A few Sundays ago I hemmed some dish towels. I got the cloth from the National Park in Lowell, Mass., where I watched looms thunder out fabric from spools of thread. The heavy sound of the weaving room was great, the syncopated thrum made from an orchestra of heavy equipment, all bangs and motion.
I loved being able to take home a length of cloth. It made me think of the bolts of cloth I took home from my grandfather’s attic, on the hill above Harmony Mills in Cohoes. I remembered the jumpsuit I made in the early 1980s, marveling at how long ago the red and black checked fabric was woven.
Now I marvel at the mill buildings’ odd transformation, from dangerous workplace that lured immigrants with promises of good earnings, to promises of fancy living as luxury lofts.
RELICS OF THE PAST
I had wanted to go to the mills in Lowell for more than a decade, when I first found out about the national park. I’d recently moved back to Troy, and everywhere around me I saw hulls of textile manufacturing: in abandoned factories, in the pins we found between fl oorboards in the house we bought, in the name of the bridge that slapped a runway on my neighborhood: the Collar City Bridge. If I squinted sideways, I could see the ghosts of people walking to work, lunch pails in hand.
What fun to finally take my sons to see the mills in Lowell. To see models of the mills, with tiny doll girls working the cotton batting into fabric, step by step. To look at fake food at a boarding house and imagine the quantities of food that women cooked. To imagine the farms where that food, and those girls, came from.
We rode a trolley and a ranger sang a song she’d written based on oral histories of people who’d worked in the mills. We looked at the hulking rusty metal chunks of turbines; saw the canals that laced through the city to harness the waterpower of the Merrimack River for the factories.
Thought about the Irish immigrants who walked 30 miles from Boston to work 25 years digging the canals and shaping them with stones.
I thought about Harmony Mills, and the nice little visitor center under the Cohoes Music Hall. The Burden Museum. The visitor center at Peebles Island. The Onrust. Sewing the dish towels, I wished that this area could have more of the historic preservation it deserves. This isn’t just a nostalgic yen, but a desire to use one of our last raw materials — history — to foster experiences that grant perspective on the past, and our present.
HONORING OUR ROOTS
Lowell is what it is because U.S. Senator Paul Tsongas lobbied for national park designation in the late 1970s. We have great champions of our industrial heritage. Too bad we haven’t yet leveraged the kind of support necessary to truly laud our roots.
Amy Halloran lives in Melrose.