Lowell’s Early History, Hidden in Plain Sight.

Where would you find the site of Lowell’s first kindergarten, first day nursery, first night school, and first foray into community education?

Where would find one of the city’s few buildings remaining from the 1820s?

Would you go to one of the city’s downtown parking garages?

Probably not, but that’s just where you’d see all of those things, in one building.

The Hamilton Schoolhouse

Nearly 200 years ago, while aging veterans of the Revolutionary War still walked the streets of Lowell, and wells were still being dug by hand in what would one day become the city’s Acre neighborhood, the owners of two of Lowell’s early mills, the Appleton and the Hamilton, banded together to build a small schoolhouse for the children of their laborers.

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An 1855 image of Lowell’s Free Chapel, from the 1855 Lowell City Directory

Said to straddle the line separating their properties, the Hamilton Schoolhouse started operations in 1829 when schoolteacher Joshua Merrill and his 237 students moved into the north room of the building’s first floor.  In a Lowell where the mills czared over morality, daily life, education, and just about all else, Ithemar A. Beard, the paymaster from the Hamilton Mills, really embraced the spirit of All Fun Left Behind schooling and designed a schoolhouse to school children, and very little else.

All Fun Left Behind

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An early view of the Free Church, from the 1851 Annual Report of the Ministry-at-Large in Lowell.

At the Hamilton Schoolhouse, students sat in high-backed chairs facing away from their teacher, so ‘they would have to turn ’round to see him’, Mr. I. A. Beard proudly explained years later.  Beard also thought to place the windows high up in the wall, to discourage bored students from stealing glimpses of freedom while they wished for a furnace that would warm the ice-cold schoolhouse.

Not just famed for his transparency and draconian resolve, Mr. I. A. Beard’s thrift also became legend in the lore of early Lowell.  To discourage daydreaming students from carving their initials into their desks should they grew bored of listening to, but not seeing, their teacher or the outside world, Beard painted students’ desks with a paint so coarse with sand that he was forced to sand the grain smooth when mothers later complained of the damage the rough surfaces wrought on the children’s precious few clothes.

Onto Other Uses 

A few years later, Joshua Merrill moved his students, and the Hamilton Schoolhouse building served as a meeting place for Lowell’s early Unitarians and Congregationalists, and also housed Lowell High School, once in 1832 and again from 1838 through 1841, when Lowell’s own Benjamin Butler, of Civil War fame, attended.

The Free Church

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Early view of a Lowell streetscape, featuring the Free Church at the far left.  (Source:  Lowell Board of Trade publication, 1902)

By the mid-1840s, the Lowell Missionary Society, later the Ministry-at-Large, was renting the Hamilton Schoolhouse building from the mills and had converted it into the Free Church, putting it under the administration of the Ministry-at-Large, a pre-Civil War reform movement that sought to improve its world through both religious and non-religious methods.   The Ministry-at-Large hired Harvard-educated Rev. Horatio Wood, who opened the Free Church to the friendless, the uncared for, and those who had no religious affiliation.  The Ministry-at-Large changed life in Lowell.

During its heyday, the Free Church amassed an impressive list of firsts in the city of Lowell, establishing the city’s first evening school in 1844, the city’s first kindergarten, and the city’s first nursery school.  The Ministry-at-Large even opened the church for use as a clinic, and temporary orphanage, during the Civil War years.  The Lowell Sun remarked, nearly a century later, that “as fast as these features were adopted by the public schools of Lowell and by other institutions, the corporation turned to new activities.”

Frederick W. Stickney Provides a New Façade for an “Unsightly” Building.

In 1882, the Ministry-at-Large hired young Frederick W. Stickney, who later went on to design the Pollard Memorial Library, to develop a new façade in the Queen Anne style for the Hamilton Schoolhouse building, by then over 50 years old.  Rev. Duganne, then-minister at the Free Church, later credited Stickney with transforming “a most unsightly building” into one of “graceful proportion and comely appearance.”

The Free Church – From the 19th Century into Today

For nearly a century, the Ministry-at-Large ran the Free Church, fulfilling its mission to keep Lowell’s laborers and their families from falling into the chasm of pauperism, and to spare them the social shame and stigma of being recorded as public charges.  Eventually, church membership dwindled, and the Ministry-at-Large closed the Free Church and repurposed the space in 1939, renting it out to like-minded social organizations like the Girl Scouts, and the Lowell Visiting Nurses Association.  Today, it houses the New Life Community Church.

So, where is this place?

The Former Hamilton Schoolhouse and Free Church today, at 150 Middlesex Street.  (Photo by Author)

To see the site of Lowell’s first kindergarten, first day nursery, first night school, and first foray into community education, and to see one of Lowell’s few buildings remaining from the 1820s, just go to 150 Middlesex Street. Or, for a bird’s eye view of the former Hamilton Schoolhouse and Free Church, just drive to an upper level of the Leo A. Roy Parking Facility and look toward Middlesex Street.  The former Hamilton Schoolhouse/Free Church building is right there, the most distinctive one on the street.

In Lowell, you just never know where you’ll glimpse some hidden part of the city’s history – be it while walking downtown, or even returning to your car in one of the city’s parking garages.  Lowell’s early Middlesex Street was a far different place than it is today, but, if you look closely enough, you can see find and see remnants of the city’s early past, sometimes in plain sight.

2 thoughts on “Lowell’s Early History, Hidden in Plain Sight.

  1. Thank you for a most interesting look into my Lowell.
    Do you know of any history of the former First Congregational Church on Merrimack Street across from the Library.

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