Tag Archives: Lowell Massachusetts

Remembering Lowell’s Giant Store

Giant Store logo, ca. 1961

Giant Store logo, ca. 1961

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

A Giant Store Ad from July 1943

A Giant Store Ad from July 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1949 GIant Store

The Giant Store Logo, ca. 1949

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

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

November 16, 1951

November 16, 1951

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

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


Lowell’s Riverside School: The Lowell Parents’ Strike – 1971

Things have to get fairly dire before your entire student body, well, 97% of your student body, boycotts your school due to “dangerous conditions”.  But, that’s precisely what happened at Lowell’s Riverside School on a Monday morning in late March, 1971.  Of the school’s 205 students in Grades K through 5, just six showed up for school.  Instead, starting at 8:15 AM on March 22, their parents – mostly their mothers – began showing up to picket in front of the school, at Woburn Street’s intersection with Eugene Street.

Robert Healy, Jr., Assistant City Manager, soon arrived at the picket line, which had been announced and expected before that Monday morning.  He arrived with little to offer.  Of the city’s $2.2 million school renovation budget ($12.5 million in today’s dollars), precisely nothing was destined for the Riverside, or any of the city’s other older ‘wooden schools’.  The picketing parents listed and responded by giving Healy a list of no less than 24 problems that they had identified at the school.

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

The Riverside, built in the years leading up the twentieth century, had once been a gem of Tewksbury’s school system in the years before Lowell’s annexation of the Wigginville neighborhood of South Lowell.  With its eight rooms (luxurious by period standards), the school was – spacious -; so, spacious, in fact, that two of those rooms were specially designated for its students’ recreation.  A 1910 Lowell Sun article lauded the school’s playrooms and greatly admired the dollhouse and doll tea set that had been built by the students.

Sixty years later, by the early 1970s, things had clearly changed.  The parents’ 24 problems included: crumbling plaster, peeling paint, dim and missing lights, a failing oil heater, shoddy wiring, and a shortage of school supplies.  That wasn’t all.  The school was actually unsafe; the parents charged.  The roof leaked so much water that the wiring in the school’s attic was submerged in puddles.  These were the days before parents worried about mold exposure.

Healy, representing the city manager’s office, wasn’t unsympathetic.  He just had a really tough position to support.  He listened to the picketing parents.  He then explained that the damage to the school’s roof had been a result of maintenance to the school.  An air raid siren had to be removed, and it was – just a month earlier.  The weight of the siren had damaged the roof.  In fact, he said, as the picketers amassed on that March Monday, public works crews had arrived for their second day of work to fix the leaks.  And, a wiring inspector would arrive later that day to review the electrical problems.  The city would fix the Riverside.

Parents picket the Riverside School, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1971.  Credit: Lowell Sun – 3/22/1971

Parents quickly pointed out that maintenance workers wouldn’t fix all 24 problems on their list.  “History is not being taught in the fifth grade because we have no books.”  One parent said.  “Geography is not being taught in the fourth grade because we have only seven books and they have pages missing.”  Another contributed.  One Riverside teacher later confided that she had been forced to use spelling books that dated from the 1920’s.

School officials responded by denying they knew that there was a problem.  The parents insisted that they had contacted the superintendent’s office.  They also reminded school officials about their promise regarding the Joseph G. Pyne School.     When the J. G. Pyne had been built, a few years earlier, the plan had been to move the Riverside children there.  In fact, the School Committee, in 1970, had voted 5-2 to move the Pyne’s seventh and eighth graders to the Moody in order to free up space for the Riverside students.  There was one problem, though.  No one made sure that the Junior High students at the Pyne minded going to the Moody.  They did.  To accommodate the “almost unanimous” wishes of the South Lowell citizenry, school committee officials left the J. G. Pyne students at the J. G. Pyne, and the Riverside students at their crumbling Riverside.

And this led to a mid-March strike where parents kept 199 of the school’s 205 students out of school for a day in protest.    The parents’ list continued.  During the previous winter, classes had been held in classrooms where the temperature hovered near 40 degrees.  With no heat, the students stayed in their coats all day.   As Assistant City Manager Healy listened to their list, he acknowledged that the parents “had a case”.  He promised to fix the school’s supply problems almost immediately, saying that he would talk with the school’s principal and central office.  All they have to do, he said, is call downtown and they’ll get new supplies.

Credit: Lowell Sun – March 22, 1971

Healy knew that the DPW had been addressing the school’s plaster issues, but also acknowledged that he knew it to be only ‘band-aid work’.  Superintendent of Schools Wayne Peters also responded to the picketing parents, saying conditions at the Riverside weren’t really any better or worse than any other old school in the city.  “We could close the Riverside tomorrow if parents and members of the PTAs would be willing to transfer junior high school out of the J. G. Pyne school and bus some students to the Reilly.”  Peters said.  Asked about the school’s extremely low attendance on the morning of March 22, 1971, Peters dismissed it, saying that they would teach the six students.  They would teach just one student.  “It’s only the students who are suffering”.

“The school is not in very good condition, but the city council voted not to include the wooden schools in the $2.2 million renovation program.  I feel for these parents.  I know the situation, but the City of Lowell cannot afford to put good money after bad and renovate these old wooden schools.”

Officials did not perform their investigations into the school’s dismal conditions publicly.  However, over the following four weeks, Superintendent Peters held two meetings with parents to iron out differences and also met with the school’s principal and her teachers.   The principal’s resignation and retirement followed one month later, in mid-April, reportedly at the superintendent’s request.  Repairs came, and the school remained in use, up through the 1981-1982 school year, when its students were, indeed, moved to the J.G. Pyne School.  From personal experience, I can say that I have fond memories of the school, and can still remember its huge classrooms, with long, shiny wood floors, and old woodwork.  I was a member of the school’s final kindergarten class.

Riverside School’s Final Kindergarten Class – Spring 1982. In the years since, I helpfully marked myself with initials that are floating above my head.  Although my five-year-old self enjoyed my time at the school, the maintenance occurring between the time of the Parents’ Strike and this photo ten years later, didn’t quite extend to repainting the main entrance doors.

Today, the Riverside School houses the B.R.I.D.G.E. (Beginnings Respect Independent Diversity Guidance Education) Program at the McHugh Alternative Middle School, a partnership between Middlesex Community College and the Lowell Public Schools.  Established in 1997 for 24 Lowell public school seventh and eighth graders, the program today has grown to serve 50 students.  The B.R.I.D.G.E. program serves students who have experienced past behavioral or attendance problems in traditional school settings.


Lost Stories and Found Mysteries: Old Group Photographs

If you’ve spent any time researching ancestors, or the history of your town, or even history in general, you’ve likely come across old group photographs.  A workplace outing from long ago, an annual gathering of some institution or society, or maybe a family gathering.  If you’ve stared into the faces of those who gathered for the photograph, you’ll likely come across a familiar face of a grandparent or long-lost cousin and you’ll soon determine the likely connection that brought the photograph into your collection.  Sometimes, old group photographs provide a wealth of insight into your ancestors’ lives; sometimes, they create more questions.  Often, they do both.

The mystery you didn’t know you had 

Sometimes, you get lucky.  Sometimes, someone made the effort to identify the people in your old group photos.  And, sometimes, yes, they were wrong.  Among the photographs I inherited from my grandmother was this one, showing a group of school age children, with their teacher, outside their school.  On the back of this photograph, someone helpfully wrote that this photo showed my grandmother’s Colburn School class.  Given that she was born in 1904, that would date this photograph to about 1910-1912.  And, so it became family lore.  It was perfect, my grandmother (identified as the third from the right, in the top row), grew up only a few doors down from the school, on Lowell’s Lawrence Street.

A group of Lowell schoolchildren, with their teacher, in front of their schoolhouse

It was perfect, until I researched it – and tried to verify the description on the back of the photograph.  There was a problem.  The Colburn School, one of Lowell’s first and built in 1848, was certainly old enough to be my grandmother’s childhood school.  But . . . it was made of brick, as seen below.  My photograph clearly shows light-colored wooden siding covering the school’s exterior.

Lowell’s Colburn School – Lawrence Street

And so the mystery endures.  Among the followers of this blog, I know there are a lot of experts in Lowell history.  Does anyone have any ideas on when and where (in Lowell) this photograph may have been taken?  There is a chance that it’s much older than the 1910-1912 date I had originally assigned to it.

Only Half of the Story

Among the treasured stories in one’s family tree research are the tales explaining how your ancestors met – those sometimes chance encounters that seem to drive destiny – or at least the existence of entire families today.  As my family’s story goes, my maternal grandmother met my grandfather while she was performing in a Portuguese musical group, based in Lowell, Massachusetts.  As rumor had it, she was on the rebound from a bad break-up and my grandfather happened to be in the right place, at the right time.  Someone helpfully circled my grandmother’s head on the photograph I have to prove the story, included below:

A Lowell-Area Musical Group, Tied to the Local Portuguese Community, ca. 1930

The group, which may have had ties to Lowell’s St. Anthony’s Church, remains nameless in my records – which has thwarted my attempts to learn more about them and their members.  Is there anyone out there who has heard of any Portuguese musical groups, based on Lowell, Massachusetts, from the late 1920’s?

Photographs are windows into the past.  But, the details of the past become fuzzy with time, and often are lost as those who remember them leave us.  Even without knowing the full story behind old group photos, they make for interesting browsing – showing life as it was in those days now reflected in our family trees.  And, with a little bit of luck, sometimes, you can add some insight into your ancestors’ lives by learning about the groups they belonged to, and the friends and associations that they had.

Readers, do you have any old group photos that have added insight, or mysteries, to your family trees?


All in the Same Building: A Jail, Catholic School and later Condos

City Jail, Lowell Massachusetts – (Credit: Library of Congress)

Many in Lowell recall the vast granite and brick buildings at Thorndike’s intersection with Highland as the Keith Academy building.  Before Keith Academy, though, the buildings housed the Lowell Jail.  The Lowell Jail was the city’s second, replacing the first which had been located at the corner of Dutton and Cushing streets, and dated from 1838.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the new jail was designed and built.  Ninety cells were constructed for men, and 12 for women who were housed in the building’s northern wing.  The jail boasted two hospitals as well as four cells for solitary confinement.  A chapel was added a few decades later, around 1900.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, the Lowell jail housed some 124 inmates.  Most were men who were serving short-term sentences of less than three years.  Men who were convicted of more serious crimes were kept at the Cambridge Jail.

Jail Life

Entering the prison, new inmates were showered, given a prison uniform and underwear.  Some inmates worked in the kitchen.  Some worked in the boiler or engine rooms or as launderers.  Others, those deemed most trustworthy, worked in the barns, gardens, or with the chickens.  These inmates with greater liberties were known as “trusties”.

It was important to prison officials that inmates were kept reasonably busy, and that they weren’t allowed to be too idle or too overworked.  Each morning, the men showered with the soap and towel given to them by the jail.  Showers were followed by breakfast.  At breakfast, each inmate received a cup and plate when they passed by an opening that connected the line of inmates to the kitchen.  Through that opening, they received their food, however much they wanted, and took it back to their cells to eat their breakfasts.  The food, while wholesome was not fancy at all and was cooked “under the most sanitary procedures”.  The men were served desserts once weekly on Sundays.  Each evening, the men received enough tobacco for a smoke after supper.  All smoking ceased when lights went out at 8 o’clock.

English: Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Old post card showing the Lowell Jail

Women prisoners, though few, experienced a similar life.  They spent their days doing laundry, sweeping, and doing general housework throughout the jail.  Women were kept separate from men.  All inmates were kept on one of the jail’s three floors.  Men, who had earned the trust of prison officials, were allowed to share their cells with roommates.  The lowest floors of the jail housed the storerooms, kitchen, and laundry.

The Lowell Jail housed just two cells that were used for solitary confinement.  The most frequently used cell was used only a couple of times a year.  Most often, the cell was used for men who arrived to the prison and refused to acknowledge and accept the rules of the jail.  The solitary confinement jail cell contained a bed, which was basically a hard board, and a blanket.  The cell contained no window, and for ventilation, had a few small holes punched through the iron door.  And that was the ‘nice’ solitary confinement cell.  The other, never used, was in the facility’s basement, and described as a dungeon.  Padded cell were available to hold those who were suffering from ‘wild delusions’.  The need for this cell was quite frequent, apparently.  The padding, in long strips, stretched from floor to ceiling.

Jail Diversions

On each Sunday, Rev. N. W. Matthews, the jail chaplain, held a service in the chapel.  Inmates were obligated to attend.  The jail also had a library, which had about 500 books, in the areas of fiction, history, and travel.  All of the jail’s vegetables were grown in its garden, and tended by the inmates.  The vegetables were stored in the jail’s vegetable cellar.  Hothouses were also on the jail’s grounds.

Some inmates at the jail were vagrants too poor to afford their own housing during the cold winter months.  Knowing well the sentences for a long list of crimes, they plotted carefully to receive a sentence long enough to protect them from the winter.  Upon release, prisoners were given a suit of clothes and shoes, if they were too poor to afford their own.  Some returned, occasionally, looking for a night’s shelter.

After the Jail Closed 

Keith Academy

Keith Academy (Photo credit: uzi978)

The building remained a jail until 1919, when it was closed due to concerns related to rising fuel costs, as well as a lower incarceration rate brought on by the increase in men being recruited into the military to support US involvement in WWI.  When the jail closed, its nine remaining inmates were moved to the jail in Cambridge.

The building remained closed and unsold for seven years before it was purchased by the Catholic Church and converted into a boy’s preparatory school.  The remodeling did little to change the exterior, but completely gutted and remodeled the interior.  Keith Academy remained in the building until 1970.  Today, the building that formerly housed the Lowell Jail and Keith Academy had been divided into 56 condominium units and still stands on Lowell’s Thorndike Street.


The Story of Lowell’s Rogers Hall

Rogers Street,today, is one of Lowell‘s main gateways into the city, providing access from Tewksbury, the city’s southern neighbor.  Known by many outside Lowell simply as Route 38, the road has a long past that is deeply connected to Lowell’s history, and to the history of its Belvidere neighborhood especially.

Rogers Street gets its name from the Rogers family, who were early landowners in the area during Lowell’s first years.  Members of the Rogers family later went on to found the Rogers Hall School for Girls, a prestigious school that remained in operation for over 80 years before it closed in 1973.  Though its white-columned facade is its most familiar characteristic to Lowell residents, the school actually consisted of four buildings:  Rogers Hall, Rogers House, Rogers Cottage, and the Gymnasium.   The gymnasium was famous in its own right for its pool.  Built in 1922 in the basement of the gym, it was the first of its kind for a private girls’ secondary school in the country. 

Rogers Hall, circa 1919 – (Credit: History of Lowell and its People: Vol 2, Page 460: Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

The private girls’ high school accepted both day and boarding students, with the day students sharing in all of the privileges of boarders.  Boarders lived in the “Hall”, the original school building, or “the house”, a nearby Victorian mansion.  Girls participated in activities like hockey, basketball, swimming, glee club, and drama.  And they attended dances and proms at other schools and then invited the male students of other schools back to similar events at Rogers Hall.  An account linked below recalls a 1950 prom, told from the perspective of a visiting male student . . . who tells a rather truthful account that reminds us that alcohol use among prom-goers didn’t really emerge with ‘today’s kids’.

As the 1970s progressed, it became clear that Rogers Hall was fading from the scene.  Even though the administration was tight-lipped about the conditions leading to the school’s imminent closure, it was obvious that its financial health had suffered for several years before its closure was announced.  Enrollment had fallen to 47 girls by 1973, less than half of its 100+ peak enrollment reached just 18 years before.

At the time of the 1860 US Census, the Rogers Family had lost its patriarch, Zadock Rogers, Sr. Emily and Elizabeth were among the youngest siblings.

The history of the school’s majestic buildings stretched back beyond the school’s 1892 founding.  Its main building, the Zadock Rogers House, dated to the 1830s when it began as part of a vast farm of almost 250 acres.   By 1880, Zadock Rogers and all but two of his children had died, leaving his considerable holdings to his two surviving daughters, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers.  Emily, who had attended the famous Miss Grant’s Girls’ School in Ipswich for two years during her youth, conceived of the idea to convert the Rogers home into a school after both sisters had died.  She died of pneumonia in 1884.  Carrying on the plans she had discussed with her sister, Elizabeth lived to realize their plan.  In 1892, just a few years before she died, Elizabeth donated her own home to the future school.

The sisters’ original plan had called for the donation of their estate to charity after both had died, but Elizabeth had a change of heart after meeting Mrs. Underhill, who had opened a girls’ school in Belvidere in 1891.  That school, lacking appropriate facilities to board students, was failing when Elizabeth began to look into founding Rogers Hall, while she was still alive.  She approached Mrs. Underhill, asking her to run the new school if Rogers were to provide the appropriate grounds.  Mrs. Underhill agreed, and remained the school’s first principal for its first 18 years.

By the time of the 1880 US Census, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers were the sole remaining members of the Rogers family. They began to discuss the future of their estate once they were gone.

The school was situated on about five acres of the original Rogers property.  In her last years, Elizabeth donated another 30 acres of land across the street from their farmhouse to the City in 1886; this later became Rogers Fort Hill Park.  The rest, over 200 acres, was sold for development and today forms the neighborhood surrounding the park and former school.  Elizabeth died in 1898 of pneumonia, just five months shy of her 80th birthday.

Rev. John M. Greene, pastor at the Eliot Church in Lowell, helped Elizabeth Rogers found the school.  He had also helped found Smith College.  In 1892, the school opened with 11 faculty and 50 students.  All but nine were day students.  The Rogers sisters lived a strict, austere life governed by Christian ideals, which they incorporated into the education provided to the students attending Rogers Hall.  Students lived by a rigid schedule, which left ample time for studying as well as rest.  Lights had to be put out by 9:30 each night.  Appearances were considered very important too.  Nightly, before formal dinners, staff would check the seams of students’ stockings for straightness.  Once dinner began, table manners were carefully monitored and evaluated.

In its earlier years, Rogers Hall was known for enforcing a strict, orderly lifestyle. Prior to admission into formal dinner each night, girls were inspected to ensure that they exhibited proper posture as well as straight seams on their stockings.

English: Collection of U.S. House of Represent...

Edith Nourse Rogers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rogers Hall produced many distinguished alumnae.  Among them, Anne Harvey Sexton, a 1947 graduate, was later awarded the Pulitzer price for poetry.  Dr. Mona Meehan went on to become the first female chief of staff appointed to a US hospital at St. John’s Hospital, now part of Saints Medical Center.  And, Edith Nourse Rogers, no relation to the founding Rogers family, served the Massachusetts Fifth District as a congresswoman for 35 years after her husband died in office in 1925.

At its peak enrollment in 1955, Rogers Hall had more than 100 students.  In its waning years, the percentage of day students soared, from 10% in 1968 to 50% in 1970, and 75% by 1973, when it closed.  Rising tuition prices and the advent of co-educational schools were both blamed for the school’s declining enrollment.  Today, Rogers Hall still sits on Lowell’s Rogers Street and serves as elderly housing.


Lowell High’s Entrance Exam in 1865 – Difficult Questions and High Expectations

High school entrance exams during the Civil War era were hard, really.  For arithmetic, 14-year-olds in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to calculate the diameter of a cannon ball weighing 250 pounds, if the diameter of a 128-pound ball was 8 inches.  In grammar, they were asked for the plurals of Mr. Smith, Miss Smith, and Dr. Brown.  In the area of geography, they were asked to draw the Merrimack River and its branches, and locate the important towns on its banks.    And in history, students were asked which European nation had been the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, and to name the year in which it occurred.

The man behind the questions was Abner J. Phipps, a Superintendent of Schools in Lowell.  At a time when the very worth of his position was being questioned, Phipps was a firm believer in a good education for Lowell’s children.  Phipps had been known to say that ‘a parent who sends his son into the world uneducated, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family; he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to us a nuisance.’  He apparently extended this responsibility to the Lowell school system.

The 1864-65 school year was Phipp’s second in the office.  Abner Phipps was something of a superstar in the Massachusetts school superintendent circuit of the mid-1860’s.  He had been superintendent of schools in New Bedford, Massachusetts for the four years prior to the same position coming open in Lowell.  When that happened, very late in 1862, a committee including Lowell’s mayor and other local dignitaries short-listed Phipps and decided, unanimously, that he would be the best (and could really be the only) man to lead the city’s schools.

But, would he accept?  His contract in New Bedford had just been renewed, and, worse, when the committee approached him regarding Lowell’s superintendent post, he declined, saying the salary was too low.  Lowell’s leaders were not deterred.  Showing an ingenuity not possible today, Lowell’s Mayor Hocum Hosford proposed paying Phipps whatever salary he required, and Hosford himself would pay the difference from his own pocket.  Phipps accepted and took up his post during the 1863-64 school year.

A successful teacher with a solid track record in Massachusetts and a member of the State Board of Education, Phipps took a personal interest in the quality of instruction at Lowell’s High School.  He personally prepared the questions delivered to eighth graders hoping for admission into Lowell High School and oversaw the grading of their answers.

Thanks to the recent digitization of Lowell’s municipal documents at the Internet Archive, we can now see the questions that Abner Phipps developed for Lowell’s eighth graders.  A sample of these questions have been reproduced below.  During 1864, 140 children were given the examination; 122 passed.  Of the 18 who failed, 14 were girls, 4 were boys.  The average age of the students was slightly older than today’s children entering eighth grade:  14.1 years.  Girls scored much better at spelling and grammar.  Boys excelled at the remaining topics:  reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

Abner Phipps included the results of his most recent Lowell High School entrance examinations with his 1865 Superintendent’s Report.

Phipps’ questions were difficult.  A sample of the questions from his Lowell High School admission exam have been included below:

Series of Questions Proposed for the Examination of Applicants to Enter the High School – July 1865

General Directions “No book or helps of any kind will be allowed on the desks, and none are to be used during the Examination.  All communication to be avoided.  Each answer should be numbered to correspond with the number of the question.  Attend carefully to the writing, and to the use of capitals and marks of punctuation.”

Arithmetic

1.  What is the difference between 15 ÷ .15 and .15 ÷ 15?

2.  If I should sell a wagon which cost me $85 for $95, on a credit of six months, what would be gained by the bargain, and how much per cent?

3.  Divide $1800 among A, B, and C, so that A shall receive $150 more than B, and B $75 more than C.

8.  What is the difference between half a cubic yard, and a cube whose edge is half a yard?

19.  If the City of Lowell tax rate were 1.5 per cent, and the State and County tax were .18 of one per cent, for what sum would John Smith be taxed, who pays $143.46, including a $2.00 poll tax?

20.  What will be the edge of a cubical box that will contain 216 times as much a box measuring 1 foot each way?

Grammar

1.  Write out correctly the following sentences:  He could not learn me to write good.  I never studied no grammar, but I can talk just as good as them that talk grammatical.  Many a youth have ruined their prospects for life with one imprudent step.

2.  Define a verb, and state the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

3.  State the different ways of distinguishing between the sexes, and give an illustration of each.

8.  What is a root?  A prefix?  A suffix?  Illustrate by an example.

19.  Fill up the blank with the third person plural, pluperfect tense, potential mood, passive voice, of the verb to steal.  These books

20.  Write one sentence that shall contain all the different parts of speech, or as many of them as you can.

Geography

1.  Through what waters must a vessel pass in sailing from New Orleans to Quebec?

2.  Bound British America.

3.  What city is on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario?

8.  Which of the Southern States extends the furthest east?

19.  Name the chief curiosities in Kentucky, Virginia, and California.

20.  Name three gulfs on the north of Asia, and three on the south.

History

1.  Describe the civil war in the colony of Virginia in 1676.

2.  Who became King of England in 1685, and how was he regarded in England, and in the American colonies?  Who succeeded him in 1689?

3.  In what years were settlements commenced in the following places:  Albany, Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence and New Haven?

8. What acts of parliament were passed in 1767, and how were these regarded by the colonists?

19.  When and where did John Quincy Adams die?  How many years had he been employed in the service of our country?

20.  What remarkable events took place on the 4th of July, 1826?

Abner J. Phipps’ questions were difficult, and must have been difficult for graduating eighth-graders hoping for admission into Lowell’s high school during the wake of the US Civil War.  Students, in 1865, scored worst in the areas of arithmetic (24% correct), geography (46% correct), and grammar (62% correct).  Their strongest areas were reading (92% correct), writing (91% correct) and spelling (83% correct).  Some differences emerged across Lowell’s different schools, and others between the genders (as shown in the above graph).

Abner J. Phipps didn’t stay long as Lowell’s school superintendent, leaving before the completion of his third year when he was named Agent of the Massachusetts Board of Education.  In the School Committee’s report for 1867, his short tenure in Lowell was memorialized.

“In closing their report, the Committee with profound regret, announce the withdrawal from office and the contemplated removal from the city, of Abner J. Phipps, Esq.  They feel that the education department of the city has met with a great loss.  The scholarship and culture of Mr. Phipps have been invaluable to our schools, while his uniform courtesy and geniality, his scrupulous faithfulness, fairness, and impartiality, his untiring industry, his zeal in educational matters and his intelligent interest in the city at large and its general welfare, have earned alike our confidence, our gratitude and our esteem.”

The digitization of Lowell’s City documents allows some great insights into many aspects of Lowell’s historical past, and into larger society as a whole.  Published in a series of volumes, each includes the annual reports from the various superintendents of the different departments included within Lowell’s city government.  Reports from the school committee, the directors of the city library, the superintendent of the alms-house, the superintendent of burials, and the superintendent of streets are all included, among others.  To see the directories, please follow the link:

http://archive.org/search.php?query=lowell%20city%20documents


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.