Portland Press Herald, Neighbors Edition
Back to Articles and Reviews An interesting place to learn about New England's Franco-Americans is to take the time for a leisurely visit to Lowell, Massachusetts.
It's well worth day trip from Southern Maine to tour The Lowell National Historical Park. Lowell, today, continues to be a city in transition but includes a lovely restored city adjacent to parks along the Merrimac River, connected by cobble stone walkways to cultural exhibits where the Franco-American heritage during New England's industrial era are recognized.
By the way, check the outdoor Lowell Summer Music Series schedule, a live performing arts series held in Boarding House Park on French and John Streets, if you take this trip during the summer.
La Bottine Souriante, a French-Canadian show band, performed during my recent visit. Thankfully, the outdoor weather was perfect for La Bottine Souriante's Saturday night concert on August 12, but a rain location is available inside Lowell High School's Auditorium, across the street from the park.
The Lowell National Historic Park is an impressively large old neighborhood of restored mill brick buildings and boarding houses that collectively creates a living museum where the work and history of Franco-Americans are acknowledged. Walking tourists pass blocks of well restored uniform brick buildings, easily stirring ghost images of the many thousands of workers who once kept the noisy factories thriving. Today, these buildings are homes to museums, shops and restaurants.
Highlights of the city tour includes street sculptures, and museums where Franco-Americans' hard labor, religious values and evidence of the economic contributions the19th century immigrant generation made building Lowell's industrial economy.
A value added bonus is Lowell's tribute to native born Franco-American Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), a poet, and novelist, author of "On the Road", recognized as one of the voices of America's 1950's "beat generation". A visit to the tree lined Kerouac Park, located on a river canal near the city's historic buildings, provides an opportunity to walk and meditate on granite stones engraved with the writer's freely expressive writing style.
Of course, many New England cities attracted French-Canadian migrants, mostly from Quebec, who responded to recruitment programs instituted by the factories badly in need of labor.
It was hard and dangerous work, as reported in the book, "The Lowell Mill Girls: Life in the Factory", a journal written by female mill workers. "..there were accidents to contend with, some of which were sometimes fatal..cotton fibers hung heavy in the air along with other pollution, aggravating lungs weakened by tuberculosis."
Likewise, Maine's industrial cities, like Biddeford, Saco and Sanford, also housed French-Canadian workers from Quebec who largely intended to return to Canada after earning enough money to help their families back at home. Nevertheless, those who stayed built an infra-structure of French-Canadian neighborhoods with a prominent Roman Catholic Church as a center of community life and where French was the primary language. Subsequently, mill cities visibly struggled economically when the factories closed or moved south during the 20th century.
Lowell, of course, joined this economic and social decline resulting from the closing of once thriving mills. Therefore, the revitalization of The Lowell National Historic Park invigorated life in the inner city by creating a hub where the key ingredients of heritage combined with cultural events attracts a growing creative economy. Lowell's restaurants are busy, sidewalk artists sell their work on the streets and shops host browsing tourists.
One example of the city's success is evident in the audiences filling Boarding House Park with lawn chairs to see the outdoor concerts performed live there for the past 17 years.