat lost its dancing license in 1964.

Images of the Exterior and Interior of the Hi Hat, from the Facebook Group 'You Know Your From Lowell When' via 'Hi Hat Skating Club' Facebook Page

Images of the Exterior and Interior of the Hi Hat, from the Facebook Group ‘You Know Your From Lowell When’ via the ‘Hi Hat Skating Club’ Facebook Page

The Hi Hat started out a generation earlier, as a restaurant, back in the midst of the Great Depression, when it was owned by Wilfred Goodnow.  As early as 1931, advertisements appeared in the Lowell Sun for the Hi-Hat Food Shoppe on Princeton Boulevard.  Even in these earliest days, during the Goodnow years, the Hi-Hat kept late hours, and was open till 1 AM.  As the ad proclaims, ‘Noon lunch in our cozy dining room will surprise you.” By 1940, it had added a dance hall.  The Hi-Hat was quiet in its early years.  Its frequent ads in the Lowell Sun touted its fried clams and other food.  After the mid-30s, liquor began to appear in its ads too.

A spate of burglaries in the late 1930s moved the Hi Hat to the Sun’s front page.  In 1937, thieves forced open a rear door in the dead of a late November morning in search of money and booze.  They escaped with about eight quarts of whiskey, but found no money on site.  That was the first break-in.  No one thought much of it.

A 1931 Advertisement for the Hi Hat Food Shop

A 1931 Advertisement for the Hi Hat Food Shop

Then, on Christmas Eve 1937, thieves broke into the Hi-Hat Restaurant again, for the third time in three months and this time made off with a bigger haul, including $100 in liquor, $50 of cigarettes, and about $7 in cash.    A week later, on January 3, 1938, two Nashua NH men were arrested and charged with the break-ins.  In the end, a total of seven men, between the ages of 17 and 23, were each sentenced to a year in jail, for their roles in the Hi-hat break-ins, and the break-in of a Tyngsboro restaurant named the Old Mexico cafe.

An advertisement for the Hi Hat, 1933

An advertisement for the Hi Hat, 1933

From Restaurant to ‘Swank’ Night Spot:

The Hi Hat reopens with its new Melody Room (Credit:  Lowell Sun:  November 25, 1940)

The Hi Hat reopens with its new Melody Room (Credit: Lowell Sun: November 25, 1940)

In November 1940, the Hi-Hat expanded, adding the Melody Room, and introduced live big band music, by Ray Harrington and the Hi Hatters orchestra, which was described as having “10 pieces of sweet melody”.  Even though the Hi Hat had been already been a destination for parties and receptions for a decade, the addition of the Melody Room in 1940 expanded the Hi Hat’s profile in local dancing circles and put it on the map of the city’s night clubs.  When the Hi Hat re-opened on November 26, 1940, as the city’s ‘swank new night spot’, its ads claimed that the Hi Hat ‘left nothing undone to its being the most modern and attractive dining hall north of Boston.’   The Hi Hat, which had been the city’s “home of good food and fine liquors” now also added its being “the toast of Lowell” to advertising banners.

The Hi Hat was wildly successful during the 1940s, but as the decade drew to a close, Bill Goodnow told the Lowell community that he was looking to move on and retire, and he put the Hi Hat up for sale.  He turned down one offer, received in 1950, saying he sought “lucrative enumeration for taking the place from a hot-dog stand to what it is now”.

But the Hi Hat was already in the news in 1950.  A lawsuit had been brought against it by Walter J. Perras, who alleged that the Hi Hat was responsible for some tough treatment he had received at the hands of local police when the Hi Hat had called them in to help with clearing the bar one night at closing time in January 1946.   One man in Perras’ group, from New Jersey, said, after a night at the bar: “In New Jersey, our bars close at three in the morning.”  When the bartender shot back an explanation reminding the men that they stood in Massachusetts where bars closed at 1 AM, the men finished their drinks, got up to get their coats and looked back at the bar to see the bartender instructing Lowell police to “see them off the premises”.  He pointed at the men to make sure there was no confusion over who he meant.  They also overheard him telling police that the men were not drunk, but were “feeling their liquor”.  At this, the Lowell Police approached the men, told them to leave, and while one of the men bent over to put on his boots, a plain-clothes officer struck him multiple times, with blows to the head and body.  The man recovered and survived, and developed the opinion that the force used to extricate him from the Hi Hat was excessive, and that the Hi Hat was responsible, since they had called the police in, in the first place.  The courts didn’t see it the same way, though, and the Hi Hat was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing in the suit.

A 1940 advertisement for the Hi Hat, from the Seton Guild Little Show program.  (Courtesy of Brian Leahey, Lowell)

A 1940 advertisement for the Hi Hat, from the Seton Guild Little Show program. (Courtesy of Brian Leahey, Lowell)

The Whitney Years – Ma Whitney 

The Grand Re-Opening of the Hi Hat Rollaway  (Credit:  Lowell Sun - May 3, 1951)

The Grand Re-Opening of the Hi Hat Rollaway (Credit: Lowell Sun – May 3, 1951)

The fifties opened with the Whitneys taking over the Hi-Hat and presenting their plans for it to the Lowell Licensing Commission, amidst quite a bit of controversy.  The Whitneys – Maurice, William, and Ester (later known as Ma Whitney), petitioned the city for permission to build an addition to the Hi Hat’s Melody Room, so that they could conduct both skating and dancing lessons there.  Those against the plan worried at the amount of noise that adding a rink and its music would create.  In the end, though, the Whitneys got their way, and built their rink.  The Hi Hat Restaurant re-opened in May 1951, as the Hi Hat Roll-A-Way.  While it was owned by the three Whitneys, Esther quickly emerged as the most visible owner, and become known throughout Lowell as Ma Whitney.

The fifties wouldn’t have been the fifties at the Hi Hat Rollaway without her.  In contemporary newspapers, and in memories posted to the Hi Hat’s Facebook page, Ma Whitney is best remembered skating the floor of the Hi Hat, keeping an eye on the skaters, and watching out for the rink’s newest skaters, on the practice floor. Everyone called her ‘Ma’, even her husband. And, if you heard the two short bursts from the whistle she wore around her neck, you knew you had caught her disapproving eye.

Ma Whitney - (Photo Credit:  Lowell Sun - October 5, 1956)

Ma Whitney – (Photo Credit: Lowell Sun – October 5, 1956)

Ma Whitney loved roller skating. In a 1956 Lowell Sun article, she explained that “roller skating is a No. 1 participation sport.  It knows no age limits.” Although some of her neighbors outside would have disagreed with her, she continued. “The littlest tot enjoys [roller skating] as well as the person who would seem to be well out of active participation.  It is good for older people.  It gives them a chance to get the much needed exercise.” Maybe it would have made some of her older neighbors a little less crotchety too, if they had tried it.

Ma Whitney was proud that the Hi-Hat Rollaway attracted not only skaters from Greater Lowell, but also brought in people from as far away as Southern New Hampshire, and Hampton Beach, apparently. Ma prided herself in maintaining a rink where parents could view their teenagers as safe.  Ma herself was the mother of a champion girl skater, and held the Hi-Hat to the strictest and careful supervision at all times. Ma Whitney was also a good citizen too and very charitable too.  She was well-known for raising money for the polio fund and the heart fund.

The Rochette Years 

Mo Rochette, at the Hi Hat (Photo Credit:  Hi Hat SKating Club Facebook Group)

Mo Rochette, in the rear kitchen of his diner. (Photo Credit: Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook Group)

By the sixties, ownership of the Hi Hat Rollaway had passed onto Maurice Rochette, or Mo as he is fondly remembered by the Hi Hat skating community on Facebook.  Mo also ran Rochette’s diner, and was a veteran of the Lowell restaurant scene.  He was well-known for the food he prepared, and for being somewhat hard of hearing, especially in his later years.  Mo is the inspiration for the Hi Hat Guy figurine we hold in our artifacts collection at the Lowell Historical Society, and the subject of this month’s earlier post on the Hi Hat.

Mo saw the Hi Hat through its final 30 or so years, right up to its closing around 1990. Even though the Hi Hat has been closed for some 25 years, its memory lives on in generations of residents in the Greater Lowell area. You can still see these memories emerge, occasionally, through the posts on the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook page, or through periodic auctions of Hi Hat memorabilia on eBay, and even in the conversations with Lowellians as they drive by the Hi Hat’s former site, where condos now stand on Lowell’s Princeton Boulevard. Even though very little now stands in memory at that site, it’s obvious that the Hi Hat is fondly remembered among the Greater Lowell community.

**  Special thanks to Brian Leahey of Lowell, who contributed to this post.


Among the Artifacts: Remembering Lowell’s Hi Hat Rollaway

Hi Hat Guy - From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

Hi Hat Guy – From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

We call him Hi Hat Guy, at the Lowell Historical Society, after the name of roller skating rink that is lettered across his red tie.  To the modern eye, Hi Hat Guy looks a little like Phil Dunphy, at least at first glance.  He’s the father figure played by Ty Burrell on ABC’s Modern Family.  Hi Hat Guy also looks like a lot of bobble-head dolls – well, except for the fact he’s hand-carved from wood . . . and over 40 years old.  Hi Hat Guy has been sort of a mystery.  According to our accessioning paperwork, he dates from 1969 and was carved by one W.L. Bemis.  He entered our collection in 1994.  Unfortunately, his paperwork doesn’t tell us much more, like who he might have been modeled after, or where he might have once been at the Hi Hat.  So, we’ve made Hi Hat Guy our next artifact to research.  And any research on Hi Hat Guy has to be research into the Hi Hat Rollaway itself.  There are few defunct businesses so iconic to Lowell as the Hi Hat.  Some close rivals that come to mind are the Bon Marché  or Record Lane or maybe even the Giant Store.  But, the best chance to get to the real story behind Hi Hat Guy rests with researching the institution he represents.

Phil Dunphy, from ABC’s Modern Family (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Researching the Hi Hat is a lot like researching the Bon Marché.  The Hi Hat has such a long legacy, stretching some six decades.  Where would one ever find a wooden bobble-head doll in over 60 years of history?  Well, like so many of Lowell’s iconic memories, there’s a Facebook page dedicated to the Hi Hat’s memory.  The folks of the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook page fondly remember the Hi Hat, and have formed a close-knit community dedicated to reminiscing about the Hi Hat, its history, and its many personalities.  Surely, the story behind our Hi Hat figurine must be captured somewhere in their memories.

The Rochette Years 

Mo Rochette, at the Hi Hat (Photo Credit:  Hi Hat SKating Club Facebook Group)

Mo Rochette, in the rear kitchen of his diner. (Photo Credit: Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook Group)

By 1969, the year Hi Hat Guy was carved, the Hi Hat was owned by Maurice Rochette, or Mo as he is fondly remembered by the Hi Hat skating community on Facebook.  Mo also ran Lowell’s famous Rochette’s diner, and was well-known for the food he prepared.  While hired managers oversaw the roller skating rink, Mo made his signature tomato soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, and lemon meringue pies.  But the most Facebook chatter surrounds memories of Mo behind his snack bar, serving up his french fries, the gravy, and famous Rochette beans.  Mo Rochette was a veteran of the Lowell restaurant scene, going back decades to the WWII years.  It seems, at least in his later years, that Mo was hard of hearing.  Many fondly recall placing their food order only to see Mo lean closer, cup his ear, and ask them to repeat what they had said.

Hi Hat Guy - From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

Hi Hat Guy – From the collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

So, we went to the Hi Hat skating club on Facebook to see if they could give us the identity of the wooden bobble-head dating from 1969. And, where the trail had run cold on who he might have represented, or where he might once have stood within the Hi Hat, the digital age of social media actually presented its helpful face, allowing us to solve at least part of the mystery.  Not two days after I posted my original question about his identity to the Hi Hat’s Facebook group, we got our answer.  The bobble-head,  held by the Lowell Historical Society for some 20 years, represented none other than Mo Rochette himself, in his younger years.

Even though the bobble head doll may look like Phil Dunphy, the father on ABC’s Modern Family, he actually represents the man behind Rochette’s Diner, and the most recent and last owner of the Hi Hat Rollaway.  But, the bobble head doll also represents, through the white lettered ‘Hi Hat’ prominently painted into his red tie, the Hi Hat itself, its days of roller skating, and something that was lost to the Lowell scene when the rink finally closed around 1990.  To so many, the Hi Hat holds a piece of their youth, and maybe even a window into a different time, perhaps simpler and more peaceful.  One member of the Hi Hat Skating Club Facebook group summarized the sentiment of many in the community with her comment:  “Young love was everywhere at the Hi-Hat!”

There are many Hi Hat memories posted to the Facebook group, some of first loves, and others of first kisses shared (or stolen) in the booths at the Hi Hat Rollaway.  Today, even though condos occupy the site once held by the Hi Hat, maybe just a little of its memory lives on in the roller-skating figurine carved in the image of Mo Rochette, its last owner.  It so easy to drive by the Hi Hat’s former Princeton Boulevard location without even realizing that it once stood there, for six decades.

Related Articles:

Coming in the next installment of Forgotten New England:

Did you know that the Hi Hat’s history dates all the way back to the days of Prohibition, in the early 1930s?  In its long history, not everyone was a fan of the Hi Hat, or viewed its brand of entertainment as light, safe, respectable fun.  Even a former Lowell mayor complained that she’d never ‘let her daughters set a foot inside’ and mingle with boys who wore untucked shirts with dungarees, and girls who wore short shorts.  


We made the Lowell Sun! A Look at the Art and Artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society

Description of . Ryan Owen, the new Lowell Historical Society curator, speaks about some unusual items he has been finding in the museum's collection. (SUN/Ashley Green)

Ryan Owen, the new Lowell Historical Society curator, speaks about some unusual items he has been finding in the museum’s collection. (Photo Credit: Lowell Sun:Ashley Green)

We’ve been active lately, at the Lowell Historical Society.  Among the responsibilities of my role as curator of the society’s art and artifacts is not only to figure out and document what we have, but also to share this information with the public, many of whom have parents and grandparents (and maybe great-grandparents too) who donated the items to our care in the first place.  The Lowell Historical Society traces its roots to 1868, which means we have some really old stuff.  And, like that box of old photographs in your attic, someone, somewhere, back in our history probably couldn’t envision a day when we wouldn’t know the whole story (with all its interesting twists and turns) behind what we have, just by looking at it.  In the end, though, oral histories live only as long as those telling them.

So, one of our goals for 2014 is to wade through our collection, and fill in those blanks, as Katie Lannan of the Lowell Sun wrote today.  It’s always a good day (and a very good start to this initiative) when our society’s efforts are recognized and several of our items are showcased in our city’s newspaper.  To see the article, please follow the link below:

http://www.lowellsun.com/news/ci_25263232/his-job-is-filling-blanks-lowells-history


Among the Artifacts: The Licensed Newsboy Badge

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

My fingers first brushed across the small metallic oval a few weeks ago. It was right next to Officer Lee’s Lowell PD badge.  This very different badge was light, too old to be plastic.  I figured it was probably aluminum.   As I slid out the drawer at the Lowell Historical Society’s archive, the flourescent overhead lights flashed across its shiny surface, and caught the lettering of the circle of text within.  It was a licensed newsboy badge. The diaper pin clip on its reverse looked old, ancient, but it was in remarkable shape. And it carried a name that looked quite familiar to the Lowell political scene – Poulios.

A newsboy selling newspapers in Rochester, New York, abt. 1910; (Photo Credit: Lewis Hine, via Library of Congress.)

Having delivered newspapers myself in the eighties and into the nineties, something called a newsboy license and issued by the Lowell School Committee seemed really interesting. By the time the 1980s rolled around, we didn’t need newsboy licenses. But, this badge looked more like something a kid hawking papers on a street corner might have had, as in the “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” variety of newsboy.  Not the type who slipped the paper under your door on some Thursday evening before dinner and the Cosby Show.

This badge, according to the rules published by the Lowell School Committee, was required to be worn by any minors under the age of 14 before they could sell newspapers on any street or public place within the city of Lowell.  And it came with conditions.  Newsboys, for as long as they continued to be licensed, were required to attend ‘every session’  of classes at one of Lowell’s schools, unless properly excused from such attendance.  Newsboys were not allowed to sell, lend, or give the badge to anyone, or to give any of their newspapers to unlicensed minors to sell for them.  The newsboy himself was not allowed to sell newspapers in or near street cars, before six o’clock in the morning or after nine o’clock at night.  Lastly, and clearly visible on the badge, newsboys pledged to exemplify behavior becoming of a young citizen, and were not to smoke, gamble, or do anything to jeopardize their image of good behavior.

This newsboy license looked to be early 20th century to me, and had a name attached to it - Athanasios Poulios.  These things usually make our artifacts easier to research.  And it listed the school that young Poulios attended – the Bartlett.  That was slightly less helpful, since the Bartlett school, named for Lowell’s first mayor, traces its roots in the city to 1856 right up to today.  Athanasios Poulios’ address, at 9 Whiting Street in Lowell, proved valuable too.

The 1940 Census Listing for 9 Whiting Street, Lowell.

Partial 1940 Census Listing for 9 Whiting Street, Lowell.

One good rule of thumb when researching the arts and artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society is ‘never assume anything’.  During 1992 and 1993 – about the time I was delivering the Lowell Sun to homes in the city’s South Lowell district, Tarsy Poulios was mayor.  But, did the badge belong to him?  Without a specific year on the badge, I couldn’t be sure.

Using the address on the badge, 9 Whiting Street, I found the Poulios family living there during the enumeration of the 1940 US census.  With a quick process of elimination across his four brothers, I was able to confirm that Tarsy was a nickname for the ‘Athanasios’ whose name was printed on the front of the badge, and in the census.  I already knew that the badge couldn’t have belonged to one of his sisters since, among the many rules attached to these newsboy licenses by the Lowell School Committee, one specifically stated that ‘licenses shall not be issued to girls, nor to boys under the age of ten years.’

A Lowell Sun photo of Tarsy Poulios from his days with the AMNO in 1977

A Lowell Sun photo of Tarsy Poulios from his days with the AMNO in 1977

All of that dated this newsboy license to the late 1930s or early 1940s, meaning that the badge represents one of Tarsy’s first jobs.  It dated to a time long before his two-year run as Lowell’s mayor in the early 1990s, and before he joined Lowell’s City Council in 1987.  Tarsy wore the badge decades before he even began his political career as a neighborhood activist with the Acre Model Neighborhood Organization, and the Community Development Block Grant Organization before that.

When he died in 2010, Tarsy was recalled as gruff, adept at defending his arguments, and very proud of his roots in the Acre neighborhood (he called it ‘God’s Acre’) and in Lowell’s Greek-American community.  He was elected to City Council on his platform of improving Lowell’s neighborhoods, and had a specific focus on removing abandoned cars from city street, something that Lowell struggled with during the 1970s and 1980s.

A few years after Tarsy was selling newspapers, he graduated with Lowell High School’s class of 1943, and went on to serve his country during World War II when he entered the US Army and saw combat action in Japan, the Philippines and Korea.  He was honorably discharged as a Sergeant in 1946.  When he first came home from the war, he attended an electrical school in Boston, but left when his father died and returned home to Lowell to work in the Merrimack Mills to support his family.  By the time the Merrimack Mills closed in the 1950s, Tarsy had moved on to become a letter carrier, a job he held until he retired in 1984.

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell)

Lowell Licensed Newsboy Badge, ca. 1940. (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, Archivist, Lowell Historical Society)

As Lowell’s mayor in the early 1990s and throughout his career as a public servant before that, Tarsy most enjoyed helping his constituents who he fondly called Joe and Joan Sixpack, whose parents he delivered mail to for over thirty years, and whose grandparents he sold newspapers to, way back in the 1930s, at the very start of his storied career.  His newsboy badge has held up well, in the 85 years or so since he wore it, selling newspapers in the city he would one day lead.  Its vintage-looking clip looks as if it could still hold the badge to someone’s coat.  And its shiny metallic holder looks much more valuable than the 25-cent replacement fee that Tarsy would have had to pay in order to get a duplicate badge, had he lost it all those years ago.