138 Middlesex Street
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Ethnic Entrepreneurs, Radical Politics, and Lowell’s Red Scare:
David A. Evpak, Shoe Repairer

Written by Gray Fitzsimons
Historian, Lowell NHP
May 2002

Often overlooked in the dynamics of socialist politics in American industrial cities of the late 19th and early 20th century is the role of immigrant business men and women who provided not only their ideas, passion, and energy to left-wing movements, but also their financial support. While the majority of socialists were either skilled artisans or industrial workers, a small percentage hailed from the small business classes. In cities such as Lowell, Massachusetts, which contained only small socialist and radical left-wing communities, the actions of leaders and rank-and-file were frequently met with fierce resistance from industrialists, political elites, and the clergy.

Picture of 138 Middlesex Street -- Sign says United Shoe Repair

This is a one-story wood-frame, brick-faced building with a flat roof that was built in the 1890s with the sole purpose of a retail store. Its address was 134 until about 1962 when it was changed to 138.

The experiences of David Evpak, a Ukranian émigré who settled in Lowell around 1910, opened a cobbler shop, and engaged but briefly in leftist politics, shed light on the relationship between “penny capitalists” and socialist movement, as well as the challenges they faced when the state attacked suspected radical immigrants during the Red Scare of 1919-1920.

In 1910, at the age of 18, David A. Evpak, a Ukranian immigrant, arrived in the United States. Although it is not known if Evpak came directly from Russia to Lowell, by 1916 he was listed in the city directory. His occupation was noted as shoemaker at the Goodyear Shoe rep. A Swedish-American, Ernest Lundgren, owned Goodyear Shoe in Lowell and operated two shops in the city, the main store on 122 Central Street, and a branch shop on Appleton Street, where David Evpak worked. Evpak rented a room in a tenement on Cushing Street, which extended through a poor and working-class area adjacent to an industrial district.

Map of downtown Lowell showing the location of 138 Middlesex Street and 11 Post Office Avenue. Adapted from City of Lowell GIS service.After a year at Goodyear Shoe, Evpak opened his own cobbler shop at 11 Post Office Square. He named it “United Shoe Repairing Shop.” Apparently the business prospered, for Evpak’s shop soon “doubled its force to take care of its rapidly increasing shoe repairing business.” A local newspaper noted, “Here a customer is assured of prompt work neatly done by modern machinery with best selected stock at reasonable prices and a guarantee of satisfaction.”

Evpak operated his business in a small one-story shop. From city maps of this period, United Shoe Repairing was located in a block that extended along an alleyway, across from the city’s central post office. This was likely a very favorable location as it received a large volume of pedestrian traffic and was almost on the corner of Central Street, one of the city’s busiest commercial thoroughfares. Given the size of the shop, however, Evpak was probably able to employ at most two or three workers, two of whom were Onufrio Kulbach and Stephen Agnatovech, fellow Russian émigrés.

About three years after Evpak settled in the United States, he married a Ukranian émigré Daisy Blaken, who came to America as a young woman in 1913. After their marriage, the Evpaks lived in the “Acre” neighborhood at 62 LaGrange Street. This was largely a working-class community that was home to Greeks, Irish, French Canadians, and a smattering of other European immigrants. Many wage earners rented rooms in the numerous two and three-story, wood-frame tenements that lined the neighborhood’s streets. The Evpaks rented their residence on LaGrange Street, but by late 1919 they had saved enough money to buy land on Gibson Street in the more suburban Highlands neighborhood and were planning to build a house.

Evpak’s arrival in Lowell coincided with the growth of leftwing politics in Lowell. The influx of Russians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Poles boosted the vitality of the city’s small, but vigorous socialist movement. As a result of the 1912 textile strike, which brought the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to Lowell, the Socialist Party gained additional support among other immigrant groups and Socialist Hall on Middle Street in the downtown became the center of left-wing political activity.

The socialist movement in Lowell in the 1910s built upon the work of an earlier generation of political organizers. While the city’s first socialist meeting occurred in the 1880s, it was not until the late 1890s that a formal party emerged in Lowell. Unlike Haverhill’s socialist organization, which boasted several hundred party members and worked to elect a Socialist mayor, Lowell’s Socialist Party remained quite small. Party leaders included skilled workers and trolleymen, as well as shopkeepers, property holders, and even an inventor. Their social and economic standing in the community reflected the middle-class status of party leaders and activists in Massachusetts. Although most of the city’s trade union leaders eschewed socialist politics, a few actively participated in the Socialist party and some, like street railway worker William E. Sproul, ran for alderman and state representative.

Though never very large, the city’s Socialist Party grew to such an extent that by 1902, for the first time in Lowell’s history, it fielded a slate of candidates for mayor and aldermen. The mayoral candidate received just over 600 of the nearly 13,500 total votes cast. Again in 1903 and 1904, Lowell’s socialists put up a slate of candidates, but again few voters cast ballots for these men. Eugene Debs’ visit to Lowell and his appeal to working men on the eve of the elections in 1909 boosted the prestige of the city’s Socialist Party. Most of the working-class districts, however, continued to support Democrats. Despite the steady stream of meetings, local campaigns, and the occasional presence of nationally known Socialist politicians and lecturers, Lowell’s Socialist candidates never received more than four percent of the total vote.

It was the Eastern European and Russian immigrants who infused the city with a more radical Socialist program. As the decade of the 1910s came to a close, some of Lowell’s socialists joined with the nascent Communist party. Meetings at Socialist Hall were attended largely by Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, and a handful of French Canadians, Greeks, and Ukrainians. Few of these men and women were naturalized citizens. While a number of radical socialists and communists worked in the textile industry, the most were employed in Lowell’s leather tanneries or were involved like Evpak in the shoe business or other small enterprises.

As historian Dexter Arnold has pointed out, opposition to foreign-born “reds” arose in the Merrimack Valley’s textile cities in the late 1910s, reflecting a growing fear nationwide of a “red revolution” in America. These fears intensified in the fall of 1919 in the wake of May Day riots, a series of bombings targeted at government officials by unknown “anarchists,” massive labor unrest and IWW actions on the West Coast, the nationally conducted steel strike, and the Boston police strike. In Lowell, state officials, newspaper editors, textile mill officials, and clergy campaigned fervently against bolshevism, labor strikes, and anarchism. “Hoodlums and radicals!” thundered Reverend Chauncey J. Hawkins at the city’s First Congregational Church. “Shall they rule America? No! But they are challenging and the life of America and they must be suppressed.” In an address before members of the First Baptist Church, Massachusetts Labor Commissioner Edwin T. Mulready waved copies of the Communist party platform and the declaration of rights of Massachusetts and proclaimed, “As oil and water cannot mix, so bolshevism and good Americanism cannot mix, nor even continue in the same country, for the one lives only through the destruction of the other.” As a means for promoting “Americanism” the state increased funding for Americanization classes, a series of which were held in public schools around Lowell, as well as in the city’s Massachusetts Mills. Large posters commanding workers to “Learn English” were placed in the Massachusetts, Merrimack, and Lawrence mills.

As state elections approached in November 1919, many native-born Lowellians, along with a number of the city’s prominent naturalized citizens, joined the campaign against the left. In the minds of many, bolshevists, anarchists, trade unionists, and alien immigrants were indistinguishable and all posed a grave threat to American society. Commenting on the upcoming election in Massachusetts, the Reverend C. E. Fisher of Lowell’s First Universalist Church declared, “God save America if Calvin Coolidge is defeated next Tuesday.” His sermon titled, “The Red Flag or the Stars and Stripes—Which?” called for patriotic Americans to rally around Coolidge and “be true to law, order, righteousness, and justice.” As for those people “who do not like America,” Fisher suggested, “why don’t they go to Russia, where beautiful conditions prevail.” He added, “I should not invite them [to go], I should compel them. Until we can do that we are going to have trouble.”

The Reverend Fisher’s call for deporting those “men coming here who come simply to cause unrest” was a strategy that the United States Justice Department and state law enforcement officials were beginning to implement in late 1919. In New York City, federal and local law enforcement officials carried out a sweep of suspected radicals and arrested 37 men, including “Big Jim” Larkin head of the Irish Transport Workers. In Massachusetts, investigations into the activities of suspected “Reds” netted the Socialist Party’s candidate for lieutenant governor, Marion E. Sproul of Lowell, wife of William Sproul. Two weeks after the election state police arrived in Lowell looking for more “Reds.” Working with Lowell’s police superintendent and local officers, the state arrested two Polish brothers, Constanty and Felix Dobrowolski, who owned a grocery on Lakeview Avenue in the Centreville neighborhood, and charged them with violating the anti-anarchy law for displaying in their store window a poster of a murdered female labor organizer with the words “Rise and avenge her.”

In December, as part of the continuing statewide “anti-Red” campaign, Lowell police sought those responsible for distributing communist leaflets throughout the city. Sergeant Samuel J. Bigelow, along with patrolmen Michael Winn and Patrick B. Clark posed as “radical characters” and infiltrated meetings at Socialist Hall. Their investigation culminated in the arrest of a young Lithuanian immigrant, Fabian Piekarski, who worked as a weaver at the Merrimack Mills. Like the Dobrowolski brothers, Piekarski was charged with violating the anti-anarchy law. Piekarski’s crime was selling “radical literature and books written in the Russian language during a meeting of Poles at Socialist Hall” on Middle Street. Police also found on Piekarski a card showing he was a member of the Socialist Party. At his hearing before Judge Thomas J. Enright in Lowell’s Police Court, Piekarski through his counsel Dennis J. Murphy pled not guilty. Judge Enright set bail at $5,000, an amount that Piekarski, who made about $20 per week at the textile mill, was unable to secure. He was then committed to the city jail.

The rounding up of Piekarski and another factory worker, Mike Belida, who lived in North Chelmsford and who was also charged with distributing revolutionary “propaganda,” preceded a much larger federally led raid. That raid was directed by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and encompassed 33 cities nationwide, including several in New England. Launched in early January 1920, the “Palmer” raids were carried out by federal agents, as well as state officials and local police. In Lowell, city police organized into special units and on Friday evening, January 2, they raided Socialist Hall and numerous homes of suspected reds throughout the city. About 30 men and women, all of foreign birth, were hauled into the police station and questioned for nearly three hours. According to one report, the detainees were asked about their political affiliations and their involvement with radical groups, but “little could be learned from the majority of the men and they denied [any] revolutionary intentions.” Of the 30 “radicals” rounded up in the raid, five were transferred to a federal facility at Deer Island in Boston Harbor, while the rest were released.

Headline of an article from January 3, 1920 Lowell Sun "FIVE MEN ARE SENT TO BOSTON". Follow the link for the full article. Among the five alleged radicals arrested and sent to Deer Island was David Evpak, whose shoe repair shop was located around the corner from Socialist Hall. Evpak’s case, similar to the other Lowell suspects held at Deer Island, remains a mystery. On the afternoon of the raid, an FBI agent named Henderson met with Police Superintendent Welch, presented him with about 30 warrants, and outlined the plan for arresting the suspects. Apparently an informant or a federal infiltrator had fingered Evpak during a meeting at Socialist Hall for his name appeared on a list of “radicals” who were “either directly or indirectly identified with the Communist party.” That evening police officers surrounded the building and several quietly entered the hall. Inside they found 25 people in attendance. An officer ordered everyone to stay put. The police then rummaged through the hall and collected scores of documents. Officers searched each person, after which they escorted them to the police station. Other suspects were arrested in their homes and brought to the station for questioning. One exchange between an officer and detainee, as reported in a local newspaper, captured the murkiness of the state’s accusations, as well as the confused responses of the accused “radicals.” “You belong to the Communist party and you previously was [sic] a radical Socialist,” proclaimed one policeman. “No, no not me,” the accused retorted. “Oh yes you are and we know it. You are not fooling us any [sic].”

Among the other four Lowell men who were similarly accused of being “reds” and were taken to Deer Island was Stephen Agnatovech, whom Evpak employed in his cobbler shop. Agnatovech had come to this country from Moscow in 1908 and settled in Lowell by 1909, working as a shoemaker from the first. He married Bronislawa (later Blanch) Apolia in 1909 and lived on Lakeview Avenue and nearby, an area changing from Irish to Polish at the time. By 1911 he was working at Lundgren’s Goodyear Shoe Repairing Company, where he met Evpak. Unlike Evpak who was living in a working-class area, however, in 1912 Agnatovech was living in an affluent neighborhood, Christian Hill, which overlooked the city’s downtown on the opposite side of the Merrimack River.

The other men arrested and shipped to Deer Island lived in working-class neighborhoods. This included Benjamin Chaluda, a 36-year-old Lithuanian immigrant who worked as a comber in a woolen mill, Joseph Lescarbeau, a 79-year-old French Canadian who had immigrated to the United States in 1900 and worked as a textile operative and laborer, and William Matchas, who was apparently a Swedish immigrant and had no fixed address at the time of his arrest.

Two days after the “Red” raid, Lowell police arrested another suspect, Onufrio Kulbach, another of Evpak’s cobblers. A Lithuanian who came from Russia to the United States in 1912, Kulbach and his wife Helen, a Polish émigré, boarded with a large Polish family on Abbott Street, which was located in a working-class neighborhood of Irish, Polish, and Portuguese residents. Officers searched Kulbach’s home and found a large amount of radical literature. Like Evpak, Kulbach was sent to prison on Deer Island for further questioning. Another man, John Zarowski, also a Lithuanian immigrant, was arrested in a bowling alley, allegedly drunk and loudly proclaiming he was a bolshevist and that the Communist Party was “justified” in its actions. Police brought Zarowski before Judge Enright who ordered him held in the city jail. At a second hearing, the following morning, Zarowski professed his allegiance to the United States, stating, “I like this country and I want to live here all the time.” After Zarowski promised to demonstrate his “liking for the country in his actions and speech,” the judge put him on probation for six months.

The arrests of suspected communists in the city continued into mid-January. Two more men were picked up on federal warrants and sent to Deer Island. One was Joseph Nadworny, secretary of the Polish Communists of Lowell. The investigation into his background and his subsequent apprehension reveals the tragic and farcical dimensions of the Palmer raids of 1920. Nadworny, a Russian Pole, had immigrated to the United States in 1909 and was living in Lowell by 1919. Initially employed at the U.S. Cartridge Company, a large munitions manufacturer, Nadworny then obtained a job as an edge trimmer at a shoe factory in Lawrence. He lived with his wife Amelia, five-year-old son John, and a 12-year old lodger, Olga Mazik, on High Street in a lower middle-class and working class neighborhood. At the time of the raids police officers visited Nadworny’s home expecting to uncover radical literature, but instead found “a generous display of American flags, and red, white, and blue displayed on all sides.” Believing that authorities were mistaken they left Nadworny undisturbed. Police superintendent Welch, however, was convinced that Nadworny was a “red” and when he received word that a “radical,” who had been arrested in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was carrying a Nadworny-signed letter concerning financial support for leftist activities, he ordered police to pick him up. Nadworny was then sent to Deer Island.

A number of prominent Lowellians, fraternal organizations, and opinion shapers voiced their approval of the Palmer raids and suppression of socialist dissent. Editors of the city’s two major English-language newspapers applauded the arrests of radical “aliens.” The Democratic paper, the Lowell Sun, called the actions of the Justice Department “commendable” and warned that aliens who “preach overthrow of government and violence, or who indulge in inflammatory utterances against American laws and institutions, will come immediately under the surveillance of agents of the government and will be arrested whenever their activities reach a point where they are regarded as inimical to the public welfare.” “Several hundred malcontents of the more vehement kind,” the Courier-Citizen observed, “were seized without warning and have been brought to the question. By no means all will be held we suppose—but the drag-net must have got some very needful fish.”

Among the charges hurled at Evpak and other unnaturalized “aliens” who were arrested during the raids was that they were anti-American bent on the “overthrow of law and order.” An Americanization campaign, which included state-sponsored English-language classes and civics courses aimed at immigrants, had been underway in Lowell and in other Massachusetts cities before the Palmer raids, but intensified in the aftermath. Among the statewide leaders in the Americanization effort was Lowell resident and probate judge John E. Leggat. As members of the Massachusetts branch of the American Legion, Leggat and a group of Legion delegates announced that they were going to “help Americanize the alien and actively combat any Bolshevist or other radical movement … in the state.” Much of this Americanization effort, they believed, needed to be aimed at that state’s public schools, especially the teaching of history. Delegates recommended a substantial revision of the history curriculum that would give far greater attention to American history. One delegate went so far as to urge that European history be stricken entirely from the public school curriculum.

For the families of suspected “radicals” arrested during the “Red” raid in Lowell, the Americanization speeches and anti-alien rhetoric likely added to confusion and anxiety they were experiencing. Officials at Deer Island released little information concerning the condition of those held in the prison. Only later was it learned that prisoners had been taken to the immigration office in Boston where, after questioning, they were forced to march in chains the to dock, from which they were taken to the Deer Island prison. As historian Robert Murray observed, the conditions at Deer Island were “deplorable; heat was lacking, sanitation was poor, and restrictions holding [the prisoners] incommunicado were rigidly enforced.” One man committed suicide, while another went insane. Two prisoners subsequently died of pneumonia.

Headline for newspaper article Lowell Sun January 10, 1920: "Back from Deer Island". Follow the link for the full article. David Evpak’s incarceration at Deer Island was one of the briefest of any prisoner. Despite an early report that “New England’s radical crew” had met as a group and decided to “accept deportation without legal battle,” Evpak and many others obtained legal counsel to contest the accusations brought against them. Evpak hired Lowell attorney Edward J. Tierny, who represented him at a hearing before the federal deputy commissioner of immigration, James Sullivan. According to one report, Evpak testified that “America was a mighty good country to live in” and that he wanted to live here and “bring up his family as good American citizens.” Further, Evpak “denied any connection with radical societies.” Sullivan declared that Evpak was “in no way connected with radical activities” in Lowell and ordered his release.

After spending nearly a week on Deer Island, Evpak returned to Lowell, accompanied by his attorney. As he got off the train, he was overheard stating emphatically to Tierney, “It’s certainly nice to be back in Lowell.” In public he made no comment critical of the actions that had been taken against him, his employees, or his fellow prisoners. In fact, Evpak said he had no complaints about his confinement at Deer Island. He stated that the men were “well treated” and, “while they didn’t, of course, have the comforts of home, they were comfortably sheltered and always got ‘three-squares” a day. Evpak also told a reporter that he was going to apply “immediately” for citizenship.

His public statements aside, Evpak’s arrest was undoubtedly a harrowing experience for him, his wife, and his fellow prisoners. His employee Onufrio Kulbach was released a week after him, and within a few weeks almost all of the captives were let go. Like Evpak, none of the ex-prisoners spoke out publicly against the government, the police actions, or violations of their civil liberties. Many of those who were arrested from Lowell did not remain city residents for long never returned to Lowell. Kulbach stayed a few months, in time for the Federal Census conducted in June, then moved to Wakefield, Mass., where he opened his own shop under the name Oscar’s Shoe Repair. Others like Joseph Nadworny, stayed for a year and then departed.

As seen through the experience of one individual, David Evpak, the Palmer raids were not only emotionally wrenching to those swept up in it, but they also led to financial hardship. While Evpak was incarcerated on Deer Island, his creditors in Lowell placed attachments on his real estate and personal property. It appears that he had to sell the parcel of land he owned in the Highlands neighborhood and he, Daisy Evpak, and their infant daughter, Anna, boarded in a two-family house on Broadway. Eventually they purchased the dwelling and they continued to live there until the early 1970s.

Like Evpak, Stephan Agnatovech stayed in Lowell but suffered financially with the arrests. He moved from affluent Christian Hill to 103 Tremont Street, a corner house with large mills on two sides. After the arrest in early 1920, he obviously felt fearful of the federal government when the census was taken a few months later, reporting his name as Stanley Steves. He also reverted to using Ignatowicz with given name Staniswof for the city directory. By 1926, when he opened his own shop, he was comfortable enough to again use the name Stephen Agnatovech.

Evpak and his wife became American citizens and continued to live and run their shoe repair business in the Spindle City. He continued to operate United Shoe Repairing at the Post Office Square location until 1963, when he moved a block away to the store on 138 Middlesex Street. His business remained small and for a few years his son, David A., Jr., worked with him. In 1972 he retired from his cobbler shop. He and Daisy then moved to the Sacramento, California area. Their adult children, David and Anna, subsequently moved to the same part of California. David, Sr., died in November 1972 and his wife died September 1976.

The extent to which David Evpak was involved in radical politics in Lowell in the late 1910s likely never will be known. It appears that after his release from Deer Island he remained aloof from politics altogether. The effect of the “Red” raids on the Socialist Party and radical politics in Lowell is equally hard to determine. While Socialist Hall closed down and never reopened, radical left-wing groups periodically attempted to organize in Lowell. In 1924, the IWW returned briefly to the Spindle City, but their effort to interest textile workers in radical unionism proved a failure. Ten years later, during the general textile strike, the American Communist Party surfaced in Lowell. The Communist textile organizer, Ann Burlak, known as the “Red Flame,” campaigned energetically in the city. And yet she too found that, in the Spindle City, the seeds of radical politics fell on barren soil. The high-water mark of Socialist politics in Lowell that had risen three decades earlier was never exceeded. Ironically, in the predominately working-class city of Lowell, it was a small segment of the artisanal and entrepreneurial classes that had led the way in radical politics.

 

[A version of this story with footnote references is available.]