Tag Archives: Lowell Massachusetts

Other People’s Ancestors – How House Histories Bring the Unrelated Together

When I started researching my family tree in 1988, the hobby was quite solitary.  I spent hours in the local history room of the Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts, threading microfilm reels of the local papers through the microfilm readers and leafing through dusty, yellowed City Directories.  I remember the excitement of the first time I found my great-grandparents listed as young parents in the 1910 US Census, then the most recent census available, and constructing my first family tree from there.  I traced them back through the earlier censuses and found their parents.  I located birth, marriage, and death records; before long, I had traced almost all of my branches back to my gateway, or immigrant ancestors.  You’ll notice that there is a lot of first-person narration here.  In those days, genealogy was about as social as reading a book.  At most, you might have found family members who shared various levels of interest in your discoveries.  Or, you might have come across a distant relation willing to share information or your interest through snailmail correspondence.

By Free Public Library Commission of Massachusetts [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pollard Memorial Library - 1899, via Wikipedia Commons

Six years ago, my wife and I, both avid readers of publications like Old House Journal and This Old Housebought a century-old home ‘for the charm’ and, at least in my case, to capture a piece of the past.  We certainly accomplished this – and many fascinating, non-genealogy-related accounts narrating the joys and trials of owning older homes already abound in the blogosphere.  One day, while trying to escape one of our old home tasks – it may have been repointing the fieldstone foundation or insulating the crawl space under our enclosed porch; the fond memory escapes me – I got the idea that I would research the house’s history.  Within our closing documentation, I knew we had some death certificates of previous owners.  And, more importantly, the deed of the previous owners referenced, within its last lines, the prior deed that had conveyed ownership of the home to them some thirty-five years before.

Armed with these documents, I took a day off from work, and traveled down to the Registry of Deeds, and set to find the Book and Page referenced in the Deed.  And I did, and within the last lines of that deed, I found the book and page number of an earlier deed.  I spent a couple of hours, in the basement of the Courthouse, tracing one deed to the next, solitarily leafing through increasingly older deed books.  As the dates on the deeds grew earlier, typed text gave way to the elaborate handwriting of an earlier time.

And among the earlier owners of the house, I found a series of families who had lived in the house for a few years each.  And then, I came across a woman, Grace Petrie, who owned the house for thirty years, preceded by her parents who had owned the house for the previous twenty.  I diligently noted their names and the dates they lived in the house, and set to employ my genealogical sleuthing skills in combing through census records and newspaper archives.

Front Page Headline from The Lowell Sun, Feb. 23, 1944

Luckily, by the time we had bought the house, these records were online and I quickly found obituaries and marriage notices and other interesting facts about the previous owners of the house.  I learned that Grace had lost a twenty-five-year-old son, Chandler, in World War II when his plane crashed during a night combat training mission in Pueblo, Colorado.

And, while digging near the flagpole in the yard, a few years later, I came across “CHAN” and “1944″ etched into the concrete at its base.  A search of earlier newspaper records revealed that Grace’s father, Harry Chandler, had been the station agent of the now-defunct South Lowell station.  Being quite comfortable with trains, Harry had one day alighted from the train, before it had completely stopped, and was struck by another oncoming train.  All of this happened in the woods, directly behind the house.

From The Lowell Sun, January 26, 1915, Pg. 4

While doing all of this research, I heavily relied on the newspaper records of newspaperarchive.com and on the census records and city directories scanned into the vast online resources of Ancestry.com.  I also created an online family tree for Grace, in an effort to find surviving family members, who might have had old photographs of the house or property that could provide insight into how the property appeared in earlier decades (which is something us old home enthusiasts salivate about).  I found no living relatives (or old home photos), but Ancestry’s “shaking leaves” soon revealed Grace’s passport applications from the 1920′s.  She had travelled annually to Cuba in the 1920′s to see her husband who had been working there as an expatriate accountant.  And with those records were photographs of Grace, and her children.

Grace Chandler with her Children, 1920, from her US Passport Application

Up to now, however, all of this research was still quite solitary . . . and solitary it stayed.  After all, while the art and science of genealogy and even house histories is frequently discussed – even quite animatedly – in groups, the fruits of those labors are often only interesting to those directly related or connected to the subjects.  One day, however, several years later, I was contacted through Ancestry by one of Grace’s distant relatives, the grandnephew of her second husband, Earle Petrie, who had lived in the house, first as a boarder, and then as her husband until his death around 1950.  Petrie’s grandnephew had found me through a “shaking leaf” in his tree.  I shared with him what I had on Earle, who had left New Brunswick as a young man, settled in Massachusetts, and had lost contact with his Canadian family.

On something of a lark, I searched old newspapers for further news of old Earle, who had worked as a car dealer in the area.  I found a few advertisements for the car dealership where he worked, as well as an article of two that listed him as a salesman there.  I forwarded these to his grandnephew, who was grateful to have them.

And then, I found the real gem of the research – Earle’s Uncle David, who frequently visited the home.  Uncle David, a police officer in nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, was something of a celebrity in the local papers, and this quickly came up when I ran his name through the search engines at newspaperarchive.com.  In 1913, Officer Petrie had stopped a pair of wild horses charging through one of the Lowell’s busiest squares.

Front Page Headline, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Picture this:  On a Wednesday afternoon in late January 1913, two runaway horses came charging onto Merrimack Street, the main thoroughfare of Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of 110,000 people.  The spooked horses pulled a heavy truck loaded with several tons of waste bales from the nearby Boott Mills.  The driver of the truck, Francis Kennedy, had been thrown from the vehicle on one of its wild turns, but still held onto the reins, loudly warning pedestrians, motorists, and other cart riders of the runaway cart while he was being half-dragged across the uneven cobblestones of Merrimack Street.  Officer Petrie turned at the commotion and took off on a run after the truck, while the horses plunged it and the flailing Mr. Kennedy toward a slower-moving electric car.  With a failing grip on the reins, Kennedy managed to steer the truck past the electric car, but lost half of the heavy bales onto the road.   Just beyond Merrimack’s intersection with Central Street, Officer Petrie waited and watched as the horses thundered closer, and into the path of Milo Hale, who sat in an automobile, unable to move from their path.  Amidst the cautions shouted from the crowd of onlookers, Petrie waited for his moment, and as they crossed Central Street, he jumped at one of the horses’ heads, grabbing onto it, and, with Kennedy’s assistance, was able to sway the horses to the left, missing Hale’s car by inches.  Kennedy and Petrie finally stopped the horses some 25 yards further down the road, avoiding any injury to pedestrians and other motorists and were considered to have saved many of them from certain tragedy.

Via Library of Congress - Merrimack Street Looking East from the Palmer Street Intersection, 1908

David Petrie, Front Page Photo, Lowell Sun, Jan. 22, 1913

Soon after I found the article, I sent it to the great-grandnephew of Officer Petrie, in Montreal.  He excitedly thanked me for my help with his family tree research and said he would share the story with his family. Although he had heard the stories of Uncle David, he and his family had not seen the newspaper articles from the Lowell Sun.  And, although I had no real connection to David Petrie (other than the fact that I live in his nephew’s former home), I felt an interest in this man, who long ago saved lives, my own ancestors’ likely among them, on Merrimack Street in crowded Downtown Lowell.  And, I realized that, with the advent of the internet and sites like ancestry.com, genealogy has expanded so far past those solitary days back in the 80′s when I strained my eyes under flickering fluorescent lights in the basement of the Pollard Memorial Library, on the same Merrimack Street where David Petrie performed his heroic act some 75 years earlier.

Readers, do you have any research stories to share?  Has your genealogy or house history research into the past made you any connections in the present (or resulted in any interesting tales)?  


Lowell, Massachusetts – 1847: President Polk Slept Here

United States president James Knox Polk, three...

James K. Polk, ca. 1849, Image via Wikipedia

‘Who?’, you may ask.  James Knox Polk, the 11th president of the United States, was, even during his own lifetime, somewhat unknown.  His opponents in the Whig Political Party, said that the 1844 Election’s dark horse victor had emerged from a ‘well-deserved obscurity’.  Informed history now views Polk, who at 49 years old in 1845 was the youngest president to take office up to that time, as one of the country’s strongest leaders, and counts among his greatest achievements the transformation of the United States into a coast-to-coast nation, with the acquisition of today’s US Southwest from Mexico as a result of the Mexican-American War and the resolution of the Oregon Country border dispute that he resolved with Great Britain, thus averting a third war between the two countries in the span of 70 years.

Rain fell on Lowell, Massachusetts on the afternoon of June 30, 1847, as a special train from Boston arrived in Lowell’s Bleachery section, nearly 40 years before Sacred Heart Church would be built nearby.  Mayor Jefferson Bancroft, Lowell’s Committee of Arrangements, and a large crowd of onlookers had assembled at the train’s ‘stopping place’ (Bleachery Depot) and welcomed President James K. Polk to Lowell.  Around 3 o’clock on that afternoon, Polk and his entourage stepped from the train into what was then the city’s southern edge.  Many within the crowd, numerous ‘factory girls’ from the mills among them, were seeing President Polk for the first time, and were surprised to find that he was “a better looking man than [they] expected he was”.  A festive mood passed throughout the crowds as the mills and other businesses had been closed in honor of the President’s visit.

Mayor Bancroft addressed the President, his traveling companions, and the crowd.  His words, recorded in the next day’s Lowell Courier, provide fascinating insight into how Lowellians of the mid-19th century viewed the city’s rapid growth from a “waste” earlier in the century to its new status as a “great manufacturing city of this great nation”.  Bancroft touted the city’s growing population that had reached more than 30,000 people.  Mayor Bancroft, himself a former mill operative who had come to the city some 20 years earlier, recalled for the President how the ‘waste had been built up into a handsome city of mills, workshops, dwellings, and public edifices, showing better than I can tell, that the strong and muscular arm of the artisan and the muscular arm of the laboring man has not been idle here.’  Lastly, Bancroft told the story of how many of those who Polk saw and met that day had come to Lowell in its infancy, ‘poor and penniless’, and by their own hard work had been able to purchase stock in the mills where they labored, and thus had later purchased real estate within the city.  History records that President Polk replied briefly, but that no one actually heard or remembered his words – due to the ‘immense crowd’ and the noise of the cannon.  Newspaper reporters, not yet equipped with modern conveniences of microphones and recorders, preserved his response for posterity as ‘ appropriate remarks’.

A procession of several carriages was formed, all the principal dignitaries of the day present.  The Lowell City Guards began the procession, led by then-Lieutenant Benjamin Butler and joined by other local military orders.  The President’s carriage, drawn by four horses, followed.  By 5:30 PM, the procession arrived at Lowell’s Merrimack House, located at the corner of Dutton and Merrimack Streets.  (Merrimack House was destroyed in a 1924 fire; the site is now occupied by a Hess gas station.)  Curiously, during Polk’s stay at Merrimack House, the flag hoisted upon the nearby Liberty Pole flew at half-mast, which, even during those long-ago days, was understood to be a sign of distress.

Lowell's Merrimack House, 1886 City Directory

The President checked into his hotel, and, at six, attended a ‘superb supper’ with Mayor Bancroft and the other dignitaries at Mechanics Hall.  Polk dined and drank with the Lowell men – and later retired to his rooms at the Merrimack House for the night.  The Courier records that President Polk visited the Middlesex and Prescott Mills early on the morning of July 1, and boarded the 8 o’clock train to Concord, New Hampshire from the Merrimack Street Depot, located on the lower floor of Huntington Hall – also destroyed by fire, in 1904.

Merrimack Street Depot, Lowell, Massachusetts via Wikipedia Commons

Despite the early hour, a large crowd assembled to see President Polk off.  As the train pulled away from the Depot, someone in the crowd called for three cheers.  Instead, the crowd called “no go” as the President’s train disappeared from view.  The President did return that night, to switch trains before leaving for a visit to Portland, Maine.

The purpose of Polk’s visit to Lowell on that long-ago day is not actually recorded in the Courier, which isn’t really surprising.  In reading through newspapers and other contemporary, locally minded media of the 19th century, national news is much less of a focus than what is found in today’s local media.  The Lowell Courier does record, courtesy of the Boston Transcript, that Polk’s visit marked the third presidential visit to Boston in the past 14 years that had happened during a rainstorm.  Polk’s visit to Lowell was part of a larger tour that also included stops in New York; Boston; Charlestown, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Newburyport, Massachusetts.  The reality was, in fact, that Polk undertook the tour of New York and New England to help influence the upcoming Congressional elections, which he saw as critical to the success of his policies.  Most coming to see Polk on that day came to catch a glimpse of the President, a rare occurrence in a day lacking the access to celebrity we now enjoy.  On a lighter (and closing) note, though, I had no idea, before researching this article, that President Polk had once slept at the site of the present-day Hess station at the corner of Merrimack and Dutton Streets in downtown Lowell.  I think I would have done a double-take had I seen a sign there proclaiming that “President Polk slept here”.


June “Thirsty-First”, 1919: Prohibition in Lowell, Massachusetts

Fenway Park exterior.

Fenway Park, Image via Wikipedia

To me, one of the most fascinating concepts to ponder in history is when you can pinpoint a historical event to an exact moment, an exact minute, in time.  This gives an event a sense of immediacy – like, if I were there, witnessing the event unfold and looked at my watch, the time would be. . . .  For the start of Wartime Prohibition in Lowell, Massachusetts, that exact moment was 11 PM on June 30, 1919.  It was a warm and fair night – with temperatures in the low 60’s.  As Lowellians and residents from surrounding towns thronged into Lowell to stock up on liquor (before its sale became illegal), Boston-minded Lowellians might have talked about the fare increase on Boston’s Elevated Railway (the L, as they called it, which was the predecessor to today’s MBTA), to a full dime – up from the current per-ride rate of seven cents a ride, and its nickel fare one year before.  Those excited for the approaching Independence Day spoke of surprising explosiveness of the year’s stock of fireworks, and how the high-grade powder created for the munitions for the War may have influenced this.  Still others spoke of the dealers hawking the summer’s first watermelons at their street stands and how they were skirting regulations by exposing cut melons at their stands to the dust and germs of the streets.  The more internationally-minded in Lowell that night might have spoken about Eamon de Valera’s visit to Fenway Park the night before.  Of the 60,000 people who crowded into Fenway Park to hear the provisional president of the Irish Republic speak, it was estimated that at least 1,600 were from Lowell.

On that June night in Lowell, most were probably talking of Wartime Prohibition, speculating that it wasn’t expected to last.  Congress had passed the Act that created it, intending to conserve grain for the World War I war effort, on November 18, 1918, a full week after the armistice that ended the Great War was signed.  The Prohibition was still honored, however, because the demobilization of the troops had not yet been effected by President Woodrow Wilson by the effective date of the Act, July 1, 1919, also known as the “Thirsty-First” of June.  All that was needed to suspend the Act, people reasoned, was the proclamation from President Wilson demobilizing the troops.  Surely, some speculated, that proclamation would have to come on July 15 or August 1, or September 1; the most pessimistic named dates slightly later.

On the eve of the “Thirsty-First” of June, Lowell residents were not only predicting the date of the end of Wartime Prohibition, they were also predicting what would happen to city’s many liquor stores, and if they would ever replace the inventories that they were just then cleaning out.  Some predicted an onslaught of carpenters, workmen, and movers to arrive in Lowell on the morning of July 1, ready to remove and deconstruct the city’s bars and liquor stores, replacing placards advertising liquor with “To Let” signs.  Others predicted that Prohibition would be only temporary, and that the liquor stores would close temporarily, or operate for a time in other businesses.

In the end, Wartime Prohibition was replaced with an even stricter Prohibition, that further restricted laws around the sale and possession of alcohol; the related Volstead Act set the penalties for violating them.  Prohibition, as it turned out, proved to be too much for Lowell-area liquor dealers.  In 1915, there were 15 city merchants selling ales, wines, and liquors that were successful enough to place advertisements in that year’s Lowell City Directory.  Seven years later, by 1922, only three remained, as ‘beverage’ sellers; not one of those took out a directory advertisement.

1915 Lowell City Directory

One of those merchants, P. Dempsey & Company Liquors, located in Lowell’s downtown area on Market Street, had origins in Lowell that dated to 1846, when it closed during Prohibition.  The shop sold the “finest orange bitters”, creme de menthe, vermouth, and even Fisher Rye, the “Finest High Ball Whiskey in America”.  Its advertisements appear on each side of this paragraph, 1915 at left; 1880, below.  The Downtown Lowell landmark had closed by 1922, its location vacant.

1880 Lowell City Directory

E. A. McQuade, another prominent Downtown Lowell merchant and the exclusive dealer of Pullman Club whiskey, had a successful enterprise located at 73-77 Market Street in Lowell in 1915, which was well-known locally as “The Big Liquor Store”.

1915 Lowell City Directory

By 1922, his business had closed and the location then housed Carleton & Hovey Medicine, which sold the famous Father John’s Medicine.

1922 Lowell City Directory

Another successful liquor store, Peter H. Donohoe & Co., located at 40 Church Street, sold wines, brandies, and whiskies to Lowell clientele until Prohibition.

1915 Lowell City Directory

By 1922, its doors had closed.  The Church Street location was taken over by an electrical contractor.

1922 Lowell City Directory

On the eve of the “Thirsty-First” in Lowell, its residents and visitors likely could not have envisioned the sweeping changes that Prohibition would bring to their city, which included the changing of storefronts.  The changing of those storefronts presaged another more serious, and unanticipated, effect of Prohibition – an increase in the illegal production of alcohol, i.e., moonshine.  But, there’s enough information in that topic to justify saving it for a future post.