The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 21, 2001


Take a look at Lowell
A holiday trip to Lowell takes only 20 minutes from Carlisle

Lowell used to be a sleepy, burned-out mill town with a high crime rate about eight miles north of here. It didn't have much to offer except a couple of musty outlet stores and George's Textiles, where you could get almost any kind of fabric you needed, provided you were willing to look hard enough. Most of the old textile mills, whose brick buildings still line the Merrimack River, had long since moved south or gone out of business entirely. In 1987, a huge fire gutted one of the last operating mill complexes, and the eerie shell of those buildings seemed to represent the ghost town Lowell had become.

A city steeped in American history

Lowell has a rich history as the point of origin of America's industrial revolution. Named for pioneer textile industrialist Francis Cabot Lowell, it arose on a tract of land purchased from unsuspecting Chelmsford farmers, where the Merrimack River dropped 32 feet at the Pawtucket Falls. By the 1830s it was a model industrial city. Great new textile mills, powered by the waterfall and current of the mighty Merrimack and linked to Boston by the Middlesex Canal built in 1803, rose up six stories and boasted state-of-the-art power looms and spinners based on British-designed machinery with American improvements. The British industrial model, however, sustained terrible working conditions in the mills which worsened as the years went on; Charles Dickens would write astringently about them in David Copperfield and other novels. Francis Cabot Lowell had observed these conditions and planned instead an industrial utopia, which his successors realized in Lowell. In turn, Dickens would write admiringly of the new city in his American Notes. In the new "Spindle City," a modern experiment supplied young women from the surrounding rural communities with work, board, and well-chaperoned rooming houses. The girls worked long hours in conditions we would consider absolutely intolerable now, but which were innovative in their day. At day's end, they could enjoy lectures, concerts, and shopping at auditoriums and arcades built just for them. The girls formed their own organizations as well, turning out The Lowell Offering newspaper, and participating in poetry, musical, and even suffrage groups. Most sent the bulk of their salaries home to help support farming families and send their brothers to college.

A new Lowell experiment begins

Despite the apparent success of the experiment, the work force of Yankee mill girls dwindled. A variety of economic and social pressures sent them back to their family farms or into larger cities like Boston. The fortunes of the mill owners, however, seemed assured with a steady stream of immigrant workers that lasted more than a century. Irish, Greek, French-Canadian, Latino and Southeast Asian people followed each other into the mills, made enough money to make a start in America, and moved on. Government contracts in the Civil War, the two World Wars, and Korea pulled many of the mills out of the economic straits of various depressions, but in the 1950s, powerful unions, the age of the buildings and equipment, and complacent business strategies put the whole industry in jeopardy. The big mills went south, where they could build modern, single-story plants that were cheaper to run, and where there was a labor force ready and waiting. Lowell went into a long decline.

Some of the immigrant families stayed and made lives in the old city. The Lowell phone book is a veritable cornucopia of nationalities, and today, neighborhoods that were once tight little enclaves like "little Athens," "little Canada," "little San Juan," have melded. Many of the large Victorian homes in the Belvedere section, once the stronghold of the wealthy mill owners, are now owned by the descendants of the immigrants who labored in the mills. All but two of the textile companies are gone now, but in the now-refurbished mill buildings there are professional offices high tech, electronic and publishing firms, theatres, museums, a branch of the University of Massachusetts, sports teams, and thanks to the efforts of the late U.S. Senator and Lowell native Paul Tsongas, America's first urban national park.

Lowell today

Look at Lowell again. From empty mill buildings and burned-out shells has emerged a vibrant and prosperous city of 105,000 people, which bears more resemblance to its original freshness than to its mid-twentieth century decline. The now-famous Lowell Folk Festival, held every summer in the city and showcasing the wide variety of international cultures to be found there, is perhaps the best introduction to the new Lowell. At the festival, it is possible to sample the cuisines of many nations, and enjoy the crafts, theatre, music, and dancing of people from Cambodia to Armenia. If there is one inconvenience, it has to be navigating the city streets, which are laid out along the river canals built to support the old mills. However, a quick ride north on Route 3 brings you to the Lowell Connector, and from there you can choose to get off on Thorndike Street. This exit will take you to the edge of Lowell's historic district, and you can begin by bearing right onto Dutton Street and stopping at the American Textile History Museum (ATHM) (free parking).

1. American Textile Museum
4. Sports Museum
5. Whistler House Museum
6. New England Quilt Museum
7. Brush Gallery
8. Boott Cotton Mills Museum
13. Merrimack Repertory Theatre

City of museums and art

The ATHM began in a tiny building in North Andover, but it established itself as Lowell's newest historical museum in 1997. Taking up residence in the restored Kitson machine factory, the ATHM has a self-guided permanent exhibit which traces the history of the textile mills in Lowell, emphasizing the products they produced. In the weave room you can watch cotton fabrics being woven for bedspreads and table linens, all of which are sold in the museum shop. Children can try out hand looms, design fabrics on computers, and learn about all manner of fiber arts. In addition, the museum attracts scholars seeking the largest archive of photographs of American textile industry history in the world. It also houses one of the largest and most modern textile conservation laboratories, which you may tour by appointment. The lab will restore your great-great grandmother's wedding dress, a battle flag from your ancestor who fought in the Civil War, or a 15th-century Cluny tapestry. Traveling exhibits at the ATHM have included the popular Princess Diana dresses, Hollywood costumes, and the current "Stylish Hats: 200 Years of Sartorial Sculpture." You can hold a function in the museum's Stevens Court, or stop to eat in one of the best lunch spots in town: the Gazebo Café, located just off the lobby. Don't miss the Shaker lemonade!

Just down the street from the ATHM on your right is the parking garage for the Lowell National Historical Park Visitors' Center on Market Street. At the Visitors' Center you can pick up information about all of the park programs and museums. In mild weather, you can take the Lowell Canal Tour. Year 'round, you can enjoy the "Exploring Lowell Series" each Saturday at 246 Market Street at 2:30 p.m. These include talks and guided tours (reservations recommended) for adults and children. Coming up are kids' programs like "Spinning Yarns and Weaving Tales" this month, and in the new year, hands-on activities programs on weaving and printworks, "Mill Girls' Letters," and others. Adult programs include guided tours on Lowell native and beat generation writer Jack Kerouac, Civil War general and Lowell resident Benjamin Butler, and more. And be sure to see the award-winning, multi-image video "Lowell, the Industrial Revelation" shown at the Visitors' Center twice every hour.

Just across the courtyard from the Visitors' Center is Market Mills (256 Market Street). There, in the Brush Art Gallery and Studios, are studios for thirteen artists and a gallery for changing exhibitions. You can meet resident and guest weavers, ceramic artists and painters at work in their studios and check out fine examples of their art and crafts in the gallery shop. This is a great place to view and purchase contemporary original art made right in our area, and adults and children can also take art classes, workshops and seminars in the same complex at the Paper Place education studio. Right in the same area is a food court, and around the corner there are small sandwich shops and bistro-type restaurants to refresh you as you poke around.

If your tastes run also to historical fine art, don't miss the Whistler House Museum at 243 Worthen Street. You can still catch it in December, but it closes in January and February. The old part of this museum, built as a residence in 1823, is in fact the birthplace of the American painter James McNeill Whistler, and features not only his art, but also that of other nineteenth century artists, like William Morris Hunt and Frank W. Benson.

Within easy walking distance from the Brush Gallery is the New England Quilt Museum (18 Shattuck Street). Antique, traditional and contemporary quilts are displayed in changing exhibitions here. Yearly shows of area quilters' work and public programming bring out the long history quilting in America. Stories and anecdotal history make each quilt read like a book, and even those of us who aren't crafters or quilters cannot fail to admire the beauty and workmanship of this most impressive fabric art.

A few blocks down from the Brush Gallery is the national park's complex of museum and educational centers, the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, Mogan Cultural Center, and Tsongas education center. The Boott Mills Museum and Mogan Center tell the story of the Lowell textile industry from the standpoint of the workers themselves. Here you can learn what it was really like to be a mill girl in the 1840s: what you ate, what you wore, how you lived, what your job was like, and what you did in your free time. Visitors can also access a complete genealogy where it's possible to find ancestors who worked in the Lowell mills. The end of the Boott Mills Museum includes a room showing present-day Lowell business and culture, bringing the story of the city full circle. Programs for children include sampling a day in the life of a mill worker, complete with time cards, and several hands-on activities. On the fifth floor is the New England Folklife Center, which sponsors programs and special events highlighting the varied cultural traditions of New England. Pick up a guide here for the twelve-site Cambodian Neighborhood Walking Tour, showcasing Lowell's latest immigrants.

Back on Shattuck Street is the Sports Museum of New England(25 Shattuck Street), which is located in one of Lowell's oldest commercial buildings. The Sports Museum tells the story of New England's sports heritage. Here you can see permanent and changing exhibits representing the early days of organized sports to the present, and many athletes and teams from the Merrimack Valley and Greater Lowell are featured.

Sports and entertainment

Sports in Lowell have enjoyed a great renaissance with the building of the new Tsongas Arena, which opened in 1998 at 300 Arcand Drive. The arena is home to the Lowell Lock (as in: canal lock) Monsters, an American Hockey League affiliate of the New York LOWELL continued from page 12

Islanders, as well as UMass Lowell's Riverhawks hockey team. Lowell is also the home of the Lowell Spinners, a New York-Pennsylvania League baseball team affiliated with the Boston Red Sox. They and the Riverhawks play home games in the new LeLacheur Park. Both the Lock Monsters and the Spinners pack in over 100,000 fans a year. The college baseball, basketball, hockey, and football teams are popular as well, and boast a number of championship trophies.

The Tsongas Arena and UMass Lowell's Durgin Hall on Wilder Street are also performance centers. The college's Fine Arts Department offers free concerts, and the Children's Discovery Series at Durgin Hall provides children with music, theater, and comedy programs throughout the year. The Tsongas Arena hosts large-venue concerts and family shows.

Perhaps the most popular performance center in town is the 2900-seat Lowell Memorial Auditorium at 50 East Merrimack Street. In addition to community and civic events, the auditorium offers an eclectic program of sports events, Broadway shows, individual performers, and family series. Recently, the dean of American news broadcasting, Walter Cronkite, packed the house for an evening of informal conversation with author/historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Each year, the auditorium hosts Golden Gloves boxing. This season, names like soul diva Aretha Franklin, jazz guitarist B.B. King, stress guru Loretta LaRoche, Irish tenor John McDermott, and comedian Bill Cosby all have scheduled appearances. In addition, touring companies of Annie Get Your Gun, Ragtime, and Sesame Street Live, and Burn the Floor are among the shows set to appear in
The Merrimack Theater in Lowell presents the Sanders family Christmas through December 29. This lively, heartwarming musical comedy features southern gospel Christmas music

Hard by the auditorium is the award-winning Merrimack Repertory Theatre, a regional theater locally and nationally known for its quality entertainment. From now until December 29, the theatre features Sanders Family Christmas. It should be noted that tickets for Lowell Auditorium events and plays in the Merrimack Rep go for up to $20 less than tickets for comparable productions in Boston, and parking is convenient and inexpensive too.

Where to dine

If you're making a day of the museums or a night of theatre or sports, you're probably thinking you'll need a little fuel for your stomach. Lowell can provide. Venerable restaurants like Athenian Corner and the Olympia have served up delectable Greek dishes for decades. Barristers, on Central Street, specializes in new American cuisine; pub dishes are "on tap" at Major's, a restored tavern on Jackson Street. Irish pub grub can be found right near the auditorium at The Old Court. For pre-movie dining, there's an Outback Steak House located right near the gazillion-screen multiplex Lowell Cinema right off Industrial Drive and Chelmsford Street. The city also boasts the cuisine of Brazil (Café Belo on Andover Street), Japan (sushi: Ichiban on Central Street), Italy (Ricardo's on Gorham Street and others), and a variety of good Vietnamese and Cambodian restaurants all over town. Probably the best food in town is to be found at La Boniche, downtown on Merrimack Street. Here, French bistro-type cuisine is imaginatively cooked and delightfully presented. There is certainly something in Lowell for every taste.

Where to shop

If you haven't finished your Christmas shopping, downtown Lowell offers some great spots to pick up presents. There's a Barnes and Noble Booksellers affiliated with UMass Lowell right next to La Boniche, and close to the best gift shop around, the Wells Emporium. The museum shops scattered all over town have wonderful gifts as well, focusing on the fiber art and crafts of the city and ranging from historical reproduction fabrics to contemporary artistic dyes and sumptuous Cambodian embroidery pieces as well as ceramics and glassworks. Galleries offer original art and crafts, and you can even commission a painting of your own house from Lowell artists: check the Brush Gallery.

Rethinking Lowell

So, forget what you thought about Lowell. Right up the road from Carlisle is a revitalized city, brimming with cultural and historical richness and activities for everyone.

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito