Tales of My Home
Stories about the Lower Merrimack Valley region of Massachusetts
On the anniversary of the 1912 Lawrence strike, a poem by a former worker in the textile mills (my father)
Above: men working in a dyehouse, 1940s
Mill Work (a mock poem testimony)
by Rich McCarthy, 2011
I was a Lawrence High School student in the 40s.
The mills were humming:
The Wood Mill, the Ayer Mill, the Arlington, the Paciﬁc.
Most every kid had a parent or relative working in a mill.
My grandfather had been a weaver here
Since he left Vermont at age nineteen
(When his father died
and the barn burned down.)
[My note: the death of his father after a balloon accident is covered in another blog post.]
In High School
The worst the future could hold for us
Was to end up in a mill after graduation
We joked about becoming a mill rat. . .
My poor dad was a mill rat...
in the dye house.
And what did I do after I graduated.
I took a job.
In a dye house.
I became a “jig” operator
It wasn’t bad work;
Except for the fumes:
The hydrochloric acid, the ammonia,
and the formaldrahyde fumes...
Whew, sometimes it was overwhelming.
I met some interesting people,
Like the guy who never wore a shirt
And had blue birds tattooed on his chest,
One on each breast.
Flying towards each other.
I only lasted for two months.
It wasn’t for me, a kid.
I didn’t have to support a family.
I left for a job with a magazine distributor.
I was out of the mill.
It was clean work:
Putting up orders for drug stores.
But the pay, 65 cents an hour,
So what did I do?
I went back to the mill.
(The American Woolen Company)
One buck an hour?
I couldn’t believe it
With beneﬁts to boot!
A Union shop, the CIO.
So there I was,
Working the second shift,
(two to ten),
In the mule spinning room.
The temperature was hot
And humid. . .
90 degrees plus
Humidiﬁers keeping it moist
So the ends would not fall.
The sweat poured over our brows
We all wore head bands
To keep it out of the eyes
It was so hot we wore pants cut off at the knee,
That’s all, no shirt, bare backed
And old shoes with no socks
It was a nice place to be in a winter storm, tropical.
I stuck it out for about a year.
The mills were shutting down,
Where cheaper labor could be found,
Or so we heard.
So I got “laid off". .. permanently.
Lawrence fell into hard times.
The textile industry,
as Lawrence knew it,
But the experience taught me
About organized labor, unions.
I had got a decent wage.
Because the job was so dirty,
We were allowed a shower
On company time at shift’s end.
Because of the union,
When we cleaned rollers,
The machinery was disengaged.
(Back-boys had been killed in prior years,
Crushed to death when switches
Were accidentally pulled.)
Funny, as I think of it,
I never heard of the strike of 1912
Not from my working stiff relatives, not in school.
So I’m glad this is not the case today
And that we now celebrate
The gutsy spontaneous reaction
Of exploited immigrants
Who made a better future for mill workers...
And I might say, for me personally,
A kid back in 1949.
Below: The Wood Mill and the Ayer Mill at night, south bank of the Merrimack River, Lawrence, Mass., 1940s