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Lowell’s Franco American School and its Connection to my Family History

Lowell’s Irish and French Canadian populations long had an uneasy relationship.  I grew up hearing about it, a century after the French Canadians first starting appearing in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1870s.  By the time the French Canadians began arriving in Lowell, the Irish Catholics – who had started appearing a generation earlier – had been winning some hard-fought political control over their circumstances and had started arguing for labor reform in the city’s textile mills.  The French Canadians, newly arrived to Lowell, were not looking to jeopardize their chances of finding employment in the mills by becoming involved in the Irish efforts at labor reform.  As a result, the Irish viewed the French Canadians as strike breakers, and the French Canadians resented the Irish for making their quest for lasting and steady employment more difficult.

French Canadian family arriving from Montreal, 1913 (Via Wikimedia Commons, via Popular Science Monthly, Volume 83)

Gradually, as newer waves of emigrants arrived – among them the Greeks, Polish and Portuguese – the resentment between the Irish and French Canadians began to ebb as they formed an uneasy alliance against these newer groups who, like them before, so needed work that they were willing to act as ‘strike breakers’ when labor discussions turned toward reform in the years surrounding the turn of the twentieth century.  But, the tensions never really faded away entirely.

As both populations became ‘more American’, and less ‘Irish’ or ‘French Canadian’, their US-born children almost began to forget about the original divides between the two groups.  Almost.  Many mill town family trees, mine included, show evidence of marriages uniting children of the Irish with children of the French Canadians.

When Peter Foisy, of French Canadian descent, married my Great Aunt Catherine McNamara, of Irish Catholic descent, in the mid-1920s, a sense of scandal rocked the family – for a few reasons.  He was older, by more than 20 years.  He was divorced.  And – he was French Canadian – one of ‘them’.  For similar reasons, a sense of scandal also rocked his family, when their son divorced his wife to marry a woman young enough to be his daughter.

Soon after their marriage, Catherine became pregnant – which wasn’t really a surprise to anyone since Peter had left his first wife since she hadn’t wanted children.  Their daughter, my Aunt Emily, was born in 1927, and the family lived happily, until 1929, when Peter died at the age of 47.  My Aunt Emily, was just two years old.

Grandma Foisy - the only photo I've seen of her.

Grandma Foisy – the only photo I’ve seen of her.

Decades later, I grew up hearing the story of how Aunt Emily’s French-Canadian grandmother tried to convince my aunt’s newly widowed mother to place her in the Franco American Orphanage in the months after her father’s death.  The stories led me to envision this woman as a ‘wicked witch’ sort of grandmother.  And, years later, when I found her photograph among my aunt’s things, that image wasn’t exactly disproven.

The Franco American School, as seen from Pawtucket Street, (By Emw, via Wikimedia Commons)

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist

English: Frederick Ayer, Industrialist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The orphanage, to me, as a child hearing the story, seemed like it would have been a big, scary, lonely place to send a newly fatherless toddler in the late 1920s.  Now, after the passage of a few decades and a chance to further study the Franco American Orphanage, it turns out that it wasn’t such a desolate, lonely place after all.  The original building, shown above, dates to the 1870s and was built for Frederick Ayer, one of Lowell’s most prominent nineteenth-century businessmen.  Today, his former estate, once known as the Ayer estate and later as the Franco American Orphanage and School quickly became one of Lowell’s most recognizable landmarks on the corner of School and Pawtucket Streets.  Frederick Ayer, in life, was a successful Lowell businessman whose business pursuits included partnering with his equally well-known brother, J.C. Ayer, in his patent medicine business.

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell's Market Street.  On the building's Central Street side, the company's painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author.  Oct. 2011)

The building which once housed the J.C. Ayer Co. still stands on Lowell’s Market Street. On the building’s Central Street side, the company’s painted advertisement is still visible (Photo by Author. Oct. 2011)

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate bought the Ayer estate in 1908 and soon received Cardinal O’Connell‘s blessing to open an orphanage to serve the orphans of the city’s growing Franco American population.  Father Joseph Campeau, OMI, who was pastor at St. Joseph’s parish, helped found the orphanage, with the help of the Sisters of Charity.  They had their work cut out for them, trying to refurbish the estate and turn it into an orphanage and school.  The estate had been vacant since 1890, when Ayer had moved to Boston.  In the end, they succeeded in renovating the estate, and the nuns welcomed the orphanage’s first sixteen orphans on October 15, 1908.

The orphanage prospered, and as times changed, it began to admit day students as early as the 1950s.  The number of day students continued to grow through the 1960s, when the Franco American Orphanage officially became the Franco American School in 1963.  Fifteen years later, in 1978, the Franco American School discontinued its boarding school services and moved to the day-student-only format that continues through today.

By the time I came around, the Franco American School had stood on Lowell’s Pawtucket Street for decades, where it still provides a Catholic education to the city’s youth.  Although additions have been added to the original Ayer estate over the years, the front building, the original, still retains much of its original historical charm.  Fortunately, very little remains today of that initial resentment between Lowell’s earliest Irish and French Canadian populations, except when recalled in family stories and old newspaper articles.  My aunt passed away in 2004, and never lost pride in either heritage – although I think she more readily claimed her Irish Catholic background just to spite that French Canadian grandmother who almost sent her to the orphanage all those years ago.


The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940.

The Valentine’s Day Storm of 1940 crossed Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts within just a few days in February 1940.  Locals said it was the biggest storm to hit the region since the New England Hurricane of 1938, some 15 months before.  The first flurries started on the morning of Valentine’s Day, before progressing into a steady snow with strong winds as the afternoon wore on.  The storm didn’t stop until the morning of the next day when 14 inches of fresh snow lay across the area.  The drifts reached six to eight feet in some places.  Some reports described the drifts as approaching ten feet high.

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine's Day snowstorm in 1940.  (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

Boston commuters learn of significant train travel delays during the Valentine’s Day snowstorm in 1940. (Via Boston Public Library, Flickr)

The storm stalled train travel for hours on all of New England‘s railroad systems, and stranded many in Boston on Valentine’s Day.  Many Lowell residents attending the ice carnival at the Boston Garden were trapped in Boston after all train service was cancelled  after the 8:45 PM train left the station.  Many of the stranded spent idle hours over the next day or two at hotel bars, still clothed in their dinner jackets and evening gowns that they had been wearing on the night of the storm.  Those lucky enough to score hotel rooms paid steep premiums.  When the rooms ran out, hotel owners were required to provide cots in their lobbies and ballrooms to accommodate those made ‘temporarily homeless’ by the storm.

The storm also stalled trolley car and bus transportation, and all plane service was cancelled for three or four days. In the city, all of Boston’s major department stores closed on the 15th, something that hadn’t happened in 14 years, not even in the New England Hurricane of 1938.   The roads became so bad that Boston city police enforced a ban on all automobiles entering the downtown area.  And, snow removal efforts became further hampered by the large amounts of automobiles that had stalled and subsequently abandoned on the streets.

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine's Day storm.  (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

A fireman digs out his fire truck in the 1940 Valentine’s Day storm. (via Boston Public Library Flickr)

In Lowell, hundreds of public and private employees fought in the days following the storm to free the city from the vast amounts of snow covering city streets.  Snow removal moved slowly in Lowell.  In the aftermath of the storm, the city dispatched 30 plows, two bulldozers, and a 10-ton tractor to clear the snow.  Similar to the situation in Boston, they found many of the city’s main streets – Merrimack, Central, Bridge, and Rogers – all blocked with cars that had stalled in the storm.  By the 16th, even in the downtown section, huge drifts of snow remained piled high on the edges of the streets.   The Lowell Street Department estimated that some 200 streets remained blocked with snow, even on the 16th, two days after the storm had hit.  Like Boston, by the end of the second day after the storm, many of the stalled cars on Lowell’s city streets had been cleared out, allowing plows to finally complete their rounds.

In the end, the Valentine’s Day storm of 1940 claimed 31 lives in New England.  In the days following the storm, the number was feared to be much higher while searchers scoured the seas for the ten-man crew of the lost 49-foot dragger “Palmers Island”, which had sailed from New Bedford before the storm.   Three days after the storm, the Coast Guard took the “Palmers Island” in tow, some 120 miles south of Block Island, RI.  The dragger, with crew aboard, returned to New Bedford on Sunday, February 18.


Fire Alarm Signal Boxes

Fire alarm signal box in Ridgewood, New Jersey (Photo Credit: Wikipedia via Ben Schumin)

In a world before text messages, the internet, televisions, radios, and even telephones, fire emergencies were signaled with fire signal boxes.  Not everyone could signal a fire.  Fire signal boxes were locked, and alarms could only be activated by keyholders.  Alarms were to be activated from the box located closest to the fire.  Keyholders confirmed that a fire was indeed burning before activating the box by unlocking it, pulling down the slide or hook inside once, and letting it go.  After activating the alarm, keyholders listened for the bell inside the box to begin ringing, which indicated that the fire alarm signal had been successfully sent to the fire department.  If no sound came, keyholders pulled the lever inside the box again.  And if this didn’t work, the keyholder moved to the next closest box and tried again.  If the bell inside the fire signal box was ringing before the hook was pulled, this meant that the alarm had already been given at another box.  Once the bell did ring, the keyholder remained at the box until the fire department arrived and released the key.  Keys were never to be lost, or turned over to anyone other than the fire department‘s chief engineer.  Police also had keys to the boxes.

Each station of the fire department was assigned a set of fire signal boxes that it was expected to respond to, but the department’s chief, first assistant, and protective company were expected to answer all alarms, regardless of which box they were sent from.  When the alarms were signaled, any companies not responding were asked to remain at their houses for at least thirty minutes unless they were dismissed by telegraph signals.

A partial list of signal box locations in Lowell, Massachusetts (Source:  1888-89 Lowell City Documents)

A partial list of signal box locations in Lowell, Massachusetts (Source: 1888-89 Lowell City Documents)

To a society where telephones were new and untried technology, and other forms of twentieth-century communication technology were still decades away, fire signal boxes served as a lifeline to the city’s fire department.  The signal boxes provided citizens with peace of mind.  When they were in need, the boxes were the quickest and easiest way to reach help.  However, beside providing help in emergencies, fire signal boxes also provided a service later offered by radio, and more recently by TV and the internet.  They were used to announce the cancellation of school sessions.  Two strokes at the fire signal boxes, repeated three times at 7:45 AM, or at 1:15 PM meant that the following session of school was cancelled.  And, they also helped people set their clocks.  The bells were struck once daily, at 1 PM.