For 60 years, Methuen’s Pleasant Valley was a budget-friendly summer getaway for some of Lawrence’s immigrant millworkers. Fanning out from the banks of the Merrimack River, parcels as small as 25-feet by 50-feet were sold to newcomers. Italians, Armenians and Lebanese all got their hands dirty on the tiny plots they referred to as “farms” or “camps.” These patches of earth provided a respite from the city heat, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables.
Fourth-generation Methuen farmer Richard Bonanno says early 20th century Yankee farmers were happy to sell pieces of land to the immigrants. On weekends during the growing season, millworkers would travel by foot, trolley and, later, bus to their farms, which commonly consisted of a shed, outhouse, well and an arbor for dining al fresco. Without electricity or running water these accommodations were rustic, yet Pleasant Valley was an active beehive of hard working farmers during the day with most families returning to their tenements after the evening meal outdoors.
Though this weekend gardening was practiced by different groups, the Italians came to dominate Pleasant Valley, with the Sicilians on the east side of the valley near Merrimack Street and the Neapolitans on the west side near Howe Street. With names like “Messina” and “Sorrento” some of the streets that intersect with Merrimack Street today reflect the names of the families who once farmed there. Pleasant Valley resident Mike Bedrosian swears that Myona Street in Methuen got its name when an Italian immigrant, at town hall to pay taxes, was asked the name of his street and replied, “No street, my-own-a.”
Many adult grandchildren of first-generation immigrants have fond memories of spending summer afternoons at the family farms. Joe Bella, of the Methuen Historical Society, remembers his grandfather wrapping and burying the subtropical fig tree every fall, and then digging it up the following spring so the family could enjoy its fresh fruit all summer.
Ned Leone of Methuen recalls mixing cement from scratch so he and his brother could build a pathway through the garden. Ned also remembers hearing tales of local bootleggers operating stills in Pleasant Valley during the Prohibition era.
The Rev. Lenny Faris of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lowell remembers traveling by bus as a young boy to his grandmother’s farm on Howe Street. On the return trip to Lawrence, Sitto (the Arabic word for grandmother) would reward the bus driver with a bag of fresh produce for overlooking the fact that her 5-foot-tall grandson was older than the fare-free riding age.
These tiny farms began to disappear in the 1950s; American-born offspring lacked interest, and automobiles made previously far away locations more accessible. New highways chipped away at the land. Some of the one room, shed-like structures became the heart of year-round homes, with rooms added as-needed. Or, more commonly, the shed was removed and a new home was built in its place. By the 1960s, the few remaining farms were considered relics of a bygone era.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the July/Aug 2011 issue of Merrimack Valley Magazine.