Dick Howe leading tour of Lowell Cemetery

Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

The Lowell Cemetery was founded in 1842, and Catherine Goodwin gave tours of it for forty years. She passed away in 2011, so I was sadly never able to meet her or take one of her tours. In Ms. Goodwin’s obituary, Marie Sweeney of the Lowell Historical Society said, “Her passion was contagious. That, combined with her gift of storytelling, made her an invaluable teacher. She knew how to engage a crowd and make learning so much fun.” Her book and DVD, Mourning Glory, is on sale from LHS.

In 2009, Ms. Goodwin passed the role on to Richard Howe Jr., a local historian, blogger, and Register of Deeds. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend his tour for two years, and he certainly carries on her legacy of teaching through storytelling in a beautiful setting. Last Friday, I enjoyed an amazing fall day while listening to Mr. Howe’s stories. I also heard a mix of people whisper things such as “I didn’t know that!” and “Oh, I know which one he’ll go to next—it must be the chair!”

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

Mr. Howe in front of the Bonney memorial. Many think she’s dubbed “Witch Bonney” because she’s tantalizingly clad and spooky, but we think the legend grew because the statue is so visually powerful.

In fact, I’ve never heard anything but positive comments in person and on Facebook: “Fantastic,” “Richard makes it so interesting, you can’t wait to hear the next story,” “Each time we go, we learn something new,” “Your tours are to die for–no pun intended!!” Not only do they draw both new and old faces, they reach people outside Lowell. I was able to find a meetup group that normally focuses on “Portsmouth and Beyond” for last year’s tour–organized by someone from Pelham.

It’s a “must go” in Lowell. Mr. Howe selects each story for a different reason. Some stories are of famous residents, such as James Ayer, who built one of the largest patent medicine companies in the world. He provided the funding for a town hall for a new town, which was named Ayer in his honor, yet when he unsuccessfully ran for US Congress, he was supposedly burned in effigy in that very town.

He chooses other stories because of the unique headstones, such as the afore-mentioned chair. Horace Ebert was not particularly famous, but his family commissioned an exact reproduction of his chair for his grave. Other stories are simply of everyday people: a particularly tragic one being that of Scottie Fineral, who lost his life in the first Gulf War in 1991, when he was 21.

Mr. Howe pointed it out partly to highlight that although the recency of that war hits modern audiences hardest, many who died in wars a century ago had lives cut just as short. If Scottie Fineral had lived to be my age, he would have seen the rise of widespread personal computers, the internet, smartphones, the new Star Wars, widespread acceptance of gays and lesbians, and so much more. I can only imagine we could say the same thing about those who died in the Civil War, World War II, or Afghanistan.

This is the genius of the cemetery tour: each story is entertaining in its own right, but all illuminate a larger aspect of history. Mr. Howe mentioned during his tour that although many think of history as facts and dates or even discrete movements:

I think of [history] more as a bunch of streams that come together. –Dick Howe, Jr.

As he pointed out, some of the stories cover folks who were born and fought in the Civil War, then went home to Lowell to contribute to huge social, technological, and business advances. The stories show how events in the war led directly to movements during the gilded age in a way two separate chapters in a history book never could. Yet the stories are also more immensely personal and relatable, both because they took place in Lowell and because they are about people: a person who got his start in a drugstore and built a medicine empire, a person whose life ended too quickly in war, a person who just loved his chair. People enjoy those stories because they both entertain and illuminate.

A number of folks have suggested developing more tours in and around Lowell’s downtown, which could have exactly the same effect. Each building or street can tell a story, each story can contribute to a larger picture. In addition, the tours could draw similarly large crowds if marketed well. Who doesn’t want to learn they live around the corner from where telephone numbers were invented or where the sponsor of the G.I. Bill lived most of her life?

Mr. Howe has suggested beginning a weekly downtown tour led by various experts in the community. I would love to see a series of tours featuring, for example, French-Canadian Lowell, urban planning innovations in Lowell, or Lowell from a youth perspective. These tours could not only entertain and enlighten, but bring folks who don’t normally visit Lowell’s historic areas to local businesses.[1] I’d love to hear people’s ideas for tours they could lead in the comments, in emails, or on Facebook!

Finally, I’d like to share fellow bloggers’ reflections and photos:

Notes

[1] Notably, most studies include walking tours as an effect (For example, increased historic preservation creates walking tour guide jobs). If downtown tours are started, perhaps it would be a good opportunity to create a small study to measure impact, such as estimating the number of tourists eating lunch downtown.

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