TIME TRAVEL THROUGH CITY’S COLORFUL PAST AT LOWELL GALLERY
Guy Lefebvre’s Lowell Gallery is a treasure trove of city history.
By Jennifer Myers
Lowell has churned out some pretty interesting characters — Jack Kerouac, James McNeil Whistler, the Eklund sisters.
But who is the most colorful?
“Ben,” says Lowell Gallery’s Guy Lefebvre without a moment’s hesitation. “Ben Butler, but everyone knows about him.”
In case you’re the one who’s never heard of Major General Butler, think of him as a Civil War-era rock star, earning nicknames like “Spoons” (he supposedly pilfered silverware from the Southern homes he stayed at) and “Beast.” A highly decorated war hero, former Massachusetts governor, U.S. Congressman and presidential candidate, this guy probably drank tiger’s blood way before Charlie Sheen came along.
So what about other lesser known Lowellians that deserve mention?
Lefebvre has it covered.
His Jackson Street art gallery and framing shop is one of the best kept secrets in Lowell — a treasure trove of Mill City history and other unique gifts.
It’s a secret Lefebvre loves to share, along with the faces, places and events that put Lowell on the map.
Inside Lowell Gallery, the face of a fascinating, yet little-known former Lowell resident looks back at Lefebvre from a giant matted copy of the March 24, 1873 edition of New York Weekly.
Texas Jack Omohundro, clad in a coonskin cap, vestments made of animal hide and carrying a rifle, is billed as “The White King of the Pawnees.”
“They (the Pawnee Indians) trusted him, he took care of their communications,” Lefebvre says of the cowboy, scout and actor who participated in buffalo hunts and Indian skirmishes alongside “Buffalo Bill” Cody and performed in stage productions with Cody and “Wild Bill” Hickok.
So, what does this cowboy have to do with Lowell?
In December 1872, he performed in the western drama Scouts of the Prairie in a Chicago theater, along with Cody and Giuseppina (Josephine) Morlacchi, an Italian ballerina from Milan who had come to the U.S. and was working primarily in Boston.
However, she did not want to live in the city. She preferred the country, so she bought a farm house in Billerica.
Josephine, known as the Peerless Morlacchi, and Texas Jack were married on August 31, 1873 and settled in a building they purchased at the corner of Market and Suffolk streets in Lowell’s Acre neighborhood.
While in Lowell, Texas Jack continued his cowboy ways, once jumping into the Western Canal near his home to rescue a damsel who had fallen in while washing her clothes.
He died of pneumonia while in Colorado on June 28, 1880. He was 33- years-old.
Josephine, who is credited with bringing the “Can-Can” to the U.S., continued to live in the Lowell house, as well as her “summer home” in Billerica until her death of stomach cancer in 1886.
Texas Jack is buried in Colorado. Josephine, at St. Patrick’s cemetery in Lowell.
Lefebvre could talk about Texas Jack, Benjamin Butler and other Lowell people and places all day long. He often does.
The son and grandson of Lowell mill workers, Lefebvre grew up in the boarding house his mother ran on Merrimack Street. He has always been fascinated by the lore and legend of his hometown.
“It is a varied, varied history,” he says. “Lowell has always been big news. It was such an important place in the 1800’s that the descendants of those who were here then who have moved all over the world are still connected here. There is always a Lowell connection.”
Lefebvre became a framer while working at Casey’s Paint and Wallpaper on Middlesex Street, running the framing and art supply departments.
When that business folded, he continued to do framing from his home, until he was able to buy his own spot – a condo at 14 Jackson Street. The Lowell Gallery was born in January 1990.
He has a plethora of Lowell artist Janet Lambert Moore’s prints for sale, as well as prints of more than 300 historic black and white photos.
Central Street, 1956.
His favorite is a 1956 shot of Central Street. “War and Peace” starring Audrey Hepburn is playing at the Strand Theater. The old theater marquee and the 1950’s cars parked along the street, transport the viewer to a different time. A different Lowell.
“That is the downtown I remember,” reflects Lefebvre.
Hanging on the Gallery’s wall is a captivating panoramic view of a car race track on Pawtucket Boulevard.
“A lot of national events took place her in Lowell,” says Lefebvre. “This was the Lowell Auto Race, which happened in 1908 and 1909. There were only two like it in the country — Lowell and Philadelphia.”
Central Street, 1885
Kearney Square, 1932; soldiers marching on South Common, their leaders mounted on horseback, 1863; horses and carriages along Central Street, 1885. Lefebvre’s small space tucked away on Jackson Street in the shadow of the Early Garage is a virtual time machine.
In addition to the old photos, there are also nostalgic artifacts available at Lowell Gallery, many of which celebrate the city’s past as a hub for patent medicine – there are Father John’s Medicine boxes and bottles; bottles from the Hood Sarsaparilla factory.
“I have always collected stuff,” he says. “I started buying some stuff from eBay, then through dealers and going to shows. Now people bring bits of Lowell history to me when they clean out old houses.
“Even when I am gone or no longer have a use for it, my collection will stay in Lowell,” promises Lefebvre. “The Lowell history belongs here.”
The Central Savings Bank is now home to luxury condominiums.
But, it is not strictly Lowell history found within these walls. Any fan of pop culture will gravitate to the collection of movie poster replica prints, in full Technicolor, available including one for “Law and Order” a 1953 Ronald Reagan picture that shows the future president in full “Deputy Marshal” costume, loading a gun.
The poster screams: “Haunted by a woman’s scarlet lips! Hated by the brother who called him ‘coward’! Hunted by the man with the iron fist!”
“I do not sell replicas of anything I do not own the original of,” says Lefebvre. “I have all of these original posters.”
Along the window is a new batch of memorabilia that appeals to Lowell and pop culture history buffs – beautiful color prints of Jack Kerouac’s book covers, not only the English versions, but some in Japanese and French.
But, back to Lefebvre’s all-time favorite Lowellian – Major General Benjamin Butler. Lefebvre owns 400 cartoons depicting the lawyer, Massachusetts Governor and Congressman, who served as a Major General in the Union Army.
View down Merrimack Street, early 1900s.
“I figured I would find 40 or 50, but they just kept coming,” he says. “Ben was a big target of cartoonists in the 1800s.”
He also has original photos of Butler and one of the few signatures he signed as a Major General. Having studied Butler for years, Lefebvre said he was a little miffed by what he perceives as a snubbing of Lowell’s own in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster “Lincoln.”
It was Butler, Lefebvre explains, who came up with the idea of treating slaves as war contraband and freeing them when the Union forces captured them from the Confederacy. He was not given his due in the film.
“That did upset me quite a bit,” Lefebvre adds.
And speaking of Abraham Lincoln, if you ask nicely, Lefebvre will show you the prized piece of his collection – a sample of Lincoln’s hair. It is in a display along with strands of Mary Todd Lincoln’s hair and a piece of the curtain from Ford’s Theater where the 16th president was assassinated.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Lowell Gallery, art, framing and history.
WHERE: 14 Jackson St.
INFO: Open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5p.m.; Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; closed Sunday and Monday. For more info call 978.458.3137 or visit the store’s website here.
Jennifer Myers has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. A former reporter at The Sun for more than a decade, she now works as an aide to Mayor Patrick Murphy. A history buff, Jennifer can often be found combing through old newspaper clippings and documents at the Pollard Library or rummaging through the attic of City Hall to uncover pieces of Lowell’s past. You can read more of Jennifer’s Mill City musings on her popular blog Room 50.