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Living Madly: Chinese Checkers

Chinese Checkers board. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Living Madly: Chinese Checkers

By Emilie-Noelle Provost

I’m not a fan of board games. I’ve always hated them, even when I was a kid.

When I was about seven years old, my sister Nathalie and I received a Parcheesi game for Christmas. If you’re not familiar with it, Parcheesi is Western adaptation of a game from India. The board’s playing surface is covered with a geometrical pattern made up of colored rectangles and circles. In order to play, one must navigate four playing pieces through these spaces, based on moves determined by rolling of a pair of dice. The goal is to get all four of your pieces into the home square in the center of the board before the other players. It sounds simple, but it is absolutely mind-numbing. Part of the problem is that the game is chock full of arbitrary and gratuitous rules that make it drag on for millennia. I won’t go into them, so you’ll have to trust me. But if you every try playing Parcheesi, you’ll know what I mean.

Another game that makes me wish I were comatose is Chinese checkers. It’s not as bad as Parcheesi, not by a long shot, but it’s still pretty tedious. (This is the game with the star-shaped board where the objective is to get a bunch of marbles over to the opposite side of the board.) I’ve never understood the point of this game. It’s not even remotely enjoyable. (Even if it were fun, if you bump the board even slightly the marbles roll all over the place, and good luck remembering where they were.) We’ve had a Chinese checkers game out on our screen porch for the last ten years. I’ve never touched it other than to occasionally dust if off.

When my daughter, Madelaine, was little, she loved playing Candy Land. (I’m not sure who gave us the game, but someone did because I know I didn’t buy it.) I did my best to play this game with her and for the most part I did so cheerfully. The problem with Candy Land, though, is that, not unlike Parcheesi, it can take forever to finish. You’ll be three spaces away from the Candy Castle at the end and wham! You pick a card that says “Go Back to Gumdrop Mountain” or to some other confectionary location near the beginning of the board, and you basically have to start the whole game over again. It makes you want to cry.

As an adult, one of the worst things that can happen is to be invited over to someone’s house for a “game night.” Normally, I decline these invitations, if I receive them at all, which I don’t for the most part. People who know me don’t ask me to play games with them. But once in a great while I’ve showed up at someone’s housing thinking we were going to do something civilized like talk to one another or watch a movie or a Red Sox game, and they’ll say, “Hey, I have a great idea!” and then drag a Monopoly game out of their coat closet. There isn’t enough popcorn or sauvignon blanc on the planet to make this OK. I love my friends, but no.

The one exception to my board game aversion was checkers. When I was five or six years old, I discovered that I could beat adults at checkers on a fairly regular basis, which I liked. So, for a short period of time I dragged a checkers game around with me just about everywhere I went and made anyone I met over the age of fifteen play a game with me. These poor people might have been letting me win, but I don’t think so because after a while most of my grown-up victims were sick of checkers. If I had been losing, I’m pretty sure I would have lost interest in the whole thing a lot sooner.

Occasionally, a well-meaning person will ask me if there are any games that I like. The best way I can answer this question is that there are some games that are “better” than others, and if I had no other choice but to play one, I’d choose a game from this category. Among these “better” games are things like Jenga, Pictionary, Trivial Pursuit, and Scrabble, which I think might not disturb me as much as some games do because playing them requires some creative thought. But given a choice between playing one of these and starting into space for an hour, I’d still probably choose the latter.

I’ve often wondered why other people like playing games, and why I have such a hard time with them. My daughter would say it’s because I’m a Capricorn—work- and result-orientated—and games, to me, represent time wasted. While that might be partially true, I’m not sure that’s it. I like having fun just as much as anyone else. It’s just that my idea of a good time has nothing to do with rolling dice, following rules, or counting squares.

I’ll probably never know the answer to either of these questions, but I can live with it. Just don’t ask me to play Yahtzee.

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Assessing Trump’s “Innocence Project” by Marjorie Arons-Barron

The entry below is being cross posted from Marjorie Arons-Barron’s own blog.

“You see the mob takes the Fifth. If you’re innocent, why would you take the Fifth Amendment?” Stupid question if you understand the basic principles of the Constitution. But an ironic question if posed by America’s hypocrite-in-chief, Donald Trump, who made the remark in a speech in Council Bluff, Iowa in 2016.

This week, the same man took the Fifth 440 times  in a deposition at the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James. In a civil case, her office is investigating the Trump Organization’s business practices. The question at hand: did Donald Trump manipulate his business finances fraudulently to avoid paying taxes on his assets? (Too bad that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, Jr. balked at pursuing criminal charges in similar Trump financial shenanigans!)

It’s been a busy week for the former President, now the target of at least 19 pending legal cases.  Seven concern his role in the January 6 insurrection; six have to do with financial transgressions; two, his interference in the 2020 election (including the criminal case against him for pressuring state officials in Georgia); one outstanding sexual assault suit; and three other private actions.

The FBI’s exercise of a search warrant at Mar-A-Lago, Trump’s private club and primary residence, to recover missing government materials has grabbed all the recent headlines. The 1978 Presidential Records Act, requires presidents to turn over documents to the National Archives at the end of their administration. Earlier this year

The National Archives  and Justice Department demanded Trump return allegedly sensitive information improperly removed.  After an initial tranche was recovered, negotiations with Trump’s legal team for additional missing items were fruitless. Even a subpoena had not produced the lawfully sought materials. Hence, the search warrant and this week’s visit.

Republicans are crying prosecutorial misconduct and abuse of power.  But legal experts maintain the Department of Justice would not have embarked upon such a tactic and most assuredly could not get a judge to issue a warrant for the search were there not powerful evidence of criminality. Trump continues to whine about the lax government oversight of record handling of  Hillary Clinton  and Barack Obama. But his charges about Obama are baseless and this matter is clearly distinguishable from the Clinton email scandal of 2016 .

David Laufman, who led the Justice Department’s counterintelligence section investigation of both Clinton and Gen. David Petraeus, told Politico: “For the department to pursue a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago tells me that the quantum and quality of the evidence they were reciting — in a search warrant and affidavit that an FBI agent swore to — was likely so pulverizing in its force as to eviscerate any notion that the search warrant and this investigation is politically motivated.”

Trump may have hoisted himself on his own petard. In 2018, as part of his vendetta to nail Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of potentially classified emails, then-President Trump signed legislation making such mishandling of government material a felony, punishable by one to five years of incarceration. If  Trump were to be convicted, he would forfeit the right to run for federal office.

Trump’s supporters in Congress and would be GOP rivals have been demanding that the justice department disclose details about the warrant, which they claim was unjustified. Trump himself has had ample opportunity to release the FBI warrant to demonstrate the FBI’s case as baseless, but he has not done so. Now Attorney General Merrick Garland, citing “substantial” public interest in the matter of the recovery effort, (ginned by Trump himself,) has called the former President’s bluff and asked the Judge to unseal the contents of the warrant. Trump has until this afternoon to release the details himself, acquiesce, or legally fight the release.

Speculation is rife that what the FBI was looking for goes well beyond evidence of simple violations of the Presidential Records Act. The Washington Post reports that some classified documents included top-secret nuclear weapons information. Others hypothesize the target is secret communications between Trump and heads of foreign governments; still others wonder aloud about Trump chicanery to monetize his possession of the documents. Some may be dismissed as just speculation. But, having watched outrageous Trump behavior for at least six or seven years, can anything be ruled out?

Given the dual roles of many Trump appointees and acolytes, some of the sought materials may be directly related to the January 6 investigation. The bipartisan committee investigating the roots of the insurrection will be back in September. Still unclear is will the Committee refer anyone to the DOJ for prosecution, or whether the DOJ  will act on its own.

It could take time for these legal processes to play out, and the clock is ticking. If the Republicans take over the House, the January 6th Committee will probably be trashed. GOP investigations of the Biden administration could hobble Department of Justice activities. Concerns are similarly real about whether the Supreme Court would likely deal a death blow to lower courts’ approval of the Congressional subpoena of Trump’s tax records.

A federal appeals court in Washington ruled unanimously Tuesday that the House Ways and Means Committee can now obtain several years of Trump’s tax returns, a victory for Chairman Richie Neal in his years-long battle to obtain the records. Trump’s legal team, however, will likely appeal the ruling either to the full D.C. Circuit or the Supreme Court. If just four SCOTUS Justices decide to review the Appeals Court ruling, they could delay a decision until next year. Even if the Supreme Court eventually sided with the Ways and Means Committee request, a Republican-controlled Congress could bury the information.

We can’t depend on the justice system to take Trump down in a timely way. There’s no substitute for hard work in the electoral process. Obsession with these catnippy mid-August intrigues shouldn’t distract us from the overriding importance of mid-term races at state and national levels.

Founding of Lowell Walk, part II

This is the second half of the script I used when giving my Founding of Lowell guided walk on Saturday, August 13, 2022. Part I of the script is available here.

FOUNDING OF LOWELL WALK SCRIPT PART II

STOP 7 – LOWELL HIGH SCHOOL ON KIRK STREET

Lowell High School was born in 1831 so it’s outside our scope but I mention it to point out that public education was very important to the early residents of Lowell, especially to Rev. Theodore Edson. Kirk Boott thought a few years of schooling adequate to prepare young people to work in the mills, but Edson and others were more aspirational, and it was a frequent source of conflict. The proponents of education wanted more schools; the mill owners wanted lower taxes.

Taxes were a big reason the mill owners wanted to separate from Chelmsford and get their own town charter. Once the mill buildings went up, they generated a huge amount of tax revenue for Chelmsford. Most of that money was spent in other parts of the town. So besides the practical considerations of not having to travel a considerable distance to Chelmsford center to attend meetings and transact government business, there was a fiscal motive: the voters of Chelmsford were happy to extract substantial tax revenue from the mills and related properties without sending much of that revenue back in the form of services.

Consequently, in 1826, the Massachusetts General Court granted the mill owners’ petition to separate off from Chelmsford as a separate town. They called the new community Lowell in honor of Francis Cabot Lowell, the visionary who inspired the mill colossus being built here but who died in 1817 at age 42. The original boundary of Lowell was the Merrimack River to the north; the Concord River to the east; the Billerica town line to the south; and (approximately) Stevens Street to the west. This was very close to the old Wamesit grant from 1653. That meant when Lowell came into existence in 1826, it consisted of downtown, the Acre, South Lowell, and the Lower Highlands.

STOP 8 – CORNER OF LEE AND JOHN STREETS

Kirk Boott was born in Boston in 1790. His father was a wealthy merchant who had come from England. Young Kirk spent many years working in his father’s office, so he had considerable aptitude with business practices and finance. He briefly attended Harvard but the classical education offered there wasn’t a good fit so his family sent him to a military college in England. After graduation, Boott became an officer in the British Army and fought in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars.

In the 1800s, military officers were trained as civil engineers because they would be responsible for building fortresses and digging entrenchments. The leap from forts and trenches to mills and canals was not a great one so when Boott, who had left the British Army and returned to Boston, expressed an interest in working for the funders of this new mill complex, they hired him. Kirk Boott, just 31 years old, was essentially the general manager of Lowell.

One of the perquisites of being a mill executive was company housing although Boott did not live in the row houses on Dutton Street. Instead, he had a mansion custom built just to the east of the new mill. Although the roads came later, the Kirk Boott house was at the intersection of French Street and John Street. (When Boott died in 1837 at age 47, his house was moved up Merrimack Street and used as the “corporation hospital”. A new mill complex was constructed where Boott’s house had originally stood. The new complex was named Boott Mills in Kirk’s honor.

STOP 9 – CORNER OF JOHN AND MERRIMACK STREETS

Just before mill construction began in 1822, all the land from University Crossing to the Lowell Memorial Auditorium was owned by three men: Moses Cheever owned from LeLacheur Park to Tsongas Arena; Josiah Fletcher owned from Tsongas Arena to Bridge Street; and Nathan Tyler owned everything between Merrimack Street and the Pawtucket Canal from the Concord River to Cabot Street. Because all of this land between the Pawtucket Canal, the Merrimack River, and the Concord River was owned by just three men, it was easier for Kirk Boott and his associates to purchase the land they needed and more.

STOP 9 – CORNER OF MERRIMACK AND PRESCOTT

The “Central Bridge” which was the name of the first bridge across the Merrimack River on Bridge Street (where the Cox Bridge now stands) was not constructed until 1826. Prior to that, everyone relied on a ferry to cross the Merrimack at that point. A man named Bradley ran the ferry. He also operated a hotel.

When you study the history of Lowell in its early days, you find numerous hotels, nearly a dozen of them. But these hotels were mostly good-sized houses that rented space in a bed to travelers and provided meals and beverages. East Chelmsford in the years before Lowell (and Wamesit before that) was incorporated was an important transportation hub for the entire region. Even before the Pawtucket and Middlesex Canals were constructed, many of the roads coming from New Hampshire and Vermont logically passed through this area as goods were transported to and from Boston and Salem, the two major ports in Massachusetts. Travel from the interior to the coast was a multiple day journey so many layover places were needed along the way. This was one of them. When the two transportation canals opened, especially the Middlesex Canal, the hospitality business became even more important.

STOP 10 – EAST MERRIMACK STREET AT EASTERN CANAL

The east side of the Concord River (Lower Belvidere) was not included in the original land grant for the town of Lowell in 1826. It remained part of Tewksbury for another decade until it was annexed to Lowell. In 1826, there were several houses and businesses near the Concord River in what we know as Lower Belvidere.

One of the most prominent houses in that area and in the entire region was a mansion located where the Saints Campus of Lowell General Hospital now sits (formerly known as St. John’s Hospital). This large house had had several owners but by 1826 it was the home of Edward St. Loe Livermore who invested heavily in beautifying the 200-acre estate that came with the house.

Livermore was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and became prominent in that state’s legal community. For many years he served as the Rockingham County Attorney (the equivalent of our DA). Later in his career he moved to Boston, went to Ohio for a few years, then returned to Boston. When he retired from the legal profession, he moved to Tewksbury to the mansion described above. Because of its location on a high hill overlooking both the Merrimack and Concord Rivers, Livermore called his home Belvidere which is derived from two Italian words: “bel” which means beautiful and “vedere” which means view. Belvidere had come into common use in England as a name for large houses with great views. In Lowell, the name Belvidere eventually was used to describe the entire neighborhood.

STOP 11 – EASTERN CANAL BESIDES MIDDLESEX COMMUNITY COLLEGE

This is the terminus of the Pawtucket Canal at the Concord River. The double lock chamber here, called Lower Locks, handles the final elevation drop of the 32-foot difference between the Merrimack and the Concord.

In 1822, there was a small cotton mill owned by Thomas Hurd at this site. This mill, like a number of others, was much smaller than the great mills soon to be built along the Merrimack, and only handled part of the textile manufacturing process. Hurd became a thorn in the side of the big mill owners since he refused to sell his property and his water rights to them. Eventually he did, at a premium price, and the Middlesex Mills was eventually constructed where his once stood (on the site of the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center). The Middlesex Mills was the only large mill complex in Lowell to originally handle wool. (Other woolen mills sprang up on both banks of the Concord and during the Civil War some of the major mills would weave woolen cloth due to shortages of cotton).

End of tour.

Founding of Lowell Walk, part I

Yesterday morning I led a Lowell Walk from the National Park Visitor Center. The topic was The Founding of Lowell. We talked about what was here before Lowell received its town charter in 1826 and how that charter came about. I’ve typed my notes into a “script” and will share that in two parts, one today, the other tomorrow so please check back then for the rest of the story.

STOP 1 – NPS VISITOR CENTER

Lowell received its town charter in 1826 which means we are rapidly approaching our bicentennial. But English immigrants had already lived here for 170 years by that point and the Indigenous people for much longer than that. My objective on today’s walk is to give an overview of what happened during those 170 years with an emphasis on the years just before the town charter.

Rivers were the highways of 17th century America. They were the only way to transport large quantities of things over long distances. The Merrimack and Connecticut Rivers were the two main routes to interior New England. Because trade was essential to the survival of the English colonies, harvesting timber in the forests of New Hampshire and bringing it out to the Atlantic Coast was big business in colonial America.

Giant logs would be cut, bundled together to form big rafts, and then floated down the Merrimack to Newburyport which was a leading port and a center of American ship building. But the Pawtucket Falls and their 32-foot drop made the Merrimack and imperfect transportation route. The falls were too long, rocky, and rough to simply float the logs through them. Instead, the logs had to be pulled out of the river above the falls, dragged by teams of oxen below the falls, and then put back in the river to continue to Newburyport and the Atlantic Coast.

That’s how things stood from the first English settlement in 1653 up until after the American Revolution. But then everything changed.

STOP 2 – MERRIMACK CANAL NEAR “THE WORKER” SCULPTURE

Right after the Revolutionary War, a big thing in America was “internal improvements” which today we call transportation infrastructure projects. Back then, it wasn’t high speed rail or airport terminals, it was canals.

In 1792, the Massachusetts Legislature granted a corporate charter to the Proprietors of the Locks and Canals on Merrimack River. The proprietors were a group of Merrimack Valley businessmen who stood to profit from making the passage on the Merrimack easier. They would build a transportation canal that bypassed the Pawtucket Falls and use lock chambers to handle the difference in elevation of the river above and below the falls.

They called it the Pawtucket Canal. It left the Merrimack River near UMass Lowell’s South Campus and then followed an existing stream called Speen’s Brook which arced through today’s Acre until it reached a swampy area in what is now the Hamilton Canal District. From there it continued and entered the Concord River behind the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. At first, there were just two sets of locks: the Swamp Locks in the Hamilton Canal District and the Lower Locks right at the Concord. Eventually, two other locks were added. One was the Guard Locks which was closer to the start of the canal; the second was the Minx Locks which was midway between the Guard and Swamp Locks.

The first big textile manufacturing company came here in late 1821. I’ll talk about that at our next stop but the first mill complex was to be called the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and it’s not on the Pawtucket Canal. Instead, they dug an entirely new canal to power this new mill complex. They called the new canal the Merrimack Canal. To dig it and to help construct the mill buildings, the industrialists recruited a bunch of Irish immigrant laborers from Charlestown, Massachusetts. The intent of the mill owners was to have the Irish leave once the mill and canal were built but the demand for laborers persisted and the Irish never left. They needed someplace to live so the mill owners gave them an acre of land to the southeast of the Merrimack Mills. And that’s how this neighborhood got the name “the Acre.” The sculpture behind you is called The Worker and it honors all the immigrants who came to Lowell for employment.

STOP 3 – MERRIMACK CANAL NEAR LOCOMOTIVE

When the Pawtucket Canal opened in 1796, it worked as intended. Boats and timber rafts used it to by-pass Pawtucket Falls, happily paying the toll charged by the Proprietors of Locks and Canals. But the cost of maintaining the canal consumed all the profits of the company. When the competing Middlesex Canal opened a few years later, all the river traffic diverted to it since it was more lucrative to ship goods to Boston than to Newburyport. The Pawtucket Canal basically went out of business.

That’s how things stood in November 1821 when Ezra Worthen, Paul Moody, Patrick Jackson, Nathan Appleton, and Kirk Boott visited Pawtucket Falls and decided this was the perfect site for the major manufacturing endeavor they were planning. They engaged a local real estate agent to discretely buy the stock of the Pawtucket Canal and almost all the land between it and the two rivers. As we discussed at the last stop, they began work on the new power canal and the new mill complex the following spring.

STOP 4 – INTERSECTION OF MERRIMACK AND DUTTON STREETS

One reason the mill owners were able to acquire all this land was that very few people lived here. Long before any Europeans came, this was a Native American village. It consisted of downtown and most of the Acre and, on the other side of the Concord River, all lower Belvidere. In 1653, the Massachusetts General Court granted the Native Americans a town charter for Wamesit which included all of their village on the downtown side of the Concord. (The portion of the Native American village on the other side of the Concord became part of Billerica which later became Tewksbury). The same day, a group of English families from Woburn were granted a charter for land west of here. They called their town Chelmsford.

Chelmsford and Wamesit coexisted until 1676 when King Philip’s War broke out and shattered relations between the Native Americans and the English. The local Native Americans departed for Canada. Before leaving, some of the English had Wannalancit, the leader of the Native Americans, execute several deeds for the land in Wamesit to a group of Chelmsford residents. A few people from Chelmsford built houses here but it mostly remained vacant meadow and pastureland.

The primary concentration of English in this area was at Middlesex Village which is outer Middlesex Street at Hadley Field and the Rourke Bridge. They were mostly in the service business because Middlesex Village was the 18th century equivalent of a highway rest stop for those moving cargo down the Merrimack but also for the hundreds of teamsters who steered wagons from interior New England towards Boston.

I’m telling this part of the story now because this road in front of you, Merrimack Street, was one of the few roads that existed back then (although it wasn’t called Merrimack Street). It started in Middlesex Village and ran along the river. It would be today’s Middlesex and Pawtucket streets, however, it went to the right of University Crossing. What do we call that road? Salem Street, because it was the route to Salem. Salem Street continued to Cabot when it turned to the left but then immediately turned to the right onto what we know as Merrimack Street. It then continued right past here and crossed the Concord River on one of the region’s earliest bridges. The only other roads in this entire area were School Street to the west and Gorham Street to the east.

STOP 5 – ST. ANNE’S CHURCH

One of the requirements of a town charter in early New England was to construct a church. By the 1820s, that was no longer a legal obligation, but it was a cultural one. It was also part of the business plan of the mill owners. Farmers would be more likely to allow their daughters to come live and work in this new place if they were assured the daughters would attend church.

The two biggest proponents of the church were Ezra Worthen and Kirk Boott. They laid out the lot for the church although since there was nothing else here, they had plenty of choices. Boott personalized the church in a couple of ways. First, he selected a design that mimicked a church from where he had lived in England. Second, he named the street that would be built on the west side of the church Anne Street for his wife and the street on the east side of the church Kirk Street for himself.

The church’s cornerstone was laid in May 1824 and the church opened in 1825. Reverend Theodore Edson was the first minister.

STOP 6 – LUCY LARCOM PARK

When construction of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company began in 1822, only a couple of dozen people lived here. The mill owners had to import their mill operatives. Their plan was to recruit young women from the farms of New England. They would work in the mill and worship in the church, but they also needed a place to live and so the mill owners built housing for their employees. This worker housing was partly a marketing effort, but it was also a way to distinguish American industry from that in England where workers lived in squalid conditions. The utopian vision of the mill owners lasted for as long as their mills were profitable, but they were sincere at first.  The mill owners also dedicated the strip of grass between Anne Street and the canal as a public park. When the Lowell High addition was bult in 1920 and Anne Street was abandoned, the original park expanded to include all this green space which is named for Lucy Larcom, a former mill worker.

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

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