Rising high above the courtyard of the refurbished Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, the complex’s bell tower has stood the test of time for nearly 180 years. Today, it is a beautifully restored piece, standing in stark contrast to the red brick of a mill that many years ago served as the anchor of the city’s Mile of Mills that stretched along the Merrimack River.
Founded by Kirk Boott in 1835, the Boott Mills are the most intact of the city’s mill buildings, having recently been gutted and converted into a mix of residential and commercial units. It also houses the Lowell Historical Society and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.
The bell no longer tolls but it is part of the rich history of a city teeming with it.
The factory bells dominated daily life in Lowell. They woke the workers at 4:30 a.m., called them into the mill at 4:50, rang them out for breakfast and back in, out and in for dinner, out again at 7 p.m. at the day’s close. The whole city, it seemed, moved together and did the mills’ bidding.
– Lowell National Historical Park
In the mid-1830s, the average work week for the entirely female mill workforce was six, 12-hour days, according to “Cotton Was King, A History of Lowell, Massachusetts.” The bells kept the mill girls on schedule, with the final one pealing at 10 p.m., signalling curfew.
As wave after wave of immigrants moved into the city – French-Canadians, Irish, then Greeks – each took their turn handling the roaring loom machines. The textile industry began to decline before World War I and then collapsed entirely after World War II, shuttering the mills and leaving New England industrial cities like Lowell drowning in unemployment.
Lowell reinvented itself in the late 1970s, using many of the long-dormant mills as the centerpiece in forming the country’s first urban national park, the Lowell National Historical Park. One of those was the Boott Cotton Mills and its iconic bell tower.