Category Archives: history

Merrimack Valley Magazine Feature! A Peek into Lowell’s Past

Welcome to LowellAn article by Lowell Historical Society Curator Ryan W. Owen appears in the May/June 2016 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine, which hits Greater Lowell newsstands soon.

Lowell has lots to see, and do!  Some of Lowell’s best history-related points of attraction are featured in the article, A Peek into Lowell’s Past.

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The list includes the downtown area’s Boott Mills Cotton Museum, which also happens to house the Lowell Historical Society’s archive.  In addition, the article also features Shedd Park, Fort Hill, the Central Fire Station, and Lowell Cemetery.

Pick up the latest issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine today!

Sadly, there wasn’t enough room to include Shedd Park’s Pollywog Pond in the article, even though we’re sure it’s historic to many of our readers who grew up in the area.  Below is a photo taken in early March, of the pond, as it appears today.  Remember all that snow a few months ago?

Pollywog Pond


Hiking with a Dose of History: Chelmsford’s Thanksgiving Forest

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Panoramic photograph of Thanksgiving Forest, close to the site of the group of large boulders (Photo by Author, 4/17/16)

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The sign at the Janet Road entrance to Thanksgiving Forest (Photo by Author)

With spring finally here, if you are looking for family-friendly (and dog-friendly) hiking trails in the Merrimack Valley, don’t overlook Chelmsford’s Thanksgiving Forest (sometimes also known as the Thanksgiving Ground Forest).  Its 45 acres abut Carlisle’s Great Brook Farm State Park to its south and the Russell Mill Pond to its west.

The trail system is fairly simple to navigate at Thanksgiving Forest. There are two trails – the longer Bovey Trail, well-marked by blue trail markers, and the shorter Russell Trail – also well-marked, by purple trail markers.  If you see the red trail, this is the pathway that leads into Carlisle’s Great Brook Farm State Park.

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A view from Thanksgiving Forest’s Bovey Trail showing a beaver lodge in Russell Mill Pond (Photo by Author)

Thanksgiving Forest’s Bovey Trail will take you along the picturesque water views beside Russell Mill Pond where you may glimpse geese, ducks, and the occasional beaver lodge. The varied terrain on either trail is sure to provide plenty of visual interest.  While there are some dips and rises in the trails as you trek along, and some rather impressive root systems running alongside and across the trails closest to the trees, the trails themselves are relatively easy to traverse, or, in simpler terms, you won’t have to carry your kids (or dogs) because they’ve given up on hiking halfway along the trail.  Throughout the forest, you’re sure to see plenty of boulders, hilly terrain, and old farmers’ walls of stone along the way.  Some of the pathways through the forest are quite peaceful, serene and seemingly remote, while others abut the backyards of South Chelmsford homes and whisk you back toward civilization.

The forest offers some history too, for those who might like a story to go along with their hiking.  The sign at the Janet Road entrance of Thanksgiving Forest tells the story of how Thanksgiving Forest, with its current 45 acres, came to be.

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Very tall pine trees abound just about everywhere within Thanksgiving Forest (Photo by Author)

When the Chelmsford Farms Estates development was almost finished in the early 1960s, more and more people were coming into the Thanksgiving Ground Forest in South Chelmsford.  At the 1961 annual meeting, the town of Chelmsford accepted a small plot of land at the edge of Thanksgiving Forest on Gary Road for a parking lot from East Coast Builders.  The town, at the same time, accepted a gift of land from Edward and Mildred Russell that added eleven acres to the forest, extending it along Russell Mill Pond to the Carlisle line; another gift of 6 acres from Martin Bovey that extended the forest past the large rocks, which had been the edge of the forest; and one other gift of about 5 ares from East Coast Builders which extended the forest’s border even further south.

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A view of the group of large boulders in Thanksgiving Forest, where the annual fox hunt participants once met in the 19th century.

But the real story in the history of Thanksgiving Forest lies in its name.  The name of the forest harkens back to a 19th century Chelmsford town tradition where, on Thanksgiving Day, the men of the town would gather for their annual fox hunt at the group of large boulders within the park.  (See photo below, provided from the Chelmsford Public Library’s Flickr Photo Stream.)

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The hearth where fires are lit on the Annual Day Before Thanksgiving Walk.

The fox hunts are long gone these days, but, about ten years ago, a new tradition started in the Thanksgiving Forest – the Annual Day Before Thanksgiving Walk.  On the Wednesdays before Thanksgiving, during the early afternoon, those joining the walk meet at the forest’s entrance at the end of Janet Road and walk the trails within the forest to reach the same group of large boulders that once served as the meeting place for the fox hunt.  At those boulders, a fire is lit in the hearth formed by the rocks and a local boy scout troop provides hot chocolate and cookies.  It’s said that the walk has been attended by as many as 300 people in some recent years.

The town of Chelmsford has found new ways to keep Thanksgiving Forest relevant and inviting to current generations, while remembering its history and importance to earlier ones.  The photograph below, found on the Chelmsford Public Library’s Flickr Photostream shows a group of 19th century residents gathered for a Thanksgiving Day fox hunt.  These days, Thanksgiving Forest offers great hiking trails that are family-friendly and the annual Day Before Thanksgiving Walk to those looking to add to their own family’s Thanksgiving traditions.

Thanksgiving Forest Gathering

 


From the Curator’s Desk: Old Timepieces – The Pocketwatch

Happy 2016, readers!  At the Lowell Historical Society, we run across some interesting items in our collection of historical artifacts.  There was the box of cinders donated by our former treasurer, Charles C. Swan, after a 1926 fire that consumed Pollards Department Store, one of Lowell’s largest and best known.  Another cool find within our collection was the charred wooden stake that once formed part of the Central Bridge spanning the Merrimack River and separating Lowell’s Centralville neighborhood from its downtown section.

Recently, we came across this pocketwatch, dated 1900, with its old-timey reference tag still attached.  Among the oldest items in our collection, the watch remains in excellent condition, and exudes a sort of charm when its weight rests in your palm.  And, it comes with history too.  When Lowell’s Spanish-American war vets returned to the States in the last years of the 19th century, they brought with them their stories of war, and the artifacts they collected.  This watch returned with one of them, retrieved from the ground by an American solider after one of the war’s battles, carried by that solider for the rest of the war, and brought to the US across the sea as he returned by ship over a century ago.  Some years later, he donated it to our collection, where it remains today.

One of the watch’s most interesting characteristics is its detail.  From the name of the watch’s manufacturer on its face, Levy Hermanos (or ‘Levy Brothers’ when translated to English), to the Spanish coat of arms on its back, the watch is undoubtedly Spanish in origin, and one of our more unique artifacts in that its story starts far outside the borders of our city.

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The back of the pocket watch, LHS Collection (Photo by Author)

Donated so long ago to our collection, the watch, and its story, are still remembered for today’s generations, and preserved for future generations as well.  Like other items of this age, the tag has become almost as interesting as the artifact itself.  This pocketwatch is one of the items in the collection that we are researching right now.  Watch this blog for further updates as we research other items, and post our research here.

 

 

 


Among the Artifacts: Merrimack Mills Employee Badges from Long Ago

At the Lowell Historical Society, we get to see and study some really interesting artifacts, like the wooden stake from the Central Bridge fire of 1882 or the Hi Hat Guy from Lowell’s Hi-Hat Rollaway, or even the Box of Cinders from the Pollard’s Department Store fire of 1926.  A lot of these, we inherited from long ago.  But, sometimes, ‘new’ old artifacts make their way to the Society.

Right before the holidays, we received an email from Ray Leavitt, whose family had come across some employee badges from Lowell’s Merrimack Manufacturing Company, more commonly known as the Merrimack Mills.  Lowell’s Merrimack Mills were the first major textile mills to set up shop in what was then East Chelmsford, in 1823.  The company grew into one of the city’s largest employers and survived well over 100 years, employing first a generation of mill girls from the rural farmlands of surrounding New England towns and later generations of newly-arrived immigrants looking for a new life in the United States.  The Merrimack Mills played a huge role in the development of Lowell, and played considerable roles in the family histories  of many who trace their family’s stories through the Greater Lowell area.

Merrimack Mills advertisement from the Lowell City Directory, 1935

Merrimack Mills advertisement from the Lowell City Directory, 1935

Ray’s Merrimack Mills employee badges belonged to two of his great aunts and had been kept by their youngest brother until he had died in 1999.  Last week, he mailed them to us.  When you first examine the badges, their age becomes immediately apparent.  There’s no magnetic strip on their reverse, no RFID tag, no protective holograms.  In fact, they’re mostly metal and paper.  There’s just a little bit of plastic, a small, thin film covering the photos.  When Ray and I spoke last week, he estimated them to date from the 1950s.  Now that I’ve seen them, I’d agree.  The nature of the badges, their crisp black-and-white photographs, and even the fashion visible in the photographs all seem to suggest the 1950s.  This means they date from the end of the reign of the mighty Merrimack Mills, which were gone and demolished by the time JFK became president in 1960.

The personality of the women comes through the years, through their photographs.  The first badge, #688, belonged to Mary (Mamie) Leavitt.  The other, #686, belonged to her younger sister, Catherine, who was known as Katie to her family and friends.   Both show shy smiles.

Mary Leavitt's employee badge for the Merrimack Manufacturing Company

Mamie Leavitt’s employee badge for the Merrimack Manufacturing Company

The Leavitt sisters were first generation Americans, born to Irish immigrants Michael J. Leavitt and his wife Johanna (Sullivan), who were married at St. Patrick’s Church in Lowell on November 22, 1893.

The Leavitt sisters and their three brothers grew up in the shadow of St. Patrick’s Church at a house the family rented that once stood at 222 Suffolk Street.  Neither sister ever married.  Both worked for the Merrimack Manufacturing Company until it closed.  Mamie later found work as a matron at St. Joseph’s Hospital.  She died in 1983.  Katie died earlier, in 1967.  After the Merrimack Mills closed, she found work at the Lowell School Department as a matron.

By the time Mamie and Katie worked at the Merrimack Mills, the Leavitt family had left Suffolk Street and bought a home at 662 School Street in the city’s Highlands neighborhood.  Both sisters worked as velvet cutters at the Merrimack for years.  And the Merrimack Manufacturing Company was a big part of Leavitt family life.  Family members still recall how Mamie spoke with pride about her coveted position as a cutter there.  And family memories include their younger brother Bill Leavitt telling stories about how he would bring lunch to the Merrimack for his sisters as they worked.

Katie Leavitt's employee badge for the Merrimack Manufacturing Company

Katie Leavitt’s employee badge for the Merrimack Manufacturing Company

When the Merrimack Manufacturing Company closed in the late 1950s, its absence devastated the Leavitts as it did many Greater Lowell families.  Not only did the region lose a major employer and a source of jobs, but along with the mills left a way of life, and a key component of Lowell’s identity that had existed for longer than the city had itself.

 


From the Curator’s Desk: Odd Old Things – The Box of Cinders

At the Lowell Historical Society, we sometimes get the question:  “Hey, what’s the strangest thing you have in your collection?”

That’s a tough question to answer. The Lowell Historical Society has been around for a long time. I’m reminded of this each time I visit our archive. Just this morning, I found a book, one of those old official-looking volumes with the word ‘records’ embossed on its side, that contains minutes from a few decades of our board meetings, starting from 1943.  And then, just next to that, was a stack of correspondence with donors from 1973.  All of this is impeccably preserved.

But the Society’s collection is much older than that.  Its history dates back to its founding in 1868.

That’s a lot of time to collect odd things, that have since become old.

When I stumble upon these, I often think of the question: ‘If you didn’t know to ask for it, how would you ever find it? Or even know it exists?’

This is exactly the case with our Box of Cinders.

The Box of Ashes, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society.  Photo by Author

The Box of Cinders, from the Collection of the Lowell Historical Society. Photo by Author

Yes, the cinders, or ashes, are in a heart-shaped box.  As we’re currently in mid-February, I suppose that’s sort of seasonally appropriate.  The note attached to the top of the box, which probably accompanied the donation some ninety-ish years ago, identifies the remains within the box not as . . . some long-lost loved one, but as what one Charles C. Swan, a retired shoe dealer, found on his lawn one Friday morning on June 4, 1926.  The note actually provides a lot of information, which is great.  What’s sadly lacking is some explanation as to why the ashes were put, and kept, in a heart-shaped box, for these last 88 years.  This informational  gap is perhaps one of the greatest tragedies in our collection.  Some questions just don’t have a satisfying answer.

The Box of Ashes - Top, with Explanatory Note

The Box of Cinders – Top, with Explanatory Note, which reads:  “CINDERS – Found on lawn on 452 East Merrimack St. Friday morning June 4th 1926.  Came from Pollard Fire June 3rd 1926.  Charles C. Swan

Most folks, after finding something on their lawn one morning, probably wouldn’t think of donating it to their local historical society, but Charles C. Swan must have been a bit of a visionary.  And he was the treasurer of the Lowell Historical Society at the time.  So, he understood the significance of historical events when he saw them unfold.

pollard 1944Charles C. Swan probably saw the flames consuming Pollard’s Department Store the afternoon before, maybe from his home a mile away, at 452 East Merrimack Street.  Or maybe he was downtown as the chaos unfolded late that afternoon.  Maybe he saw the firemen arrive, first from the Lowell Fire Department, then from the surrounding towns of Billerica, Chelmsford, and Dracut.  Firemen from as far away as Lawrence came to join in the fight to save one of Lowell’s largest department stores.  No one died, but several firemen were overcome by the billowing smoke or cut by flying glass.  Four hours later, the fire was history.  But, so was Pollard’s Department Store, which traced its roots in Lowell to 1836.  Only its walls remained.  In the eyes of many, including Charles C. Swan, it truly was a Lowell institution, whose loss would be keenly felt.  Mr. Swan probably couldn’t imagine Lowell without it.

Charles C. Swan must have been overcome at that moment, the next morning, when he found a piece of that history on his lawn.  When he picked it up, and held it – maybe even as the smell of the smoke that had consumed Pollard’s still hung in the air.  So, he found a box in his home on East Merrimack, the heart-shaped box, and saved that little bit of history for posterity by donating his find to the Lowell Historical Society.

Merrimack Street - Lowell - in Fall 2011. Pollard's was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph.  Photo by Author

Merrimack Street – Lowell – in Fall 2011. Pollard’s was once housed in the brick building at the immediate right of the photograph. Photo by Author

And it worked too.  Those ashes, which otherwise would have likely blown away in the next spring breeze, or melted into his lawn with the next spring rain, way back in June 1926, are still carefully held and preserved by the Society today.  They’ve survived Charles C. Swan, who died a few years later in 1929, and even the great Pollard’s Department Store, which subsequently rebuilt and reopened, but then closed its doors for good in 1969.

Sometimes the most fragile relics are those which survive the longest.


An Early History of ‘Wild Wigginville’: Why Concord Heights isn’t a Lowell Neighborhood today

Lowell's Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street.

Lowell’s Six Arch Bridge, once also known as the Six Circle Bridge, spanning the Concord River on Billerica Street. (Source: Views of Lowell and Vicinity, 1904)

Recently, I’ve been following some really interesting discussion on the “You Know Your from Lowell When” Facebook group.  It’s been about Wigginville, the South Lowell neighborhood that’s probably better known for its local landmarks: the Six Arch bridge, Riverside School, and the Dizzy Bridge – that ancient footbridge that doubles as a teenage dare/deathtrap and runs roughly parallel to Lawrence Street on the opposite side of the Lowell Cemetery. The thing about Wigginville is that it’s one of those places where, even if you grew up there, or even spent your entire life there, you may not have noticed that you were standing there, smack in the middle of it. I heard passing references to it, growing up in South Lowell, where it was almost always referred to as “Wigginsville”, which, surprisingly, isn’t actually the right pronunciation.

Sure, Lowell still has its neighborhoods, even today. There’s Centralville (always pronounced, but rarely spelt Centerville), Back Central, Pawtucketville, Belvidere, and the Highlands. There are some smaller, older neighborhood names that have sort of clung on, over the years. Belvidere contains the neighborhood once better known as Lowell’s Oakland section, which still survives at some level, in the name of the former fire station across the street from Shedd Park. There’s also Ayers City, which has best survived in the sign at the end of the Lowell Connector’s Exit 4. If you look closely, you’ll see that the sign contains a misspelling, calling it Ayres City. Go back a century, though, and you’ll find many more neighborhoods. Lowell’s South Lowell neighborhood, for example, once contained the Bleachery, the Grove, Riverside Park, Swede Village, and Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell's southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

This 1936 map shows several of Lowell’s southeastern neighborhoods, including Wigginville.

For a neighborhood name that’s been largely forgotten, Wigginville sure created quite a stir in city politics when one Councilman Wilde proposed changing its name in 1908, not even two years after it had been annexed from the neighboring town of Tewksbury. Echoing what was the general feeling at the time, his argument followed that anything annexed to Lowell from a surrounding town had to be upgraded so that it met the city’s standards and didn’t embarrass the citizenry. Wigginville, according to Councilman Wilde, did just that. First and foremost among his concerns, there was the matter of its name. Wigginville had landed upon its name as a sort of dedication to its largest developer, William H Wiggin. Wiggin had been a well-known builder in the Lowell area, contributing his efforts to such lofty and well-respected edifices as the Savings Bank Building, the Boston & Maine depot on Central Street, and the Armory on Westford Street. And, in the nineteenth century psyche, he was a valued and solid member of society. He had been born in Epping, NH in 1823, went on to graduate from Dracut Academy, and had even had the time to trace his ancestry to the pilgrims.

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

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

And he had, in the words of his supporters, developed the “beautiful suburban village” of Wigginville. Councilman Wilde was not among his supporters. Councilman Wilde also didn’t have the best sense of timing. He chose 1908 to change Wigginville’s name. Yes, that was about two years after the neighborhood had become part of Lowell, but it was also just after William H Wiggin had died. Those who had grown up appreciating Wiggin’s contributions to the cityscape, and may have even attended the Riverside School he had funded and helped build, felt that the neighborhood should not be stripped of his name. In fact, they said, Wigginville should retain his name, as a memorial to his good deeds. Wiggin’s supporters found their champion in Richard Sykes, ‘the man with the Mountain Lion’s voice’ from Wigginville.

Councilman Wilde had his supporters too. There wasn’t even an appropriate entry into Wigginville, they reasoned. Lowell city councilmen looked at the Lawrence Street bridge spanning the Concord River as a ramshackle pathway, perilous even to foot traffic, let alone horses. Now that it was part of the city, it had to be dealt with, they claimed. And, this, of course, took the conversation back to its name, Wigginville. Who would want to enter a neighborhood named Wigginville? they asked.

A 1908 Lowell Sun article purported to ask a resident of Wigginville, unnamed, what he thought of his neighborhood’s name. He claimed that he thought the name should be changed, so that electric car riders would no longer be embarrassed to board cars bound for “Wigginville” – if riders could even heard the conductor’s destination announcements over the snickers. The name should be changed, this unnamed man (or woman) on the street claimed. He went on to say that he had found that this opinion was shared by a three-to-one margin among his fellow Wigginvillians. Wigginvillians were so ashamed of the Wigginville name that they had been seen clandestinely boarding electric cars to the nearby Bleachery station, just to escape the snickers meant for the Wigginville car. And, then there were the comedians too, the man on the street continued. They were ‘always’ cracking jokes at the cost of the poor Wigginvillians.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

A 19th century view of an earlier Lawrence Street bridge that spanned the Concord River.

The problem of what Lowell city residents should call these new neighborhoods was a cause of confusion too. The deeds for these newly annexed lands carried all sorts of arbitrary, vaguely defined and unfamiliar neighborhood names, based on the many developers who had built up the area in the last couple of decades. A quick review of the deeds had turned up not just references to the unfortunately named Wigginville, but also to places called Lee Village, Gilman Hill, and Riverside Park. It just made sense to unite the rural territory under one suitable, nicely sounding name, supporters of the name change claimed.

So, what should the name of this section be? Councilman Wilde proposed changing the name of Wigginville to Concord Heights, after the name of the nearby Concord River. This name would assuage the bruised egos of Wigginvillians, and even begin to rehabilitate this poor no-man’s-land into a proper city neighborhood. Lowell would, finally, be able to hold its head high with Concord Heights, its newest neighborhood. It was hoped, he said, that the name change would encourage the Boston & Maine to improve its station stop in Wigginville (near the present-day park off Commonwealth Avenue) and help the Primitive Methodist Church being constructed on Lawrence Street to finish its construction without having to wonder how to name itself around the unfortunate Wigginville neighborhood.

Councilman Wilde seemed to have all of his supporters in lock-step. All that was left to do was put the Wigginville renaming proposal in front of the Board of Aldermen. And he did, in July 1908. And, on that night, Richard Sykes, the Mountain Lion’s Voice from Wigginville, came, ready to argue his neighborhood’s stance that the name not be changed. He had prepared a speech in defense of a memorial to the neighborhood’s benefactor, William H Wiggin. Local press came too, ready for the show. They quipped amongst themselves that he would present his argument there in the chamber, and would have his “janitors around with baskets picking up his dropped h’s.” Wilde started by presenting a petition, said to be signed by some 100 Wigginvillians, to change their village’s name to Concord Heights.

Today's Concord River Bridge on Lowell's Lawrence Street.  (From a mid-century postcard)

Today’s Concord River Bridge on Lowell’s Lawrence Street. (From a mid-century postcard)

The aldermen listened, briefly. Wigginville barely registered in their minds. The neighborhood, annexed less than two years before, didn’t even have defined borders. Chairman Wilder spoke first. He wondered why all the fuss was even worth their time. The name will die out, Wilder told Wilde, since it came from Tewksbury, and Wigginville was clearly now a part of Lowell. His fellow aldermen listened, and joked that perhaps Wigginville should be renamed Wildeville. Another alderman claimed that Wild Wigginville might be even more appropriate.

Richard Sykes prepared to speak. There was no need to fear Sykes, or his speech though. When the motion to change the name was presented, Aldermen Brennan and Gray disposed of it almost immediately, telling Wilde, whose smile must have been fading by then, that the Council had no role in naming, or re-naming Wigginville, since the name had never actually been assigned. The fact was, they said, that the residents themselves had just decided that that was how they wanted to name their neighborhood, and the Council was just fine with that. They then moved the topic of discussion to something that the “Council had something to do with”. They appropriated funds to fix that Concord River bridge so badly in need of repairs.

And the proposal to change the village’s name from Wigginville to Concord Heights seems to have died right there, on the chamber floor, because, as they moved on to the matter of that Wigginville bridge, not one voice was raised in protest, because the people of Wigginville were just fine with their neighborhood’s name, and didn’t want someone with very little connection to Wigginville renaming their community. In the weeks following the decision, or non-decision at it may be, the Wigginvillians took the momentum from their victory and formed the Wigginville Improvement Club, and elected Richard Sykes as its president. The objective of the club? To improve the village’s streets, and to perpetuate the proud, newly vindicated name of Wigginville.


The Day North Billerica’s Hospital Nearly Burnt Down, 1938

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane:  Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

From the Aftermath of the 1938 New England Hurricane: Storm Debris (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

In the wake of the New England Hurricane of 1938, Oscar Grenier found work with the W.P.A. cleaning up storm damage near the Farnan Private Hospital for the Aged on North Billerica’s Mt. Pleasant Street.  Grenier first noticed the smoke rising from the hospital just after 10 AM on September 30, 1938.  He, George Lindsay, and Robert Louvering, all W.P.A. workers from Billerica, rushed into the burning hospital, up to its second floor, and discovered flames engulfing a bedroom.  The men began pulling the patients, all between 60 and 92 years old, through the smoke and flames to the safety of the hospital’s porch.

Oliver Damon, of Mt. Pleasant Street, saw the commotion, ran 500 yards to the corner of Mt. Pleasant Street and Billerica Avenue and pulled the alarm box.  Rushing back to the fire, he helped the other men carry patients, some against their will, from the burning hospital to his house across the street.   Some were in their beds, others in their wheelchairs.  Some were blind or suffering from shock.  One had no legs.

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas.  At the time, the future Farnan Hosptial was owned by F. Clarke

From the 1889 Middlesex Co. Atlas. At the time, the future Farnan Private Hosptial was owned by F. Clark.

Meanwhile, Billerica’s fire department answered the alarm, from the Billerica Central and North Billerica stations.  Chief Bartlett arrived to find flames shooting from the hospital’s eaves.  He immediately sought help from Lowell, which sent five more engines to the two-alarm fire.  Hose lines were laid from every hydrant.  Ladders were raised to every section of the roof.  For a while, the fire threatened to engulf the entire building.

Hundreds watched the firemen’s progress from Mt. Pleasant Street.  Inside the Damon home, Louise Saber, the nurse-in-charge, directed the care of the patients, and ensured that the beds and cots were set up.  First aid was administered.  Quickly, the nurses  determined that the patients had suffered no serious injuries.

The "Red Gables", as it appears today.  (Image Credit:  Google Maps - May 2009)

The “Red Gables”, as it appears today. (Image Credit: Google Maps – May 2009)

In the end, the firemen extinguished the flames, and Merle Farnan promised to quickly rebuild her hospital.  Even in 1938, North Billerica valued the historic building, which had been built as the Red Gables estate of Frederic Clark, a Talbot Mills treasurer, superintendent, and president.  Investigators later traced the cause of the fire to the open flame of a first-floor fireplace, which had shot up the partitions, and burst into the second-floor bedroom entered by the W.P.A. men.  At the time of the fire, the fireplaces were being used for heat because the building’s electrical service was out due to the recent hurricane.

Merle Farnan did rebuild her hospital.  During the rebuilding, North Billerica showed its generosity and hospitality when the Damon family and other neighbors took in the hospital’s patients.    The following Independence Day, in 1939, Farnan treated hospital patients, and their gracious neighbors, to an elaborate display of fireworks.  The building still stands today on Mt. Pleasant Street and is an apartment house.