This is a sidebar piece from my book Mill Power: The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). I worked in Lowell, Mass., for decades, including many years when I helped to create the national park. Everybody in the city talks about the mills, the red brick buildings along the Merrimack River and power canals in the downtown core. Mill, mill, mill, mill, mill. Say it enough times and you stop hearing it, never mind thinking about where the word comes from. When I wrote the book I decided to examine the roots of the word.
MOLIN ROUGE MEANS “RED MILL.” A visitor to the Montmartre district of Paris in 1889 would have seen a four-story red windmill incongruously standing between two commercial buildings in an area that was a magnet for the "creative class" of the day. The spirited "red mill" cabaret synonymous with "can-can" dancers and painter Toulouse-Lautrec is a cultural galaxy away from the iconic red mills of Lowell. But a mill is a mill is a mill, to borrow from Gertrude Stein---or is it?
What a simple word, almost too short to notice and soft when pronounced: mill. Yet this is the basic fact of the city named Lowell. Mill is an old word, Old English mylen and before that Latin millesimum. From the same root come the words mild, melt, mold, meld, maul, milt, mull, malt, mulch. It is a verb and a noun, the action word giving rise to the thing we call "mill," a combination of process and place having to do with grinding---and then making, manufacturing. The meaning circles back to the red mill in Paris, not an actual windmill but pretending to be for the village aura of Montmartre. The original windmills had wind-spun, tower-mounted crossed blades (or sails) whose rotation turned a grain-grinding wheel inside to make "meal" (sounds like "mill") or coarse baking flour. Any operation driven by a turning wheel, whether driven by wind or water, took on the mill name. Sawmills cut huge logs into boards. Later, mill was applied to a place of production in general, such as a steel mill. The Lowell mills carried the wheel-driven-production meaning at first and later stood for the broader meaning: place of manufacture or factory.
The Lowell mills stretch along the edge of the Merrimack for about a mile and disperse slightly inland on a spider web of canals. If a rider was approaching Monument Valley National Monument in Utah and saw the red sandstone buttes, some of which are blocky, resembling buildings, and others attenuated like spires and towers, the rider would not automatically think of the nineteenth-century red brick mills of Lowell. But if later two panorama views of the scenes were compared, the similarity would be striking: the saturated magnesium-oxide color, boxy shapes punctuated by tapered uprights, and fortress-like objects lined up across the landscape.