Category Archives: history

Forgotten Genealogy: A Letter Reveals Memories from Two Lifetimes Ago

Family trees, at first blush, aren’t so exciting.

Genealogists spend a lot of time immersed in old records – especially really old ones, from decades and centuries past.  These records yield valuable information in building family trees.  And, as any genealogist will tell you, every tree ends at its treetop, with the names of its brick wall ancestors, those whose parentage is unknown and likely unrecoverable from surviving paper records.  But, even paper records have their limits.  Beyond providing names of relatives, birth-marriage-death dates, and possibly military service details, very little is recorded about the person.

Sure, if I look at the surviving paper records for Martha Jane Harmer, my wife’s second-great-grandmother, I’ll learn that she was born in Bow, a London suburb, in 1858.  Her baptismal records reveal her parents’ names (John and Charlotte) and that she was baptized in the Anglican church.  UK census records show that she lived in the area until the early 1880′s when she married and moved to the United States.

Deciphering the handwriting of 19th-century records is a madness perfected among long-time genealogists. Above, the baptismal record of Martha Jane Harmer reveals that she was baptized on July 18, 1858, in Poplar, Middlesex, England.

But, that’s pretty much where the trail runs cold.  Sure, you can extend the treetops of your family tree by learning the names, locations, and vital dates of Martha’s ancestors, but, in the end, you’ll have a list of names.  These provide some interesting insights into the naming patterns of earlier times and surnames (and their histories) in your family background, but family historians wonder what their ancestors looked like (which physical traits have been passed down the generations), what their ancestors did (which talents come from earlier generations), and how their ancestors behaved and interacted with each other, and the larger world (what maddening vexations have been passed down the generations).

Studying genealogy for years, it’s so tantalizingly irresistible to blast photographs of ancestors with your brick wall questions – ‘where were you born?’  ‘who were your parents?’  ‘what was your mother’s maiden name?’, or ‘what did you see growing up?’  Any of those answers, recorded anywhere, would be invaluable.

A rare find for family historians, a labelled photograph can provide a face to the name in your family tree. On the back of this photograph, taken by a photographer in the London suburb of Poplar, writing identities the subjects as Martha Jane Harmer and her cousin Bob. Her age is given as 14, meaning the photograph dates from 1872.

It’s every family historian’s dream.  You come across an old box of photographs.  Inside, there might be a photograph of an ancestor, maybe even labelled.  My in-laws, descendants of Martha Jane Harmer, had just such a box.  And, with their family being much more cognizant of posterity than mine, someone actually took the time to label the photographs.  This is genealogical gold.

With that, Martha Jane Harmer, a young Martha Jane at that, has a face.  But, there was more.  Deeper in the box, there was a yellowed envelope, its paper made fragile by age.  Inside, there’s ancient paper, folded into thirds, lined, with light, uneven handwriting looped and swirled across its surface.  A careful unfolding reveals that it’s a letter – to the future – telling posterity about Martha Jane’s memories from her childhood in Poplar.  If only all ancestors in my tree were so informative to the future genealogist.

The letter, some five or six pages long, provides a view, deep into the 19th century, of Martha Jane Harmer, her life, and the lives of her family.  As I read through the memories of a woman whose passed away in 1934, I learned about her grandfather, Charles Harmer, who arose every Monday morning, readied his horse, and then drove through the English town of Acton to collect rents from his tenants.  I read about John Harmer, his son and Martha Jane’s father, who collected the money, running from door-to-door as Charles rode the carriage along the road.  I also learned that, one day, young John jumped from the carriage, twisting and breaking his leg on the curb.  So bad was the break, the story went, that even after the doctor set it, the leg healed shorter than the other.  For the rest of his life, John Harmer wore shoes specially made with an elevated sole.

Charles Harmer and his family in the 1841 England Census. John Harmer, who injured his leg around the time of this census, is noted as the 16-year-old male (‘J’) who appears in the third line down in this listing.

The letter next recalls Martha Jane’s maternal grandfather, Joshua Nunn, who saw his Harmer grandchildren often.  It also reveals that Joshua was deaf and dumb from birth.  An old Nunn family story told of how Joshua Nunn’s mother, when she was young, had wished for children who were deaf and dumb.  Family lore had it that she got her wish – twice over, Joshua and his brother could not speak or hear.  As I read through the letter, I thought this was just too fantastical, but the 1861 UK census proved otherwise:

The line labelled No. 135 contains Joshua Nunn’s entry in the 1861 UK census. The right-most column records that he was deaf and dumb from birth, providing supporting evidence to the Joshua Nunn portrayed in his granddaughter’s letter.

Some of the letter’s charms cannot be verified in surviving records.  They go beyond what was recorded, and would have been lost forever if they hadn’t been captured in those handwritten pages so long ago.  One tale records that Martha Jane’s mother, Charlotte, would put two raw eggs in egg cups for Grandpa Nunn each time when he came to visit them.  He would smile, get the eggs and suck them.  Martha Jane’s father, John, could be a prankster and, one day, put up two eggs that had been emptied.  Even though everyone thought it was a good joke, Grandpa Nunn looked so disappointed that Charlotte soon brought in two eggs to take the place of the empty ones.  Martha Jane also recalled how she and her two older sisters, Emma and Betsy, would pass their Grandma Harmer’s home each day on the way to school.  Grandma Harmer would invite them in for sardine sandwiches and make sure they used the outhouse before continuing on for home.

Martha Jane recalled the bad times too.  She remembered how, on Good Friday in 1866, her mother died, one day after setting up sponge for hot cross buns.  She was just 32 years old.  One day earlier, on Holy Thursday, she had the girls bring in the bread board to the bedroom.  She made the buns ready for the oven and then passed away the next day.  In the letter, Martha Jane recalled how, as the end came,  Grandpa Nunn stood looking at his daughter.  He then said the only words that he had ever spoken in his life. “Poor Charlotte.”  He died the following week.

The letter also records other memories from Martha Jane’s childhood.  When she was about three years old, she was playing at a curb by the alley with her sisters.  A man in a horse and wagon came along and the horse stepped on her jaw.  The neighbors thought she was killed and carried her into her mother.  The doctor was called.  In the end, although she recovered, when she would be busy sometimes, you could see that she held her mouth out of line.

After Charlotte’s funeral, John Harmer tried to keep the children and the home together.  Different relatives came to keep house.  Some took the nice sheets, pillowcases, and anything else they wanted.  John had a hard time taking care of their youngest daughter, Louise, who was just two years old.  He also had a hard time taking care of himself.  The letter recalls that he ‘just lost heart’ and died the year following his wife’s death.  When John died, the girls were still  young, between nine and thirteen years old.  Louise was just three, and went to live with relatives.

The letter continues from there, for several more pages, recalling Martha Jane’s years after her parents’ deaths.  She and her older sisters found work in town as servants.  Martha Jane worked in several homes and lived with a series of relatives, some of whom she recalled fondly, some not so much.  For a while, she lived with her cousin Mary Ann’s family.  Mary Ann is remembered as a ‘husky girl’, who would wake Martha Jane up at night to hold the candle while they went downstairs into the room where the family’s milk was cooling in a large stone jar.  Mary Ann would skim a cup of cream off the surface and drink it.  It wasn’t until years later when Mary Ann got married that Martha Jane’s Aunt Mary admitted to her that she knew it was her own daughter stealing the cream, and not Martha Jane.  Aunt Mary is also fondly memorialized as a woman whose temper grew so frightening that one day, she broke a large mixing bowl over Martha Jane’s head, which left Martha Jane in considerable pain for several days.

Martha’s ‘husky’ cousin, Mary Ann Nunn, was a young girl of 9 years old at the time of the 1861 UK Census. Her mother, the feared ‘Aunt Mary’ from the letter appears on the line above.

Martha Jane’s Aunt Mary is a formidable character, but at her house is where she met her future husband, James Williams.  He’s remembered as a young carpenter who boarded at Aunt Mary’s for a few years while he was building homes in London.  One day after completing a lot of the work, James went to the owner to draw some pay – only to learn that his construction partner had already drawn the pay for both of them, and spent it.  James confronted the other man, and left him to finish the work.  James departed for America soon after, promising Martha Jane that he would send her a ticket if he found that he liked it there.

A photograph of James Williams, taken later in life.

Keeping his word, he later wrote to Martha Jane.  She wrote back, saying she would come.  He sent the ticket.  Aunt Mary, of course, protested, telling her that no decent girl would travel that far alone and unmarried.  Martha Jane next enlisted the aid of her Aunt Ellen, a favorite aunt, who had a large family of children.  Aunt Ellen told her and Aunt Mary that if Charlotte had married the man she loved, then Martha Jane could do the same.  Martha Jane Harmer arrived in Chicago, Illinois on September 15, 1881.  She was 23 years old.

James and Martha Jane had a long and happy marriage in the Chicago area, and had five children of their own.  She lived to be 76 years old, passing away in 1934.  Letters and photographs add leaves to the bare branches of a family tree and help us understand our ancestors as people and not just a series of names, dates, and locations.  It’s never known where these gems will surface – in your basement, in the basement of a close relative, or somewhere entirely different, perhaps in the papers of a more distant relative you didn’t even know existed.


The First Years of Sacred Heart Parish: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1880′s

Decidedly more rural in the years before the construction of Sacred Heart Church, the land that would eventually sit under the parish’s buildings was then owned by the Meadowcroft and Andrews families.

Moore, Andrews, Whipple, Meadowcroft:  If you spent a good span of your childhood years in Lowell, Massachusetts attending school or church at Sacred Heart, all of these names will be familiar to you.  The streets closest to Sacred Heart carry those names, which date back to the decades before Sacred Heart’s founding when the area was much more rural, and formed the southern edge of the city.  But, who were they?  And how did Sacred Heart come to be built in South Lowell?

On June 7, 1880, James Meadowcroft owned precisely 39 acres of land on the southern side of Moore Street.  Some was tilled; some lay  fallow.  Meadows formed some of his land; the rest was forest.  Meadowcroft was a wealthy man.   He also owned the farming implements, machinery, and livestock to sustain a healthy income.  He had year-round help in running the farm.  And, his farm had produced hay, milk, butter, eggs, and potatoes during 1879.

By no means a young man at 63 in 1880, James Meadowcroft was what that age called a gentleman farmer.  He had retired from his profession as a blacksmith.  His wife, Alice, 60, was just a bit younger.  Both had been born in England.  He had become a naturalized citizen in 1852.  By 1880, all of their children had moved on; only a nephew, George Green, lived with them.  He was 48 and without occupation.  A servant named Sarah Moody saw to their needs.

Some years before, James Meadowcroft had cut out a small portion of his land for his oldest son, John, who lived in a home on the western edge of his Moore Street property with his wife Bertha.  John made his living as a real estate agent.  His other three children had grown up and moved on.  To steal a term from a much later age, the Meadowcrofts were ‘empty-nesters’ and were probably looking to move on from the Moore Street property they had occupied for at least three decades.  Across the street in the former home of William Andrews, a marble worker, the Litchfield family had just moved in.  Paul Litchfield, 46, listed his occupation as a mill owner in 1880.  He and his wife, Sarah, raised their family of five children on the future site of the Sacred Heart School, who ranged in age from 6 to 22 years old.

Moore Street was still a dirt road in 1883 when church officials approached the Meadowcrofts about selling their land to the church.  The street had at least been macadamized (paved with gravel) by 1891, when they approached the Litchfields about the sale of their land to allow for a parish school to be built.  The area had remained very rural and quiet, but the Catholic population was growing in what was then the city’s southern extreme.  By some accounts, the Catholic population in South Lowell had reached 3,000 by that time.  A church was needed, and St. Peter’s was thought to be rather distant for those living in the Bleachery and Ayers City sections of Lowell.  Some folks even came up from Wigginville, just down Lawrence Street – which, at that point, hadn’t yet been annexed from Tewksbury (and wouldn’t be until 1906).

Sacred Heart Church, just a few years after its completion – 1900 (From A City of Spindles – Lowell Trades and Labor Council)

Until Sacred Heart Church performed its first mass in 1884, those 3,000 Catholics remained assigned to the St. Peter’s Church district.  Ground was broken for the new parish on Eastern Sunday, 1884; church fairs were held to raise funds.  Construction progressed rapidly.  Father Joyce, an Oblate father and an assistant in the Immaculate Conception Parish, oversaw the founding of the parish, the buying of its land, and presided over the dedication of its basement, on August 10, 1884 by Archbishop Williams, after a solemn high mass was said by Rev. Father Lefevre of Montreal, the provincial of the order.  While the basement was used for services, the church proper was constructed.  Its corner-stone was laid in June 1896.

The Sacred Heart area, some 20 years later, in 1896. The area has experienced significant development, notably along the western side of Andrews Street and the south side of Moore Street.

The first Sacred Heart School building was constructed to accommodate some 400 students – though, initially, the school had far less.  It opened for the 1892-93 school year.  By 1899, 250 students attended.  Opposite the church, it fronted Andrews Street on one side, Moore Street on the other – though it was still separated by a single building, which was eventually razed and replaced in 1909 by what later became known as the “new old school” that burnt to the ground decades later, in 1967.  As the school neared completion in 1892, plaster was applied to the woodwork in each of its eight classrooms, each 32 by 24 feet.  Each classroom had its respective cloak room, measuring 4 feet by 18 feet.  Lots of attention was paid to the woodwork, to the doors, and to the circular transoms above each.  As the school was completed on its ‘garden lot’, a contemporary writer commented that the setting was ‘very quiet’, ‘surrounded by beautiful trees’ and had an open field in front of the building that was ready for construction to support the parish’s expansion.

Readers – Do you remember the gleaming hardwoods, the transoms, and the cloakroom of the 1892 school building?  Do you have other memories of the church, or any of the three Sacred Heart school buildings?  During my time there, the 1892 school building was used for the primary grades, with the 1968 building housing Grades 4 and up.  If you have any Sacred Heart photographs that you’d like to share, I will work them into a future post.    


Doors Open Lowell – 2012

Downtown Lowell sure has come a long way since the early 1980′s.  My earliest memories of Downtown Lowell involve weekend visits to my grandmother, who once lived in the large apartment building at the corner of Middle and Central streets.  During those visits, we would walk up Central Street to Merrimack Street, follow Merrimack up to the left onto Palmer, and come back down Middle.  We might have walked all the way to Shattuck on a particularly nice day.  One of my favorite games was to run ahead and try the doors of all of the storefronts.  Each had a unique doorknob or handle.  And each was locked, the stores behind them closed and dark.  I never got a chance to see what lay within the stores behind those ornate door handles and darkened windows.

Years later, Doors Open Lowell comes along.  What a wonderful idea!  Finally, I got to see what lies within some of Lowell’s grandest structures and homes.  I only wish I could have arranged to see more.  For no more than the cost of a tasty lunch at Abu Nawas (and the gas to get there), we visited Doors Open Lowell.  First, we saw Tremont Yard, a system of underground tunnels created by engineer James B. Francis in 1855 as part of his turbine experiments.  Today, the tunnels lie under the new and modern home of the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union.  Outside downtown, we next visited the Franco-American School, once the elaborate home of Frederick Ayer.  The mansion dates from 1876, is one of the most ornate in the city, and is well-preserved by the school.

After the visit to the Ayer mansion, we next visited the Spalding House, a Georgian-style house dating from 1761, and the third-oldest home now standing within city limits.  The Lowell Parks & Conservation Trust is refurbishing the building, located on Pawtucket Street just a few doors down from the Ayer mansion.  Our tour of the building was self-guided, but many members of the Trust were on hand to enthusiastically and generously offer information on the house’s history and its significance to the area.  Of all of the historical homes I have visited, these folks definitely win the award for being the most welcoming.  I look forward to visiting again when I have even more time to explore.

Doors Open Lowell satisfies that curiosity that’s lingered within me from those days when I first peered into closed stores to catch a glimpse inside.  There were so many other great doors that were opened as part of Doors Open Lowell that I didn’t get a chance to see.  I hope to visit these next year.  Not only does Doors Open Lowell succeed in satisfying my curiosity about some of Lowell’s most storied institutions and homes, it also serves to showcase just how far Lowell has come from the streetscape of closed doors and empty storefronts I remember from the early 1980′s.


The Construction of St. Peter’s Church – Lowell, Massachusetts, 1892

Once located on Lowell‘s Gorham Street, St. Peter’s Church was founded in Lowell in 1841, ten years after the founding of St. Patrick’s, the city’s first Catholic church.  Many readers will remember the impressive edifice that once stood at 323 Gorham, across from Lowell’s courthouse building; however, this was actually the church’s third building.  St. Peter’s Church spent its first fifty years in two other locations.  The first church building, made of brick, was built at the corner of Gorham and Appleton Streets and served the congregation from its founding until 1890.

The Post Office building, located at the intersection of Lowell’s Gorham and Appleton Streets, marks the site of the original St. Peter’s Church, which had been demolished several years before this 1896 map was drawn. St. Peter’s Orphanage still stood on Appleton street, just two doors down from the original church location, at this time.

As Lowell’s Catholic population surged through the 1880′s, it soon became very obvious that St. Peter’s would need a newer, larger church building.  Rev. Michael Ronan, pastor since 1883, negotiated the sale of the land on which the first St. Peter’s stood, to the federal government for the construction of a new post office.   The funds from that sale allowed the church to build a larger building, but the timing of the new post office’s construction schedule did not allow St. Peter’s adequate time to construct their new building.  The first St. Peter’s came down, before the next could go up – and the congregation faced the threat of homelessness.

Rev. Michael Ronan pastored the church during the construction.  As the new Gorham Street building was constructed, a temporary wooden church was built very near the site, and served the congregation.  That building’s size was still considerable:  120 feet long by 90 feet wide, and it stood 18 feet in height.  The church moved its pews from the old church and seating was provided for up to 1,500 people.  Its first mass was held on April 27, 1890, not even one month before the old church came down, on May 20, to make room for the new post office.

The map above, from an 1896 Atlas, shows the new St. Peter’s Church, in gray, across the street from the Courthouse, and the temporary church, in yellow, located slightly up the street, where St. Peter’s School would stand.

Time passed and the congregation continued to use the temporary building for a couple of years.  The congregation acquired land further down Gorham Street, and worked to clear some frame houses that stood on the site.

St. Peter’s Church, which stood on Gorham Street in Lowell, as it appeared in 1905. The building stood until its demolition in 1996.

Construction began in 1892.  Local newspapermen estimated that some 10,000 people packed Gorham and South streets to witness the laying of the cornerstone for the new St. Peter’s Church on Sunday, September 11 of that year under delightful weather.  Even the floor that had been placed over the new foundation was packed with people.  Along South Street, an altar and pulpit had been temporarily constructed; Irish and US flags had been set up for the Mass.  Some 65 clergy helped in celebrating the Mass to commemorate the laying of the cornerstone, headed by Archbishop John J. Williams.  Others hailed from churches all over Massachusetts, some near Boston, some closer to home in Lawrence, Massachusetts.

The granite church was completed in 1900, instantly became a local landmark, and dominated the local streetscape for nearly a century.  Its twin towers could be seen for quite some distance – one stood nearly 200 feet high, the other 176 feet high.  Due to declining enrollment, the church closed in 1986.  The building stood vacant for nearly ten years, falling into increasing states of disrepair while options for its next use were discussed.  Eventually, no new use was found and the building was demolished about ten years later in the mid-90′s.  Green space covers the site now, which is dominated solely by the courthouse.  Rev. Michael Ronan’s memory lives on in Father Ronan Terrace, a cross street connecting Gorham and South streets, near the church’s former site.  The church’s memory lives on in the building that once housed its rectory.  Still standing next to the former church site, its red brick exterior is barely visible in the photograph above, at right (to the left of the church).  An insurance agency now occupies the building.  St. Peter’s Convent, crumbling and beyond repair, was razed several years ago to add a much-needed parking area for a local funeral home.


Once the Savoy Theatre, Then the Hathaway Theatre, First a Church – Lowell, Massachusetts

The site of the Casto Theatre, May 2012, Viewed from across Shattuck Street. (Photo by Author)

Parking lots aren’t usually very interesting.  And, as I found out this morning, it’s rather difficult to take an interesting photograph if your subject happens to be that parking lot.  And, usually, when one dives into the history of a parking lot, you find, as its predecessor, an open field, a burnt-out residence, or maybe a poorly constructed building that just outlived its usefulness.  There’s a parking lot in downtown Lowell with a much more interesting history, though.  It’s framed by the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets and is adjacent to Lowell’s Athenian Corner Restaurant.

The lot’s days for parking can be traced back, rather precisely, to the first days of September 1933, when a rather nostalgic downtown Lowell community bade its farewell to a building that dated to Lowell’s very first days as a city.  Since the start of its construction in 1837, the building first served Lowell as a church, then as a theatre, later as a boxing ring, and ultimately as a warehouse for one of its leading department stores.  All of those incarnations were recalled fondly as the wrecking ball came for the building in September 1933.

Lowell’s Casto Theatre, as it appeared around 1903. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity).  Located at the corner of Downtown Lowell’s Shattuck and Market Streets, the dark brick building directly behind it now houses the Athenian Corner Restaurant.

At the time of its demolition, the building’s past was best recalled by the time it was known as the Hathaway Theatre, a name it carried some 25 years before, from 1905 to 1912.  It was also well-known as the Casto Theatre.  But the building had many names during its century of existence.

Throughout its many years at the intersection of Shattuck and Market Streets, the building’s architecture proclaimed its origins as a religious institution.  Indeed, the building was first dedicated as the Second Universalist Church on November 15, 1838.  The building remained the Second Universalist Church for years, nearly 50, before it changed its name to the Shattuck Street Universalist Church in 1888.  By 1892, church leadership began talk of selling the church property and relocating to a ‘more desirable’ part of town.  And, the following year, the Shattuck Street Universalist Society changed its name to Grace Universalist and purchased a lot on the corner of Lowell’s South Canton Street and Princeton Boulevard.

As the new church went up, church leadership worked out a deal with prospective buyers that would lead to the opening of the Savoy Theatre.  As the Savoy prepared to move into the old church, the first stone of the Society’s new church was laid on April 11, 1895.

The site of the Casto Theatre, as viewed from across Market Street. This is roughly the same view as the historical photograph offers above. (Photo by Author, May 2012)

The Savoy Theatre and Musee opened on February 17, 1896 as a vaudeville house.  The novelty of converting a church to a theatre was not lost on the Lowell populace.  As the scheduled opening of 2:30 PM approached that day, thousands lined Market and Shattuck Streets awaiting the new theatre.  And, it was by no means certain that the Savoy would open.  Mr. White, the state inspector of buildings had already condemned the former church once as unfit for theatrical purposes.  Those downtown on the day of the Savoy’s scheduled opening prepared for quite a spectacle as Mr. White arrived, at 2 PM, and met with the theatre’s management.  Ultimately, he did allow the doors to open at the scheduled time of 2:30.  So large was the crowd that many had to be turned away.  Among those who arrived to the theatre’s opening were members of the former church, anxious to see the ‘grand transformation’ of their building.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Savoy Theatre and Musee (Source: Lowell Sun, February 17, 1896)

That first show, in the converted church, promised some of the biggest names of the day in vaudeville.  And reports exist proclaiming the show’s grandeur.  They also record that the audience was timid in applauding in a church.  Or perhaps it wasn’t just that they were timid.  Those same reports recorded lots of issues with stage mechanics as the theatre worked out its ‘opening kinks’.  The Savoy gained some early notoriety when it found Miss Mamie Russell and her ‘Slide for Life’ act in early April 1896.  Her show, one of the Savoy’s most popular, featured Miss Russell sliding 400 feet, from the top of the theatre to the ground in front of the nearby YMCA building.

Despite the excitement surrounding its opening, the theatre soon ran into the red.  Management promised a change in the theatre’s “policy” and used advertising to proclaim that they were doing away with the “curio hall” attractions.  They promised “high-class vaudeville talent” only.

Similar promises, and a succession of managers, came and went over the next few years, each bringing a new policy or approach.  None were successful in making the Savoy a profitable enterprise.  Yet another new manager promised another new policy on March 26, 1897.  However, before the month was out, the theatre closed.  The Savoy stayed dark for about a year, before it reopened in February 1898, this time devoted exclusively to vaudeville.  A few short weeks later, the Savoy closed again, this time until December.  As part of this re-opening, the Savoy changed its name to the Casino – for about four months, before changing its name back to the Savoy in March 1899.

An advertisement announcing the opening of the Casto – October 1902 (Source:  Lowell Sun)

The openings and closings of the Savoy continued, with a re-opening in September 1900, and another in October 1902, this time as the Casto.  Al Haynes managed the Casto during those years, and had brought the theatre’s new name from Fall River, where he had made his name.  The Casto made headlines in January 1905, though whether it was the lollipops it gifted to patrons (the latest craze) or Miss May Belfort, an English star who attracted much attention, was not certain.

Just a few short months later, the Casto underwent another ‘grand opening’ and another new manager.  A newly hired company of actors and a newly appointed stage promised a much enhanced show.  It must have worked – maybe even a little too well.  The actors left the Casto within a few weeks and moved on to its more prominent competitor, the Lowell Opera House.  Casto management replaced them, but attendance waned, and, by Christmas Day, 1905, the Casto became the Hathaway.

The theatre’s new owner, Andrew Hathaway tried to resurrect a theatre that locals had begun to call the “white elephant’.  His program promised ‘refined acts of vaudeville’, and ‘the best the market had to offer’.  And, for a while, the Hathaway succeeded and became known as one of the region’s best houses of vaudeville.  By March 5, 1912, however, the Hathaway had followed its predecessors into financial hard times.  A newspaper article of the time announced that it had again closed its doors.  The theatre had been showing some of the day’s most popular shows, like ‘The Preacher and the Convict’.  Theatre management blamed the Lenten season for sluggish ticket sales.

Six months later, on September 16, 1912, the Hathaway became the Playhouse Theatre and Kendall Weston became its manager.  Weston had a long history with the location and had been connected to the Savoy.  He brought in an acting company known as the “Drama Players”, who performed such period favorites as ‘The Lion and the Mouse’ and ‘The Charity Ball’.  Weston also acted in some of the plays.  After some initial success, the Playhouse Theatre opened and closed, frequently, as well.  The theatre temporarily tried its hand at burlesque in March 1914, adopting it as its policy one week, and shedding it in favor of showing ‘moving pictures’ the next.  On March 29, 1914, the headlines promised that the Playhouse would show ‘the $40,000 five reel feature film sensation, ‘The Making of an Automobile Shown by Vivid Moving Pictures’.

Advertisement for the Playhouse – September 24, 1912 (Source: Lowell Sun)

The Playhouse fell quiet again after that.  Lowell High put on its annual play there. The Middlesex Women’s Club showed children’s movies there for a time.  After that, the Lowell Orchestral Society offered concerts there.  Movies came back for a while in March 1917.  The following month, the Playhouse made another go at showing burlesque and musical comedy.  This continued, through more openings, closing, and reinventions.  New movie houses like the Strand moved into Lowell, and the more influential Lowell Opera House began to corner the shrinking market for live shows.

The Playhouse eventually closed for good, in 1918, and opened only sporadically in 1919 to serve as a boxing ring for local boxing stars.  On August 7, 1919, on the same day the Lowell City Council expressed its support for Irish independence and invited Ireland’s Eammon De Valera to Lowell, the announcement came that the Playhouse had been sold to the Chalifoux Company for use as a warehouse and garage.  Fourteen years later, the building was demolished and replaced by a parking lot, which still exists at the site today.


The Opening of the Chelmsford Mall, 1973 – Remembering Child World and Bradlees

In the early spring of 1973, if you were to drive west along Chelmsford‘s Route 110, just beyond the Lowell city line, you wouldn’t get far before you came across a large clearing outside your driver’s side window.  Masses of steel would be shooting skyward, well back on a newly-cleared 12-acre parcel of land.

With locations in Nashua, Salem NH, and Chelmsford, Child World saw the spending of many childhood allowances during the 70's and 80's.

There might even be a sign, advertising the fate of the new development – not far from the junction of Rtes. 3 and 495.  A “Neighborhood Mall” is planned, and with it, Child World and Bradlees Department Store are both coming to Chelmsford.  A Stop & Shop Grocery Store also announced plans to move into the new mall.

A lot of excitement surrounded the mall’s opening.  “Who wants to go downtown?  Who wants to drive all the way to Burlington?” quipped one man to the Lowell Sun in early 1973.

With construction beginning around December 1972, the mall was seen as a welcome alternative to the at-times sweltering, and at-times freezing, streets of downtown Lowell, or the larger and more distant Burlington Mall some miles down Route 3.  The idea of a mall at the site actually surfaced as early as 1970, but several hurdles needed to be cleared before construction even started.  First, no less than 14 separate parcels of land needed to be purchased.  Later, the project was almost derailed (and ended up being delayed for two months) by the Conservation Commission, while the question of wetlands found on the site was discussed.

Originally opened as the Neighborhood Mall, the Chelmsford Mall acquired its current name soon after opening.

After all the hurdles had been cleared, and as construction progressed in March 1973, the development’s leasing agent joked, to a Lowell Sun reporter:

“Have you seen the new Hatch Act?  Conservation is all right.  But it needs some moderation!  In this one, any marsh, meadow, wetland, the sea coast, any brook, all treated the same.  They’re not the same.  It’s all got to be reasonable. . . . Really, who cares about saving the mosquitoes?”

The seventies sure were different times. . . .

Construction continued through the spring and summer of 1973, and the mall was scheduled to open that October.  That large parcel of land along Chelmsford’s Route 110 eventually came to accommodate 1,200 cars and a ‘huge’ mall, as it was then called.  In addition to Child World, Bradlees, and a Stop and Shop, the mall also housed some 25 speciality stores, including Hit or Miss, Radio Shack, and Fayva.

A Stop and Shop in Chelmsford on 110? Deja Vu? No, this ad heralds the opening of a Stop and Shop location at the Chelmsford Mall on February 4, 1974.


When McDonald’s First Came to Massachusetts, 1960s

Although fast food restaurants seem less prevalent in our neck of the woods than in other regions of the country, it’s hard to picture a strip of suburban road, even in New England, without including a glimpse of those golden arches among the commercial landscape.  Today, McDonald’s employs 1.7 million people in more than 33,000 restaurants in 119 countries.

McDonald's opened its first restaurant in Lowell during the summer of '65, on Rogers Street - near the Tewksbury line.

During the same year that McDonald’s opened its first Lowell-area restaurant in 1965, the chain also celebrated its 10th anniversary and became a public company with its initial public stock offering.  By 1965, McDonald’s had grown to 700 locations in the US and had become famous for its 15-cent hamburgers.  No item on its menu of the mid-1960′s sold for more than 20 cents.

McDonald’s strategy mirrored that of the Detroit automakers:  churn out hamburgers with assembly line efficiency – high volume and low overhead.  Then, hope that customers will continue to wait at the self-service window as long as they can continue to enjoy discounted prices.  Even in the mid-60′s, a burger at fifteen cents was still a steal.

The original model of the McDonald’s restaurant involved self-service windows, rather than today’s familiar eat-in restaurant (introduced in 1962) and drive-thru, which debuted at a McDonald’s located near a military base in Arizona so that soldiers would not need to violate a rule that prohibited them to leave their vehicles while wearing fatigues.

McDonald’s first television advertisement hit the airwaves in 1966, the year after its entry into the Lowell, Massachusetts market.  The ads below tout such forgotten McDonald’s delicacies as Roast Beef on a Roll and McDonald’s own Home Fried Chicken.  There’s also a spot showcasing what’s since become a rare scene:  kids piling into the back of a station wagon.  In this era of car seats and seatbelt laws, there’s something nostalgic about the idea of sitting in the back of a station wagon with five or six of your favorite neighborhood friends.

The second set of McDonald’s ads also dates from the late 1960′s, and captures the debut of the Filet-o-Fish, originally introduced to help revive flagging sales on the “meatless Fridays” practiced by Roman Catholics.  Warning:  The “McDonald’s is Your Kind of Place” tune is the sort of jingle that may stay stuck in your head for a while.

McDonald's first location in Fitchburg, Massachusetts predated its Lowell location by several years. This ad dates from 1963.

McDonald’s today has grown into a multinational corporation that brings what many view as a kind of “Americana” into countries far from America’s shores.  Over the last 15 years, living in Western Europe for extended periods of time and spending stints of time in Latin America too, I sought out McDonald’s when I needed a temporary escape from the local fare.  Whether you love them or not, it’s hard to deny that McDonald’s has had an indelible impact on American culture of the past fifty years.


Downtown Lowell’s “Uncle” Dudley Page: The Man behind Page’s Clock

From the 1939 Lowell City Directory

If you’ve spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve surely passed Page’s Clock in Kearney Square on Merrimack Street.  The clock, refurbished in the 1990′s, has been a Downtown Lowell landmark since the D.L. Page Company moved its operations into the nearby building at 16-18 Merrimack Street in May 1913.

As its advertisements claimed, the D.L. Page Company had been “makers of fine candies since Lincoln’s Time.”  By the time the late 1930′s had rolled around, Dudley L. Page had run his business for nearly 75 years.

“Uncle Dudley”, as he was affectionately known throughout Lowell, always proudly recalled that his first day in business was March 17, 1866, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.  Uncle Dudley founded his first candy shop on the corner of Lowell’s Middle and Central Streets, in the basement of a building that then housed Richardson’s Clothing Store.  He had returned from service in the Civil War just one year before.

In its years before the move into its Merrimack Street location, the D.L. Page Company housed its operations in various Downtown Lowell locations:  the basement of the Hildreth Block, a store opposite St. Anne’s Church on Merrimack Street, on the street floor of the Fellows Block, and in the old Masonic Building, also on Merrimack Street.  Uncle Dudley also opened branch locations at 9 West Street in Boston, as well as in Lynn and North Chelmsford.

Lowell Sun Advertisement for DL Page & Co, March 16, 1931

Born in New London, NH in the mid-1840′s, Uncle Dudley moved to Billerica when he was six.  At an annual meeting of the Lowell Historical Society in 1934, he delivered a paper on his childhood in Billerica recalling his boyhood ambition, which was not to be a baker and maker of fine candies, but to be a locomotive engineer.  In the decade before the Civil War, Uncle Dudley recalled a life where stagecoaches were the preferred manner of travel to reach the outskirts of town and where he followed the actions of Wendell Phillips, the ‘crusading abolitionist’.  He also recalled timeless childhood antics like skipping school in favor of visiting the swimming hole and hobbies that don’t seem so timeless, like catching eels in the Shawsheen River and pitching quoits.

Barely a decade later, Uncle Dudley went on to join the Union army, and even stood inspection before President Lincoln.  Soon after returning from his Civil War service, Uncle Dudley opened his store, and went on to specialize in candies of all kinds.  Over the years, he added a restaurant and  a luncheonette to his shop.  In the late 1870′s, he even completed a Doctor of Medicine degree at Philadelphia’s Jefferson College.

Even as he neared his 100th birthday in the 1930′s, Uncle Dudley continued to actively bake, make candy, and oversee all of the daily activities of his shop.  And, with each year, Uncle Dudley celebrated the St. Patrick’s Day anniversary of his store with special offerings, including stick candy.

Well into his nineties, Uncle Dudley was often seen pushing slush from his store’s sidewalk, and was used by downtown officials to encourage his fellow merchants to do the same.  He figured prominently into the city’s social scene too.  In August 1934, local papers ignited with the gossip that only scandal brings when Uncle Dudley secretly wedded Miss Ella Calderwood.  Miss Calderwood had been a bookkeeper for his firm for several years, but had retired some 15 years before.  In her retirement, she worked as a piano instructor, and had acquired a reputation among local musicians.  Miss Calderwood had also served as a housekeeper for Uncle Dudley for some time.  Their marriage in August 1934 satisfied the rumors about their romantic involvement.  When they married, she was 85; he was 89.

Dudley L. Page (Courtesy: Lowell Sun - 8/11/1934)

After more than 75 years in business, Dudley L. Page died on November 20, 1942, at his home at 427 Andover Street in Lowell’s Belvidere section.  He was 98. At the time, he was one of the last two remaining Civil War veterans living in Lowell and had served as an honorary marshal in the city’s Memorial Day parades for years.  He had retained active management of his store up until his very last years, and kept an active interest in the store up until his death.  The store held on for a short period afterward, but in December 1947, the location was sold, and eventually became Brigham’s.

Uncle Dudley’s clock remains on Merrimack Street outside his store’s former building.  The clock fell into disrepair for a while in the late 20th century, but since its refurbishing in the 1990′s, it has once again rejoined the Downtown Lowell landscape as a link to the area’s vibrant past and to one of Downtown Lowell’s most influential long-time merchants.

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts

Merrimack Street, Lowell Massachusetts. Page's Clock appears in the middle left of the photo, along the sidewalk. (Photo credit: Wikipedia, John Phelan)


Yesterday’s Telephone Numbers: GLenview, MOntrose, and ULysses

In those long ago days before cellphones, speed dialing, and stored numbers, folks like Tommy Tutone telephoned girls like ‘Jenny’ by actually dialing 867-5309.  If he was a modern type, he may have even punched the number into the telephone’s touchtone keypad, an innovation that was several years old by the time the song was released in 1981.

And, 20 years earlier, in 1962, Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes sang of a woman who urged men to call her at BEechwood 4-5789 so they could “have a date, any ol’ time”.

A generation before, in 1940, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra, memorialized the phone number of Manhattan’s Hotel Pennsylvania with the song PEnnsylvania 6-5000.

Do you find it easier to remember the telephone numbers of your childhood home or friends, than those of any one of the ten cellphones and landlines in your family today?  There was something about dialing a telephone number (or even punching it into a touchtone number pad) that helped commit it to memory.

The telephone companies didn’t always think so, though.  As seven-digit phone numbers were introduced during the middle of the 20th century, companies like New England Telephone and Telegraph added exchange names to existing phone numbers to help people remember the two digits added to the beginning of their phone numbers.  Locally, the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company called its telephone exchange names ‘central offices’ when they were implemented in the early 1950′s.  In September 1954, in Massachusetts, along came GLenview for Lowell, ULysses for Tewksbury, NIagara for Tyngsboro, and MYrtle for Westford.  (ALpine for Chelmsford came soon after.)  The two initial letters of the central office names, always capitalized, represented the two initial numbers of the phone number to be dialed.  Hence, as it’s explained below, GL3-2181 becomes 453-2181:

New England Telephone, 1954

The idea behind central office names, beyond helping memories and expanding the pool of available numbers, was to enable ‘wide range dialing’, or allowing people to dial American and Canadian numbers directly into their telephones, without the assistance of an operator. The new system also standardized the numbering system and ensured that each telephone received a unique number.  Under this system, telephone numbers contained three components:  an area designation (now known as an area code), a Central Office designation (consisting of the first two letters of the central office name and the first number thereafter, and the station number (or the last four digits of the telephone number).

New England Telephone and Telegraph, 1964

So, how did it work?  If you were dialing within a central office (or telephone exchange name), you needed only to dial the five figures, as explained above.  If you wanted to call outside of your central office, the two letters were added.

There’s something nostalgic and ‘mid-century sounding’ to a phone number like BEechwood 45789, or more locally, GLenview 8-6361, which was the telephone number to reach one of Lowell’s largest department stores, the Bon Marché.  Today, in an era of Skype and email and text messages, it’s hard to imagine the same sort of nostalgia being attached to a phone number.


Remembering the Green Ridge Turkey Farm – Nashua, NH

Do you remember Kimball’s Green Ridge Turkey Farm on Nashua’s Daniel Webster Highway?  Who can forget the giant turkey that once stood atop that iconic sign on DW Highway?  For nearly 60 years,  the Green Ridge Turkey Farm stood on the corner of the DW Highway and Spit Brook Road in Nashua, NH, about two miles north of the state border with Massachusetts.  Its site was historic – the main house of the farm, called the manor house, had been a long-time Nashua landmark, dating to revolutionary times when it had served as a stage-coach hostelry.  Through several ownership changes and one major fire, the Green Ridge served dinners and pies in its restaurant – and not just of turkey, but also seafood; the Green Ridge also served lobster, clams and scallops.

Green Ridge Turkey Farm Restaurant, ca. 1960. Image from Card Cow.

But, of course, Kimball’s Green Ridge Turkey Farm was best known for its turkeys, which were sold either “drawn and ready for the oven” or “cooked and pan roasted”.  The Green Ridge also offered its own dressing and gravy.  The Green Ridge Turkey Farm got its start when George and Grace Kimball bought the 200-acre property in 1931 and soon after opened a farm stand.  Its frontage on the Daniel Webster Highway contributed to the Kimballs’ success, and, by 1938, Mr. and Mrs. Kimball expanded the stand, adding turkey sandwiches and ice cream to its offerings.  Two years later, in 1940, the Kimballs added the restaurant, and the Green Ridge’s reputation for great turkey, supplied directly from their farm, quickly caught on.  The farm quickly grew to accommodate the raising of up to 6,000 turkeys.

An advertisement for the Green Ridge Turkey Farm - 1951

The reputation of the Green Ridge as a restaurant and a turkey farm spread throughout New England during the war years.  Then, during one of its best years, just four days after Thanksgiving, disaster struck the Green Ridge.  At 6 PM on the evening of November 27, 1950, a few hours after the farm had hosted the New England Turkey Growers’ Association, Dr. Frank Flagg knocked on the door of Mr. and Mrs. Kimball’s home.  The Green Ridge, just 100 yards south from where they were sitting, was on fire.  Dr. Flagg and the Kimballs set off to alert the fire department, but couldn’t find a working telephone.  A recent storm had knocked out phone service in the area.  Eventually, others saw the smoke and flames in the sky and the calls began to arrive to the Nashua Fire Department.  The first caller told the fire department that the ‘Green Ridge farm building [was] ready to explode’.  A moment later, a call from the Wayside Furniture Company told the firefighters that something was wrong at the Green Ridge.

Kimball's Green Ridge Turkey Farm, Nashua, N.H., ca. 1945 (Courtesy: Boston Public Library Flickr Photostream)

The Central and Lake Street stations responded to the fire.  All call men were soon summoned to duty.  Firefighters arrived to find the fire at its peak and the interior of the building was completely engulfed in flames as the smoke rose skyward.  Motorists and nearby residents stopped to watch the fire.  A lack of hydrants in the area meant the firefighters had no available water.  Firefighters rushed the half-mile south to the Allen property and were able to attach a pump to a water hole.  They had finally found water to fight the fire.  But, by then, it was out of control.

By the time the fire was out, the restaurant was a total loss.  George Kimball told reporters he didn’t have adequate insurance coverage to rebuild.   The restaurant had been officially closed for the season just a couple of days before, and would have reopened the next year, on February 22.  The losses were deep, however, and the costs were formidable to replace the lost large dining room, soda fountain, and two deep freeze units, that had been holding 250 turkeys.  The Kimballs put the Green Ridge Turkey Farm on the market.

A buyer came forward and, on March 15, 1951, the Kimballs sold their Green Ridge Turkey Farm to Mr. and Mrs. Howard Flanders.  The Flanders rebuilt the restaurant, and reopened it in July 1952.

The Green Ridge Reopens - July 29, 1952. (Lowell Sun)

The Flanders’ ownership of the Green Ridge was short-lived.  After rebuilding and reopening its restaurant following the 1950 fire, they sold it to the Charpentier brothers, Luc, Victor, and Edmund, in 1954.  The Charpentier family owned the Green Ridge from 1954 through its closing in the mid-1990′s, when it was closed, razed, and replaced by a Barnes & Noble, which still stands at the site.  Still, when driving down the DW Highway in Nashua even today, I still look twice for the turkey that once stood atop the Green Ridge Turkey Farm sign perched near the Spit Brook Road intersection.  Has it really been more than 15 years since it came down?

The Barnes & Noble location in Nashua, NH - on the former site of the Green Ridge Turkey Farm (Photo from: Barnes & Noble)