Hangin’ Around in Lowell: Centralville
by Tom Langan
This is the first in a series of articles designed to seek LHS member input about their personal experiences growing up in the various Lowell neighborhoods. I’ll start off with my childhood memories of Centralville in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We want to publish your neighborhood memories in the next LHS Newsletter.
My inspiration for this series was a 2005 reunion of people who hung out or worked at the Dairy Farms ice cream parlor on Bridge Street during the 50s & 60s (formerly located on land next to the abandoned Shell gas station). My brother Jack and I organized the event but were initially unsure if there would be interest from people who may not have seen each other in more than 40 years. Not to mention, where are these people now? After a few hundred phone calls, emails, reunion notice in the Lowell Sun and a long spreadsheet of names, we picked a date, sent out invitations, booked the East End Club and a DJ to play “oldies.” Our list grew to about 200 names. Incredibly, nearly 150 people attended. Some came from as far away as Florida and Maryland. Our neighborhood reunion was not an original idea in Lowell. We've heard of other groups from Brunelle’s Drugstore in the Highlands and Sweetland Garden in the Acre getting together to share memories of the old hangout. From the 1960s, I recall groups being referred to as either “hoods” or “society.” It all depended on how you dressed and combed your hair. For boys, pegged pants and greasy hair was the trademark for “hoods.” High water pants, madras shirt and hair parted on the side for “society.” Often, economic background had little to do with the designation. Other groups hung out at the Espresso,
Vee’s Restaurant on High Street, Shedd Park, the Streamliner, Fr. Maguire's Park in Pawtucketville and back to our Dairy Farms neighbors, Carr’s Drug Store just down Bridge Street where a laundromat now exists. Did I forget any other hangouts? Yet, “hoods” and “society” met at the Keith, Immaculate, Holy Trinity or St. Joseph’s dances. Each group had their favorite location to dance in the hall. On rare occasions, the boys from rival groups settled disagreements, perhaps over a girl. Once settled, respect for each other was earned and a life of peaceful coexistence followed. The system worked despite the diverse backgrounds.
Getting back to Centralville, “The Farms” was not the wholesome place Monsignor Keenan had in mind for good, Catholic kids from St. Michael’s School. (Tuition was $3 per year). Many of Pastor’s sermons denounced the evil gathering of those who sipped vanilla cokes, listened to the Everly Brothers on the jukebox, or began a first romance. How terrible. At the reunion, Fr. Keenan’s name often came up in conversation, as you can imagine. Perhaps, he had forgiven “The Farms” reunion kids after they donated $600 to the new school building addition on Read Street? How ironic. He'd be proud to see some of us went on to be doctors, teachers, building contractors, social workers, nurses, high tech managers and a former LHS President to name a few success stories from this questionable lot. Perhaps, the Nun’s heavy handed discipline was instrumental?
Many Lowell kids lacked financial resources then, but that didn’t matter as much as it does today. Life was simpler. Entertainment consisted of a weekend movie at B.F. Keith's, the Strand or Rialto. You could even catch a double feature for nothing. What a great place to meet girls and it helped to know the ushers. You could spend a whole afternoon at the Rex even if you had no money in your pocket. Lowell High football games were a “must see” and if necessary, we “hopped” the fence to get in due to lack of money. McPherson’s Playground and Gage Field were filled with kids. Imagine playing tackle football, today, without any equipment! We did. Who owned equipment then, anyway? Except for an occasional sprained ankle, there were few injuries. We cheered for the New York Giants before the Patriots came to town. Roller skating at the Hi Hat was popular, especially on Sunday afternoon. We walked everywhere in the City. We even walked back to Centralville after a Keith Dance at 11:00 pm on a Saturday night, stopping at either Santoro’s, the Espresso or Pioneer for a late night snack. What parent of a freshman would allow that today? Remember going Downtown on a Monday or Thursday night in the late 50s? The sidewalks were packed with shoppers. For a young Centralville kid, Downtown was like an amusement park and full of colorful characters like “Depot Antiie.” Remember, “Joe” the ragman? Not having cell phones, we “Called” friends from outside of their homes back door entrance. We drank “tonic,” not soda. Who can forget Centralville’s Blue Dot Candy store on Bridge Street and their home made chips? I won a 26” bicycle at Plunkett's Drug Store by asking for customer votes during their annual giveaway contest. For one of six children, there was no such thing as an allowance. To earn money, we delivered the Lowell Sun (I dreaded the heavy “Dollar Days” paper). The Sunday edition had to be delivered by 8:00 am and our parents didn't drive us in a snowstorm. We also shined shoes, picked vegetables on Dracut farms and of course, shoveled sidewalks and driveways in the winter on Christian Hill. Today, homeowners would love an opportunity to negotiate the price of a shoveling job with a kid. “Shoveling” is a lost art with kids. We rode our sleds right down the middle of Third, Fourth and Fifth Streets. How scary that would be today. Don’t tell anyone that we swam in the reservoir on Beacon Street. We hitchhiked to Lakeview or Corbett’s Pond in Windham from Centralville. I even hitchhiked to Cambridge to visit a girlfriend. To us, the parental guideline was, “just be home for supper.” Do 8th graders do that today? God forbid! We loved to campout by the stream in the woods near the Ski tow in Dracut, without parents. In grammar school, we passed out political leaflets for City Council candidates at the 4th Street firehouse on Election Day. The sandy beach behind the Coca Cola plant on First Street was lined with boys hoping to catch a large carp in the polluted Merrimack. There was always something different to do and we didn’t need electronic games. Oh yes, did I mention the “Drag Races” on the VFW Highway? Growing up in Lowell was fun. Don’t you agree?