Friday, March 28, 2014

Benjamin Day's Workshop

Map- Lowell, 1850
Lowell Street (now Market Street) was a busy place in 1830s Lowell.  The arrival of the first Irish in the 1820s spurred a commercial boom in the area.  It wasn’t long before the tents and shacks of the first arrivals were being replaced by the shanties and ten-footers of the ever growing Irish population.  Soon alleys and makeshift walkways began defining the Acre neighborhood.  Lowell Street was at the heart of the hustle and bustle.  More and more hopefuls were arriving from all over and even across the sea in need of work.  With those increasing numbers, came the need for good and supplies. 

Lowell Mercury, 1830
Right on Lowell Street was Stephen Gale who sold stoves.  And there was Willard’s West Indies Dry Goods Store specializing in “pure and choice wines.”  You could have your clothes made at Hobb’s Clothes Ware-House.  Bethuel Cross sold crockery and China ware on Lowell Street.   The Exchange Coffee House, owned by Owen Donohoe, was a busy place for Irish and Yankee alike.  Mrs. Rice had a cottage just off of Lowell St. where she offered her nursing services.  Richard Walsh had his Catholic bookstore right across the street from the Rev. Mr. Blanchard’s house.  (Was it intentional that Walsh made it a point to advertise his Catholic business was located across the street from a Protestant minister’s home?)  There were a myriad of livery stables and harness shops as well.  Hugh Cummiskey, in partnership with Samuel Murray, had a West Indies Dry Goods Story on the corner of Lowell Street and Cummiskey Alley.  Almost all were Yankee businesses in these early days, but the Irish did have a sort of monopoly on one certain business.  Grog shops abounded in every basement along Lowell Street and all the little alleys in between.  On the weekends it was known that local living rooms transformed into saloons. At least that was the opinion of the local constabulary. 
If you kept walking down Lowell Street the shanties became fewer and father apart.  Heading towards the river, you might have heard the sound of stone being cut and carved.  You would have come across the workshop of Benjamin Day, stone carver.   Day had probably arrived in Lowell to set up shop as early as 1830 and started advertising his trade in the Lowell Mercury.  Previous to Lowell he established himself in Salem, MA.  His work could be found throughout Essex and Merrimack Counties.  Day’s workshop would have been on the corner of the present Salem and Decatur Streets.  Grieving families, looking to purchase a grave stone, would have gone to his shop and seen stacks of slates that had been precut, many with the iconic willow and urn pattern of Yankee New England, already carved.  The stones lay there awaiting the names and dates of the deceased to be added.  Day’s price also included delivery and setup at the cemetery.  With his shop within the Irish district, it’s not surprising a number of his stones can be found at St. Patrick’s Cemetery.  One can imagine families walking by his workshop day after day going to work or to shop.  At the time of a loss they might find a familiar face with Mr. Day, their neighbor. 
John Bork's stone w/ Day signature
Each carver had his particular style that he would call his own.  Stones can be identified by certain borders, finials, and stippling.  The earliest stone in Saint Patrick Cemetery is that of young John Bork carved by none other than B. Day.  Bork’s simple, small, slate stone with willow and urn design is typical of Day’s carving style.  A number of stones, slate and marble, have the name Benjamin Day name carved at the base, as was typical of his style.  The sad part is that most of the early slates have been snapped to lay flat in the ground and the signature of the carver is missing.  Even sadder is that the many shamrock slate stones in the cemetery, show great similarities to Day’s style, but cannot be proven to be his work. 
As the city grew other carvers such as David Nichols and Theodore Warren joined in to fill the need.  Benjamin Day kept his shop going for many years.  As historian, Marilyn Day states, Benjamin Day bought a lot at the Lowell Cemetery, but ironically no stone marks his grave.
For a great read on a history of Benjamin Day read Ms Day’s account . 
I must add here that like many of you I walked Market and Salem Streets (Lowell Street) many times in my youth.  I was always struck by the old store fronts with the large glass windows.  They reminded me of a time past, and I wondered what shops had first sold their goods here.  Many of these businesses still retained the old entry to cellar ways in the middle of the sidewalk that were used to bring goods into storage.  A misstep could send you flying.  .  The storefronts had advertisements for fresh black olives and windows filled with pyramids of cans of olive oil from Greece.  Tournas’ had their trays of baklava and barrels of peanuts.  The neighborhood Hugh Cummiskey had known was transformed to one that represented those that came after him, and would change hands yet again.  When I got to the corner of Salem and Decatur there was an empty lot.  I often wondered about that lot.  After doing research for this article I found this was the site of Benjamin Day’s workshop.  I remember an old garage being in the rear.  Was this part of Benjamin’s shop?  Was the lot empty because of the stones left behind by Benjamin?  It’s nice to think so.

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