Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Rites of Fall in the Acre

Photo fr. Pintrest
I truly believe I was given a gift of being brought up in the right place at the right time- the Acre of the late 1950s. One of the first rites of Fall was the hanging of the storm windows. Now anyone under the age of 55 will have no idea of what I speak. In the cellar of the tenement I was brought up in were stored the 14 storm windows that had to be put up when the leaves changed, and taken down when the lilac buds showed. These windows weighed as much as a full grown adult and had to be lugged up the stairs and brought outside for cleaning. Our apartment, like most of the time, had no central heat- just a space heater and the kitchen stove. Having ice form on the inside of the windows was no foreign occurrence. Back to the storm windows.

My father would take out his wooden, 6 ft step ladder. The one that listed at a 45 degree angle. As he said, it was in perfect condition, why get a new one. With a mouthful of 8 wood screws per window, he'd climb the ladder. I would also climb the ladder doing a flying Wallendas routine of holding the window against the house and standing on the opposite side of the ladder from my Dad. Misters Black and Decker had not invented the portable screwdriver yet, so good old Dad, with lightning speed would attach the windows. This was also the time that I learned how religious my father was as he called out to "Jesus Christ Almighty" so many times.

You knew it was really Fall when my mother would hang up the Indian corn. You don't see a lot of that now. Many houses today have blow up figures, strings of orange lights, and plastic pumpkins on the doorsteps. My folks would never waste money by putting a pumpkin on the step. We'd open it up and roast the seeds in the oven. My aunt would make pumpkin pies. But my mother used the same Indian corn for years.  The sad part was that birds, rain, and the years got to the corn, and each year she hung it up it looked more like she was hanging up just the cob minus the kernels. She often bragged how many years she kept the same corn with the faded bow.

Another rite of Fall was walking by Waugh Street and waiting for the horse chestnuts to fall. Before the blight which wiped out many of these beauties, Waugh Street was chestnut tree lined and became our own little "run the gauntlet." A horse chestnut is covered with hard spikes. When it falls from the tree it resembles a medieval torture instrument. The trick was to run under the trees before being brained by the spiked bowling balls. It was most fun on a windy day to see who could collect the most chestnuts without suffering a concussion.

But the best rite of Fall was Halloween itself. I don't remember buying a costume. I think I was a hobo from ages 5 to 11. When I turned 12, I revolted and was a vampire. I thought I was cool with a cape and blood dripping from my mouth. That's when I learned not to use red Magic Marker as fake blood. It was also a let down when a friend pointed at me and said vampires never wore glasses. So I took them off, and then looked like a blind vampire tripping on stairs and walking into doors. That was my last year of trick or treating.

What I remember most is getting my paper, orange, trick or treat bag from Greens in downtown Lowell. I think it cost a nickel. It was nothing more than an orange paper shopping bag, but by night's end it would hold a bounty of cavity producing treats. My Dad was often given the chore of walking with us. It often became a history of the Acre lesson. Being an Acre Boy himself, he'd tell me this is where he helped light the gas lanterns when he was a kid. Or this is where the Keyes sisters lived and he'd run errands for them. We'd walk by Lovejoy's mansion where UMass is now. Everyone knew it was haunted, and I'd walk a little closer to him. He'd pretend to see ghosts in the broken windows. One year right in front of Lovejoy's it started raining, hard, and my little trick or treat bag got soaking wet and broke. I was in a panic. Do I stop and pick up my candy, or do I let the ghosts drag us in to Lovejoy's basement and my mother would never see us again? I did what any 6 year old would do. I cried. My father said another prayer to Jesus Christ Almighty, put as much candy into my little hobo hands as could fit, picked me up, and walked me home.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When the Battle is Over

Major Donovan's monument,
St. Patrick Cemetery
What happens when the flags are furled after the last battle?  When the victor returns home to the cheers of family and friends?  When the last four years have been filled with blood and battle and you’re expected to return to the life you knew before?  What happens?

When the news that soldiers from the 6th Mass Regiment had been attacked and killed by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore in April of 1861 the citizens of Lowell rallied to the cause of the North.  The first to do so were a band of Irishmen who formed the 16th Mass.  Before marching off to war, the soldiers attended Mass at St. Patrick church.  When the host was elevated at the time of consecration the officers withdrew their swords from their scabbards to salute the sacrament.  The men were then marched to the train depot where they would meet their fate.  Of those who served in the Sixteenth, 150 officers and men would be mortally wounded, along with 93 who would die of disease.  A few would have their remains returned and interred in the consecrated ground of St. Patrick cemetery, most would not.  This was the story of one who served and returned.

Matthew Donovan would eventually achieve the rank of major, but not before enduring bloodshed, imprisonment, and disease.  Born in Ireland in 1830 he appears in Lowell about 1850 as a housepainter.  Father Timothy O’Brien witnessed his marriage to Ellen Rowe in 1852.  Soon there were 5 little Donovans, including a set of twins.  The growing family moved from place to place along Broadway and Lowell Streets.  Perhaps it was to accommodate the growing family or the financial need, but the movement was almost yearly.

When the call for soldiers to defend the North was made just after Baltimore, Matthew was among the first to enlist.  His Civil War career included battles at Fair Oaks, Second Bull Run, and Spotsylvania.  He spent months in a hospital in Annapolis, probably from wounds he received at Fair Oaks or from one of the camp diseases that spread so quickly.  His account of the 16th’s engagement at Gettysburg tells much about the man.  He told of hours of doing nothing, looking for a place to let his men bathe, and waiting for the inevitable as more and more troops filled the town.  The 16th was in charge of protecting the Emmetsburg Road.  They dug trenches and at times hid in the woods as they were often shot at from different sides.  Eighty-one men of the 16th were lost at Gettysburg.  On the 4th of July he reported that the enemy went “skedaddling.”  On another occasion Donovan had to write home to the family of a Lowell soldier, Private Barry, who died in Donovan’s arms with his last words being, “Tell my mother I die a brave Union soldier.”    Newspapers reported that Donovan spent an extended period in the hospital after the Spotsylvania campaign.  He’s mustered out in 1864, before the war ended.

Upon his return to Lowell he attempted to reopen his house painting business and met with limited success.  He turned to a trade that had shown success for many of his fellow countrymen- liquor.  Just after the war he opened a restaurant and referred to himself as a “restorator,” using the vernacular of the day.  He also became involved in local Republican Party politics and started accepting small city appointments, such as surveyor of highways.    He became well-known at political conventions and became a “chief officer” for the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish republican group with hopes of freedom for Ireland.

If he wasn’t busy enough he maintained a position in the Sergeant Light Guards, a local militia group.  He was present at every muster and parade the group has and was named commander.  He took a prolonged trip back to Ireland, accompanied by a friend, the purpose being started as “business.”   What kind of business was not mentioned and the trip was extended to the point where the Light Guards was disbanded due to its “officer” not being present and uniforms and arms not being maintained.

But Donovan’s story does not end here.  While he was keeping this small place for serving meals on Merrimack Street, he also started serving and then selling liquor.  The liquor laws in Massachusetts vary over the years, but there were strict rules as to when and how much alcohol could be kept or sold.  Donovan was arrested at least 10 times between 1865 and 1873.  He was fined hundreds of dollars, which would be a great amount at the time, but he reopened and continued his sales.  He was even put in jail several times for days and even weeks, but still he persisted.  One wonders what his family would do during this period.  Interestingly his name appeared more than any other in the arrest records of constables seizing or fining him on the spot.  He was not alone, and a few other names were mentioned again and again.  Just before his death an investigation was put together questioning why the same names appear and asked if all the money that was given as a fine was returned to the city.  This does not stop Donovan and he was once again fined and imprisoned.  As soon as he was released he was marching in the GAR parade, toasting at the St. Patrick’s Day banquet, and most amazingly, the city continued to grant him his yearly liquor license.

In December of 1873, while speaking to a friend, he offhandedly said he felt he would die quickly, and he did.  At age 47 he was found dead in his bed.  Cause- heart disease.  He was carried to his grave by his fellow GAR members, the Knights of St Patrick, and the Lowell Coronet Band, whom he sponsored.  His marker bears the kepi and insignia of the 16th Mass. with the epitaph, “Life’s battle is o’er.”