While it might not have the bustle of Cambridge, the seaside allure of Newburyport, or the country charm of Northampton, the former mill city of Lowell has been working hard to establish itself as a top-notch spot in the state for education, history, and culture. Having grown up in a nearby suburb I frequently heard cautionary tales about “Lowell after dark,” but in 2006 my parents moved to a condo in a renovated brick mill building overlooking the Merrimack River and steps from Lowell’s cobblestoned downtown, and soon enough I came to agree that, as the slogan says, there IS a lot to love about Lowell.
The city is home to the Lowell arm of the University of Massachusetts; a national park that works to preserve the Industrial Revolution in Lowell with a working cotton mill exhibit, canal boat tours, and trolley rides; the New England Quilt Museum; National Streetcar Museum (complete with rides!); annual week-long Folk Festival each summer; WinterFest each (you guessed it) the winter, and dozens of other events throughout the year.
I spent an afternoon in Lowell earlier this summer, and there was plenty to see and do on foot downtown. If you’re in the mood for a stroll, the Lowell Riverwalk along the Merrimack River and canals affords plenty of exercise and views of the river and (my favorite) the cheery red Aiken Street Bridge.
Just steps from the river you’ll find two of Lowell’s largest draws — (in warmer months) the cheers, music, and unmistakable aroma of BBQ from the “All-You-Can-Eat Gator Pit” coming from LeLacheur Park, home to the minor league Lowell Spinners baseball team, and the slick Tsongas Center arena. Throughout the year the arena hosts everything both concerts to shows plus a full roster of hockey games featuring the Lowell Riverhawks.
Summer in Lowell is a big time for music — concerts take place throughout the warm months as part of the Lowell Summer Music Series, when Boarding House Park becomes a sea of lawn chairs and brightly colored summer attire.
The main reason for my visit this time, however, was a stop at the American Textile History Museum — a Smithsonian-affiliated spot that sets out “to tell America’s story through the art, history, and science of textiles.” I had expected to see examples of looms, fabric, and clothing at the museum, but the vast collection totally wowed me. On display were examples of every stage of the history of textiles — meaning (for example) you learn not just about wool but the sheep it came from, the ever-growing machinery on which the wool was made into material, the evolution of dyes and treatments to the wool, and finally, the clothing made from it. All eras of American history are represented through raw materials, machinery, brilliant displays of clothing, period photographs (the ones of the mill workers were particularly great), and hands-on samples for you to touch and feel the materials and fabrics.
FYI – While most of downtown Lowell is accessible on foot, the ATHM is off a busy road and we chose to drive over rather than walk.
Earlier forms of machinery like the infamous cotton gin, stocking frame, and clacking industrial looms are scattered throughout the museum, with the latter group getting its own sunny massive room.
If you like getting up close to period clothing (including underthings, casual attire, and formal wear) for men, women, and children, the museum will more than satisfy. Below is just a small sample of what’s on display.
Also represented are milestones in textile design and technology like the evolution of patterns and dyes, and stunning examples of textile skill — including a beautiful hand-hooked stair runner (only a small portion of which is shown below) by avid Connecticut rug hooker Robert Cleverdon in 1950, depicting images and scenes of his life.
For those interested in green textiles there’s a spot dedicated to natural fibers, and for the modern fan there are numerous displays dedicated to fabrics used in automobiles (ever touched an airbag?) and space suits (ever put your hand in a space glove?).
Of course, we also took in the special exhibit…”Behind the Veil: Brides and their Dresses.” If you missed it (unfortunately it ends August 11, 2013), here’s a bit of what it looked like:
On display were several dresses spanning decades of matrimonial style — each with a personal story and often photographs to tell a complete tale of the dress on its big day.
My favorite dresses were the two below. The dress on the left , won me over with its vintage girlishness (and truly joyous looking bride), while the one from 1929 on the right looked exactly like the dress my late Italian Catholic great-grandmother Mary Generazzo wore on her wedding day in the same era, complete with long veil that looked more like a fishing net (sorry, Grammy).
The dress that moved me the most, however, was this one:
Jane’s story embodied for me the power of the whole exhibit. Sure, it’s fun to look a pretty dresses, but the power of the wedding dress doesn’t come from the organza, lace, or even (eek) big bows — it comes from the “dress story” (each dress has one) represented by the fabric. It’s why the dress was chosen over any other dress and the way the bride felt when she wore it and celebrated her happy day with her new spouse, family, and friends. It’s what lasts in the photographs, and in some cases, the closet for daughters and granddaughters to wear.
It was a great exhibit.
After leaving the museum we headed over to Cobblestone’s Restaurant & Bar for lunch. The outdoor patio was the perfect spot to enjoy a few sandwiches in the sunshine.
Nearly full, we walked the short distance to Sweet Lydia’s for a few sugary treats. With its supply of homemade s’mores, candy bars, marshmallows, and caramels, Sweet Lydia’s will take care of any candy craving to end your day on a sweet note.
Tell us what YOU love about Lowell!