Through Lowell Mill Doors, Proud Memories

August 12, 2018

LOWELL -- Dorothea Rourke can still see her mother reaching for the mill’s door handle.

It was usually around 3 p.m. at the end of her father’s shift as foreman of the Walsh Mill on Lowell’s Meadowcroft Street.

Walking from their apartment on South Whipple Street, Rourke would stroll along with her sister Sally, each holding a side of their brother Larry’s dark-tan wicker baby carriage.

Approaching the main door of the mill, as soon as their mother’s hand reached for the door handle, Rourke and her sister would immediately thrust their hands up, covering their ears.

Every cell in their bodies quivering in dreaded anticipation.

“You can’t even imagine,” Rourke recalled at the site last week, more than six decades since she regularly visited the mill in the 1940s and 1950s.

She remembered how her father would stand nose-to-nose with another employee, both screaming at the top of their lungs to be heard above the blasting noise.

Earplugs were unheard of.

She brought her hands up to her ears last week outside the repurposed manufacturing facility at the former South Lowell mill -- showing how they would prepare for the onslaught of unimaginable noise from the heavy machinery at the woolen mill.

Before entering Americraft Carton Inc.’s plant, Rourke was handed earplugs this time.

“This is nothing. This is nothing,” Rourke said of the sound while on the plant tour.

She pulled her earplugs out, talking to employees on the production line about her family’s history there.

Rourke, now Rourke-O’Regan of Stoneham, was alongside her three brothers -- Larry of Lowell, Bill of Nashua and Jim of Townsend. They were visiting the property for the first time since the mill was purchased in 1955.

“It means so much to come back,” Rourke-O’Regan said. “Just very, very heartwarming.”

About a year ago, she had contacted Jim Klecak of Americraft Carton about visiting the site of the old mill.

She told the vice president and general manager about her family ties to the building. Her father, George Alfred Rourke, and her mother, Dora Elizabeth Maguire, both worked at the mill. They met and fell in love, a love that would grow and endure, grow and endure, Rourke-O’Regan likes to say.

Klecak thought it’d be great for the Rourke siblings to visit. He told Rourke-O’Regan that he was curious about the history of the building.

He called Thursday a “treasured reunion.”

“It’s great to make this connection with them,” Klecak said. “They knew what this place was like in the 1940s. That’s unbelievable.”

The history of the building goes back to the 1800s. The former Walsh Mill -- also known as the John Walsh Worsted Mill and the Walsh Worsted Mill -- was first surveyed for insurance purposes on April 12, 1882.

It was called a neighborhood mill because it’s set in a residential area, not downtown where so many other mill buildings are located.

The Walsh Mill did much of the necessary prep work for wool fibers, before they could be woven into fabric at a different location. A train track ran along the back of the mill, and the Concord River is nearby.

“Mom came here every day for a month trying to get a job. Dad was tired of saying no, so he hired her,” Bill recalled, leading to laughter from the group on Thursday. “She was very persistent.”

In 1955, the property was purchased by the Pellegrino Family. At the time, the Pellegrino Family was producing pasta in Boston and was in the process of expanding their operation in Lowell. The Pellegrinos took over the mill to manufacture folding cartons for Prince Pasta, supplying cartons to the pasta plant only a few blocks away. It then operated as Prince Packaging.

In 1987, Color Carton Group purchased the assets of Prince Packaging. Then Color Carton Group became Americraft Carton, which now produces folding cartons with state-of-the-art, high-speed equipment. It serves businesses in a variety of industries: fresh and frozen foods, health care, consumer goods and more.

The Lowell plant employs about 120 employees on three shifts, and has a number of openings for new employees, Klecak said.

Back in 1947, the Rourke family moved to 73 Cosgrove St. The kids attended Sacred Heart School on Moore Street. Walking to school, they passed by the Walsh Mill every day.

On Thursday, Bill could see his father sitting at the mill’s window.

“When we’d walk by, he’d always wave to us,” Bill reminisced. “I’ll never forget that.”

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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