Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Visit Massachusetts: Day Trip to Lowell

By Jeff Burns

The state of Massachusetts has so much history you can virtually set out in any direction from Boston and embark on an adventure into the past.  While visiting Boston, my wife and I took a day trip to Lowell, a textile manufacturing center established in the early 19th century by Francis Cabot Lowell.  For a hundred years, Lowell represented the American industrial revolution.  “King Cotton” was shipped from the South to mills and factories in New England to be made into cloth for the country.  Lowell also represents the social history of the United States.  The first workers were Massachusetts farm girls recruited with the lure of a life off the farm.  As Irish and German immigrants arrived in large numbers in the 1840s, they found jobs in the factories.  In the late 1800s, the new immigrants arrived from southern and eastern Europe and then Portugal.  As the work force changed the character of the city changed as well, and Lowell became very diverse.  Then, the textile industry in Lowell came to an end in 1929 when the Great Depression turned Lowell into a ghost town.  In 1978, the Lowell National Historical Park was created for the purpose of rehabilitating over 100 downtown buildings and preserving the city’s unique past.  While the textile industry is no longer much of an employer, Lowell has bounced back, thanks to tourism and the universities and hospitals in the area.

We started at the Boott Cotton Mills, one of the original mill buildings that has 88 power looms in operation, and you get a slight sense of what work was like.  The auditory experience alone is incredible; the sound is deafening.  From there, the visitor goes through interesting interactive exhibits that explain the story of Lowell.  The introductory film is a must-see, one of the best museum films I’ve seen. It is a thorough and entertaining account of the disagreement between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton about the economic path the United States should take.  It’s a video I would love to use with my students, but it is not for sale unfortunately.  The exhibit’s docent was a retired teacher who was extremely knowledgeable and engaging.

A short walk away is the Mill Girls & Immigrants Exhibit.  There, you can see how the Lowell girls lived in their boardinghouses.  One of the really interesting displays is a representation of the typical meals prepared for the girls by the house mothers; the hard working girls consumed huge meals.  You can also see what the girls did in their leisure time.

From the mills, you may want to visit the American Textile History Museum and the New England Quilt Museum.  The latter was a must-see for my wife, a quilter.  The New England Quilt Museum had a couple of great exhibits for history lovers.  One was an exhibit of modern quilts inspired by Civil War quilts and fabrics.  The other exhibit was of authentic Civil War quilts.

Art lover?  James Whistler’s birthplace in Lowell is open to the public. His father was in charge of the mills’ railroad system at the time of his birth.  Literature buff?  Jack Kerouac was a Lowell native, and you can connect with the author of On the Road in the Kerouac Commemorative Park on Bridge Street.

Whatever your interests, there’s plenty to see in Lowell.


Monday, October 5, 2015

Traveling with History: Boston

By Jeff Burns

Even for the most avid history buff, there are places where there is a danger of a historo-sensory overload, and Boston is definitely one of those places.  Of course, history is relative, but for Americans, it’s difficult to go much farther back than Boston, established in 1630, in the history of European settlement.  A vacation in Boston is a history lover’s dream, but there’s so much to see and do that the experience can be overwhelming, and I strongly suggest that your trip is preceded by some planning, including planning a return trip in the future.

We took a fall break trip to Boston, and here are some suggestions to maximize your trip.  First, here are some suggestions for getting around.  We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the Dorchester neighborhood.  It was our first Airbnb experience, and we were very happy.  It was a large, clean apartment, located in a nice working-class neighborhood, with easy access to public transportation.  That access is important because driving in Boston is crazy, and parking is impossible.  Do yourself a favor and get MBTA passes which allow you to use buses, subway, or commuter rail and use the system.  It works great and gets you where you want to be, but it can be extremely crowded during rush hour, and there are occasional glitches, like when our subway car’s doors failed to open at our stop once, and we couldn’t get off.

"Prince Hall" in front of the New State House

Once we arrived, checked into our apartment, and gotten back to the city, we started at Boston Common.  At the Visitors’ Center there, you can get your bearings, ask questions, and embark on a tour of the Freedom Trail, either self-guided or led by a costumed guide.  I highly recommend the guided tour.  Our guide was “Prince Hall,” actually Sam a professional comedian, who leads tours as Prince Hall, a noted black abolitionist of colonial Boston who founded Black Freemasonry in America.  Sam took us on a two hour walking tour of the major historic sites.  He was extremely informative and entertaining, and it’s a great way to get an overview, and you can also decide what sites you may want to go back to explore in more depth later.
Paul Revere's grave in Granary Burial Ground,
a stop on the tour which includes the graves of
John Hancock, Sam Adams, & victims of the Boston Massacre
The Freedom Trail guided tour ends at Faneuil Hall, built in 1742 as a public market and used by Samuel Adams for large anti-British meetings leading up the Revolution.  Today, Faneuil and the adjacent Quincy Market are home to souvenir shops, food vendors, and restaurants. Thee is also a museum inside Faneuil. The complex attracts 14 million visitors every year.  From there, take a walk to the North End, now Boston’s version of Little Italy, filled with Italian restaurants and bakers.  Have a meal or just pick up some cannoli as you see sites like the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church, the church spire from which Revere was signaled that night. 

You can also go back and spend more time at the Old State House, the seat of the British colonial government and site of the Boston Massacre (across the street), or the “New” State House (built in the 1790s).  In front of the New Stat House, you can see Robert Gould Shaw/ 54th Massachusetts Infantry Memorial created by Augustus St. Gaudens. In addition to the Freedom Trail tours, the National Park Service also conducts Black Heritage Trail tours which start from the Shaw Memorial.

For more recent history, go to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.  Some might say that the museum is much like the man himself, style over substance, but it’s a must see if you are interested in presidential history and presidential libraries.

For art lovers, there are two major museums that have to go on your list.  The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the largest museums in the country, and one afternoon is not nearly enough time.  There are fantastic examples of art from around the world, from ancient to modern.  We didn’t have time on this trip to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an Italian palazzo designed by Gardner to house her personal art collection of some 2,500 works of Renaissance and Old Masters artists. It’s regarded as a premier museum.

You can also take a trip to Cambridge and visit Harvard.  Check out Harvard Square and Museums like the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. 

After a few days in Boston, we were exhausted, and there was so much left for us to do, and for you to explore:  Fenway Park, Old Ironsides (the U.S.S. Constitution, Bunker Hill, the list goes on and on).  More visits are in order!