Back in 2014, when I was writing my book, Legendary Locals of Dracut, I had put out notices in the Sun for people with photographs or stories to contact me.
The book is a collection of short biographies of Dracut people from all sectors of life — civic, education, entertainment, preservation, military.
I heard from several folks who shared with me their family stories and photographs. One of those people who reached out to me was Normand LaFortune.
If I remember correctly, Normand contacted me with an email not that it is really important. But I do remember the first time I met him. He thought I would be interested in his father’s story for my book. We set up a time to meet after school in my classroom.
He arrived prepared with numerous photographs and a biography that he had written about his father. He titled it, “The Pioneer of Gilmore Street.”
Normand was very humble and said he wasn’t sure if his father’s story was what I was looking for but he said it was worth talking to me. He felt his father had done something remarkable and wanted to share it.
Normand’s dad had built, literally, from the ground up, the family home on Gilmore Street out in the Navy Yard just after World War II. His father’s dedication and hard work had obviously made a lifelong impression on Normand.
As Normand wrote in his dad’s biography, “With dogged determination and perseverance, he set out to make his dream come true [of owning a home with no mortgage].”
Normand’s father, Henry, was born on April 25, 1913 in Lowell’s “Little Canada” neighborhood. He was the son of Joseph and Marie-Ann and had one brother and 4 sisters.
As was common back in the day, Henry dropped out of school to help support the family. He got a job as a sweeper on the Boott Mills. For short time, he worked as a lumberjack up in New Hampshire — a job which would prove to be useful in later years.
At some point, Henry met and started dating a young girl who also lived in “Little Canada.” Her name was Lydia Mercier. They married in 1937. Henry worked in the mills and Lydia kept house. They had a young family and in 1943 moved into a two-family home on Ivanhoe Street which was directly across from Bodwell Street off Riverside Street. (Today Ivanhoe Street is gone. UMass has a parking lot there.) The LaFortune family lived on the second floor and Henry had a small workshop in the cellar where he made the family furniture.
Life for the LaFortune family was relatively quiet until the landlord’s daughter got married and needed a place to live. So, Henry and Lydia were served with an eviction notice. They had 6 months to find a new place to live and not a day more.
I think Normand wrote about the beginnings of the family home at 81 Gilmore Street, Dracut best, “A short time after the eviction notice, Dad got on his bike and went to the town of Dracut to see if he could buy some land. They had some lots on Gilmore Street. Unfortunately, the street was just a wagon wheel road with two tire tracks, no telephone poles, and no water pipe.
The bad part of the road started from the Lowell line where the road was paved. It ran from Riverside Street to Old Meadow road where there was a gas station. They were no other houses on the Dracut end of the street except for one in the rear of what was soon to be our lot. This house was on the next street up, which was “Harlem Street”. Dad was going to be the “Pioneer of Gilmore Street.”
At the time, there were only 3,500 or so people in Dracut and the only traffic light in town was at the corner of Pleasant Street and Bridge Street. You needed five lots to build a house and that was nine thousand square feet. I seem to remember that he paid $200.00 for our lot but Dad and I disagree on that figure. He tells me that he paid $125.00 for the land. Somehow, he managed to get the money and then went to the town hall to buy the land. The distance from our house to the lot was about half a mile. A short distance, but with the dirt road and the steep hills near the land it made it a difficult walk to get there. It was an uphill climb all the way except for the Riverside Street section. Going back was a little easier, since it was all downhill. The lot was level in the front and then banked down sharply towards the rear left hand side. This was going to come in very handy to dump the dirt that was excavated from the foundation area.”
Thus, began the construction of the family home at 81 Gilmore St. The family moved in on January 1, 1948.
The house still stands.