What is my favorite museum in New England? I have so many favorites, I can’t choose. Instead, I am going to suggest a gem, one which explains a big part of New England’s history and to some extent, its current persona. If you are visiting New England and have the time, I recommend a day trip to Lowell, Massachusetts. That’s right, Lowell, the home of the Lowell Spinners (a feeder team for the Boston Red Sox). Lowell is now the fourth largest city in Massachusetts but in many ways has the feel of a typical mill town. Its influx of population, its crash with the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, its dalliance with the high tech industry and its city government that makes lemonade with its lemons, all exhibit the best of much of what makes New England unique. Baseball and industrial mills—it’s quintessential New England!
In Lowell, I recommend you visit the Lowell Historical National Park. National Park Service guides will take you for a fun and sometimes poignant walk into the past when the textile mills thrived and provided dream jobs for women many long years ago. History remembers those workers as the Mill Girls. Are you one of them? The starting bell comes early in the morning, then you enter the mill with your coworkers when they open the gate. The mill is a big, brick building with walls, four feet deep. In the corner of the building, you ascend the spiral staircase, reminiscent of the inner spiral of a conch shell. You work on the looms on the fourth floor in an area with closed windows and the smell of oil and the cacophony of many industrial looms, all in use. The oil is rubbed into the wooden floors to fill in any cracks to keep the air humid so the cotton thread won’t snap. Hopefully, you don’t realize you are in a fire trap and keep your mind focused on happier thoughts.
In the evening, the mill bell sounds and you are free to depart to the mill owner’s boarding house. Your room and board is deducted from your pay (or factored in, if you will). The matron keeps a close eye to see that you and your coworkers don’t put yourselves in any situation that may appear to be compromising. You sleep in a bed with three coworkers but you are all bone thin so you fit well. In the morning, you start all over again. But you have Sundays off and after church services, sometimes there is free time to enjoy the outdoors if and when the weather cooperates. You feel very lucky to be away from the family farm, where you would likely be digging potatoes all day if you were still there. Here, you earn enough pay to send money home and save for a wedding trousseau that your family otherwise could not afford.
The mills are located by the Merrimack River. Even if you can’t relate to the New England mill girls, you might like the Park’s boat ride and the demonstration of how they used locks to move boats carrying goods and supplies between high waters and low waters. And there is much information on the mechanics of powering the mills with water. In addition to the exhibits on the mills, including male and female mill workers throughout the mill’s history, you can get a sense of the trauma experienced when the mill closed. The history, the people and the mill closures, all resonate throughout New England mill towns to this day if you know where to look or understand what you are looking at. The Lowell Historical National Park serves as an important historical marker for New England.
“I am always struck by the fact that human awareness of our place in nature, like so much of modern science, began with the Industrial Revolution.”— Kenneth R. Miller
“I just think we’re living in a time of massive, amazing change, like the Industrial Revolution on acid.”— Kelly Lynch