Cambodian elders tour Lowell National Historical Park

The Cambodian community has become an important part of Lowell’s ethnic urban history. During the 1980s, Lowell was one of a handful of official resettlement communities for Cambodian refugees fleeing war, genocide, and famine. Coming with little in the way of material wealth, many settled into a community known locally as “The Acre” — an area that has served as a gateway neighborhood for generations of immigrants coming to Lowell in search of a better life — Irish, Greeks, Poles, Scots, Portuguese, French Canadians, Italians, and Puerto Ricans. 

This section of Lowell got its name back in the 1840s when mill owners, who were concerned about having immigrant Irish workers living in their midst, donated an acre of land southwest of the city’s center. Today’s Acre is larger than its name implies and is home to many Camobodians. 

Last week, we hosted a group of Cambodian “elders” from the Coalition for a Better Acre  at Lowell National Historical Park. Chief of Cultural Resources David Blackburn pointed out the Acre and several Park and downtown destinations on an orientation map in the Visitor Center. 


Some members of the group had immigrated to Lowell in 1985, others more recently. Only two had visited Lowell National Historical Park, and no one had ridden the trolley. They were excited! 

Ranger Joanne Marcos shared Lowell’s history through stories of mill girls, labor conflicts, and new immigrants settling into ethnic enclaves — all of which were translated into Khmer by Rasy An, staff member at Coalition for a Better Acre, and Duey Kol, Assistant Director of Cultural Programming at the Park.

The group of visitors was especially animated when entering the Boott Cotton Mill Museum. Standing around a water-powered loom, one man recalled his mother weaving by hand in Cambodia. They marveled at how hard the mill girls worked, the heat and humidity, the long hours, the deafening roar and clack of machinery.

Our last stop was a visit to the Boarding House exhibit where they saw what the mill girls ate for breakfast, the tight sleeping quarters, and the clothing they wore. On the way out, we stopped briefly into the immigration exhibit — where the last panel of a timeline focused on some of Lowell’s more recent immigrants. There on the wall was a black and white photo from 1985 of a Cambodian family taken at the TWA terminal in Boston. One women in the group pointed to a man in the photo, who turned out to be her brother-in-law.  What a welcome surprise for them to see their story on the wall, for all to see.

This was the first of what we hope will be many interactions with the Cambodian community through our new partnership with the Coalition for a Better Acre. Through this visit with us, it was apparent that, despite the language barriers, they came away understanding Lowell’s importance in America’s industrialization and how they fit into the city’s story. In the future, the Park plans on nurturing relationships with other ethnic communities throughout the city.

Working Waterfront Festival: Come Celebrate America’s Oldest Industry

Great weather and great programming! We suggest heading down to New Bedford this weekend for the 7th annual Working Waterfront Festival. This year’s theme is All in One Boat: the Cultural Mosaic of New England’s Working Ports

In addition to the focus on cultural diversisty, the festival programming speaks to the common challenges facing fishing communities around the globe, especially in light of recent changes in fisheries management. Come enjoy live maritime and ethnic music, listen to tales from Cape Verdean Longshoremen, try your hand at mending a fishing net, watch a coast guard rescue demonstration, walk the decks of a scalloper, eat fresh seafood, and immerse yourself in an insider’s view of the local industry that brings seafood from the ocean to your plate.

We are happy to see that retired fisherman, Marco Randazzo, who we met years ago in Gloucester, will be demonstrating his knot tying and rope sculptures on Sunday.

Marco Randazzo with some his rope sculptures. Photo by Scott Alarik, 2000.
Marco Randazzo with some his rope sculptures. Photo by Scott Alarik, 2000.

Local Learning through Folk Arts


In honor of National Arts in Education Week, we are singing the praises of a wonderful new web resource: Local Learning: The National Network for Folk Arts in Education.  Here you will find resources and best practices culled from the work of folklorists, folk artists, and educators around the country who have spent the past two decades working to integrate folk arts into classroom.  They make a compelling case for how educators can draw on traditional culture and local knowledge to enrich education and create stronger communities

Crafting Sound: Pipe Organs in the Making

You wouldn’t know from the exterior of this building that inside, magic happens.  C.B. Fisk, Inc., Pipe Organs  in Gloucester, Massachusetts is home to a talented team of craftspeople who build world class pipe organs. Their skills range from the ancient crafts of metallurgy and cabinetmaking to modern computer-aided design. 


Physicist and organ maker Charles B. Fisk founded the firm in 1961 to build pipe organs with mechanical action, as they were built in the time of J. S. Bach. Fisk organs typically contain thousands of pipes, most made from lead/tin alloys cast into sheets in the company’s workshop.

We visited C.B. Fisk, Inc. recently, where we began our tour with Greg Bover, Vice President for Operations. Here you see him with a 1:16 scale model of Harvard University Memorial Church, one of three current instruments in the process of being built.

It can take anywhere from five months to a year and a half to build a pipe organ And that is just the actual construction on site. Once the organ is taken apart and moved for installation, another five months to a year of tonal finishing work must be done. “That’s when the fun really begins, ” says Greg. “There are over 3,000 pipes that are going to be in this organ. They’ll all be shop-voiced, which means they’ll all be made to work to a level. But when we get to Harvard, each one of those pipes has to be adjusted to the acoustics of the building. The real work of the sonority starts once the thing is installed. Then the voicers go in, in two person teams, and go through every single pipe.”

I marvel at the stunning detail of the working model — the corinthian-like columns, the dental moldings, and the working clock. Greg explains that some rooms really warrant it. Creating a detailed model is “a huge factor in what the organ looks like and feels like. If we had fudged the cornices, it wouldn’t have had the same effect.”


“It’s math. It’s physics. It’s architecture. It’s cabinet making. Metallurgy — all of it. Organ builders — you’ve got to be a jack of all trades.”

Pipe builder William Finch gives us a tour of the entire company, beginning with the voicing room, where each individual pipe is adjusted until it “speaks properly.” In the wood shop we  watch organbuilder and voicer Nami Hamada working on the keyboard for Memorial Church. 


The casting room is where lead and tin are smelted down to form three different alloys. The pure lead has trace amounts of antimony, bismuth, and copper. These impurities stiffen the metal. William explains that harder the metal, the more the overtones are accentuated when air passes through the pipe.


We enter the pipe room, greeted by the sound of blues blasting from a boom box. Here several staff members are working on various aspects of fabricating pipes.




Listening to people throughout the shop talk about the process of making pipe organs, it is hard not to notice how the organ’s core parts are attributed with traits of the human body. The pipe has a “tongue,” “body,” and “feet.”  It is said to “speak” and must be voiced properly. The reeds of the pipe sit on a wind “chest.” It’s as if the finished product is a living, breathing, thing.