Lowell’s Young Cobblers and the Belgian Refugees

Remember sixth grade? The long division, the environmental science, the field trip to Canobie Lake . . . . the cobbling. What? You don’t remember the shoe repair component of sixth grade?

If you were a sixth-grade boy at the Varnum School in Lowell’s Centralville neighborhood in the early 1900’s you certainly would.

The year was 1908. Varnum School teacher Rose Dowd was troubled. She noticed many of the school’s students did not have proper footwear; their shoes were worn, torn, or broken; some stayed home because they did not have shoes.

She came up with a brilliant solution. Rather than giving the students shoes, she would teach them how to repair them — a variation of the old “teach a man to fish” principle.

The class of 25 boys made their own aprons. Ms. Dowd, who lived on Tenth Street, became the “cobbleress,” the boss of the shop.

Photo: Lowell Sun April 4, 1918

Photo: Lowell Sun April 4, 1918

The boys worked one hour a week in the cobbling shop, masterfully repairing the soles and heels of their shoes, the shoes of their families and neighbors.

Word began to spread and the work proved to have unintended positive consequences.

“The teachers say that the manual training makes better students, that the students study better after an hour or a half hour working at the bench with their hands,” the Nashua Telegraph reported on January 8, 1910. “Many a pupil who was considered rather dull became self-confident, better able to express himself, for he can compete with his more brilliant classmate when it is a work with the fingers and in many case the pupils best brain capacity gains expression because it is being reached by the fingers.”

At the time, the Nashaway Woman’s Club was exploring a plan to add manual training to the Nashua Public Schools’ curriculum. It was felt it would benefit the students to learn a trade given that fewer than 20 percent of Nashua students entered high school.

The looked to Lowell for guidance; as did Lawrence eight years later. And in the summer of 1909 Dowd taught a summer cobbling class in Wincester at the bequest of the Wincester School Department.

“In the public schools of Lowell the very best demonstration of manual training is given,” reported the Telegraph.

In addition to cobbling, the Varnum School also offered sewing for the girls and cane seating.

In October 1910, the Lowell Sun reported three graduates of the cobbling class has gone into the cobbling business for themselves and had found a good amount of success.

Rose Dowd’s young cobblers met their greatest challenge in early 1918 – they were put into service to complete an important war contract.

The one-hour a week work rule was shattered, with the boys populating the shop during recess, after school and whenever they could get in there. Their mission: fix up worn-down and broken shoes for the Red Cross to ship overseas for the Belgian refugees of the Great War.

“Now that war conditions have brought a greater demand for the finished product there has been overtime galore and not a kick from the youthful cobblers,” the Sun reported on April 4, 1918. “They more than welcomed the introduction of the new daylight savings law in that it gave them an opportunity to do a little more Red Cross work and thus perhaps furnish some poor Belgian refugee with covering for his or her feet.”

All of the leather used was old belting donated by W.A. Mitchell of the Massachusetts Mills.

In two weeks of work the tiny shoe repairmen had sent 142 pairs of good-as-new finely crafted shoes to the Belgians.

And they were not slowing down. The Sun reported two weeks into the work “every hammer was going at full blast.”

While one may have seen many things in Europe in 1918, a Belgian refugee with rubber-soled shoes was not one of those things.

The Red Cross shipped no shoes with rubber soles because the Germans were running short of rubber and were quite desirous of obtaining more, any way they could.

Shoes with rubber soles and heels were given to the Salvation Army for domestic distribution.

It is unclear when the last shoe was re-heeled at the Varnum School, but Rose Dowd died on May 29, 1930, having taught at the school for 46 years.

Her obituary noted that if it had not been for her ingenuity, many children “would have suffered during the winter months for lack of proper footwear.”

varnThe Varnum School was closed in June 2008, 151 years after it was built, a victim of budget cuts.

Last week, the Lowell City Council approved the sale of the building for $285,000 to Underwood Property Management and Development, of Lowell.

Thomas and Richard Underwood plan to convert the school into 22 two-and-three bedroom rental apartments, marketed to veterans. The proposed plan earned the endorsement of the Centralville Neighborhood Action Group.

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