Sunday, July 12, 2009

Concord and Lowell, MA

A week ago when I was staying with my mom we took a drive over to the other side of the state and spent some time checking out places I'd been wanting to see for a while. We started with:


This is a town in Massachusetts that is really where the industrial revolution started in North America. I remember reading about it in college, how this guy memorized the plans for mechanized equipment and brought it all back from England in his head, and how farm girls were shipped in from all over the state to work in the mills. At first everything worked out really well- the owners ensured that strict morals were upheld and the girls worked hard for fairly decent wages considering the times. Then they'd earn enough and go home and get married. It wasn't intended to be life-long work. Eventually the whole operation changed though, and immigrants moved in and started trying to support entire families, the mills got bigger and bigger, and the whole thing sort of spiraled out of control as competition grew and the town's population got poorer and poorer.

So there's your little history lesson. Once mom and I got there we went to the visitors center, and then walked along the canal up to the Boott Cotton Mill, which is run by the Parks Service and gives a good idea of what it was like to be a worker in a mill. Mainly, really LOUD. It was a slow day in Lowell, so we were pretty much the only people there and they started the looms up once we got there. Actually, they started up about half of the looms and the noise and still deafening. I don't think there was a way for girls to keep their hearing in there. There was a little museum that we sort of tore through because we were going to go to the American Textile History Museum.

So we walked back down the canal to the other museum, which was GREAT. Sort of confusing to get around (the girl at the counter said they are getting maps made), but really well done with great displays and interesting videos. I enjoyed that one, although we got so hungry that we pretty much gave up before we'd seen everything. Next time I go I have to see the room of spinning wheels and the gift shop. My mom gave me dish towels from there a long time ago and they have held up really well. So I'd like to see what else is in there one day.

We were pretty tired and punchy by the time we were done in Lowell. We headed over to Concord, looking for food, any food, but I have a little bit of advice for anyone hungry heading to Concord: you won't find much to eat. So once we got there we zipped right by our destination and headed into town and pretty much flew into the little Main Streets Market & Cafe and ordered sandwiches and sat there until we could take on the next stops.

If you've ever been a bookish girl or had bookish sisters, you probably know who Louisa May Alcott is. She wrote Little Women, which has been made into at least 2 movies. She wrote a bunch of other books too, but Little Women is what she's famous for. She based the book on her and her sisters, Anna (the character Meg) was the oldest and the sort of boring one, Louisa (Jo) was the tomboy, Beth (Beth) was the one who died (just giving you the high points here), and May (Amy) was the artsy one who went to Europe and painted. Their father in real life was the philosopher Bronson Alcott, who we were told would expound on the virtues of something like a pear at the dinner table and go on for 3 hours about it, tying in history and philosophy and whatever else he thought of. Our tour guide at the house seemed to think that was enchanting. I'm pretty sure I would have found it really self-centered and irritating....


The thing I was repeatedly thinking as my mom and I wandered around Orchard House on the guided tour was, "This belongs in a museum!" I was having some serious Indiana Jones moments the entire time. Anna's wedding dress is laid out on a bed. May's paintings are everywhere, and the sketches she drew on the walls are still there. Books, furniture, costumes from "theatricals" and small items like Louisa's sewing supplies are not just in direct light but but laid out for inspection, and although you are told flat out not to touch them you certainly could if you wanted to.

I was torn. On one hand it is really cool that you can walk through the house on a guided tour, and touch Louisa's desk and see all of Amy's work up close, and brings people a sense of connection because you are really THERE. On the other hand those costumes are in direct light by a window. Dust and oils from hands inevitably gets on all of the old textiles and will eventually damage them. The house is very old and the foundation was reinforced a few years ago, but with thousands of people moving all around it every year it is going to suffer wear and tear. The entire operation feels very young and inexperienced with things like preservation, and while I am no curator I really was concerned that some of these items will be damaged or God forbid stolen in time.

So what is the solution? I don't know if there is one that wouldn't take tons of money and they clearly just don't have that. A residence down the street, Wayside House (another house with major history), is a historic landmark and run by the National Parks Service. They do a much better job at preservation and education. If you combined the Wayside and Orchard Houses on a single ticket, set up Wayside House as a museum and the Alcott's house as a place you could enter on a self guided tour with most of the rooms roped off but still in view, and got items at least out of the sun and out of the range of curious fingers, you would probably solve many of the problems I had with the place.

The tour itself was pretty good, even though I kept getting the feeling that the guide had so much information in her head she was having trouble getting it all conveyed to us. The funniest part was when someone on the tour (half of a very annoying couple I might add, they kept asking questions about the littlest things and then practically shoved everyone out of the way to see whatever they wanted- manners people!) asked if the Alcotts and the Emersons and the Thoreaus and the rest of that transcendental philosophizer set swapped wives. And the tour guide was sort of baffled by it, which was great, and the woman who asked remained convinced that there was some seriously crazy sexual stuff going on in Concord in the 1850s. (Of course I googled that the minute we got home, and found nothing.)

Concord in the 1850s to 1880s was a hotbed of thinkers, writers, and artists. The famous ones (Louisa May Alcott, her whole family including her father, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau- oh YES we did drive past Walden Pond) are all buried on "Author's Ridge" in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord. It is a beautiful old cemetery, sort of creepy because people leave little things like pens and pencils and whatever else they can find by the graves (including little piles of rocks that were very Blair Witchy and got me freaked out pretty fast).

I thought that Concord was beautiful. The town is clearly proud of all of its history, from the Minute Men during the revolutionary war to the famous writers it produced. I always find it interesting how great minds come to a place at the same time and are so influential. What starts that? The Founding Fathers were like that- John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and Ben Franklin and all of the others had a shared vision and they were smart enough and articulate enough to make it work. How does it happen?

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