‘Cut from American Cloth’ (1)

For the next few days I will publish sections of an essay about Lowell. The essay in a slightly different form first appeared in “The Offering,” the literary magazine of UMass Lowell, in 2007.—PM


 Cut from American Cloth

     In the middle of the nineteenth century, workers in the red-brick mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, each year produced enough cotton cloth to wrap the world. More importantly, the city known for manufacturing textiles produced the stuff of America itself: ideas and merchandise, entrepreneurs and generals, politicians and artists, religious leaders and labor champions, sports heroes and movie stars, inventors and criminals, and a multitude of citizens from the immigrants, refugees, and migrants who crowded its streets.

     To understand America, a good place to start is where you are. I start at Meetinghouse Hill, the rise on the far side of the South Common opposite my house. With my wife and son, I live on Highland Street in Lowell. In 1880, my great-great grandfather Marion trekked from Canada to find work in this burgeoning northeast Massachusetts mill city, and I was born in a neighborhood across the river about ten years after my father returned from World War Two. Like my father’s people, my mother’s ancestors traveled the Normandy-Quebec-Lowell route. My wife’s heritage is Irish on both sides, with Lowell roots winding back to the 1870s. Our son is named for the original Marion in Lowell, a carpenter, and her grandfather, a longtime jeweler in the city—all Josephs.

     Built in 1860s, my family’s house was once owned by the Appleton Manufacturing Company, which was formed in 1828, five years after the first mill began producing cloth in Lowell. The Appleton’s managers who lived in the house through the late nineteenth century could see the tops of their factories from the second floor windows.

     Our house was bought in the 1930s by my wife Rosemary’s grandparents, the jeweler Joseph Foley and his wife, Gertrude O’Neill Foley. Joe Foley’s mother scrubbed floors and washed dishes in Lowell mansions not long after she emigrated from Ireland. Imagine the satisfaction and sense of class revenge in Joe’s heart as he signed the purchase papers. On special occasions, when we sit for dinner in our elaborately detailed front room, I picture a scene in the film Doctor Zhivago, the one in which the poet-physician returns to Moscow from his forced service with fighters in the hinterlands only to see that the Bolsheviks have confiscated his family’s house. When he looks up at the scruffy crowd hanging over the upstairs banister and asks what is going on, one of the comrades tells him the arrangement is “more just.” In the moment all he can do is agree. “Yes, more just.”

     From my bedroom window I look across the Common to the red-brick Eliot Presbyterian Church atop Meetinghouse Hill. In 1930, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Tercentenary Commission installed a bronze plaque near the church, marking the location of Reverend John Eliot’s log cabin chapel in 1648. Adventurer Simon Willard, who had clashed with local peoples since arriving in the colony, built the cabin to use as a frontier court—it was the first structure built by Anglo settlers in the place that became Lowell. A graduate of Jesus College of Cambridge, Eliot started out as a school assistant in Chelmsford, England. After converting to Puritanism, he fled to Massachusetts in 1631 to avoid persecution. Eliot was the first Christian preacher to journey from Boston to the village of Wamesit, named for its tribe, at the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord rivers. Beginning with a first trip to the northwest woods in 1647, Eliot often traveled with Major General Daniel Gookin, Superintendent of Indians in the colony, who “saved Eliot’s neck more than once,” says Rev. David Malone, former pastor of the Eliot Church.

     In 1653, colonial officials designated the broad wedge of land bounded by the Concord and Merrimack for the Pennacook peoples—to be their property. Everything around them had been signed away decades before by Passaconaway, leader of the local tribes who has come down to us through European accounts as a shaman who could set water aflame, generate a live snake by rubbing its shed skin in his hands, and make trees vibrate. Passaconaway deeded to the English a vast tract of land between present-day Newburyport, Massachusetts, and the Merrimack River. Fifteen years later, he committed his people to the governance of the Bay Colony. His strategy of accommodation hardly satisfied the settlers’ appetite for land and control. By 1660, English settlers had moved deep into the interior, and all evidence suggested more of them were coming. Passaconaway gathered his people for a farewell address—the substance of which was reported by an English observer with partial understanding of Algonkian. “I am going the way of all the earth,” the sachem began.

     “I am ready to die and not likely to see you met together anymore. . . .Take heed how you quarrel with the English. Hearken to the last words of your father and your friend. The white men are the sons of the morning. The Great Spirit is their father. . . .Never make war with them. Sure as you light the fires, the breath of heaven will turn the flame upon you and destroy you. . . “

     According to legend, Passaconaway withdrew to the northern mountains and lived to be 122 years old, when he was finally swept into the sky in a huge maple sleigh drawn by flying gray wolves.  . . .

—Paul Marion (c) 2007

2 Responses to ‘Cut from American Cloth’ (1)

  1. Marie says:

    Paul – Aah those Lowell connections! Your home will always be a special place for me. Forty-three years ago Mr. Foley was semi-retired but as a longtime friend and summer “Hampton Beach” neighbor of the Sweeneys he was our engagement and wedding rings jeweler. We met with him at his Highland Street home. I remember him as gracious and very helpful – we were taking a big step – just starting our lives together. The Foley-Noon-Marion connections mean alot to me.

  2. Kosta says:

    This is a nice narrative, how one story line blends into another. The first part draws up an old vision of cotton fabric rolling along the miles of waterways of Lowell. Not original – the artist Christo famously has wrapped fabric along and around buildings and waterways in all parts of the world. I first saw his work decades ago – fabric rolling along the bay of Tampa Florida and a few years ago saw (on t.v.) the thousands of gates made from metal and fabric along the paths of Central Park. Maybe Christo is too big to come to Lowell – but for sure the installation would be great.