Category Archives: City Life

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.  


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.


From the Curator’s Desk: Odd Old Things – The Box of Cinders

At the Lowell Historical Society, we sometimes get the question:  “Hey, what’s the strangest thing you have in your collection?”

That’s a tough question to answer. The Lowell Historical Society has been around for a long time. I’m reminded of this each time I visit our archive. Just this morning, I found a book, one of those old official-looking volumes with the word ‘records’ embossed on its side, that contains minutes from a few decades of our board meetings, starting from 1943.  And then, just next to that, was a stack of correspondence with donors from 1973.  All of this is impeccably preserved.

But the Society’s collection is much older than that.  Its history dates back to its founding in 1868.

That’s a lot of time to collect odd things, that have since become old.

When I stumble upon these, I often think of the question: ‘If you didn’t know to ask for it, how would you ever find it? Or even know it exists?’

This is exactly the case with our Box of Cinders.

The Box of Ashes, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

The Box of Cinders, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

Yes, the cinders, or ashes, are in a heart-shaped box.  As we’re currently in mid-February, I suppose that’s sort of seasonally appropriate.  The note attached to the top of the box, which probably accompanied the donation some ninety-ish years ago, identifies the remains within the box not as . . . some long-lost loved one, but as what one Charles C. Swan, a retired shoe dealer, found on his lawn one Friday morning on June 4, 1926.  The note actually provides a lot of information, which is great.  What’s sadly lacking is some explanation as to why the ashes were put, and kept, in a heart-shaped box, for these last 88 years.  This informational  gap is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in our collection.  Some questions just don’t have a satisfying answer.

The Box of Ashes - Top, with Explanatory Note

The Box of Cinders – Top, with Explanatory Note, which reads:  “CINDERS – Found on lawn on 452 East Merrimack St. Friday morning June 4th 1926.  Came from Pollard Fire June 3rd 1926.  Charles C. Swan

Most folks, after finding something on their lawn one morning, probably wouldn’t think of donating it to their local historical society, but Charles C. Swan must have been a bit of a visionary.  And he was the treasurer of the Lowell Historical Society at the time.  So, he understood the significance of historical events when he saw them unfold.

pollard 1944Charles C. Swan probably saw the flames consuming Pollard’s Department Store the afternoon before, maybe from his home a mile away, at 452 East Merrimack Street.  Or maybe he was downtown as the chaos unfolded late that afternoon.  Maybe he saw the firemen arrive, first from the Lowell Fire Department, then from the surrounding towns of Billerica, Chelmsford, and Dracut.  Firemen from as far away as Lawrence came to join in the fight to save one of Lowell’s largest department stores.  No one died, but several firemen were overcome by the billowing smoke or cut by flying glass.  Four hours later, the fire was history.  But, so was Pollard’s Department Store, which traced its roots in Lowell to 1836.  Only its walls remained.  In the eyes of many, including Charles C. Swan, it truly was a Lowell institution, whose loss would be keenly felt.  Mr. Swan probably couldn’t imagine Lowell without it.

Charles C. Swan must have been overcome at that moment, the next morning, when he found a piece of that history on his lawn.  When he picked it up, and held it – maybe even as the smell of the smoke that had consumed Pollard’s still hung in the air.  So, he found a box in his home on East Merrimack, the heart-shaped box, and saved that little bit of history for posterity by donating his find to the Lowell Historical Society.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph.  Photo by Author

Merrimack Street – Lowell – in Fall 2011. Pollard’s was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. Photo by Author

And it worked too.  Those ashes, which otherwise would have likely blown away in the next spring breeze, or melted into his lawn with the next spring rain, way back in June 1926, are still carefully held and preserved by the Society today.  They’ve survived Charles C. Swan, who died a few years later in 1929, and even the great Pollard’s Department Store, which subsequently rebuilt and reopened, but then closed its doors for good in 1969.

Sometimes the most fragile relics are those which survive the longest.


Forgotten Stories behind the Artifacts of the Lowell Historical Society

Lowell Police Badge - William G Lee (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)

Lowell Police Badge – William G Lee (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist) From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

Check out this badge.  I came across it in the Lowell Historical Society’s vast archive, located in the city’s Boott Mills complex.  As the society’s newly-appointed Curator of Art and Artifacts, I got to spend some time with the badge, recently, and other items that came with it.

The badge, it turns out, comes from William G. Lee, a patrolman with the Lowell Police Department who retired from the force in 1948, after 37 years of service.  The Society also has Lee’s billy club and his policemans’ rule book in its collection.

Like all old stuff, the badge, club, and book all have a kind of magic to them.  I mean, face it.  Old stuff like this invokes a certain fascination within all of us.  It’s one of the reasons societies like the Lowell Historical Society exist, and why they have an archive in the first place.  Maybe that sense of wonder carries forward from our first years, when  we escaped into our grandparents’ attics as children and found Victorian punch bowl sets wrapped in yellowed newspapers, or a stack of colorful magazines from the decade before we were born.  Most of those things are gone now, disappeared into landfills, into firepits, into oblivion.  Unless we saved them, or donated them to an archive.

That’s just how the badge, the club, and the rulebook made it to the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  Almost 20 years ago, Officer Lee’s daughter donated them so that they could be maintained, and shared with future visitors to the Society’s archive.

24 Canton Street, Lowell, as it appears today (Photo Credit:  Google Maps)

24 Canton Street as it appears today (Photo Credit: Google Maps)

Touching history is a pretty cool thing.  Sure, you can read about history, watch it on TV, or even apply your imagination to it.  But touching history brings it to life.  And that’s the great thing about archives.  You can touch history.  As the Lowell Historical Society’s Curator, one of my duties is to publicize the collection, and share some of the stories I encounter as I research its items, and help bring the society’s vast holdings to life.  When you first set about researching an artifact, there’s that initial wave of information you instantly find, the low-hanging fruit, so to speak.  Sometimes, it’s the most interesting.  Often, it’s not.  A quick search on William G Lee shows that he lived at 24 Canton Street in Lowell in June 1948, when he retired from the force.

From the note that came with the badge, I also learned that he was appointed to the department’s probationary force in May 1911, and was promoted to the rank of patrolman about five years later in September 1916.

What’s really interesting, though, is the next few waves of discovery that you come across as you research a piece.  And it turns out that Patrolman Lee received some commendations during his 37 years on the force.  A quick glance through Lee’s rulebook reveals that patrolmen, while making their rounds, weren’t allowed to walk together, or even talk with one another.  They were advised not to stay in one spot, or converse with anyone, unless it was in the line of duty.  But, a little more research into Lee’s career proves that it’s good that he didn’t always follow his rulebook to the letter.

Officers Lee and Liston Save Lives of Dummer Street Tenants (Credit: Lowell Sun - 2/8/1922, Pg. 1)

Officers Lee and Liston Save Lives of Dummer Street Tenants (Credit: Lowell Sun – 2/8/1922, Pg. 1)

While he was wearing that very badge pictured above, Lee stood at the top of Dummer Street early one day on February 13, 1922, talking with fellow patrolman William Liston.  It wasn’t even four in the morning, when he and Liston first saw the flames and smoke bursting from the windows of a dry goods store on the ground floor of a building housing eight tenements.  Lee ran at once and pulled the alarm on a nearby fire box, while Liston ran to the burning tenement at 67 Dummer Street and started to rouse its residents.  Lee soon joined.  They, with the firemen who soon arrived, entered the building and awakened the tenants who lived on its three floors.  Everyone escaped unharmed, and the men carried three children out of the fire to safety.

Three years later, Lee received a commendation again, when he made an arrest in the early morning hours of January 26, 1925.  While likely carrying the very billy club that now rests within the Society’s collection, Lee arrested Edward Cole, a 32-year-old Lowell man who was wanted for breaking and entering into a Londonderry, NH hen house some two months earlier.  How did Lee find Cole?  He happened upon him while Cole was trying to crack a safe at the Colonial Filling Station on the Pawtucket Boulevard.

Police Billy Club that once belonged to Lowell Police Officer William G Lee (Photo Credit:  Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist)  From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

Police Billy Club that once belonged to Lowell Police Officer William G Lee (Photo Credit: Tony Sampas, LHS Archivist) From the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society

How did Lee treat his prisoners?  Luckily, we have his rulebook to shed some light on this.  The book advised that prisoners “shall be made as comfortable as possible,” and reminded officers that they were entitled to clear water.  The water could be purchased using the prisoners’ own money, the book continued, but only if that money hadn’t come from the offense for which they had been arrested.  Even if it turned out that the prisoner was broke, the police officer could purchase the refreshment from his own money, get a receipt, and get reimbursed for these expenses once monthly.  Officers were required to check on their prisoners once every half hour, but were strictly forbidden to “bandy words with prisoners” or to speak to them unnecessarily.  The book also stressed that the use of obscene or profane language was prohibited.

Lee’s guidebook also provides a glimpse into the daily life of patrolmen.  The book specifically reminded policemen that they were to look for anyone of ‘known bad character’ and that it was their duty to seek out disturbances and to restore quiet.  They were also encouraged to evaluate anyone who he saw walking Lowell’s streets after 10 PM.  In making his rounds, we also learn that Lee ensured that Lowell’s sidewalks remained unobstructed, and that he was to gauge the purpose of anyone he saw selling door-to-door.  Lee was also responsible for checking the doors of all dwellings upon his route to make sure that they were properly locked.

While Lee was fulfilling these same duties, in March 1933, he found Mrs. Sofie Boumilla, 37, on the floor of her unheated Cady Street home, weak and nonresponsive.  She had spent the night before on her floor, suffering with a broken leg.  She had fallen on the sidewalk on Chapel Street at 6:30 PM the prior evening and had dragged herself home, nearly half a mile away.  A neighbor who heard the woman’s weak moaning summoned Patrolman Lee who entered the home and rescued her.

Lowell Sun, Front Page, March 16, 1933

Lowell Sun, Front Page, March 16, 1933

Source:  Lowell Sun, Front Page, June 22, 1948

Source: Lowell Sun, Front Page, June 22, 1948

The badge, billy club, and police rulebook are just a few of the many historical treasures that form the holdings of the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  The LHS has been in existence for years, and traces its roots to 1868 when it was founded as the Old Residents’ Historical Association.  In the coming months, I’ll be writing regular posts researching some of the many interesting items held by the Society and trying to find some of the forgotten history behind the Society’s art and artifacts.


An Early History of ‘Wild Wigginville’: Why Concord Heights isn’t a Lowell Neighborhood today

Lowell's Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street.

Lowell’s Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity, 1904)

Recently, I’ve been following some really interesting discussion on the “You Know Your from Lowell When” Facebook group.  It’s been about Wigginville, the South Lowell neighborhood that’s probably better known for its local landmarks: the Six Arch bridge, Riverside School, and the Dizzy Bridge – that ancient footbridge that doubles as a teenage dare/deathtrap and runs roughly parallel to Lawrence Street on the opposite side of the Lowell Cemetery. The thing about Wigginville is that it’s one of those places where, even if you grew up there, or even spent your entire life there, you may not have noticed that you were standing there, smack in the middle of it. I heard passing references to it, growing up in South Lowell, where it was almost always referred to as “Wigginsville”, which, surprisingly, isn’t actually the right pronunciation.

Sure, Lowell still has its neighborhoods, even today. There’s Centralville (always pronounced, but rarely spelt Centerville), Back Central, Pawtucketville, Belvidere, and the Highlands. There are some smaller, older neighborhood names that have sort of clung on, over the years. Belvidere contains the neighborhood once better known as Lowell’s Oakland section, which still survives at some level, in the name of the former fire station across the street from Shedd Park. There’s also Ayers City, which has best survived in the sign at the end of the Lowell Connector’s Exit 4. If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign contains a misspelling, calling it Ayres City. Go back a century, though, and you’ll find many more neighborhoods. Lowell’s South Lowell neighborhood, for example, once contained the Bleachery, the Grove, Riverside Park, Swede Village, and Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell's southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell’s southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

For a neighborhood name that’s been largely forgotten, Wigginville sure created quite a stir in city politics when one Councilman Wilde proposed changing its name in 1908, not even two years after it had been annexed from the neighboring town of Tewksbury. Echoing what was the general feeling at the time, his argument followed that anything annexed to Lowell from a surrounding town had to be upgraded so that it met the city’s standards and didn’t embarrass the citizenry. Wigginville, according to Councilman Wilde, did just that. First and foremost among his concerns, there was the matter of its name. Wigginville had landed upon its name as a sort of dedication to its largest developer, William H Wiggin. Wiggin had been a well-known builder in the Lowell area, contributing his efforts to such lofty and well-respected edifices as the Savings Bank Building, the Boston & Maine depot on Central Street, and the Armory on Westford Street. And, in the nineteenth century psyche, he was a valued and solid member of society. He had been born in Epping, NH in 1823, went on to graduate from Dracut Academy, and had even had the time to trace his ancestry to the pilgrims.

The Riverside School - South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910.  (Credit:  Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

The Riverside School – South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910. (Credit: Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

And he had, in the words of his supporters, developed the “beautiful suburban village” of Wigginville. Councilman Wilde was not among his supporters. Councilman Wilde also didn’t have the best sense of timing. He chose 1908 to change Wigginville’s name. Yes, that was about two years after the neighborhood had become part of Lowell, but it was also just after William H Wiggin had died. Those who had grown up appreciating Wiggin’s contributions to the cityscape, and may have even attended the Riverside School he had funded and helped build, felt that the neighborhood should not be stripped of his name. In fact, they said, Wigginville should retain his name, as a memorial to his good deeds. Wiggin’s supporters found their champion in Richard Sykes, ‘the man with the Mountain Lion’s voice’ from Wigginville.

Councilman Wilde had his supporters too. There wasn’t even an appropriate entry into Wigginville, they reasoned. Lowell city councilmen looked at the Lawrence Street bridge spanning the Concord River as a ramshackle pathway, perilous even to foot traffic, let alone horses. Now that it was part of the city, it had to be dealt with, they claimed. And, this, of course, took the conversation back to its name, Wigginville. Who would want to enter a neighborhood named Wigginville? they asked.

A 1908 Lowell Sun article purported to ask a resident of Wigginville, unnamed, what he thought of his neighborhood’s name. He claimed that he thought the name should be changed, so that electric car riders would no longer be embarrassed to board cars bound for “Wigginville” – if riders could even heard the conductor’s destination announcements over the snickers. The name should be changed, this unnamed man (or woman) on the street claimed. He went on to say that he had found that this opinion was shared by a three-to-one margin among his fellow Wigginvillians. Wigginvillians were so ashamed of the Wigginville name that they had been seen clandestinely boarding electric cars to the nearby Bleachery station, just to escape the snickers meant for the Wigginville car. And, then there were the comedians too, the man on the street continued. They were ‘always’ cracking jokes at the cost of the poor Wigginvillians.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

The problem of what Lowell city residents should call these new neighborhoods was a cause of confusion too. The deeds for these newly annexed lands carried all sorts of arbitrary, vaguely defined and unfamiliar neighborhood names, based on the many developers who had built up the area in the last couple of decades. A quick review of the deeds had turned up not just references to the unfortunately named Wigginville, but also to places called Lee Village, Gilman Hill, and Riverside Park. It just made sense to unite the rural territory under one suitable, nicely sounding name, supporters of the name change claimed.

So, what should the name of this section be? Councilman Wilde proposed changing the name of Wigginville to Concord Heights, after the name of the nearby Concord River. This name would assuage the bruised egos of Wigginvillians, and even begin to rehabilitate this poor no-man’s-land into a proper city neighborhood. Lowell would, finally, be able to hold its head high with Concord Heights, its newest neighborhood. It was hoped, he said, that the name change would encourage the Boston & Maine to improve its station stop in Wigginville (near the present-day park off Commonwealth Avenue) and help the Primitive Methodist Church being constructed on Lawrence Street to finish its construction without having to wonder how to name itself around the unfortunate Wigginville neighborhood.

Councilman Wilde seemed to have all of his supporters in lock-step. All that was left to do was put the Wigginville renaming proposal in front of the Board of Aldermen. And he did, in July 1908. And, on that night, Richard Sykes, the Mountain Lion’s Voice from Wigginville, came, ready to argue his neighborhood’s stance that the name not be changed. He had prepared a speech in defense of a memorial to the neighborhood’s benefactor, William H Wiggin. Local press came too, ready for the show. They quipped amongst themselves that he would present his argument there in the chamber, and would have his “janitors around with baskets picking up his dropped h’s.” Wilde started by presenting a petition, said to be signed by some 100 Wigginvillians, to change their village’s name to Concord Heights.

Today's Concord River Bridge on Lowell's Lawrence Street.  (From a mid-century postcard)

Today’s Concord River Bridge on Lowell’s Lawrence Street. (From a mid-century postcard)

The aldermen listened, briefly. Wigginville barely registered in their minds. The neighborhood, annexed less than two years before, didn’t even have defined borders. Chairman Wilder spoke first. He wondered why all the fuss was even worth their time. The name will die out, Wilder told Wilde, since it came from Tewksbury, and Wigginville was clearly now a part of Lowell. His fellow aldermen listened, and joked that perhaps Wigginville should be renamed Wildeville. Another alderman claimed that Wild Wigginville might be even more appropriate.

Richard Sykes prepared to speak. There was no need to fear Sykes, or his speech though. When the motion to change the name was presented, Aldermen Brennan and Gray disposed of it almost immediately, telling Wilde, whose smile must have been fading by then, that the Council had no role in naming, or re-naming Wigginville, since the name had never actually been assigned. The fact was, they said, that the residents themselves had just decided that that was how they wanted to name their neighborhood, and the Council was just fine with that. They then moved the topic of discussion to something that the “Council had something to do with”. They appropriated funds to fix that Concord River bridge so badly in need of repairs.

And the proposal to change the village’s name from Wigginville to Concord Heights seems to have died right there, on the chamber floor, because, as they moved on to the matter of that Wigginville bridge, not one voice was raised in protest, because the people of Wigginville were just fine with their neighborhood’s name, and didn’t want someone with very little connection to Wigginville renaming their community. In the weeks following the decision, or non-decision at it may be, the Wigginvillians took the momentum from their victory and formed the Wigginville Improvement Club, and elected Richard Sykes as its president. The objective of the club? To improve the village’s streets, and to perpetuate the proud, newly vindicated name of Wigginville.


The Controversial First Days of Roller Skating Rinks, Lowell – 1885

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source:  Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

A Late 19th Century Roller Skate (Source: Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896)

In the years following the US Civil War, roller skating really came into its own.  As the design of the roller skate improved over the second half of the 19th century, so did its popularity.  Many became fans of the new hobby.  Many others viewed it as immoral and a threat to the order of things.

By the 1880s, a craze had developed, and roller skating rinks began opening in many US cities.  Boston had three.  The largest, on the corner of Clarendon and St. James Streets in the Back Bay neighborhood, featured a roller skating surface some 180 feet long by 70 feet wide.  Two others were in Boston, at the time, one on Washington Street, near the intersection with Dover, in the South End.  Another stood on Shawmut Avenue.

In Lowell, Massachusetts, a December 1884 editorial in the Lowell Sun took aim at the Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, stating it was ” the cause of more and worse immorality . . . in the city.”    It went so far as to claim that the city’s theaters, themselves often criticized for contributing to society’s immorality, were a “Sunday school” compared to the roller skating rinks.  While the editorial acknowledged that some of the city’s most “moral and estimable” people visited the rink, it questioned whether the rink also attracted some of the city’s most immoral citizens, like “prostitutes” and “libertines”.  And, the editorial went on to insinuate that it was much more likely that the immoral would corrupt the moral classes, rather than the other way around.  The 1884 writer wondered:

“Does it improve a young girl’s modesty or morals to fall in a heap on a skating rink floor, in the gaze of hundreds, with perhaps her feet in the air and her clothes tossed over her head?  Is it good for her proper training to see other females in such plight?”

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source:  The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink, on Gorham Street, ca. 1884 (Source: The New England Magazine, An Illustrated Monthly, Vol.1)

The Lowell Skating Rink was located on Gorham Street, and opened each year in November, right before Thanksgiving.  The season extended through April and sometimes until the middle of May, when the rink closed and skaters took to skating on the smoothest sidewalks and roads to be found in the city.  Sometimes, the rinks were also used for bicycles, bouquet parties, and competitive skating competitions.  For a while, the Lowell Skating Rink even hosted the games of Lowell’s polo team.  Despite its popularity, many saw the skating rink as a “bad institution” even it all it did was keep society’s most vulnerable, the young, out too late at night, or provide them with a plausible cover when they went elsewhere.

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s.  (Source:  Scientific American Supplement - February 24, 1877)

The Interior of a Roller Skating Rink in the 1870s. (Source: Scientific American Supplement – February 24, 1877)

Inside, the rink was known not only for its yellow birch skating floor, but also for its ornamental railings that separated the skaters from the fifteen-foot-wide promenade.  From the promenade, spectators watched skaters from their rows of camp chairs.

The editorial concluded by claiming that roller skating could not “help having immoral effects” even if the management of the rink was sound.  The long-ago writer also claimed that roller skating was the “most mischievous form of public amusement ever introduced” and believed that it would soon be “suppressed as a dangerous evil.” In the end, roller skating was not suppressed, and actually evolved into being seen by later generations as good, clean fun.  The Lowell Skating Rink would not live to see the vindication of roller skating among the masses, though.  It closed its doors in early 1885, and was sold and torn down soon after.


The Daniel Gage Ice Company of Lowell, Massachusetts

In the Lowell of our parents and grandparents, a yellow horse-drawn wagon coming down a city street in high summer meant an approaching escape from the summer heat.  City children knew each ice man driving the yellow wagons, and often relished jumping aboard for a piece of ice and a ride down the road, or across the city.  The yellow wagons belonged to the Daniel Gage Ice Company, and many kids knew the routes better than the ice men themselves.  Even today, they still hold a special place in the hearts of those who remember them.

An advertisement for Daniel Gage Ice, as it appeared in Lowell, A City of Spindles, 1900, by Lowell Trades and Labor Council

One of the best things about writing Forgotten New England is hearing from readers.  I recently posted an entry about the lost profession of ice harvesting and the ice cutters and icemen who helped gather and deliver ice to a world that did not yet know refrigeration.  Through a fellow board member of the Lowell Historical Society (who writes the Lowell Doughboys and More blog), I met Gavin Lambert, who shared the photograph below, as well as his mother’s memories of the ice men she remembered from growing up in Lowell in the 1940s.  She recalled Shorty, her family’s ice man, who arrived in his horse-drawn wagon with his leather shoulder shroud and ice tongs.  Shorty, as she remembered, was a friendly guy, who readily chiseled off ice splinters to give to the neighborhood kids each summer.  She remembered the wooden floor of Shorty’s ice wagon.  Although she never knew his full name or nationality, she still remembers her family’s ice man from Gage’s Ice Company to this day, almost 70 years later.

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Photo Courtesy of Gavin Lambert

Gage’s Ice of Lowell was, at one time, so well-known that the image of its ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River was considered so central to the identity of Lowell that it is memorialized in a stained glass window that sits in St. Brigid’s church in the village of Ballyknock, Ballycastle in County Mayo, Ireland.  Explaining the photograph of the window, posted at right, Gavin Lambert shares that enough people from the Jordan family left that Irish village for Lowell that the stained glass window was placed in their church in their memory.  Representing Lowell is, of course, its mills and smokestacks.  But, closer examination reveals the ice blocks floating down the Merrimack River, ice blocks belonging to Gage’s ice trade.

Another reader, Dave, recalls colder winters in the 40s and 50s, and how the ice would back up each winter along the Merrimack, so much so that one could hear it “cracking all the way to Broadway”.  Dave recalls walking to Gage’s decades ago to buy ice chips.  Some days, he would buy a huge block of ice for a quarter, and watch it descend a long slide, packed in straw.  Like another reader, he also owns a pair of ice tongs from Gage’s.

Daniel Gage, founder of Gage’s Ice was a fixture in Lowell business circles for nearly half a century, and quickly rose to prominence among Lowell’s business community.  He was born in Pelham, New Hampshire, on June 4, 1828, to Nathan and Mehitable Woodbury Gage, and was proud of his deep New England roots extending back to colonial times.  Gage even claimed descent from the band of men who helped William the Conqueror win England from Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Daniel Gage, from History of Lowell and its People, Volume 3. (Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

Gage spent his first twenty-five years in his native Pelham, NH, on his family farm, before coming to Lowell in 1854 and founding a business in the city’s wholesale beef trade.  He did this for 15 years, setting up his home and business near the Hildreth Street area, in what was then still part of the town of Dracut, Massachusetts.  He sold this off in 1869, and moved to corner of Bridge and West Sixth streets in Lowell.  Soon after, he started his ice business, which he would build for the rest of his life.  It became so successful that he eventually earned the title of Lowell’s ice king.

As Lowell’s ice king, Gage also made his mark on the city in other ways.  He served as a long-time director of the Prescott National Bank, and was its president when he died in 1901.  Later in life, he also extended his business into the coal and wood trade.  Gage also donated ice to many of Lowell’s charitable organizations, a practice continued by his business, and other businesses, well after his death.

Gage, with his wife, Abiah Smith Hobbs, had two daughters, one who died at the age of 16, and the other, Martina, who lived into old age, and eventually became owner of her father’s ice business when he died in 1901, after suffering a bout of pneumonia for about one week.

Daniel Gage, from an illustration published after his death in the March 1901 edition of Ice and Refrigeration.

Years after his death, Gage’s daughter, Martina Gage, became a well-known figure in Lowell’s Highlands neighborhood.  There, she was often seen handing out candies from D.L. Page’s candy store to the children of her workers, who lived in company housing there.  Miss Martina Gage retained control and ownership of Gage’s Ice for nearly as long as her father had.  In March 1929, Martina Gage sold control of Daniel Gage Ice Co. to the Lowell-based Kidder Company, and she gave up her role in its active management.  After 28 years leading the company following her father’s death, she passed day-to-day responsibilities to a board of directors, led by F. Arthur Osterman of the Osterman Coal Company of Wamesit.

Gage’s closed decades ago, and the need for ice from the river has long since been replaced with more modern refrigeration technologies.  Even though the ice houses and the companies that built them are now long gone from our city, their memory remains with those who saw them growing up, and remember the very human element of the ice men who were warmly welcomed regulars in the Lowell neighborhoods they loved as children.


New England’s Yellow Day of 1881: A Saffron Curtain Descends

This engraving from Wikimedia Commons shows the assassination of President James A. Garfield, with Secretary of State James G. Blaine standing at right. (Engraving originally published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” on July 11, 1881.)

In summer’s waning days in 1881, New Englanders read about hope for President Garfield‘s recovery from a gunshot wound suffered two months earlier, an imminent rising of the Apache Nation in the West, and a baseball game between the “Bostons” and the “Worcesters”, where unfavorable weather “kept away all spectators” and worries that Pike, the center fielder for the Worcesters, must have been “sold out” since the errors he made had given a win to the Boston team.

That all changed when the skies darkened shortly after dawn on Tuesday, September 6, 1881 – throughout all six New England states.  In the “forenoon,” as they called their mornings then, witnesses watched a “London fog” envelop their homes and roads.  This London fog soon took on a yellowish hue.  New Englanders worried that they were seeing the beginnings of a hurricane coming.  They began to talk about their “Yellow Day”.  The name stuck.  Those among the more superstitious remembered Mother Shipton‘s apocalyptic prophecies with apprehension and hoped that they were not witnessing the end of the world.

By noon, the skies had darkened to the point that birds were seen roosting, and people, so accustomed to relying on natural light during their nineteenth-century days, reached for “artificial lights” to light their offices and homes.  Early afternoon trains left Boston with lamps lit, and the railroad men were seen leaving the depots with their lit lanterns in-hand, a scene usually only seen on evening and night trains.  People began to compare Yellow Day with Black Friday, New England’s darkest day, that had occurred in 1780, more than a century earlier.

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society...

English: Gas lighting in the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Massachusetts, in Fall River and in Lowell, students left school early.  Mills throughout New England either lit their ‘artificial lights’ or followed suit, sending their employees out into the oddly darkened streets.  Mills that relied on artificial lighting took on an unearthly glow as their gas lights were lit during the day.  Instead of their usual yellow glow, gas lighting took on a brilliant white glow in the strange light of the day.  Outside, lamplighters lit street lamps on the cities’ main roads. In agricultural communities like West Barnstable, farm work stopped for the day, as farmers watched cattle stop feeding and hens roost early.  Witnesses began to describe the Yellow Tuesday skies as looking like something that one would see when peering through smoked or stained glass.

The air became still, and calm, during that Tuesday, and people remarked about the odd tinge that colors took on as the day wore on.  Plants were particularly brilliant – the odd light sharpening their green and blue hues.  Lawns, usually a mundane green, took on brilliant color, and looked oddly bluish, in the day’s strange light.  Yellow objects appeared colorless and white, and the color in red objects popped, while blue objects became ghostly.  People in the street looked sickly and yellowish.  Overhead, birds flew low in the skies.

Boston's Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source:  Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

Boston’s Equitable Life Insurance building at 67 Milk Street (Photo Source: Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

So many Bostonians rushed to the Equitable Building to view the strange day from its high roof that the roof had to be closed to further visitors in the afternoon.  People sought explanations for what they were witnessing.  The calmest theories blamed forest fires raging in Canada or Michigan, combining with fog and overcast skies in New England.  Surely, the “saffron curtain” blanketing New England’s skies was a combination of that fog and smoke passing high above the surface of the earth, people reasoned.  But, no one smelled smoke.  Others attributed the yellowish hue to large amounts of pollen in the air from pine and fir trees.   Many fretted about the skies, and more than a few feared that the Judgement Day was at hand.  Some took this even further.  Groups of Second Adventists in Worcester, Woonsocket, and Hartford were seen wearing their ascension robes to local schoolhouses where they awaited the world’s end.  More than a few whispered that the “saffron curtain” was the sign of a divine judgement for the July 1881 shooting that had left President Garfield ailing in New Jersey.

As the afternoon wore on toward 5 PM, the smoke began to dissipate, and by 8 PM, stars sparkled in the clear skies above New England.  New Englanders compared the Yellow Day of 1881 to the Dark Day of a century before, in 1780.  Black Friday of 1780, as it was known, followed an odd and severe winter of 1779-1780 where New Englanders frequently saw auroral displays and large spots appearing on the sun.  Snow, four feet deep, lasted from mid-November until April.  After that cold, long winter, a vast blackness opened the day on Friday, May 19, 1780, across New England, and extended beyond its borders into northern Pennsylvania and well into Canada.  The Massachusetts Spy reported that sunlight at high noon was about as bright as clear, bright moonlight.

A Map showing Damage in Michigan from the Thumb Fire of 1881. (From: State of Michigan: Department of Natural Resources)

In its aftermath, 1881′s Yellow Tuesday joined the 18th century’s Black Friday in lists of oddly memorable New England days.  The causes behind the odd skies of that September day were eventually traced to smoke that had travelled eastward from Michigan’s massive “Thumb Fire” that had burnt over a million acres of woodlands in Michigan’s Thumb Area (Pictured, at left) all on one day, the day before.  Yellow Tuesday long lived on in regional lore, but left everyday conversation soon after with President Garfield’s death on September 19.


Sometimes, Family Tree Breakthroughs Arrive in your Inbox

A map showing the location of the Azores, with island names. (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine receiving a stack of photographs from a second cousin you’ve never met, who received them from a fourth cousin who lives on a Portuguese island off the coast of Africa.  And that these photographs show never-before seen, everyday images from your great-grandparents’ life that they sent home to Portugal some fifty to sixty years ago.  Sometimes, family tree breakthroughs happen just like that.  They just show up overnight in your email inbox.

Genealogists collect stuff.  Names.  Dates.  Locations.  Histories.  Photographs.  Family Artifacts.  We revel in adding stories to the bare facts that form our family trees.  In the days before computerized historical sources and internet family trees, a well-researched genealogy meant at least one, and maybe several, crates of stuff.  A glimpse into one of these crates might reveal family tree charts, census transcription forms, or printouts of microfilmed newspaper obituaries and articles.  And then, if you were well-entrenched in the hobby, that crate would probably hold correspondence (via snail mail) with relatives or fellow researchers who lived in different cities, counties, states, and maybe even countries.  But, these researchers who shared your family interests were usually hard to find, and sometimes, even harder to reach.

In those days, genealogy felt more solitary.  Genealogists spent vast amounts of time, alone in a library or research center, pouring through old census records, old city directories, vital records, and microfilmed reels of newspapers.  Finding potential leads, investigating those leads, and organizing records was largely an activity genealogists did on their own.  Then, as now, some of the best breakthroughs in genealogy came through communication with other genealogists.  Back then, this meant getting lucky with finding a phone number through directory assistance, or perhaps driving to a nearby town and knocking on a door of a second or third cousin.

Nothing has made connecting with other genealogists easier than the internet and social media.  This past week, I met my second-cousin Bea through her message that popped into my Ancestry account.  I hadn’t met her before.   Her grandfather – my great-grandmother’s brother, had to that point been an un-researched name on my family tree.  Raphael Silva – born 1882, died 1969.  That was about it.  I had thought he probably had descendants, but hadn’t gotten around to researching this.  Within a few minutes of receiving her message, I figured out that Bea and I share a common set of 2nd-great-grandparents who lived in Portugal‘s Azores in middle of the 19th century.  Through her message, I also learned that she had already done some research on our Portuguese Silva family.

Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Azores, seen from a pl...

Santa Cruz da Graciosa, Azores, as seen from a plane. At the center is the Monte da Ajuda. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My great-grandmother, Augusta Silva, left Santa Cruz on Portugal’s Graciosa Island in 1907.  She came to the United States a young woman, not yet 20, and settled in Lowell, Massachusetts, a textile mill city with a substantial Portuguese population.  Soon after arriving, she married Joseph Machado, also from Graciosa Island, who was 11 years her senior.  Throughout her life, she kept in touch with the family she left behind on Graciosa.  I had always figured that had been the case.  What I didn’t know was that, over 100 years later, the descendants of that family on Graciosa would still remember her.  I never could have guessed that they would still have the photographs she had sent them in the 1950s and 1960s.

This photograph shows my great-grandmother's sister Olivia (far left, in rear) with her two grandsons in front of her.  My great-grandmother, Augusta, next to her, in rear, appears with her youngest son William, wife Bernadette, and their two children, 1958.

This photograph shows my great-grandmother’s sister Olivia (far left, in rear) with her two grandsons in front of her. My great-grandmother, Augusta, next to her, in rear, appears with her youngest son William, wife Bernadette, and their two children, 1958.

Bea and I exchanged a few emails.  One of her emails included the stack of photographs that Augusta had, decades ago, sent to her cousins on Graciosa.  In 2011, Bea had received them from another cousin who had grown up in the Azores.  I had never seen these photographs.  No one in my US-based family had seen them since Eisenhower and Kennedy were in office.  Opening them was something like opening a time capsule.  Images from my mid-century Portuguese family were downloading onto my hard drive.

The first photograph, from August 1958, showed some familiar faces.  My great-grandmother, Augusta, and her sister, Olivia, stood proudly outside Olivia’s South Barre (Massachusetts) home with their families.  The back of the photograph identified Olivia’s two grandsons as being ten and five years old at the time.  The youngest child in the photo, Augusta’s granddaughter, was just 14 months old at the time.  In the photograph, Augusta’s son, my mom’s Uncle Billy, held her.  He wasn’t even 30 years old when the photograph was taken in 1958; he passed away at the age of 81 in 2011.

This photograph, dating from about 1940, shows Augusta (the older woman on the right) and her sister Olivia (the older woman on the left) on the day that two of their sons married their brides.

This photograph, dating from 1939, shows Augusta (the older woman on the right) and her sister Olivia (the older woman on the left) on the day that two of their sons married their brides.

The next photograph, much older, shows another of my grandmother’s brothers, John, in 1939 on his wedding day.  My great-grandmother appears in this photograph too, again with her sister Olivia.  Two things I learned from this photo:  1.  There was a close relationship between my great-grandmother and her sister that I hadn’t known about before.  And, 2. my mom’s uncle John got married on the same day as one of Olivia’s sons.  I still haven’t figured out which one.

Another photograph shows a scene I’ve come across a few times in my collection of family photographs, the first TV picture.  Most of us have them.  They’re always black-and-white, in a living room, from the early 50s.  This was the first I had seen for my great-grandparents.  They had sent it to Portugal to show that they were doing well in the US.  They proudly stand next to their brand new TV set, their first, in their Lowell, Massachusetts living room in the early 1950′s.  You can almost feel their sense of happiness and accomplishment as you peer into this glimpse of their living room.

SILVA4a Augusta and Joe with TV

There were several other photos too, a couple more showing Augusta and Olivia together, sometimes with their husbands, sometimes not.  There was one of another sister, the youngest, who had survived them all.  That photograph, of a birthday party thrown for her in the early 70s, was the most recent.  Another showed an unidentified man in a suit on Lowell’s Central Street sometime in the late 50s.  I’ll be working on that one to see if I can figure out who he is.

I’m grateful to my newfound cousin Bea for tracking me down through Ancestry and sending me photographs of my family.  It’s an interesting thought that, a half century after the photographs were mailed to the Azores, it takes just a click of a send button to return them to Massachusetts.  Through Ancestry, email, and other forms of social media, it’s so much easier these days to form the kinds of connections that allow these sorts of things to happen.  In this future, it’s becoming easier to find and understand the past.  It has become a lot easier to find and share family stories with other family historians, researchers, and cousins.