Meanderings by Jim Peters

Jim Peters contributes the following essay:

My now New Hampshire brother, Tom and I , have been traversing the city and surrounding countryside as we pick up leaves as part of my landscaping business. It is a very interesting exercise because Tom remembers the location of every tree that was there fifteen to twenty years ago. He knows the PowWow Oak on Clark Road, he knows the Olmstead layout as it existed that many years ago at Tyler Park, and he knows of a great many “watering holes” that existed at that time. So, he got me to wondering about what has actually changed.

Do you remember the Curran/Morton Warehouse in downtown Lowell? Did you know that it was built so solidly because it was designed to take a bomb hit during WWII? Jack Kerouac Park now stands at the spot. There was Don Depoian’s Bumper Stickers in the Massachusetts Mills on, I believe, the fifth floor. Out by the river, there was the GE plant. Now, I cannot verify this, because it was passed on to me by word of mouth, but supposedly, in a small building at that site there is the spot where the first American jet engine was tested. They tested at night, and anyone who complained that it was interrupting their sleep was reminded that “Loose lips sink ships.” Even the American mainland was on a tight espionage order.

We continued on. In the building that once housed Hugo’s on Andover Street, there was the bar “The Tiger’s Den.” A police officer owned the popular bar called “The Cell Block.” The “Rialto” was down the street and in the old train station that Jim Cooney virtually gave to the National Park and which has been restored so brilliantly. Bon Marche and Pollard’s owned the downtown, and Lady Grace was next to Bon Marche. Talbots was at the current site of a parking lot on Central Street. Bon Marche owned the building at the end of Kirk Street with the tiny windows on one side. Later, Jordan Marsh, where I started out working full-time after graduation from college eventually took over the Bon Marche location and Pollard’s was the scene of a fire, as I recall.

I asked an eighty four year old friend just what happened to the downtown, and he said, “It’s simple, the trolley strike of 1958.” To his way of thinking, everyone was eschewing automobiles to ride downtown and using the rail service but the trolley strike made the fathers of the city look at their investment in the rail system and pull up the rails and use buses instead, which were just not as popular, to his way of thinking. At the time, many of the mills were still in service.

I remember the Belvidere bridge that crossed the railroad tracks and how it was made of wood. I remember my first introduction to running the track at Shedd Park. It was coated with coal dust and small pieces of used coal from the freight trains that had served the city so well since the first railroad in America was laid downtown to Boston in the 1830’s. Mostly, I remember the schools. I have many pictures of schools that have since been torn down or condemned including a tour of the old Butler School, the Pawtucketville Memorial School which was later named the McAvinnue after one of its more colorful jprincipals, a principal who saw nothing wrong with taking the entire population of the school, Protestants and Catholics alike, to St.Rita’s Church on Holy Days of Obligation even though it was a public school.

I also remember the flooding of Shedd Park in the winter. I spent a great deal of time ice skating on that “pond.” Housed in the Oakland Street Fire Station was an old 1929 ladder truck kept in perfect condition and used still, at that time, to fight fires. I also remember a Butcher Shop on Fairmount Street by the park, and a Barber Shop next to it. Who can forget Lefty’s Restaurant with its sign that its sub sandwiches were world famous? And, as far as I was concerned they were. That was my first job and I remember the Bruins on the radio in the playoffs and listening as they won the Stanley Cup, which would not be repeated until this past year.

Who cannot help but remember the many churches and their contributions to the families and children of the city. Ones that stick in my Catholic mind include the Immaculate Conception, St. Margaret’s, Notre Dame, St. Rita’s, St. Jeanne d’Arc, St. Joseph’s, and St. Louis. I also remember St. Joseph’s and the Holy Trinity which were close to my Belvidere home at that time. One of those was Lithuanian and one was supposedly Polish. Others I was not privy to until I grew up and learned more about the city. How many people in the city know that the Pawtucketville Congregational Church has a bell forged by Paul Revere in its steeple? It is true, the bell came from the Baptist Church in Middlesex Village. When the church burned down in, I believe, 1848, and the bell was transported eventually to the Congregational Church. So tip your hat to the Congregational Church’s steeple when you pass it and say hello to Paul Revere. That is one I learned from my father.

According to it’s then principal, the Pawtucket Memorial School housed military men during the height of WWII in its basement. That one may just be a rumor but the source was standing solidly behind the story. Also, during the great floods, the basement of the school filled up with water. The LeBlanc School was actually the Oakland School when I moved across the street from it. I used to practice tennis on its back wall. I was never very good, and when Paul Tsongas asked me to play one day, I gamely tried and failed miserably. “You haven’t played much, have you?” he asked. I admitted that my playing consisted of hitting the ball off of the school wall. “Let’s try something different.” he said. We decided to race each other around the Shedd Park track. I finished the quarter mile in sixty seconds. I looked behind me and he was well back there. “You have done this before?” the future runner said and I admitted to having been on the high school track team. Then we went to his Fairmount Street house where I grabbed my bicycle and rode home.

On the granite above the train station, there are coal stains where the coal-driven trains used to sit. They are still there if you look closely. Who can forget Brigham’s or Ceaser’s Pizza downtown? Or the Commodore where I first saw the late Ted Kennedy. I went late into the Commodore wondering who was bellowing, only to find out that it was our senior Senator. Later that night, I met him at the Donahue house in Belvidere.

The Owl Diner was not the Four Sisters yet. The Tsongas house on Highland Street belonged to the Tsongas family at that time. Jack Kerouac was living in Lowell. He was buried while accompanied by a large motorcycle escort at the Edson Cemetery, I believe. I never really developed an ability to understand his way of writing, so I cannot say I was a huge fan. But I remember that funeral.

We had a local news television station, who covered the high school football games under the great Raymond Riddick. Mr. Riddick let me sit on the bench in a uniform in spite of the fact that I was probably the worst player to ever try out for the team. The team won the state championship later that year, but, needless to say, I never played. I went back to running Cross Country with John Lang.

My brother, Tom, for his part, was a major wrestler in his weight class. We used to work out in the annex, which was under the Trade School. It was not the McDonough Trade School at the time, nor was it the Pollard Memorial Library. It was the Memorial Library but it was a memorial to the men who lost their lives in the war between the states.

There are other things I remember about Lowell. Tony’s Subs and Pizza, for instance. Fields in Chelmsford or Kings in Tewksbury. How DeMoulas had one small store in Lowell on Broadway. I shopped there sometimes. I remember the first time I saw the Tsongas Cleaner’s sign and building. I remember the firemen at the Paige Street firehouse downtown. They were very friendly. Tom remembers the 5K races around town. He participated in most of them.

I also cannot forget the small houses on Rolfe Street where the University is now. They were abandoned when I saw them and ready to be demolished. I remember Connie Kiernan. He was a State Representative who asked me what was I ever going to do with a Political Science degree? I did not know, and I could not have ever guessed how invaluable it would be as I looked at my father and my brother-in-law and their forays into poltics. And now there is Niki, of course.

I remember when Chelmsford was dominated by fields downtown. I also remember how the path to Westford was largely fielded too. I enjoyed Drew’s Farms, Burbeck’s Ice Cream, and the Speare House. I built a boat and future mayor, Jim Milinazzo, came over to help me drive in the hundreds of screws. It was a racing boat, but I never raced it. It lasted thirty years before finally rotting out.

Howdy Beefburgers were made of Angus beef. Just for your information, as a former Iowan, I can tell you that angus cows were the steers that ended up in slaughterhouses. Painted cows were largely dairy cows. So when someone tells you that Angus beef is better, you can rest assured that you are not talking to a person who eats dairy cows very often.

I remember WLLH, WRKO, and WCAP, as well as a host of other stations. I remember Jack Williams and “Wednesday’s Child,” as well as Tony Pepper on Channel Five. I remember Natalie and Chet when they were married and doing the news. I remember when the “Sun” was the “Lowell Sun,” and owned by the Costello family. I even remember “Clemmie” Costello and his big house on Andover Street.

So Tom is the impetus that took me down Memory Lane. Lowell has been nothing but good memories for me. And I concur with the Tsongas family member who once said to me that “Paul thinks Lowell is the Center of the Universe.” It has been for me.