Wednesday, July 4, 2012

So, where is the Acre?

Detail of section of the Acre, Map of Lowell, 1850
Lowell Historical Society
You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked that question.    I’ve been fortunate to work with the Tsongas Industrial History Center and their summer programs for teachers from across the US.  Each year the Center, under Director Sheila Kirschbaum, invites teachers from across the US to come and learn about the Lowell story, share their teaching expertise, and return to their school districts perhaps with a new sense of understanding history.  Historian Gray Fitzimons and I lead the participants on a walking tour of the Acre neighborhood.  On the previous days the teachers are brought to museums, boat tours, and hands-on workshops.  On their final day we show them the working people’s story.  It’s often mentioned that this is a highlight of the trip.  Why?  If you have walked through the Acre you might be able to answer the question yourself.  It’s alive!  There’s history there in between the traffic and Acre residents.  But time and time again, the question is asked, “Where is the Acre?”
There’s the political Acre.  The historical Acre.  The cultural Acre.  Ask a half dozen people for boundary lines; you’ll get half a dozen different answers.  Just try looking up maps produced by the city and organizations throughout the decades.  The Acre is more a state of mind than a political division.

The Acre is often listed as the original settlement of the first Irish in Lowell.  Well, where was that first settlement?  There are a few sources of that first settlement.  One says there was a camp of Irish behind where the Pollard Library is today about 1822.  The settlement is mentioned as having tents and crude shelters.  Another writer mentions that there were 40 Irish here who walked from the camp to the falls each day carrying the tools of their trade, while the citizens stared on.  These Irish workers would walk by Kirk Boott’s home (where the former St Joseph Hospital stands) and the gentleman himself would often oversee the work of the laborers as they widened and deepened the canals.    Was this the Acre?
We also know that there was a settlement around the area of Market St. (then called Lowell St.) and Lewis Street.  There is little proof today that this was an Irish settlement, and its consistent use over the decades, along with the building of the Housing, probably obliterated any artifacts that could have been uncovered.  The people who settled here were from the west of Ireland, Connaught.  Though in the beginning their numbers were not large, the Irish often settled with people from their own province or county.  This section was actually referred to as the Half Acre.  So this wasn’t the Acre either.

There was yet another section, and this one was referred to as the Acre.  It was the area around Cork and Dublin Streets (formerly Marion and Lagrange Streets).  Those from the southwest of Ireland settled here.  It was a larger settlement first described in the Niles Register of 1831, which our Parish Archives owns an original copy.  The description reads:

In the suburbs of Lowell, within a few rods of the canals, is a settlement, called by some, New Dublin, which occupies rather more than an acre of ground.  It contains a population of not far from 500 Irish, who dwell in about 100 cabins, from 7 to 10 feet in height, built of slabs and rough boards; a fire-place made of stone, in one end, topped out with two or three flour barrels or lime casks.  In a central situation, is the school house, built in the same style of the dwelling-houses, turfed up to the eaves with a window in one end, and small holes in two sides for the admission of air and light.  In this room are collected together perhaps 150 children.
So there is our Acre, or is it?

But say you, what of the story my father told me?  The one where Kirk Boott asks his Irish maid, Mrs. Winters, how to control her fellow countrymen?  Her response is to get a priest to which Mr. Boot befriends Bishop Fenwick.  The two decide this is a good move, and the Corporation donates an acre of land.  What of this story?  It’s got some truth in there.  The story was passed down and not recorded for many years after the event supposedly took place, so we’re not sure of the details.  But the facts need some work.  Benedict did pay for the land.  The cost was $1.  There wasn’t an acre of land; the deed called for 8140 feet. 
Paddy Camp Deed, Archives of St Patrick Parish

The next part of the story has to do with the placement of the church.  The story goes on to say that the decision was made to put the church between the two groups that often broke out into fists to cuffs.  That’s probably based in fact since both parties were aware of the problems the Irish were causing for themselves and the new mill town, and a solution had to be sought.  And that’s why Saint Patrick’s Church is located where it is today.

Over the years the Irish population grew, the separate sections melded into each other.  The area becomes known as the Paddy Camps and evolves into the Acre.  The Acre today is still evolving.  The names and faces have changed, but the stories continue.

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