Adams woman finds father's image as mill worker for first time


ADAMS -- Claudette Marcil lives at home.

But for her, "home" carries more weight than it might for most folks: She lives in the same row house her family has lived in since 1921, when the Renfrew Mill owned the Columbia Street buildings and rented the living spaces to their workers.

Marcil was looking recently through a newsletter from the Adams Historical Society. It was an article about the upcoming "Mill Children" exhibit of Lewis Hine photos of children working in the Adams mills in 1911 and 1916. The exhibit opens in July at 5 Waverly Place, off Hoosac Street.

The article featured a number of young mill workers. As she was reading it last month, Marcil remembers thinking that it would be nice if there were a photo of her father, whom she knew to be a mill worker during those years.

She turned the page. And there he was: Her dad, Sylva Marcil, at 14 years old in a photo. She had never seen that image until then.


Part of the point of the "Mill Children" exhibit is an attempt to identify the child laborers in the Hine photos.

Hine spent much of his career documenting child laborers in factories and mines around the country. His work was used to educate the nation about child laborers and played a role in the passage of child labor laws.

Hine kept copious notes on each of his photos and identified his subjects. But for some reason, he made no such notes on his 1916 photos from the local mills. Thus, no identification of the young subjects exists, and descendants may be the only way to do so.

Local historian Joe Manning has been trying to tell the stories of the young workers by identifying them, tracing their lineage and establishing the facts or their lives.

Manning got word of Claudette Marcil's find and went to interview her and some of her relatives. (His findings are documented at

"At first, [Claudette] didn't realize the implications of the photographs, and that they are in the Library of Congress," Manning said. "She was surprised that the pictures exist and that they were part of a national study of child labor."

Manning said researching the life stories of these children is important to understand the context of a society in which child labor eventually became illegal.

"They aren't just anonymous photographs," Manning said. "Knowing who they are and how they lived gives them a personality. It gives them dignity. It makes them more respectable, in a sense."


Claudette Marcil was born in 1940, the youngest of two siblings. Her grandparents lived next door at 176 Columbia beginning in 1905. After her grandparents passed away, her uncle lived there, and then her cousin. That unit was in the family for nearly a century. Her parents moved into 174 Columbia in 1921. Her family bought both units in 1949. She still owns her father's place.

She likes being able to bring her grandchildren in so they can see how their family has lived for three generations.

After getting married, Claudette Marcil moved to New Hampshire. But after a divorce and her father taking ill, she returned in 1987 to care for him. He passed away shortly thereafter and she stayed on.

She remembered seeing an article in The Berkshire Eagle earlier this year about the Mill Children photographs and the upcoming exhibit.

"I was pining away because I knew my dad was one of these mill children," she said. "I thought about how much I'd love to see my dad as a kid working."

So when she saw his photo in the newsletter, it was a happy day for her.


Sylva Marcil started working in the Berkshire Mill at 14.

On Manning's website, he quotes Sylva Marcil from a brief family history he wrote when he was 65: "In our family, the boys all had to start working at 14 years old, to help out. My first pay was $3.70 for a 48-hour week, and I would get 50 cents allowance."

Sylva Marcil enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1919, and in 1921 returned home and went back to work in the mill. He worked there for 30 years, later working at Sprague for another 14.

"He worked hard," Claudette recalled. "He was very dedicated. He was a born leader of sorts. For the last 15 years he was a supervisor. He knew his work."

She related a story she was told by one of her father's coworkers. Apparently, her father was a meticulous dresser -- coat, vest and tie. But when something went wrong with the machinery, he would take off his coat and vest, roll up his sleeves and get into the repairs.

But he never seemed to get a spot of grease or a drop of oil on him.

"That was him," Claudette said. "Always neat as a pin."

To reach Scott Stafford :,
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