Lowell, Massachusetts: Lowell National Historical Park

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Lowell National Historical Park was another National Parks site that reopened just in time for our visit.  It was admittedly a last minute addition to the itinerary, when I realised how near it was to Boston, and thought, “The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Sure, why the hell not?!”  I definitely remember learning quite a bit about Lowell at some point, probably at the university level, though I can’t really remember anymore (maybe AP US History?  Seems like the sort of thing that would have been in there.).  Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that I was aware of the history of the mills, and was eager to see where it all went down.

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Lowell is kind of cool because the historic buildings are spread throughout the modern town, so you get to explore a bit whilst finding them, and follow the canal paths (any time I’m near a canal, I get that “15 Miles on the Erie Canal Song” stuck in my head, and entertainingly for passersby, usually burst into song).  It appeared to be the day Lowell was having trick-or-treating (bizarrely, in the middle of the day, which is no fun at all.  Health and safety can bite me if it means lame daytime Halloweens.), so the streets were heaving with costumed children and their parents, which made it slightly tricky to get around (pun?).  The main sites are the Visitor’s Center, the Mills Girls Exhibit, and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum (which is $6, and the only site you have to pay for), although there is an historic trolley route running through town that does tours, and occasional canal tours that do cost extra.

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We began our visit in the Boott Mills Museum, which, like all the National Parks we visited, had remarkably friendly staff.  The ground floor of the museum holds the old mill machinery, which still works!  Unfortunately, we arrived during lunchtime, so the machines were silent when we walked through the factory room, after punching in on the old fashioned time clock.  We headed straight upstairs, which holds most of the exhibits, and watched the introductory video, which featured the voice of an amusingly southern Thomas Jefferson.  I mean, I know he was from Virginia and all, and the history of accents can be difficult to trace, but I don’t think the Southern accent was that well-defined at that point in time, especially for someone from the upper classes – I certainly never pictured Jefferson as being full on, Doc Holliday style “well, I declare!” Southern, so it cracked me right up.  Video aside, the rest of the exhibits were much more sombre in tone.

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They detailed the history of the Industrial Revolution, starting in Britain, and only really taking hold in America when British entrepreneurs came over with their mechanical expertise (I was just forced to memorise facts about Richard Arkwright for the dreary “Life in the UK” exam.  Not something I want to ever have to take again).  The experience of working in the mills was illustrated by more videos, featuring elderly people who had actually worked in the mills (the videos were recent-ish, as in, made at some point in the last 30 years, which meant conditions must have been pretty crap for much longer than I would have thought).  I was fascinated by these, especially because my grandmother worked at a suit factory in Cleveland in the ’40s, and although she had some fond memories, I realised her working conditions must not have been very pleasant.   Of course people in developing countries still work in similarly horrible conditions, which is a sobering thought, and one mentioned in some of the exhibits.  There were lots of interactive things where you could practice the steps of cloth-making for yourself; they were intended for children, but we were the only visitors so of course I gave them a go (I’m awesome at carding wool thanks to my short-lived Hale Farm internship).  There were also examples of the range of finished cloth produced by the mills, which I had to examine in detail, because, c’mon, Victorian fabric patterns that might have been used by the Ingallses ( I didn’t see any “turkey red” fabric with a big yellow pattern, but some of the calicoes could have been plausibly used by them, especially because Lowell fabric was on the inexpensive side, so it would have been affordable for Pa’s broke ass.  I am such a nerd)!

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The museum took us right up to the story of modern Lowell, which became the home of a computer factory (called Wang Computers, I couldn’t help snickering).  By the time we finished with the upstairs exhibits, the machinery downstairs was up and running (we could actually feel it start whilst we were watching the film, as there was a steady rumble underneath our feet from that point on).  They offer ear plugs, as the machines are very loud, and they only turn on a few of them, so I had some idea of the cacophony that must have resulted when the whole factory was operational.  It’s a wonder that not everyone went deaf.

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Although the Mill Girls Exhibit was right next door, it didn’t open until 1:30, so we decided to wander over to the Visitor’s Center on the other side of town to kill the 15 minutes or so until opening time.  On the way, we passed the historic trolley and train depot, though we didn’t come at the right time for the free tour.  The Visitor’s Center was small and filled with trick-or-treaters, but there were exhibits on the trolley, and Jack Kerouac, who I didn’t even know was from Lowell (not that I’m at all a fan of the Beat Generation, so I don’t know why I would have known).  There wasn’t much else to see, so we made our way back through the hordes of children.  I also noticed a few textile related museums on our walk, which looked interesting, but we had a flight to catch that evening, so we didn’t have much time to spare.

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I was excited for the Mill Girls Exhibit, because the stories of the girls working in the mills is more appealing to me than the history of the mills themselves.  The exhibit was housed in one of the old dormitories, where the girls lived under the supervision of a landlady who cooked their meals.  The dining room was set up, ready for a meal, and some of the foods the girls would have eaten were tacked up in a display (some of the “potatoes” had fallen to the bottom of the case, which amused me).  Climbing the narrow staircase, I found another room devoted to the mill girls that explained the the layout of the dorms, which would have had larger apartments on the corners for the families of higher-ups. Although the grand intentions of Lowell, which was initially conceived as a wholesome environment where girls could make some money whilst enriching themselves mentally and socially, eventually went awry, as these things do, many of the early girls (who were often from the middle classes) clearly enjoyed the social aspects of their time there.  It was only later, when immigrants came to work, and wages dropped, that the highfalutin ideas on education and good working conditions completely went down the toilet.  All of this was discussed in the upstairs room, but I would have liked to hear more, as the experiences of only a few girls were highlighted.

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The next section had a timeline of immigrants (with some nice old-timey photos), and then downstairs, we learned about the modern immigrant communities in Lowell, which seems to be a veritable melting pot.  I think it’s nice that they talk about the cultural background of Lowell, but I could have done with more historical exhibits and fewer modern ones.  That’s just my personal preference though – everything was arranged very nicely, and they’d clearly made an effort to engage with the local community with their displays.

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I definitely delighted in our visit to Lowell, and was glad I tacked it on to our itinerary in the end.  It was really neat to see all the old buildings still standing (it looks like some of them have been converted into flats), and they kept the mill heritage alive throughout the town, which was ringed with sculptures of spools and bobbins.  I like how they’ve integrated the historic buildings into the modern community, and have managed to preserve the often troubled history of the mills.  4/5, for the Lowell experience, and if I ever return, I’ll definitely check out the other museums in town (and maybe go on a canal tour!)!

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