15 October 2009

Growing Up in a Massachusetts Mill Town



My grandmother Vernetta "Vernie" Gertrude (Jones) Barnes was born in Lawrence, Essex County, Massachusetts in 1892. Her parents were newly-arrived immigrants, having come down from New Brunswick, like countless other immigrants, in search of jobs, better living conditions, and prospects for their children’s futures. When they arrived, Lawrence was a booming textile center, a leading producer of woolens. Her father, Jared, was a 30-year old farmer, strong and accustomed to hard work, which he readily found upon his arrival. Lawrence mills were reaching their pinnacle of production, and treatment of the mostly foreign-born workers became ever-more unacceptable, as companies continually pushed their employees for higher output.

The woolen and cotton mills employed over 40,000 persons, about half of Lawrence's population over age fourteen...Office workers averaged about $8.76 for a full week's work. In addition, the cost of living was higher in Lawrence than elsewhere in New England. Rents, paid on a weekly basis, ranged from $1.00 to $6.00 a week for small tenement apartments in frame buildings which the Neil Report found "extra hazardous" in construction and potential firetraps. Congestion was worse in Lawrence than in any other city in New England; mill families in 58 percent of the homes visited by federal investigators found it necessary to take in boarders to raise enough money for rent...Of the 22,000 textile workers investigated by Labor Commissioner Neil, well over half were women and children who found it financially imperative to work in the mills. Half of all the workers in the four Lawrence mills of the American Woolen Company were girls between ages fourteen and eighteen. Dr. Elizabeth Shapleigh, a Lawrence physician, wrote: "A considerable number of the boys and girls die within the first two or three years after beginning work . . . thirty-six out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die before or by the time they are twenty-five years of age. Because of malnutrition, work strain, and occupational diseases, the average mill worker's life in Lawrence was over twenty-two years shorter than that of the manufacturer, stated Dr. Shapleigh...  Early in January 1912 I.W.W. activities focused on a dramatic ten-week strike of 25,000 textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts. It became the most widely publicized I.W.W. conflict, acquainting the nation with the plight of the unskilled, foreign-born worker as well as with the organization's philosophy of radical unionism. 
(Joyce Kornbluh, Lucy Parsons Project Bread and Roses: The 1912 Lawrence textile Strike, webpage (www.lucyparsonsproject.org/iww/kornbluh_bread_ roses.html : accessed June 2008); citing: Kornbluh, Joyce, Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Publishing, 1988).)



Family stories say that Vernetta was not able to continue her education after graduation from the Emily G. Wetherby School in 1906 at age 14, and was obliged to go directly to work in the woolen mills. If she did, it was only for a short while. And she was very lucky to have survived, given the above-cited statistics!



The 1910 census tells us that by the age of 18, she had moved up to a position of bookkeeper in a grocery store, so we know that she was out of the horrible working conditions of the mills, and would have only witnessed, not participated in, the momentous Bread and Roses strike of 1912. The advantages of speaking English and looking like a Yankee, plus her own intelligence and drive, must have helped her tremendously. When her wedding was announced in 1913, she was described as “a popular operator at the local telephone exchange,” a job that she enjoyed. A story has been passed down in the family about her eavesdropping on a steamy conversation, and giving herself away by letting out a heartfelt sigh. This was risky behavior for a telephone operator!

I always attribute any brains in our family to my grandmother Vernetta. She surrounded herself with books, was very involved in the community and didn't give a hoot about housekeeping (she left that to my poor mother, eldest child!) Best of all, Grandma was a genealogist and passed the passion down to my mother, my aunt and me.

Imagine all of the lives wasted in those mills! I consider myself lucky to be alive when I read about the evil conditions there and I thank my grandmother for understanding that it was her continuing self-education that kept her out of them.

3 comments:

Randy Seaver said...

Hi Polly,

I loved this story about your grandmother. Thank you for sharing. It puts the mills into perspective. We toured the National Historic Place (or whatever its called) years ago but didn't have a personal connection to it.

Cheers -- Randy

islandroutes said...

Although my ancestors went to Hawaii to work the sugar plantions, they had many cousins who went to Fall River and New Bedford, MA. Many of them worked in the mills. Thanks for sharing this story. It sheds light on that period of time.

Polly FitzGerald Kimmitt said...

I toured the mills several years ago with my son's class. They took us into the gigantic machine room. It had all kinds of idle machines and only one running, but still it was deafening. I can't even imagine what it must have been like to be in there for 14 hours a day.

We also toured the boarding house where the mill girls lived. They got half an hour for lunch, half of which was spent walking to and from. They wolved down a huge plate of food in the remaining time. Poor things.