Center for Lowell History LibGuide Reveals Overseers’ Influence in City’s Textile Mills
By Ed Brennen
The UMass Lowell Library’s Center for Lowell History recently published an online research guide, or LibGuide, on the “Overseers,” the middle managers who supervised the workers on the shop floor for the wealthy mill agents and owners two centuries ago.
The LibGuide includes photos, an introductory essay and biographies of 15 notable overseers written by Gray Fitzsimons, a research associate at UML's Saab Center for Portuguese Studies.
While the overseers LibGuide is a new source of information for researchers and scholars interested in Lowell’s industrial history, the content was initially curated years ago. Fitzsimons started the project in 2006 when he received a $5,000 grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities to study the overseers as a scholar-in-residence with the Center for Lowell History.
“I realized it really was an untold story,” says Fitzsimons, who worked as a historian at the Lowell National Historical Park from 1997 to 2005. “It might seem like an obscure topic, but when you think about the role overseers played on the shop floor and within their communities, you could argue that it was really an overlooked and important topic to pursue.”
Fitzsimons was struck by the overseers’ influence on the daily working lives of the men, women and children in the textile mills, and also the considerable clout they had in shaping the political and cultural landscape in the rapidly changing city. While they were fiercely loyal to the mill owners and earned enough money to join the city’s growing middle class, Fitzsimons notes that overseers remained connected to the city’s working class. Some even supported labor reforms such as the 10-hour work day.
Working with Martha Mayo, former director of the Center for Lowell History, Fitzsimons published his overseers research on the center’s website more than a decade ago. In 2008, he began pursuing his doctoral degree in urban education and leadership from UML’s College of Education, which he completed in 2013.
When the UML Library moved its Center for Lowell History content to the LibGuide format in 2018, Fitzsimons noticed the overseers project had somehow been lost in the migration. He contacted Sampas, who went to work searching the library computer system for “ghosted” versions of the former website content.
“We found some HTML files, some scans and some text and started to reconstruct it,” says Sampas, who also dug up additional photos from the Lowell Historical Society to use with the project’s new LibGuide incarnation.
“We were able to pull these people out of history and bring them back to life,” Sampas says. “And lucky for the overseers, they were high enough in the class system for someone to actually save their photos in good albums, which wasn’t the case for other classes.”
Fitzsimons, meanwhile, took the opportunity to rework the introduction and some of the biosketches. He says he still has quite a few notes that didn’t make it into the LibGuide, and he hopes to add more biosketches in the future.
Overseers were typically men, although Fitzsimons does profile Ida Brown, who worked as a forewoman in the Merrimack Mills cotton spinning department from the late 1890s until her retirement in the early 1930s.
“This only scratches the surface on the diversity and ethnicity of overseers in the mills,” says Fitzsimons, who adds that there is still much to learn about what became of the descendants of the overseers. “Looking at it from the angle of social mobility, what was their status within the community? What did they do?”
He hopes UML history students will be interested in answering some of those questions.
“There could be some pretty interesting student projects associated with this,” says Fitzsimons, who is about to take on a new project of his own.
The Saab Center for Portuguese Studies was recently awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant by the William M. Wood Foundation to establish the Greater Boston Portuguese-American Digital Archive (PADA).
Working with Sampas and Saab Center Director Frank Sousa, Fitzsimons will begin collecting oral histories and personal artifacts from members of the Portuguese-American community in the Massachusetts cities and towns of Lowell, Lawrence, Hudson and Gloucester this fall.
“It’s a combination of history, archival and folk life projects,” says Fitzsimons, who spent more than a decade working as an engineering historian for the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., before moving to Lowell in 1997.
“I am continually surprised and fascinated by the history of Lowell,” he says. “It’s a good place to study up close and relate its history to broader patterns in U.S. history.”