HAVERHILL — It’s funny the kinds of things you remember from your youth.
Just ask Matt Belfiore, who recalls shopping at Mitchell’s department store on Merrimack Street decades ago, when the downtown was bustling with stores of all kinds.
He was just a kid at the time, but he remembers the pneumatic tubes that transported sales receipts and cash payments to an upper floor of the building. There, an employee would register the transaction and send a receipt and change back down the tube to the customer.
Some of those old tubes, which Belfiore believes date back to the 1920s or ‘30s, are in the public library’s Special Collections Department.
“My mom would walk me down from Pilling Street and we’d shop at Mitchell’s, which was kind of an ‘everything’ store,” Belfiore said. “She made her own clothing, so she bought fabric there.”
It’s those kinds of memories of a bygone era that two organizations involved in preserving history are looking to capture on film as an oral history of F.W. Woolworth and other stores that drew crowds of shoppers to Haverhill’s downtown from the 1930s to the early ‘70s.
The 1970s was around the time Urban Renewal had finished changing the landscape of the Merrimack Street and White’s Corner area. But when federal money dried up, dreams of a rebirth of the area dried up as well. The Woolworth building and several adjoining buildings were spared the wrecking ball back then, but time has finally caught up with them.
That landscape is about to change, with the planned demolition of the Woolworth building set to begin next month. It will herald the start of a major redevelopment of the eastern gateway to downtown led by a team that includes the Greater Haverhill Foundation and the Planning Office for Urban Affairs. They plan to develop the first of several mixed-use buildings along the river.
The nonprofit Historic New England organization has partnered with the Buttonwoods Museum, HC Media and the public library to preserve memories, stories, and images of the iconic yellow, art-deco Woolworth building and other downtown stores that are long gone.
Historic New England and the Buttonwoods are looking for people willing to share their memories of Haverhill’s former shopping district in interviews to be used in the documentary film, “Woolworth’s: Remembering Haverhill as a Shopping District.”
“In addition to maintaining historic properties, Historic New England also conducts historic preservation projects, including this Woolworth building project,” said Sarah Jaworski, community engagement assistant at Historic New England.
“One of the areas we are focusing on at this time is 20th century history,” she said. “The Woolworth building is an iconic name from the 20th century and seeing that the building is coming down in the near future this is a perfect opportunity to preserve the memory of such a well known store.”
For years, F.W. Woolworth was considered an anchor store for the city’s then-bustling downtown. Shoppers would flock to the downtown to shop at Mitchell’s, W.T. Grant, J.J. Newbury’s, Karelis Jewelers, Parke Snow, Hudson’s, Barrett’s Menswear, Ben Cortell’s, Gerros, Lady Grace, Kennedy’s Butter and Eggs, Kennedy’s Clothing, McCartney’s clothing and other stores. Or they might catch a movie at one of several downtown theaters.
Peter Carbone, a member of the Buttonwoods Museum’s Board of Directors, recalls shopping for 45 rpm records at F.W. Woolworth as a teenager.
“We used to buy them three for a dollar,” Carbone said.
Woolworth opened its art-deco style building at the corner of Merrimack and Main streets in 1949, after moving from another location in the city. It closed in early 1970. It has been vacant for more than 40 years.
Replacing Woolworth as the prime tenant of a new development, to be called Harbor Place, will be a satellite campus for UMass Lowell. The college plans to occupy the second and third floors of the glass-enclosed building. Several adjoining buildings are slated for demolition as well. They were once home to stores that are still talked about and were part of what made Haverhill’s downtown a regional attraction.
Those buildings include a structure that housed Emerson Flooring (Katz Carpets) and the former Army/Navy store, Ben Cortell’s. The next structure targeted is the Newman’s Furniture building, where a popular general merchandise and clothing store called Parke Snow once operated. Next to that is the Ocasio Building, where W.T. Grant once operated along with a basement bowling alley called City Alleys, and Peavey’s Bakery.
And if you want to go much further back in time, this stretch of Merrimack Street was once home to Rowland H. Macy’s first dry goods store in 1851. Macy eventually left and opened a store in New York City, where he found even greater success.
Belfiore recalled that Mitchell’s, a popular department store formerly in the location of the current Landmark Building, was the last downtown store to have penny candy dispensers. It was just the kind of thing you’d expect a kid would file away in his head.
“My friends and I would fill up bags of jelly beans with our pennies,” Belfiore said.
Although he doesn’t remember much about the Woolworth store, Belfiore does recall shopping a few doors down at Newman’s, which started out selling children’s clothing and furniture and in later years just furniture.
“They had a little merry-go-round for kids, and I thought it as the greatest thing in the world,” Belfiore said.
Belfiore, director of operations for HC Media, said interviews of people sharing memories will be filmed at HCTV on Elm Street beginning in September, although alternative arrangements can be made.
Members of Historic New England and the Buttonwoods are preparing questions they plan to ask about the Woolworth store. They already have six people scheduled for filming. Anyone interested in being interviewed is asked to contact Jaworski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 617-994-5970.
Historic New England is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. Historic New England owns and operates 36 historic landscapes and homes spanning five states, including locally, the Rocky Hill Meeting House in Amesbury, as well as the Coffin House, Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm, Dole-Little House and the Swett-Ilsley House in Newbury.
The organization shares the region’s history through vast collections, publications, public programs, museum properties, archives, and family stories that document more than 400 years of life in New England.