METHUEN — Old photographs of Italian immigrants at their farms, family gatherings and dinners have been pulled out of drawers and albums and moved to the walls of Pizza King at the corner of Salem and Loring streets in Lawrence.
“Greetings from Pleasant Valley!” features pictures from the farms belonging to the Terranova and Avarino families taken in the late 1940s and 1950s.
Tom Grassi owner of Image Tech took the 3-by-5 inch photographs and enlarged them without losing any definition.
“I enjoy seeing happiness on people’s faces as they remember childhood visits to their Nonna’s farm in Methuen,” said Christine Lewis, exhibit curator. “My wish was to share those happy thoughts through this pop up exhibit.”
Lewis said she found it fascinating that Methuen’s Pleasant Valley area was transformed from Yankee farms to small weekend gardens by Italian immigrants.
“It reads like a classic American success story,” Lewis said. “Extended families banded together and with determination, ingenuity, optimism, and small down payments they realized their own version of the American dream.”
According to her research, more than 100 years ago mill workers in Lawrence leaped at the chance to buy small plots of fertile land on Pleasant Valley. In 1906 the Italian surnames begin to appear on this area’s land records. By 1909 journalists referred to Pleasant Valley as “Little Italy on the Merrimack.”
Lewis said the mill workers kept their day jobs and their city apartments and tended their gardens during their spare time. She said the weekend farmers only needed a shed, an arbor, an outhouse and a well to run their plot of land.
“For many families, land ownership was a dream come true,” Lewis said.
Members of the St. Alfio Society including John Terranova, Tom Zappala, Mike Lomazzo, Joe Bella and Ned Leone helped Lewis with her research.
Terranova happened to be listening to the radio show “Sicilian Corner” where Lewis was talking about the project. He called and told her how his father and uncle have two farms yards from each other.
“I remember going from Jackson Terrace in Lawrence to the farm and we thought we were going to the White Mountains because it was so out there,” Terranova recalls.
His father planted peppers, tomatoes and watermelon on the land, which had no electricity or running water. Despite that, he has many cherished memories.
“I remember my father barbecuing, and us sitting at a table set outside with wooden chairs with my mother’s old kerosene lamp. It was absolutely beautiful,” he said.
Terranova was really happy with exhibit.
“You like to hold on to great memories and when I went to see it, I was really pleased with how they came out,” he said. “It shows others what life was like in 1950s.”
Lewis said the rural section of Pleasant Valley began to change when the state took some of the land by eminent domain in the late 1950s to build Route 495 and others disappeared with urban renewal in the 1960s.
“One can still see evidence of the old ways through the backyard grape arbors grown wild. Modern facades and creative additions have absorbed the small, self-built sheds that once served as weekend retreats.”
This is the second time Lewis has hosted an exhibit at Pizza King after owners John and Kim Sapienza remodeled the restaurant. Last March, the walls displayed Lawrence’s boxing history.
“It’s more to do with unrecorded history that should be preserved,” John Sapienza said. “It’s a wonderful idea to show the old memories and see the kids say, ‘Wow.’”
Just as she did with the spring exhibit on boxing, Lewis chose the Pizza King for the exhibit on Pleasant Valley because customers could learn about the area’s history.
Sapienza said his goal after the renovations was to offer the space to display art in all forms.
“She really helps me bring that to fruition,” Sapienza said. “I’m amazed at how much history there is in the area. That’s why it’s a great idea to bring local history out of scrapbooks.”
Lewis has a second purpose.
“I don’t view these small pop up exhibits as the final word on the subject but more as a conversation starter, a way to begin collecting first hand information,” Lewis said.