Tag Archives: Lowell

Pollard’s Department Store – Lowell Born . . . Lowell Owned . . . Lowell Managed

Arthur G. Pollard, Founder of A G Pollard Department Store in Lowell, Massachusetts and Native of Plaistow, New Hampshire

Late on a Thursday afternoon on June 3, 1926, every available firefighting resource raced to Pollard’s Department Store on Merrimack Street in Downtown Lowell.  All of Lowell’s fire department was joined by men and equipment sent from Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Lawrence in the fight to save Pollard’s from a raging fire.  Pollard’s, also known as A.G. Pollard Co., traced its beginnings to 1836 when Hocum Hosford founded a dry goods store on Lowell’s Merrimack Street, in the same location that would one day house the much larger Pollard’s Department Store.

The fire did not result in any deaths, but many firemen were temporarily overcome by the billowing smoke and illuminating gas.  Others were cut by flying glass or hit by falling debris.

The fire had been discovered at 4:40 PM by workers from the nearby Lowell Electric Light Company.  Four hours later, despite firefighting efforts, only the walls remained of the 90-year-old institution known as the A G. Pollard Department Store on Merrimack, Palmer, and Middle Streets.

With his entire store gutted by the city’s worst fire on record, many expected 83-year-old Arthur Gayton Pollard to retire from retailing after what had been a lengthy and successful career.  Instead, barely a month later, he opened a temporary store, at the Number Six mill of the Bigelow-Hartford plant on Market Street.  Just months later, in 1927, he reopened his full store, at its historic Merrimack Street location.

Arthur Gayton Pollard lived long enough to oversee the return of his store to full operations.   He died on June 4, 1930, just one day after the fourth anniversary of the devastating fire.  So great was his reputation among the Downtown Lowell community that the merchants division of the city’s chamber of commerce voted to close downtown stores for one hour on June 6, during Pollard’s funeral.

Even the Bon Marche, one of A.G. Pollard's main competitors, closed in observance of his funeral on June 6, 1930.

Arthur Pollard’s influence stretched far beyond his department store.  During his working years, he was involved many of Lowell’s companies and institutions.  Pollard served as president of Lowell’s Union National Bank, Stony Brook Railroad Company, the Lowell Hosiery Company, and Lowell General Hospital.  He was also a trustee of the Lowell Cemetery Association, Lowell Textile School, the Ayer Home for Little Children, Rogers Hall School, and the Young Men’s Christian Association.  He was also active in the Republican party.  Although he never held or sought office, he served as treasurer on the Middlesex County Republican Committee for nearly 20 years.  In 1900, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention, which nominated McKinley for a second term.  Pollard had also amassed quite a reputation in free masonry, and attained high honors in the York and Scottish rites, both in Lowell and nationally.

A Pollard's Ad from 1944 touts its Lowell heritage.

Arthur Pollard was a native of Plaistow, New Hampshire.  He was born on January 5, 1843, the only son of Colonel Joseph Smith and Luella Josephine (Tucker) Pollard.  He moved to Lowell at 11 years old, and, five years later, began working, first with Hilton, Keyes & Lewis of Lowell, and next with the Lowell Board of Assessors.  By the time he turned 18, he had found work with Hocum Hosford, a prominent Downtown Lowell dry goods merchant and sometime mayor of Lowell.  (Hosford Square carries his name).  After three years, Pollard became a partner in Hosford’s firm.  Hosford and Pollard continued their partnership for two decades, until Hosford died in 1881.

A WWI-era advertisement for A. G. Pollard's Department Store

Until 1886, Pollard continued the firm as he had when Hosford was alive, but then bought out his interest from Hosford’s estate and became its sole owner.  Arthur Pollard renamed the concern, A. G. Pollard & Co.; his department store was born.  By the 20th century’s first years, the A.G. Pollard Company had become one of the largest stores in Massachusetts, rivaled only by a couple of stores in Boston.  Pollard became so well-known in Lowell circles that hundreds gathered on Lowell’s Merrimack Street to watch him be the first man in Lowell to drive an electric car.  In retailing innovations, Pollard was credited with the invention of the bargain basement.

From the 1943 Lowell City Directory

Despite his many successes in Lowell, Plaistow, Pollard’s hometown, was never far from his mind.  Over the years, he became known as the “father’ of the town.  Some of his many gifts to the town included a tower clock for the Town Hall, a flagpole for the Village Improvement Society, a site for a school building, and an oil painting of his father, Colonel Joseph S. Pollard.  He also funded the creation of a soldiers’ monument erected in Plaistow’s Pollard Square.  Its pedestal was made of granite and topped with a bronze figure, standing some eight feet in height.  The pedestal bears four bronze tablets, containing the names of 102 citizens of Plaistow who served in the Civil War.

Pollard's Logo, circa 1965

Pollard’s Department Store held on long after Arthur Pollard’s death.  During his lifetime, Pollard admitted his son, Harry G. Pollard to the business, who later succeeded his father as its president.  And, in the decades following Pollard’s death, his other descendants played prominent roles in the department store’s management.  By 1961, two of Pollard’s great-grandsons, William Pollard Bartlett and Sheppard Bartlett managed the company as its executives.

A November 1970 Advertisement for Lynch's Department Store (Formerly Pollard's)

After 133 years of existence and 88 years under the ownership of Arthur Pollard or his family, the store eventually came to be sold on August 21, 1969, to Dexter D. Gould of Manchester, who owned and operated a chain of stores spread across Massachusetts and New Hampshire.  At the time of the acquisition, Gould controlled the Miss Lynch Shop, located across the street from A. G. Pollard.  He also controlled Lynch Co. of Manchester and Kimball Company in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  As the sale was announced in the local press, promises were made that Pollard’s would retain its name.  Sadly, this didn’t turn out to be the case.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. The adjacent Hosford Block stands just beyond.


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)


Remembering Downtown Lowell’s Bon Marché through the Years, 1878-1976

To mourn the loss of the Bon Marché Department Store in Downtown Lowell is almost like mourning the loss of a beloved grandparent.  On the day the Bon Marché closed, its faithful came out one last time to reflect on their relationship with the store, and to discuss among themselves what its loss would mean to Downtown Lowell.  As the Bon Marché prepared to close its doors for the final time at 5:30 PM on January 10, 1976, customers picked through its remaining inventory and expressed their mixed feelings about the new Jordan Marsh branch that would open in its place.  As she shopped in the Bon Marché one last time, Anita Angers told the Lowell Sun: “This is awful.  I’ve shopped here for years.  Oh, I like Jordan’s.  I go to the mall for Jordan’s, but I don’t like Bon Marché leaving.  It’s a sad day for Lowell.”  Betty Cook offered The Sun a different perspective:  “I think it’s great.  I’ve shopped here for 10 years, but I’m glad Jordan’s is coming.”

Merrimack Street looking east, Lowell, Mass. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Bon Marché Store Directory from 1928

For generations, the Bon Marché offered six floors of wares to Downtown Lowell.  Below ground, on its basement level, the store sold kitchenware, groceries, and electrical household equipment.  Walk in from the street and you would find  hosiery, gloves, and shoes on its first floor.  One floor up, dresses, coats, and corsets were sold.  The third floor featured the gift shop, mirrors, and dinnerware.  Music was the theme on the fourth floor, where radios, Victrolas, and records could be found.  The top floor included the beauty shop, barber shop, and the store’s executive offices.  The Bon Marché offered it all.

But, to tell the real story of the Bon Marché is to tell the story of Downtown Lowell.  If you’ve grown up or spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve heard of the Bon Marché department store, which operated for decades on Merrimack Street.  Its takeover by Allied Department Stores, the same chain that owned Jordan Marsh, mirrors the same fate that happened to lots of independent, locally-owned department stores in the mid-20th century.  And, its eventual demise on Downtown Lowell’s Merrimack Street mirrors the fate of many long-time downtown merchants as mid-century Lowell rolled into the 1970′s.

The Bon Marché was born during Downtown Lowell’s heyday.  Its founder, Frederic Mitchell opened his first store on Merrimack Street in 1878.  A native of Lowell, Mitchell was educated in the local schools and, in the wake of the Civil War at the age of 16, became a pattern maker.  Soon after, he decided to try his hand at the dry goods business and found work with A. C. Skinner, who then owned and operated a small Merrimack Street store.  Mitchell eventually left the dry goods business and went to California where he speculated in cattle and sheep.  Upon his return to Lowell in the late 1870′s, he opened his first dry good store named ‘This is Mitchell’s‘ on Merrimack Street.  He traded for his first merchandise, exchanging his ranch in California for his new store’s first wave of inventory, sight unseen.  From humble beginnings, the store grew into the Bon Marché of later years, eventually acquiring its well-known name within a few years.

The store’s initial merchandising efforts followed the trends of the day, and much of the store’s wares were sold outside, on Merrimack Street in draped packing cases.  Mitchell could predict with reliable accuracy that his millworker customers would descend on his storefront once monthly, right after they received their monthly wages.  Millworkers waited until ‘the ghost walked’, as they said, and then went to the stores of the day to buy the wrappers, yards of cloth, and silverware that they had been eyeing during the entire month before.  During the three weeks between pay days, Mitchell and his counterparts chased tramps away from their racks of clothes and planned for the next onslaught of millworkers, each one armed with newly-earned cash.

The history of the Bon Marché can be traced through its advertisements to Lowell residents through the years.  Even in its early years, the Bon Marché billed itself as the largest department store in New England and touted its great deals, often obtained through efficient bargaining with its own suppliers.  The Bon Marché got its name from French words translating roughly to a ‘good bargain’.  A typical ad from the time, published during the Christmas season of 1898, was entirely text-based and announced a combination of its offerings to customers and its superior negotiations with suppliers.  Intermixed with offers for china, dolls, men’s suspenders, and ladies’ shirt waists were transcriptions of correspondence from suppliers who had been ‘forced’ to accept ridiculous offers received from the buyers of the Bon Marché, the savings from which had been passed along to customers.

A Lowell Sun advertisement from December 1898

An advertisement for The Bon Marche, 1908

An advertisement for the Bon Marche, 1918

While Lowell progressed through the first years of the twentieth century, the advertisements of the Bon Marché evolved to make use of advancing technology.  Pictures of the store’s merchandise were added to its ads, and the spare heading of its late nineteenth-century ads was substituted out for the more-familiar cursive-based heading that remained the store’s logo well into the twentieth century.  By 1908, the store’s advertisements (at left) carried offers of ice cream, which could be bought by the gallon for a dollar, or in smaller portions with hot chocolate for a more affordable five cents.  And, while Greater Lowell lived through the first World War, the Bon Marché offered its patrons an opportunity to support the US war effort by buying thrift and war stamps (at right).  The Bon Marché also collected peach pits that were used by the government in gas masks.  As the Bon Marché celebrated its 40th anniversary during that year, it continued to offer the latest trends in coats, suits, dresses, muffs, and petticoats, all first quality and at prices that ‘could not be duplicated’.

An advertisement for the Bon Marche, 1928

By 1928, the Bon Marché had become an established member of the Downtown Lowell retailing community and heavily touted its anniversary celebrations.  In 1928, at its fiftieth anniversary, a ten-day sale was prominently advertised in the local press.  The Bon Marché continued to sell the latest in fashions and also began to carry radios, at prices which were good for the time, but high in comparison to today’s prices.  According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that $137.50 you would have spent for a radio in 1928 would set you back something north of $1,800 in today’s money.

Ten years later, in 1938, the Bon Marché planned another ten-day celebration, with a focus on remembering its founders.  Store managers decorated the store’s interior and exterior in patriotic colors.  Clerks were asked to wear badges that matched the theme.  Sales were advertised in all six floors of the store and streamers had been strewn throughout.  The sixtieth anniversary celebration also honored its employees at a pre-sale banquet at the nearby Rex Grille.  Also, pins were awarded to employees who had more than five years of service with the store.

In a testament to Bon Marché as an employer and to the long-term employment mentality of the time, the Bon Marché and The Lowell Sun ran a special feature on September 30, 1938, showing all employees who had more than 10 years with Bon Marché.  There were 62.  All appear in this full-page advertisement, produced below:

From the Lowell Sun, 9/30/1938, Bon Marché employees with 10 or more years of service

A few years later, as the Bon Marché and the rest of the downtown community lived through WWII, the store instituted wartime hours and again offered war bonds and stamps to its customers to support the war effort.  Lowell experienced a brief economic boom in the war years, mostly from the increased need for clothing produced by its remaining textile mills and its involvement in munitions manufacturing.

January 1943

Later in the 1940′s, as the Bon Marché celebrated its 70th anniversary, the wartime business boom that had fueled increased sales slowed and sale levels returned to normal.  By the time of its 70th anniversary sale in 1948, the store heavily advertised its ‘rock bottom’ prices and the convenience offered by its charge account.

1948

The economic difficulties experienced by Lowell’s downtown merchants continued into the 1950′s.  The city’s last two major textile mills, the Boott Mills and the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, both closed before the Bon Marché 80th anniversary celebration in 1958:

1958

And, the economic malaise continued in Lowell past the store’s 90th anniversary sale in 1968:

1968

1976

The Bon Marché Department Store closed its doors for the last time on January 10, 1976, after surviving several decades of Lowell’s declining economic climate downtown.  Lowell’s unemployment rate entered double digits.  The store’s closure marked the end of a Downtown Lowell institution that had survived nearly a century.  From its small-time beginnings as “This is Mitchell’s” in the last years of the nineteenth century to its last years as a subsidiary of a larger corporation, the Bon Marché Department Store served generations of Lowellians as they sought to buy clothes, housewares, and electronics.  During the changeover in 1976, rumors emerged that Jordan Marsh, the store that replaced the Bon Marché, had only committed to a three-year trial period in downtown Lowell.  In the end, Jordan Marsh stayed in Downtown Lowell, for more than a decade – not leaving until the early 1990′s.  The Jordan Marsh chain, itself with deep New England roots, disappeared in 1996, when the last of its stores were converted to the Macy’s name.

The story of the Bon Marché follows closely the story of the rise and subsequent fall of downtown Lowell as it lost the textile industry to which it owed its founding.  The Bon Marché survived several economic slowdowns, the Great Depression, the loss of the city’s mills, and the loss of downtown shoppers to suburban strip malls.  Unfortunately, the Bon Marché didn’t live to see Lowell’s resurgence, which began in earnest with the establishment of the city’s National Historical Park, which occurred just after the store’s closing.

Readers, do you have memories of the Bon Marché that you would like to share?  Please add them to the comments below.

1976


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Sacred Heart School, 1967

On a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in early May 1967, two men simultaneously spotted the billowing smoke escaping from the first-story windows of Sacred Heart School’s “new building” on its Moore Street campus in Lowell, Massachusetts.  John J. McWilliams, an off-duty police officer, ran and activated the fire alarm at a nearby fire-box.  John Sickles, a Tewksbury resident who happened to be driving past the scene, drove to the nearby Lawrence Street firehouse and notified the firefighters inside.

Marked with a black arrow above, Sacred Heart School's "new" building once fronted Lowell's Moore Street.

At 58 years old, the “new building” was the newer of Sacred Heart School’s two school buildings on the corner of Moore and Andrews Streets in the city’s South Lowell neighborhood.  Its cornerstone had been laid on October 9, 1909 by Lowell native and then-Archbishop William H. O’Connell, who later became a Cardinal.  By 1967, the school, which served the children of parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish located across Moore Street, had grown to include the “old” and “new” buildings that served some 600 students, from grades 1-8.  The building now burning housed the younger children, through Grade 4.  The older children attended classes in the “old building”, which standing just 25 feet away, was threatened by the raging fire too.

By the time the first firefighters arrived, a few moments after 2 PM, the fire had spread past the first-floor boys’ lavatory near where it had started, through an air shaft, across the school’s gleaming oil-treated floors, and up the stairwells into its third-floor auditorium.  The first alarm company to arrive on the scene, led by Deputy Chief Mulligan, quickly determined that the three-story brick building could not be saved.  They soon called for more alarm units.  Sacred Heart School’s new building was entirely engulfed in flames before the second alarm units even reached the fire.  Five more companies arrived to fight the blaze, and to protect the surrounding neighborhood, tightly packed in the city’s South Lowell section.  They also worried for the school’s remaining building, the old building, nearby, but still untouched by the flames.

The firefighters called in two more engines.  At 2:43 PM, help was called in from surrounding communities outside Lowell.  Firefighters from Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Bedford, and Lawrence all answered the call.  Some assisted Lowell firefighters at the fire.  Others manned Lowell’s fire stations, while their firefighters fought the Sacred Heart School fire.  The inferno was declared a general alarm fire.  Veterans on the city’s fire department remarked it was the worst fire they had seen since the 1941 fire that had claimed the Bartlett School, more than 25 years earlier.

Firefighters directed the department’s pump-fed, high pressure lines at all four sides of the building.  They threw up a water curtain to protect the old building.  A few minutes after 3 PM, the fire began poking through the school’s roof.  Seven minutes later, firefighters were ordered out of the school when the top of its west-facing wall began to fail, spilling bricks, plaster, and other debris into Andrews Street.

Sacred Heart School's "New Building" - Lowell, Massachusetts

Police pushed back the crowds that had gathered along Andrews Street as firefighters risked death and severe injury to remove their equipment from the failing wall.  For the next hour or so, firefighters worked to contain the flames while they raced unchecked through Sacred Heart School’s new building.  Eight classrooms, an auditorium, the offices of the principal and of the school nurses, and the lavatories were all destroyed.  At 4 PM, the roof above the third-floor auditorium failed and fell into the building.  Its weight caused the floor of the third story to sag, forcing firefighters to abandon their efforts inside the building and escape using the nearest ladders and fire escapes.  More sections of the school’s roof soon failed, allowing firefighters atop aerial ladders clear access to aim their deck guns at the flames.  The fire was finally declared under control by 4:30 PM.  Smoke towered some 75 feet above the doomed school building as firefighters began to re-enter the building’s first floor and subdue any leftover trouble spots.  Chief Gendron left three companies on the scene overnight to prevent any additional outbreaks.

One firefighter lost his life fighting the blaze.  While helping fellow firefighters raise a 45-foot extension ladder on the school’s Moore Street side, John J. Wojitas, a WWII veteran and a 24-year veteran of the Lowell Fire Department, fell victim to a fatal heart attack.  He was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. John’s Hospital (now Saints Memorial).  Rev. W. Irving Monroe, the fire department’s chaplain, was on the scene of the fire and left with Wojitas when he was stricken.  Rev. Monroe returned to the scene of the fire later, delivering the news that Wojitas had died to his saddened fellow firefighters.

The school’s loss weighed heavily on the local community that had gathered to watch the efforts to save the building.  Most were graduates of, or otherwise connected to, the school.  The school’s nuns, of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, stood stricken with the priests of the school’s church, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  In its aftermath, the school announced that its classes would be cancelled for a few days following the fire.  Rev. Frederick Higgins, OMI, acting as the church’s pastor while Rev. John T. McLaughlin, OMI, was recuperating in Florida from an illness, announced that plans to place students in other schools would be discussed.  By Sunday afternoon, the day after the fire, a crane had been already put in place to take down the charred ruins of the school.
The top two floors of the school were soon condemned and the city’s deputy commissioner of lands and buildings ordered that students not attend class in the school’s old building until those floors were leveled.  Some talk was made about saving the school’s first floor, but ultimately, this was leveled too.

The Rev. Bruce M. Lambert, pastor of the First United Baptist Church soon reached out to Rev. McLaughlin to offer the church the use of their facilities at Central Plaza at 99 Church Street in Lowell, which included, in his words, “a modern educational wing, with 10 classrooms, accommodating up to 300 pupils, an office and a large open basement recreation room.”  Sacred Heart officials ultimately chose to use their old building on a double session basis, for the few weeks remaining in the school year.

The school did rise again.  On September 22, 1968, a crowd of more than 2,500 people gathered to watch the dedication of the new Sacred Heart School building.  Its student body of 500 began classes there on the following day.  The Sacred Heart School band provided the crowd with a concert as dignitaries, parishioners, students, alumni, and friends looked on.  After the concert, a tour of the new building was given.  The cornerstone was laid during the ceremonies by Rev. John T. McLaughlin, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and the Very Rev. Thomas Reddy, OMI, Oblate Provincial of the Eastern Province.  The school’s principal, Sr. Mary Kevin, SSMN, proudly looked on.

Sacred Heart School's new "New" building, dedicated in 1968. Photo from The Lowell Sun, 9/17/1968

As part of the ceremony, Fathers Reddy and McLaughlin passed through the rooms of the new school building, blessing each one, and finished by hanging a crucifix in the principal’s office.  After giving thanks to all those who helped in the rebuilding effort, Father McLaughlin told the crowd about the contents of a box which had been sealed into the new school’s cornerstone.  The box contained all of the keepsakes that had been sealed in the cornerstone of the 1909 building: copies of The Lowell Sun and the Lowell Courier-Citizen detailing the construction of the first school and its groundbreaking ceremony.  In addition to the 1909 items, new keepsakes were added to the cornerstone box:  Lowell Sun articles describing the 1967 fire that had destroyed the former school building and the new school’s groundbreaking ceremony, a Miraculous Medal, a Sacred Heart Badge, and a list of all the current priests and teaching sisters.  The priests had also added a list of parishioners, a medal of Pope Paul, a Kennedy half-dollar, and a picture of John Wojitas, the fireman who died while fighting the fire that had claimed the old school.

By the time I began attending Sacred Heart School more than a decade later, people still spoke of the great fire that had claimed the “new building”.  During my first few years at the school, we still attended classes at Sacred Heart’s “old” building, with its quaint coat rooms and ornate woodwork.  The building was eventually demolished, ten or fifteen years ago.  The school itself closed a few years later.

Do you have memories of the fire, or of Sacred Heart School or Church?  Please share them here!

Note to readers:  The Fires of Lowell series includes several other articles, including one detailing the 1904 fire of Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Church.  This post marks the fifth installment of the series.


The Great White Hurricane – New England’s Blizzard of 1888

The Blizzard of 1888 in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.

During New England‘s Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, over four feet of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The storm dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in New York and New Jersey.  In a world before road salt and snowblowers, the Great White Hurricane suspended communication and travel in the U.S. Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888.  History most remembers the particularly horrific conditions in New York City.  There, the New York World reported that almost two feet of snow had fallen amidst biting 50 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures.  However, the storm also wrought havoc in smaller northern cities along the US East Coast.

A wet, swirling snow began to fall around dawn on Monday, March 12, 1888, in Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of about 65,000 residents.  Many of Lowell’s residents, workers in the textile mills, gingerly picked their way along slick sidewalks as they began their workweek.  Most did not know that a blizzard was approaching and that it would drop increasing amounts of snow in Lowell on that day and the next.  As they took their places behind their spinning machines and warpers, the morning’s light breezes intensified into winds and then gales.  Temperatures, near freezing in the morning, never warmed.  Outside the mills, milkmen shoveled passages through drifts that had grown several feet high.  Patrolmen struggled through blinding snows before being forced to suspend their rounds later that afternoon.  Most agreed that they had never before seen such a storm.  Almost all had thought these kind of storms only happened in the “west”, which had suffered through the Schoolhouse Blizzard just two months before.

Windows, and even their buildings, rattled in the howling winds as heavy, wet snow began to blanket Lowell, Massachusetts.  Communication with other cities was soon lost as strong gusts brought down telephone wires and telegraph poles, already heavy with snow and ice.

Travel to, from, and around Lowell soon devolved into chaos.  Snow drifts grew to ten, or twenty feet high on some train tracks.

Front Page Headlines from the Boston Globe - March 13, 1888

Those lucky enough to arrive from surrounding towns and cities came late.  Some unfortunate souls ended up stranded with their disabled trains in a dark, white wilderness.  The heavy, wet snow just proved too much for the steam engines.  To make matters even worse, downed telegraph wires meant that the stalled trains had lost all means of communication, leaving the stranded passengers and crew completely cut off.

For those relying on horse-cars to travel within Lowell, the situation was hardly any better.  Snow had settled into the horse-car tracks far more quickly than the plows had been able to remove it.  This, and the increasing number or passengers seeking refuge on the city’s horse-cars, began to overtax the city’s work horses.  Newspaper accounts recorded the concern expressed over the horses’ welfare.  When one of the horses dropped dead from overexertion early in the evening, the horse-cars were called back into the stables for the night and any attempts to keep the tracks clear of snow was given up.  Those stranded in Lowell remarked at the city’s oddly quiet streets, deserted without a single horse-car, or even any visible horse-car tracks for that matter.  Sleighs gradually claimed the streets, no longer needing to be mindful of the usual risk of overturning in the horse-car tracks.

City officials fretted that an electrical surge would take out the city’s fire alarm system.  At 5:30 that afternoon, officials shut down the city’s electric light system, after sending a notice to shopkeepers advising them to convert to their gas lights.  Most closed at dusk instead, sending their employees out into the evolving chaos that had been the city’s transportation system.  City officials tried to light their way using the old gas light lanterns that still hung along most streets.  They soon abandoned the effort, however, when they learned that the glass was missing from most of the lantern panes.

The increasing weight of the wet snow proved too much for telegraph wires too.  Communication with Boston was lost by 3 PM on March 12; New York fell silent several hours earlier.  New England Telephone Company suffered extensive damage to its telephone lines as well.

The sun finally reappeared by the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, but failed to melt much as temperatures failed to hit even 30ºF.  Throughout the day and evening, teams of men picked away at the deep drifts covering the horse-car tracks with their picks and shovels.  Horse car service began to be reinstated on the following morning.  By dusk on March 14, nearly all horse-car service was available.

Train service, too, began to return to a state of normalcy.  Trains that had spent the storm trapped within deep drifts began arriving during Tuesday, March 13.  A train that had left Fall River, Massachusetts at 5:45 AM on that day arrived in Lowell almost 12 hours later, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  By Wednesday, March 14, train service too had returned to normal schedules, even though even a passing snow squall had dropped even more snow on the area.

Western Union and New England Telephone remained hard at work in the days following the storm.  Although Western Union began work on felled telegraph poles after the storm ended on March 13, it was several days before service was restored.  New England Telephone had restored most of its service by Thursday, March 15.  Electric light service was restored to Lowell by dusk the night before.

As repairs were completed in the days following the storm, the Blizzard of 1888 faded from local newspaper headlines.  And as communication was restored with Boston, New York and beyond, news of the extent of the damage in New York City became known, where deaths and much more serious damage had been recorded.  Lowell, Massachusetts, recorded several injuries related to the Great White Hurricane of 1888, but escaped the greatest brunt of the storm.  The Blizzard of  1888 remained the benchmark for all other snowstorms, however, for nearly a century until the Blizzard of 1978 swept across New England and became the storm of record.


Abraham Lincoln’s Visit to Lowell, 1848

If you spend a considerable amount of time reading turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century editions of the local papers of Lowell, Massachusetts, you’ll soon come across the name of Samuel P. Hadley, who presided as a Justice for the Lowell Police Court for close to three decades.  In fact, I think a few of the people I’ve researched for columns . . . and even genealogy, might have met Justice Hadley in his courtroom once or twice.  Justice Hadley was very active in local history too, and was a president of the Lowell Historical Society.

[Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illin...

Abraham Lincoln, Congress-elect from Illinois - Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

Justice Hadley spent a good amount of his later years recording his memories.  As the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth approached just over 100 years ago, Lowell’s historical society took note that they knew of just one man who still recalled Lincoln’s visit to Lowell some sixty years before, in 1848.  At the time, Hadley was just 16 years old, but already quite interested in politics.  He and his family considered themselves democrats, but Hadley recalled being intrigued by the rival Whig party and wanting to know more.

Hadley remembered walking up Lowell’s Central Street on September 14, 1848, and pausing when he saw a sheet of white paper, a yard long and two feet wide, with large black block letters inviting passersby to City Hall two days later, on a Saturday evening, to see the Hon. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois.

On the evening of September 16, 1848, a pleasant evening as Hadley recalled it, he walked into Lowell from his home in Middlesex Village.  As he turned the corner of Carleton and Hovey’s, he realized he was late, and could hear applause and laughter already escaping from the hall. He entered City Hall, and found a seated crowd, listening, entertained, to a man telling a story.  Even the ladies in the gallery had joined in the laughter.  Hadley noted that many prominent members of the local Whig party, Lincoln’s then-party, were present on the platform. Hadley later learned that the man speaking to the crowd was a young Abraham Lincoln, who would have been less than 40 years old at the time.  Hadley described him as a tall man who was dressed in dark clothing and wore a collar turned over a black silk cravat.  He noted that the man, who stood well over six feet tall, stooped somewhat and had long arms, that moved animatedly as he spoke.  He also noticed Lincoln’s dark complexion and nearly black hair.  Lincoln’s eyes, he described as bright, humorous, but reflecting a quiet sadness.   He found him forceful and candid, rather than eloquent.  While Hadley listened to him speak, Lincoln added amusing illustrations to his stories, and had a peculiar way of laughing that included shaking his sides, which caused the audience to laugh even more.  He also noted Lincoln’s strange way of pronouncing his words, “in a manner not usual in New England“.

Hadley listened to Lincoln for nearly 45 minutes, laughing at his stories.  He lamented that he couldn’t recall the details of the stories when he set down to record the memory some 60 years later.  Lincoln ended the speech to rounds of applause that filled the hall, and went to take his seat.  Before he could sit, though, Mr. Woodman stepped forward, and whispered in Lincoln’s ear.  Lincoln needed to stoop to hear Woodman, but nodded and came back to address the audience on the candidacy of General Zachary Taylor as the candidate of the Whig party for the presidency.

It’s interesting to read and consider the newspaper coverage that Lincoln’s appearance received the next day.  In his paper, Hadley provides the articles as they appeared in the Lowell Courier on the following Monday, September 18, 1848:

Alfred Gilman's report on Lincoln's Visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, September 1848

The second half of Alfred Gilman's report, 1848

Justice Hadley finished his recollection, stating that he was fairly certain that Lincoln had stayed in Lowell that Saturday night – since the trains to Boston ran no later than 6:30 in the evening during those days.  He did not know where Lincoln had stayed, but speculated that he most likely stayed with the Chairman of the Central Committee, Linus Child, or with another Lowell dignitary, Homer Bartlett, who both lived in the same block on Kirk Street in Lowell’s downtown section.


The Challenge of Researching Portuguese Ancestors

If you were to visit Lowell, Massachusetts before . . . say, 1890, you would not have met many men walking about the city named João or Manuel.  The Portuguese began arriving en masse in New England in the late 19th century and had established, by the first decades of the 20th century, sizable communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  Most of these Portuguese hailed Madeira or the Azores, island possessions of mainland Portugal.  The three pages attached below are taken from the Lowell, Massachusetts City Directories for 1884, 1894, and 1910.  The surname Silva, one of the most common Portuguese surnames, does not appear at all in the 1884 directory.  Just ten years later, in 1894, ten Silva men are listed in the Directory.  And, by 1910, this number had grown to 42 individuals with the surname Silva.

1884 Lowell City Directory

1894 Lowell City Directory

1910 Lowell City Directory

If you’re among the roughly 1 in 20 Americans who today claim Portuguese ancestry, you’ve likely discovered that Portuguese genealogy presents some challenges.  Records are not as widely available as they are for other Western European countries, and often are not translated from Portuguese. Additionally, vital records (birth/baptism, marriage, death) are frequently church records whose form and content vary widely depending on the time and region of the record.  As an added challenge, many Portuguese arriving in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries changed their names either to appear more American or so others would be more able to pronounce their names. In my own research, I’ve found Machados who became Marshalls and Pereiras who became Perrys.   To add to the challenge, first names are often translated too. José becomes Joe and João becomes John.  There’s some evidence of this in the Lowell City Directory listings above, where many of the Silvas use Anglicized names like Joseph, Frank, John, and Louis.

It took me what felt like forever to find my grandmother’s Machado family in the 1920 U.S. census and with good reason.  When I finally found them, they were listed as an Irish family with the surname “Marsh”  (Below, see lines 54-57.)  Sometimes, the errors recorded in census records tell you more than the true information that was recorded.  From this record, I can get an idea of how my great-grandfather’s pronunciation of “Machado” sounded to a native English speaker from Massachusetts.  How she ever ended up listing them as English speakers from Ireland though, I’ll never know.  They were light-skinned Portuguese folks with light eyes, but likely spoke broken English at the time.

Admittedly, the challenges of Portuguese genealogy are many, but the Portuguese people have a rich history. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about one’s ties to a culture that gave us some of the world’s great explorers, e.g., Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, as well as fellow present-day descendants like Tom Hanks and Meredith Vieira? The Portuguese even had their own crazy set of royals (which they overthrew during the Revolution of 1910).  And Portuguese history is full of interesting stories that are not well-known in the English-speaking world.  Perhaps one of the most curious tales to have occurred during the nearly eight-century history of the Portuguese monarchy is that of the legend of Pedro I.  The legends goes that Pedro I was so distraught that his wife, Inês de Castro, had died before he became King that, when he eventually ascended the throne in 1357, he exhumed her body, put her upon the throne, bejeweled and dressed in a rich gown, and then required each of his new vassals to kiss her hand as a show of fealty to their new queen.

By Litografia Epaminondas Gouveia. Rua do Rangel, 16. C. Frese [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cigar wrapper depicting Ines de Castro upon her throne

When I first started researching my grandfather’s family, I vaguely knew that he had come from Madeira, a Portuguese island about 600 miles from mainland Portugal and 400 miles from Morocco that had first been settled by the Portuguese about a decade after Henry the Navigator had sponsored a voyage there in 1419. When I later read his obituary, it rekindled a memory that he had been born in its capital city of Funchal.  I also knew his parents names had been John and Frances.  With his birthdate, it was a good start.

While genealogy records seem to abound for ancestors from the British Isles, Portugal’s ancestral records are relatively unexplored. Even a few years later I started researching, online resources were still fairly limited. There were a few people in Portugal willing to help out through the internet, but with the foreign currency issue (how to pay them), and the vague unease associated with internet transactions, it seemed more trouble than it was worth.  I tabled further research for a while, content to know that my ancestors came from Madeira, from its capital city Funchal – until I was fortunate enough to land a temporary work assignment in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon. In April 2004, I arrived in Lisbon to work the assignment, and to perfect the Portuguese I had been learning in Brazil.

Three things about Portugal: 1. the Portuguese of Lisbon is very distinct from the Portuguese of Brazil; it varies verbally and grammatically to a greater extent than American English differs from British English. 2. the Portuguese of Madeira sounds a lot different from the Portuguese of Lisbon. 3. Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal and is considered somewhat separate, both culturally and geographically, from mainland Portugal.

Even from Lisbon, Funchal is still a two-hour flight.  But, by 2004, Portugal had begun to put some of its genealogical information online. Already armed with my grandfather’s date of birth and his birth city, I requested his birth record from the government-run website. A few weeks later, the baptismal record arrived.  And, as I opened it, I thought ‘what luck!’ The certificate included not only details around his birth, but also details about his parents and even grandparents. And, it showed that my family had come from an even smaller village on Madeira a generation earlier, called Caniςo.

Topographic data from the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM3 v.2) (public domain)

Topographic and administrative map in French of Madeira

Even in 2004, a few well-planned online searches for Caniςo popped up some very specific hits, including one to a distant cousin who had, several years earlier, researched the family back almost 500 years to the early 1500′s. A quick email, and a day later, he had sent me an Excel spreadsheet listing out every ancestor and cousin in the family, their baptisms, marriages, and even how they were all related to each other. I later found a book indexing all of the Madeira records and tied out all of the records and verified his accuracy.  These days, much more is available online for Madeira, and you don’t really need a book only available in Portugal.  You can research marriages, baptisms, passport applications, and more at the Madeira Archives website at:

http://www.arquivo-madeira.org/homepage.php

At this point, the website and its indexes are only available in Portuguese, but with the knowledge of a few terms, you should be able to navigate the website quite easily.  From the homepage above, click on “bases de dados”.  For marriages, search “casamentos”.  Baptisms and Passports are the next two links in Portuguese words that will look familiar to English speakers.

I still stare sometimes at the earliest names on that list.  When I look at the earliest, a direct ancestor who was born in 1535, I  wonder what his life was like all those years ago on Madeira, and just how many descendants he has in New England, the United States, and in the many other regions of the world.  In years, 475 are a lot.  I don’t have his date of death (those seem to be less consistently recorded than dates of baptisms and marriages), but it’s probably a safe bet that he had long since passed away before the Pilgrims first stepped on Plymouth Rock in 1620.


The Value of Living Memories, Lowell, MA: Circa 1865

For those of us born into Generation X, the earliest living memory of a family member we’ve likely been exposed to might stretch as far back as Prohibition, or the Great War, or maybe, for the older members of our generation, childhood memories of the Spanish-American War.  I write a local history column for the Billerica Minuteman.  In my research, I came across some living memory cassette tape recordings at the Billerica Public Library that date from the 1970′s.  But even these memories, from Billerica’s oldest residents of the 1970′s, date to the late 1890′s at the earliest.

Seven-year-old newspaper boy in 1914

What is harder to uncover is the living memory of generations that we haven’t met.  When you uncover photographs of your grandfather as a child, what sorts of stories would he have heard from the oldest members of his family?  As a family historian, I’ve come across lots of stories and artifacts passed down various branches of my family tree.  I often examine and ponder the Victorian-style trunk that carried my great-grandmother’s belongings to Boston when she was a young woman arriving from the Azores in 1907.  And, I’m fascinated to flip through the pages of a yellowed diary that my 2nd-great-grandfather purchased in Manchester, England, before boarding a ship that took him to the United States in 1869.  Inside, the most prominent yellowed page records, in his eloquent 19th-century handwriting, the date of his arrival in Boston:  July 25, 1869.

In genealogy, the holy grail is anything that helps us lay flesh upon the bones of the names, dates, and dry, yellowed records of the ancestors we are researching.  Sometimes, this takes the form of a treasured possession, or a diary, or a set of letters.  But, when these haven’t survived, the next best thing is the living memories of our ancestor’s contemporaries.  The trick is to find an author who has a lot in common with your ancestor – one who lived in the same area or performed the same occupation.

The history of my family has deep roots in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Five consecutive generations of my family have been born there.  So, naturally, I voraciously seek out any living memories of Lowell that have been preserved and that offer a window into the world my ancestors saw, felt, and experienced as they walked the streets of that long-ago Lowell.  The other day, I came across a fascinating article in an 1893 edition of the Lowell Sun, recounting the memories of a coal yard employee who spoke with the reporter about his memories of the city in the pre-Civil War era.

The article celebrates Belvidere resident Michael Moran’s 50 years of service in the coal yards of William Kittredge.  Like my ancestors, Moran was a laborer who had come to Lowell from Ireland, in 1846.  For nearly half a century, Moran worked for Kittredge, supporting his coal and wood businesses. Moran’s memories did not pre-date the construction of the Boston & Lowell railroad, but he did recall working with men who told him stories of the first coal being brought up the Middlesex Canal.  Moran recalled the days in Lowell before residents understood coal’s ability to heat their homes.  After Kittredge proved its worth to one Central Street merchant in an exhibition in his office, the merchant bought it on trial, put it in his grate at his Central Street office, and watch, frustrated, as the fire went out.  Enraged, the merchant threw the coals onto his lawn, and then watched, dismayed, as his lawn caught fire and burnt out.

Central Street; Lowell, Massachusetts - ca. 1875

Moran went on to recall the Lowell of the his younger years, including a Central Street with no sidewalks and lacking the Mansur and Canal blocks.  In his earlier days, shanties stood on Central Street in their place, which housed a few “traders”.  He recalled a Palmer Street before the Central Fire Station was built, and a pond that once occupied its site.  He had, in fact, cut across the site on his way home from buying a suit one night and fell into that pond.  Moran remembered a Lowell whose biggest restaurant was owned by Captain Marston and located in the Wentworth Block at the corner of Merrimack & Shattuck Streets.  Marston’s restaurant was a draw for Lowell’s theatrical crowd, where the most fashionable actors and actresses of the age could be seen before and after they took the stage.  Moran’s memories also included a youthful General Benjamin Butler, who to men of his generation, was viewed as a good friend to Lowell’s Irishmen. He also recalled the construction of the Carpet, Prescott, and Massachusetts Mills.

Benjamin Franklin Butler

The ability to access living memories of those whose lives are long past allows us a glimpse into the lifetimes of our own ancestors.  Reading accounts such as Michael Moran’s helps us visualize the Lowell of the mid-19th century, a time long lost from the living memory of society.  From a historian’s perspective, it’s interesting and helps provide some context as to how contemporary citizens viewed the city and its development toward the end of the 19th century.  For genealogists, these accounts help enliven our own family history records and put some context to our view of our ancestors’ lives.  What did they see as they walked the streets of their cities?  How did they view historical figures such as Benjamin Butler?  For us Gen X’ers, living memories captured in old books and newspaper articles are a form, a fascinating one, of time travel.