Quilter's Muse Publications
Mill Girls
Mill Girls

by James Cummings

If you speak with any native New Englander, you will probably find that somewhere in the family tree there was at least one
mill girl. The Industrial Revolution was started in America by Samuel Slater in the Blackstone River Valley of Pawtucket,
Rhode Island. One can get quite a history of this start at the Slater Museum in Pawtucket. Another mill city, Lowell,
Massachusetts, has a National Heritage Park which encompasses several old Mill buildings, one of which was a boarding
house for the mill workers, including the famous mill girl poet and activist, Lucy Larcom.

  The Mill Girl statue was created by Antoinette Prien Schultze, a well-known New England sculptor.
  The project, finished in 1988, is located in front of a former Amoskeag Mills building in Manchester, NH  

Migration from the Farms of Quebec

My great-grandparents came down from the impoverished farms of Quebec to work in the Lowell mills at the end of the 19th
century. Great
grandmere, as my grandfather told the story, ran a rooming house for the mill girl workers and also made good
money renting out rooms by the hour. In those days, one had to do whatever was necessary to get by. She began to get more
English speaking customers and thought that she should learn to speak English, but she wouldn't stick to it, so my grandfather
stopped speaking French to her and would not respond at all, unless she spoke English.

Citizen Could Not Re-Enter Canada

She had been getting on in years and wanted to make another trip to Quebec to see the relatives before they all died. She had
never bothered to become a United States citizen, as it was no problem to come into the country from Canada in the early
days and stay to work, but World War II was going on and my grandfather told her she had better get her papers or she
would not be able to get back in the country. She was as stubborn as only an old French woman could be and got on the train
and went to Canada. Lo and behold, she could not get back into the country!

My grandfather figured if any one could take care of this, it was Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank had run a lot of whiskey in from
Canada and during prohibition, ran a speakeasy. He made a bundle and was a big contributor to the Democratic party in
Massachusetts. He told my grandfather that he would take care of the problem and it would not cost anything either, as he
could well afford it, and many people owed him favors. He said to make sure that the stubborn old woman got her citizenship
papers when she got back (six months later), and she did.

Work at the Amoskeag Mills and International Shoe Company

As young people, Pat's parents both worked in the office of the International Shoe Company, part of the Amoskeag Mills
complex that stretched along the Merrimack River in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, they met and courted. Pat's mother
was born in Georgia. Her grandparents came to Manchester by train with five of their offspring (they eventually had 11
childlren). Her grandfather had emigrated from Vienna, Austria at the age of 18 years old. No one has ever verified the reason
for their coming north, but we assume that work opportunities were more plentiful in the northeast.

Recently, Pat learned that her grandfather was employed at the Amoskeag Mills as a cotton "mulespinner." Pat's mother
recalled that the work was difficult for him. As as a veteran of the Spanish-American War, he was disabled due to having
contracted malaria while stationed in the Phillipines during the 1890s. The malady weakened him and he did not have the
physical stamina to work in the mills for very long. All of the relatives mentioned here were either first or second generation
immigrants from either Canada, Austria, or Ireland.

The mill museums of New England are wonderful, educational places to visit. Lowell is a great destination because, in addition
to the National Heritage Park, the New England Quilt Museum and The American Textile History Museum are nearby. The
Industrial Revolution in America was first powered by the labor of Yankee farm girls, and later by immigrants:  men and
women from Quebec, Canada, Sweden, Ireland, Poland, Greece and other countries. You can walk the floors of these
factories, hear the machinery at the Boott's Mill in Lowell, and read descriptions alongside photographs and other displays. At
the Millyard Museum in Manchester, one can listen to videotaped stories told by some of the last mill workers there. If you are
from New England, some of these stories may be those of your forebears.

Notes -

An additional article about the 1830s mill girls of Lowell that Patricia Cummings wrote is posted in part on this website. "The
Mill Girls of Spindle City" was first published in The Quilter magazine, January 2004.

On 8/22/2013, Robert B. Perrault, a professor of conversational French at St. Anselm's College and someone who loves the
history of Manchester, especially the involvement of French-speaking people, gave a NH Humanities Council lecture in
Deerfield, NH. He stated that at its peak, the Amoskeag Company employed 17,000 people in a city populated by 70,000. With
the percentage of mill workers that high, everyone either worked in the mill or knew someone who did, he stated.

Manchester used to be called "Derryfield" and its name was changed because of the vision of Samuel Blodgson who wanted to
re-create in the United States the industrial city of Manchester, England with its huge textile industry. Perreault conducted oral
interviews with former mill workers in the 1970s (the Amoskeag Mill closed in 1936). He contributed to the book,
Two of the speaker's own books were available to purchase at this event.

Photos of the Amoskeag Mill complex along the Merrimack River can be viewed at this NH government link:

©Copyright 2001. James Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH.
photo by James Cummings for Quilter's Muse Publications