A Tale of Two Ballrooms
Intro French Nichols Hutchins Nichols & Hutchins Building Passings Sources
Amos French
Members of the French family had farmed in Billerica, Massachusetts for generations. The earliest of the clan to settle there, Lieut. William French, arrived in North America in 1635. But in the 1820s and '30s, five of the sons of Luther French were drawn from their Billerica farm to the new industrial center that had sprung up just one town over: Lowell. The oldest of the boys was Josiah B. French who would become, among several other things, the seventh mayor of Lowell. Abram, four years younger, made his mark in Lowell as a merchant tailor and later opened a soap and candle manufactory. The next son, Walter, spent time in the restaurant business—"Hersey and French, licensed victualers" was located at the corner of Central Street and Hurd in 1839—before becoming a construction contractor for various railroads. And Amos and his youngest brother, Thomas, opened a confectionery on Central Street halfway between Middle and Market Streets in the mid '30s. Amos B. French

Amos Binney French was born in Billerica on July 3rd of 1812 to Luther French and his wife, the former Sally Bowers; he was the eighth of ten children. Amos came to Lowell around the age of eleven—before Lowell was officially even a town—and went to work for the mill companies that were sprouting up along the banks of the Merrimack like weeds. He boarded with his older brothers during those early years, learned about the restaurant business, and saved his pennies. The fledgling town grew and in 1836 was incorporated as the city of Lowell. (Amos B.) French & (Thomas T.) French Confectionery first appears in the Lowell Directory in 1837 at 21 Central Street. The opening of French & French seems to have roughly coincided with Amos's marriage to Leocade Dearborn, originally of Hampton, New Hampshire, in a ceremony in New York.

The French brothers of Lowell repeatedly switched their vocations and their partnerships. By 1838, Thomas French was tending bar for Hersey and (Walter) French, and Amos was the only French left at French's Confectionery. In 1839, Thomas was the French in French and Ferrin, importers of West Indies goods. A few years later Thomas had his own confectionery on Merrimack Street, and following that partnered with Abram French in Abram's soap and candle manufactory. Eventually Thomas settled in Chelmsford and farmed. Other brothers likewise wore multiple hats over the years, if for somewhat longer periods of time than the fickle Thomas.

But Amos stayed put at the same location in the same business for over a quarter-century—although the street number changed when the city renumbered Central around 1841 and French's Confectionery went from being #21 to #37. By the mid-1840s, Amos and Leocade were living over the confectionery/restaurant (the address for upstairs was 35 Central) and their family had started growing with the birth of first one daughter, Frances, and then another, whom they named Leocade after her mother. Four young Irish women also boarded on the upper floors of the building.

French's Confectionery occupied an 1832 building erected by Dr. Josiah Crosby on land leased from Jonathan Tyler. Tyler's father, Nathan Tyler, had owned land in the area long before the mills arrived and, in spite of the Proprietors of Locks and Canals on the Merrimack River buying up much of the area, Jonathan Tyler had managed to come away with a sizeable parcel downtown. The structure built by Crosby and occupied five years later by French was 42 feet wide by 40 feet deep. It was, assuming it adhered to the terms of Crosby's twenty-year land lease, of brick and/or stone, at least three stories in height, and with a roof of slate. During French's tenancy ownership of the building passed from Crosby to Joshua Bennett in 1840 and from Bennett back to Tyler in 1852 when the lease expired. At that point French signed a twenty-year lease of his own for the structure, plus one for the lot directly behind it so that he could extend the building's depth by 68 feet and add a ballroom.

In November of 1852 French gave out complimentary tickets to a "Dedication Ball" for "French's New Hall," the first of many dances at the location. French's Hall became a particular favorite for balls sponsored by the Lowell Mechanic Phalanx, a military organization that had its headquarters just around the corner in the Old Market Building. Dance events of the era tended to be clustered in the months from October to April when the cooler weather made dancing indoors more enjoyable. But these parties weren't limited to weekends, and any night except Sunday might see dancing well into the wee hours. An 1890 local history noted that French's ballroom "for many years was a place of popular resort. It always gave character and respectability to a social event to say that it was at 'French's.'"

The building's 1852 expansion also affected the size of the business and the number of boarders. The 1853 Lowell directory is the first one to include large advertisements for French's Confectionery and Ice Cream and Oyster Saloon, and the number of non-family tenants rooming upstairs quadrupled right about then. In 1850 there were four members of the French family and four boarders; in 1855 there were the four Frenches and sixteen boarders. Among these lodgers were four bakers, including twenty-four-year-old Levi Nichols who would gradually take over more and more of the running of French's Confectionery. French's expansion wasn't the only major building project on Jonathan Tyler's land in the early fifties; the Tyler block, next door to French's at the corner of Market and Central, opened in 1855.

For better or for worse, 1858 brought more changes to 35 Central Street. At least three of the boarders married and moved elsewhere. And, tragically, Amos and Leocade's eleven-year-old daughter, Leocade, died of dysentery.

Around 1863, Amos French transferred the business entirely to his protégé, Levi Nichols, and Nichols's partner, Melbourne Hutchins. Within a year, French moved his family to Chelmsford and took up farming. In November of 1865, his surviving daughter, known to everyone as Fannie, married a Lowell physician, Walter Leighton. The officiant was James Twiss of Lowell's First Universalist Church but the wedding was most likely held at the French's Chelmsford home. The newlyweds lived with the bride's parents for a time while Dr. Leighton continued to practice medicine in Lowell, first on Hurd Street and later on Merrimack.

Apparently farm life didn't particularly agree with the family. By 1868 Amos French had teamed with a Lowell man named Freeman Puffer to open a crockery and glassware business a few blocks down the street from his old confectionery. French's daughter and son-in-law had relocated to Lowell and were living on Worthen Street with a toddler and a newborn. Not long thereafter, Amos and Leocade also moved back to Lowell and settled into a house on Bridge Street near the Dracut line. When Fannie died of consumption in 1872, French and his wife took in the motherless family and helped to raise their three grandsons.

All through these years, Amos French was known throughout Lowell as a kind, modest, congenial, civic-minded and honest businessman. He joined the Masons, served on the Board of Alderman, and acted as trustee or director for various institutions.

1850 Map of Downtown
Detail from 1850 Map of Downtown Lowell. (UMass Center for Lowell History)
Central Street
Tyler Block (near) on Central Street and the building that once held French's (next one back) Enhanced detail from c.1874 stereoscope card. (Lowell Historical Society)
1879 Map of Downtown
Detail from 1879 map showing expanded building. (UMass Center for Lowell History)
Newspaper clipping
1853 Schedule for a series of parties at French's Hall sponsored by the Lowell Mechanic Phalanx and advertised in the Lowell Courier.
French's Ad
Advertisement for French's Confectionery and Ballroom from 1858 Lowell Directory.
French and Puffer ad
Advertisement for French's later business from 1874 Lowell Directory.
Amos Binney French died in Lowell on March 23rd of 1890 at the age of 77. He, Leocade, and their daughters are buried in the French family plot at the Lowell Cemetery; the family monument is easily spotted near the Lawrence Street entrance. The couple's elaborate headstone stands next to that of Amos's elder brother, Mayor Josiah French. Their daughters' stones are tucked nearby.    
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