Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Lowell Mills

(A quick note to you all:  I took the following photos using that dang new camera and when you notice that all the photos are blurry, you will understand why I took the thing back in a huff.  Sorry!  Prepare your eyes to hurt for a few moments.)

Last week, I had the pleasure of accompanying 23 Fourth Graders to the National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts.  We did the Yankees and Immigrants Tour through the mills and we learned what life was like for immigrant and farm women who worked in the textile trade in Lowell.

It was a freezing cold day and as we ascended the unheated-outside steps of the mill, the children and chaperones learned quickly that working in the mills was no picnic.

I know what you are thinking... I can hear you now... um, Martha?  There are walls around that staircase.  It's hardly outside.  Well, let me tell you, there might have been walls, but the stairs were indeed outside the building and they were freezing.  Trust me.

Once upstairs, each child was given a passport with a history of the immigrant character that they were playing:

Georgia was from Ireland and she came over in the 1890's.

The bell rang, and Georgia went into the Immigration Office and answered some questions.  Being the Type A person that she is, Georgia had studied her passbook thoroughly and passed the quiz with flying colors.

She received a stamp to hang on the wall:

And then she sat with her immigrant friends in the receiving area until it was time to continue on to the factory:

We learned all about cultural and literal baggage, and then the museum guide divided the children up into different groups based on their "nationalities."  The different options reflected the ethnic groups who arrived in Massachusetts during the 18 & 1900s and did not necessarily reflect the ethnic groups of the children themselves.  

Apparently, there were few Norwegians, Scottish, Russian or Polish immigrants in Boston during that time period.  Our people were completely unrepresented.  Perhaps that's why we have found it completely impossible to locate a decent pastry in this state.  

Georgia and the other "Irish" children unpacked their trunks and classified the items they found within their luggage.

Each group then presented an item to the class, and everyone else had to guess what the item was and what it was used for.  

This was not my favorite part of the trip.  I worked at a historical house museum in Connecticut while I was in college, and we did a similar exercise with the school children who visited.  I understand the desire to introduce historical artifacts to children, but unless you are able to spend time describing each item in the trunk, then the general meaning is lost to most nine year olds.  There were six or seven groups, representing six or seven different nationalities, which was five or six more than ideal, in my opinion.  I'm not sure how much information was actually absorbed.  

And if we are going to be really honest (and why not be), I'm not sure the immigration angle is the most interesting view offered at this historical site.  I grew up in New Jersey and when I was nine, visiting/ learning about Ellis Island was a pretty amazing thing.  Children growing up in Massachusetts have a similarly unique view about the Revolutionary War  - anyone who grow up minutes away from the Battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill are lucky indeed.  What's amazing for these Massachusetts children is to learn that they also live minutes away from a site of the industrial revolution and a period of history that is incredibly unique:  young women leaving their farms and families and travelling to the city to live ALONE to earning their OWN money.  This is one of the first times women had the ability to write their own stories and to live their own lives, separate from their families and from their husbands.  I understand that immigrants played an important role at the Lowell Mills, but I think these children would have loved to learn even more about the lives of the American farm girls who set off for the big city, set off to earn their own wage and found freedom and friendship at the Mills.

In fact, the second half of the tour - the part where we entered the actual mills - was extremely interesting.

Oh my goodness, were those looms loud.

The Lowell Mills have about 1/3 of the looms running during the day and the noise of the fabric being woven is unbelievably deafening.

The children were shocked at the sound and they got an immediate view of what it would have been like to work in the mills.

I wish we could have stayed longer in the actual mill.  Maybe about a year ago, I had NPR on in my bedroom as I changed the sheets on my bed, and I listened to a recorded oral history from various women who had worked in the Lowell Mills as teenagers and young adults.  The program was fascinating.  Even after I had finished making the bed, I sat down to listen to the rest of the radio program.  The girls' stories touched me.  There were tales of accidents and unsafe conditions, but there were also tales of fun, frivolity and friendship that accurately described what life would be like for women who had never before earned their own wage, lived in a city or gotten the opportunity to meet/ live with lots of other young women.  I loved every minute of that program and I'm sure the children (especially the girls) would have loved it, too.

The tour moved on to a town hall meeting where each child dressed up as a different person in the community and there was a mock city council to determine the fate of an Irish-only elementary school near the mills.  

And then we moved back outdoors to tour a boarding house where they young women lived while working at the mills.

I'm not sure if we were supposed to be horrified or impressed by the boarding house - the guide was not particularly clear about the topic, but I was impressed with the beautiful china on each table and the roominess of the bedrooms.

I loved the Lowell Mills tour.  Rumor has it that the fourth graders go back in the spring to take another tour - one that is more focused on engineering and manufacturing.  I'm definitely going to sign up to chaperone that one.  I love a good historical tour.  In the meantime, I'm already making mental notes for a family visit during winter vacation.  And maybe, I'll find the NPR pod casts to play for the children before we leave!

Poor children... life with a history buff for a mother is so trying!

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