It wasn't until I visited the city of Lowell as an adult that I finally set foot inside one of these buildings. It was June 1992, during the grand opening of the Boott Cotton Mills Museum here.
I stood in the midst of nearly 100 working power looms, row after row of meticulously restored Draper Model-E's. Flying shuttles, rocking harnesses, whirring belts - the pounding was ferocious, like some gigantic percussive symphony. The earplugs I wore hardly dulled the racket.
This was the sound of industrial success. It was the sound of America's transformation from a rural to an industrial society, and Lowell, once the country's biggest manufacturing city, was at the center of the commotion for most of the 19th century.
Shifting economic tides doomed most of New England's mills, which have stood shuttered and silent for the better part of the 20th century.
But today, Boott Cotton Mills has opened its doors once more - not to hard- working laborers, but to the public. The museum's operational early 20th- century Weave Room, the only one of its kind in the country, serves as an ear-splitting introduction to Lowell's National Historical Park.
Operated in conjunction with the Lowell Heritage State Park, the national park draws people not for its beauty, but for its drama. As many as 750,000 people a year come to hear the story of Lowell - a story of prosperity and decline, of technological innovation and punishing working conditions.
The park includes exhibits and multimedia presentations in several converted mill buildings on the banks of the Merrimack River in a half-mile square area in the heart of the city.
The Working People Exhibit tells the laborer's story; the Waterpower Exhibit illustrates how water was used to power the mills, and the new Boott Cotton Mills Museum itself - with its pounding looms downstairs, staffed by several interpreters, its exhibit space and museum shop upstairs - tells the tale of America's industrial revolution.
During guided park tours that begin at the Visitors Center at Market Mills, visitors travel through history. They walk city streets lined with old buildings, ride turn-of-the-century-style trolleys, and float by barge along 5.6 miles of canals, It's glimpse of America's industrial past that can be found nowhere else in New England.
"This is history from the bottom up," says Marty Blatt, the park's labor historian. "Usually when we study history, it's the history of the elite - presidents, statesmen, financiers, industrialists - figures of power or money. But here it's the history of the ordinary person, the working man and woman of America, that is remembered and acknowledged."
In 1978, when Congress approved Lowell as the site of the first national historical park devoted to industrial and labor history, the city had fallen on hard times, the victim of decades of economic depression. For most residents, the mills weren't historical landmarks; they were places Dad or Grandma had gone to work, their empty shells a painful reminder of more prosperous times.
In the Weave Room of the Boott Cotton Mills, the air is a blur of belts and pulleys. Shuttles shoot back and forth at 160 miles per hour. The floor vibrates beneath my feet. High above my head, giant wooden beams fit loosely into holes in the brick wall, six inches of space around their ends to accommodate the shaking caused by hundreds of working looms.
I try to imagine this room heated to 90 degrees, the humidity at 90 percent to keep the cotton threads moist and strong. The air was so heavy with lint and dust that many workers suffered from "brown lung" disease. The noise was so loud, day after day, that they learned to lip-read, and most suffered severe hearing problems.
Surrounded by the clattering, I read these words on a small plaque:
"I discovered . . . that I could so accustom myself to the noise that it became like a silence to me. I defied the machinery to make me its slave. Its
incessant discords could not drown the music of my thoughts if I would let them fly high enough."
- Lucy Larcom, 1889.
Larcom was one of the women who made Francis Cabot Lowell's "Golden Experiment" on the banks of the Merrimack River a success. When Lowell returned from England in 1811, having memorized plans for a mechanical loom that would help power America's industrial revolution, he needed a workforce. New England men were busy working the farm or moving west. By hiring women, who would work for a short time an then return to the farm or marry, Lowell hoped to avoid the creation of a permanent working class like the one he'd seen in England. He hoped to maximize profits and minimize human misery.
Lowell didn't live to see the birth of the city that bears his name, but his wealthy friends carried on with his vision, best explained for today's visitors in the artful multimedia presentation, "Lowell: the Industrial Revelation," shown at the park Visitors Center.
Lowell's friends financed the mill buildings, where, for the first time, the whole cloth-making process, from bale to bolt, was done under one roof.
During the 1820s, women flocked here, eager to earn a wage and lured by the city's social and cultural opportunities. For a time, it was a "golden" experiment.
But despite the advantages of the city, life was hard. In the Working People exhibit of furnished boardinghouse rooms at the Patrick J. Morgan Cultural Center, visitors can see how the mill girls lived, often six to a bedroom and jammed around dining room tables. Working conditions were harsh: up at 4:30 for a 14-hour day on their feet with short breaks for meals.
By the 1840s, Lowell's 10 textile corporations were producing 50,000 miles of cotton cloth each year - enough to circle the world twice. But success led to competition and, inevitably, to wage cuts. Worker protests began as early as 1834, and by the 1840s the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association was calling for a 10-hour day. When its efforts proved fruitless and working conditions continued to worsen, many left and mill owners hired Irish immigrants, French Canadians and southern and eastern Europeans to take their places.
The one constant in Lowell, throughout the years of turmoil, was the great river. Indeed, if it weren't for the Merrimack, this particular chapter of America's industrial history could never have been written. At Pawtucket Falls, half a mile upstream from where the Merrimack meets the Concord, the river drops 30 feet in less than a mile - continuous energy from which the
mills harnessed 10,000 horsepower. By 1850 nearly six miles of canals were driving waterwheels in 40 mill buildings, powering almost 10,000 looms.
By the 1890s, mill owners knew their mills were aging, becoming increasingly noncompetitive. But instead of modernizing, they used profits
from the Lowell mills to finance modern textile plants in the South.
The Decline Room, one of the exhibits upstairs in the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, chronicles the industrial collapse between 1924 and 1974.
In videotaped oral histories, former millworkers talk about the mills, about the heat and dirt, the grueling hours and low pay, but also about their skills and the pride they took in their work. And about what it was like when the end came.
On the tape, Antonio DeJesus, who spent 38 years working in the mills, remembers the day a junk dealer arrived with a hammer and started smashing all the machinery.
As I leave Lowell, driving out past the mills, the red brick buildings have lost much of their mystery. I can hear the pounding of the looms, the rush of water through the locks, the turning of the turbine. But I hear also the voices of these workers and the mill girls before them. I hear their struggle and their determination.
I hear Antonio DeJesus: "That was my life," he said, "I made the best of it . . ."