Cut from American Cloth (3)

Cut from American Cloth (3)


     On a siding just north of the train station, there’s a scrap train—ground-up fenders and stoves and corroded pipes en route to the smelter, the chopped ham of American industry. In the rail yard, freight-car murals in graffiti code, the blocky colored letters like aggressive plastic alphabet-magnets on a refrigerator door.

     Next to the train station stands the ugly mill building on Thorndike Street that you cannot miss, if you listen to local cable TV commercials from Comfort Furniture. The wavy wooden floors of the four-story complex creak and squeak as customers wind through aisles between the tons of sofas, recliners, dining room sets, lamps of all types, coffee tables, bunk beds with matching desks, and assembly-required home entertainment center shelf units. There is only a hint of the patent medicine production plant that thrived in this factory. Running sideways up the tapered brick chimney is the word “Hood’s,” for C.I. Hood & Company, one of the city’s two massive patent medicine operations of the nineteenth century. Cartons of vegetable pills, tooth powder, olive ointment, and syrups promising cures for everything from rheumatism to syphilis filled the loading dock. When it was built in 1893, the Hood laboratory was the world’s largest medicine manufacturing building. Charles Hood’s specialty was a bottled syrup called Sarsaparilla, which promised to “cure neuralgia pains.”

     For the first 17 years that I have lived on Highland Street, every weekday at 3 p.m. during the school year a dozen or more yellow buses pulled into the semi-oval driveway in front of the Rogers Middle School that faces my house. The school was a microcosm of New Lowell, with Cambodian-Americans making up more than half the building’s population—the rest were Portuguese-American kids from long-settled families around St. Anthony’s in the Back Central section and newcomers from Brazil, Cameroon, and Guatemala, along with Latino kids and the third-, fourth-, fifth, or sixth-generation Lithuanian-, Greek-, French Canadian-, and Irish-American youngsters. The descendents of the native peoples and early English colonists are as scarce as heirloom species in the flower boxes under the windows on Elm Street. In the school lobby students with newcomer DNA could read about Edith Nourse Rogers, who still holds the record as the woman who served longest without interruption in the U.S. House of Representatives (1925 – 1960). The Great Recession of 2008-09 claimed the Rogers as City Hall budget cuts led to its closing—despite the “Rogers School Rocks” protest signs waved by kids and their parents.

     “Congresswoman Rogers was a liberal and an internationalist,” writes Mary H. Blewett, longtime professor of history at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, “typical of successful Republicans of the northeast. She voted for most of the key New Deal programs of the thirties—the Wagner Act which protected union organization, the Social Security Act of 1935, and the minimum wage law of 1938—in line with the needs of her Lowell constituents, if not with the Republican leadership.”

     A Mainer by birth, Rogers married into a wealthy textile industry family in Lowell, where she had studied in a private girls school. She succeeded her husband, Congressman John Rogers, when he died in office. “Mrs. Rogers” became the veterans’ best friend, her experience with the military having begun with agencies serving the wounded in France during World War I. In 1939, moved by reports of abuse of German Jews, especially the brutality of Kristallnacht, she and Sen. Robert F. Wagner of New York filed a refugee aid bill that would have allowed 20,000 German refugee children into the United States. President Franklin D. Roosevelt withheld his support, and despite lobbying by children’s advocates across America, the bill was defeated at the committee level. Mrs. Rogers backed laws creating a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1941 and the G.I. Bill of Rights, the latter providing a range of social, financial, and educational benefits to World War II veterans. She was 79 when she died in 1960, in the midst of a re-election campaign.   . . .

—Paul Marion (c) 2007