Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Knights of St. Patrick (One returns home)

The Knights sash returned to Lowell
In the latter half of the 19th century right into the 20th a myriad of fraternal and social groups sprang up among Lowell’s Irish. Each parish had its own societies to take care of their poor and to set the young ones on the right path. There were also organizations outside of the church itself that saw to it that the Irish were taking care of their own and were passing on their culture. A brief listing would include: Emerald Associates, Lowell Irish Benevolent Society, Young Men’s Catholic Library Association, Ancient Order of Hibernians No. 1, No. 2, & No. 3, Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, American Society of Hibernians, St Patrick’s Temperance Society, Immaculate Conception Temperance Society, Father Mathew Total Temperance Society, Sargeant Light Guard, American-Irish Historical Society, The Celtics, Irish Catholic Order of Foresters, The Emerald Club, and Catholic Young Men’s Lyceum. The list is far from complete as organizations grew and passed away according to needs, interests, and politics.
One of the longest lasting societies was formed in 1869 and called the Knights of St. Patrick.  It was “organized for the purpose of encouraging social and manly exercise.”  The group had their annual cycle of events; summer outings at Willowdale, being part of the city parade on the “glorious fourth,” marching through the city streets on St. Patrick’s Day, and regular meetings with speakers on numerous topics. 

During the summer the group often played baseball and football.  There were even horse races where the prizes were horse whips and blankets.  Those attending the banquets on St. Patrick’s Day often numbered in the hundreds. In the morning they attended Mass then marched wearing black clothing, tall silk hats, white gloves and the Knight’s sash.  The “supper” began at 9 pm and carried on into the wee hours.  Toasts were a regular feature recalling the heroes of freedom and democracy from their adopted home and Ireland.  Pictures of St. Patrick, Daniel O’Connell, and Robert Emmet made the backdrop of the head table.  Regular suppers were held throughout the year at locations like the St. Charles Hotel and the Farragut House.  American author, Mark Twain, was invited to speak at one of their suppers, but had to decline.  He did write a lengthy letter commending the Irish and the pursuit of freedom in their new home.  On one of their summer excursions in 1871, the carriage that was bringing them to Tyngsboro overturned near the bridge.  Their commander, who was injured and strapped onto a chair was drowned along with the horse that pulled the wagon.  Fundraisers were held throughout the year.  One raised almost $300 for St. John’s Hospital.   In 1876 the Knights were the largest Irish organization in the city.

As the decades progressed the membership aged and began to wane.  There were several attempts to rejuvenate the group.  Notices were printed in local newspapers reminding the children of Irish immigrants that the goal of the club was to keep their heritage alive.  For most of its life the Knights were a men’s only group.  Near the end women were invited to join.  Soon the only mention of the group was in members’ obituaries.  Those who remained would wear their regalia to attend a funeral and accompany him to the grave.

The last mention of the group was made in 1926 for the funeral of their last commander, Owen Corbett, ages 93, a native of Co. Clare.


An original Knights of St. Patrick sash has come home.  The sash will be on display at our Walking Tour on Saturday, March 11 at 10 am.  Meet at LNHP Visitor Center on Market St.  (If you have photos, diplomas, or items that record the history of the Irish in Lowell or the Acre neighborhood.  Let us know.  We will give them a good home.  Other items donated this year are neighborhood and family photos and old St Patrick School report cards.)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Scots in the Mill City

Duncan Rankin McKean,
 in Glasgow, 1880s.
The Irish were not the only Celts to help build the city of Lowell.  Before anyone protests, of course the Irish were Lowell’s first immigrant group.  That would make the Scots Lowell’s second wave of immigration.  In one of Lowell’s early histories an 1833 writer is quoted as saying the Scots were, “the most intelligent of our foreign population.”  The writer was a Yankee and it might be fair to say not a fan of the Irish.

To dig a little deeper, Lowell’s existence is partially due to the Scots.  Francis Cabot Lowell himself had Scottish roots, and it was only after his 2 year stint visiting England and Scotland with his family that the idea of textile manufacturing on such a scale as he saw in Manchester and Paisley would come to America. 

Scots had been living in the area since the time of the colonies.  Before Lowell was Lowell, there were farmers and tradesmen from Ulster (Scots-Irish) in Chelmsford and Dracut.  Even the Pawtucketville Congregational Church once identified itself as Presbyterian.  As textile mills were erected professional workers who knew the secrets of the textile trade had to be imported to share their knowledge.  James Sanderson, a native Scot, was brought solely because he knew had to dye skeins indigo blue, a color much in vogue at the time and not easily produced previously in America.

The major wave of Scots into Lowell occurred in 1828 with Alexander Wright. “A colony from Refrewshire, Scotland settled in Lowell and engaged in the manufacture of carpets.  It included many sons and daughters of the Kirk of Scotland and was reintroduced from time to time by other immigrants.” (ORHA)  Soon another group from Lanarkshire, Scotland joined the group increasing the Scots population and carpet manufacturing.

Like the Irish, many of the Scots chose to live among their own.  One group settled along Market Street in areas called “Scotch block” and “Scotch Row” according to Lowell Directories.  The tiny district includes name such as; McAlpine, Bosworth, McOvey, Johnson, McCreck, McArthur, Knowles, and Wilson.

With the Scots came their faith, Presbyterianism.  They were the descendants of the Covenanters. By the 1860s there were enough to form their own church that was erected on Appleton Street on the corner of Davis, known as the First Presbyterian.  An early account says that those who were “old school Presbyterians” were forming a society. It continues to say there were enough like-minded people to have already had a Sunday school.  A Rev. Dr. Robertson was the preacher and succeeded by Revs. Calhoun and Rankin.  That is not to say that there were no Catholic Scots as well.  In St. Patrick Cemetery there are a number of 19th century graves with Scotland listed as place of birth.  And don’t forget St. Margaret’s Church was actually names after St. Margret of Scotland.
They also brought their customs and traditions.  One that continues in Scotland today and was first celebrated in Lowell in 1833 was Robert Burns Night.  Celebrating Scotland’s most famous poet, they gathered, many of Lowell’s Yankee elite, to toast the bard and to share the haggis.  A Mr. Waugh made the haggis, a sort of pudding made of entrails and boiled in a sheep’s stomach.  The Ode to the haggis was recited and singing songs like, “O Willie brew’d a pack o’maut.”   The evening ended with the traditional “Auld Lang Syne.”  It must have been a rowdy evening since the writer commented that the other guest in the hotel must have appreciated the night coming to a close.
For many years Scottish athletic games were held here in the city.  Mention is made of Scots in their “native costumes” (kilts) parading through the city with pipe bands and athletes marching to the athletic fields in Centraville.  The local Caledonian Club sponsored the “annual games of the Bonnie Scots,” which drew athletes from U.S. and Canada participating in the caber toss and throwing the hammer.  A world record for such was made in Lowell.

One of the last vestiges of Scottish culture in Lowell was Clan Grant 141 OSC (Order of Scottish Clans).  There may have been other such organizations, but Clan Grant appears to have been the most active and most recent.  Clan Grant held annual Burns Night dinners, dances, lectures, and gatherings which kept the Scottish tradition alive in Lowell.  The last major function seems to have been in the 1970s with the Kiltie Pipe Band of Worcester and a number of singers entertaining a huge crowd.  The officers of the ladies auxiliary appeared in their white dresses and tartan sashes.  (Members of my own family once held posts in the organization.)

Many Scots who came to Lowell brought their skills to open shops and become entrepreneurs in the city.   The Nesmith brothers, Thomas and John, who were Ulster Scots, became very wealthy in business ventures so much so they had a street names after them in Belvidere.  The Bowers family originally came from Scotland and became owners of farm and dairy land in Lowell.  Nineteenth century physician, Dr Shaw was born in Glasgow.  The first ice cream manufacturer in Lowell, Alexander Cruichshank was born in the Scottish Highlands.  Another Glasgow native, Alexander Cumnock, became nationally famous for his work in cotton manufacturing. A friend of Kirk Boott, John Waugh, along with fellow Scotsman, James Wilson, became the leading suppliers of slate roofing in Lowell’s earliest days.  Many of these men remain in our history having had streets and buildings named after them. 

One of the last Scots native to be recalled was James Johnston Mr. Johnston, a native Scot’s speaker opened a bakery on Westford Street.  The family occupied the 2nd floor on top of the business.  The family kept the business until the 1980s.  In my family it was traditional at Christmas to go to Johnston’s to buy shortbread.  On the day the bakery closed I went pleading to buy the shortbread molds, but the family rightfully held onto them. 

Not all Scots would make it into the history books.  My own grandfather was born in Milngavie, Scotland.  His family had been working as calico printers for 3 generations.  No wonder he made it to Lowell.  His Scottish burr (accent) remained with him until the end.  He was baptized in the Church of Scotland and converted to Catholicism to marry my grandmother at St. Patrick’s.  He was known to break into, “Roamin in the Gloamin.”  He never told why he left Scotland and had little contact with his family back in Glasgow except for a box at Christmas that contained dulse (seaweed), shortbread, and oatcakes.