Gathering the Lowell Honey: Excerpt from ‘Mill Power’

The following is an excerpt from Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, my book just published last week by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. This passage is the conclusion of Chapter Five, “The Economics of Heritage,” which spells out the economic benefits that have been derived from the reclamation of Lowell as an important city in American history. The hardcover edition of the book (280 pages, 100 photos, many in color) is available at a special Lowell discount of $45 when you order with a discount code from the publisher. Details on ordering are available on this blog site (left column) and at Note that both the city’s Pollard Memorial Library and the UMass Lowell libraries have ordered copies for the readers.—PM

Gathering the Lowell Honey

One of the city’s estimable historical figures, Benjamin F. Butler, said many notable things, but one of them resounds loudly. In 1876, on the 50th anniversary of Lowell’s founding as a town, he reminded his listeners that “Our city has been a hive of industry, and, as a rule, the honey has been gathered by others.” He was referring to the financial hey-day of Lowell, when the vast profits from the textile industry flowed to investors outside of Lowell. As has been tracked by Robert Dalzell in his book Enterprising Elite, the “honey” from Lowell enriched the original industry founders, the so-called Boston Associates, and their descendants. The wealth created by cloth production workers found its way into banks and railroads via investors and enhanced institutions in Boston such as Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and the Boston Athenaeum. According to Dalzell, in the mid-1800s, “[t]here was no way of calculating just how much money the combined endowments of Boston’s major charitable and philanthropic institutions represented, but the total ran into the millions.” Little of the profits remained in Lowell. The only substantial foundation whose grant-making concentrates on Lowell is the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation; Lowell did not have its own community foundation until 1997.

The turn to heritage as an economic engine was an attempt by Lowellians to leverage the value of their own assets, those things that could not be picked up and taken away to a Southern town like a textile factory. Lowellians in the 1970s had a kind of collective “scales falling from the eyes” experience as they saw anew their rivers and forest, architecture, pluralistic population, and city story—natural resources that were there to stay. The question was, How best to transform these resources into wealth-generators that would help make their city vibrant and optimistic?

One of the beauties of a national park solution is that all Americans own the national parks. Lowell became one of a 402-part common that stretches from the pine-lined coast of Maine in Acadia to the glowing lava streams of Hawai’i Volcanoes. This is a forever solution. There is no plant-closing in the future, no anxiety about outsourcing of the service, no potential corporate takeover. The promise is based on the full faith of the United States of America, the people of America who own these special places and who have charged the National Park Service with being custodians of certain natural places and heritage sites—and their stories. Lowellians, with the support of fellow Americans, changed the course of their city’s future and ensured that an important piece of the national narrative would be securely in place and protected for the benefit of present and future generations.

—Paul Marion, 2014