Kate Abbott: Where art meets industry


By Kate Abbott, Berkshire Eagle

Last fall a friend in New Hampshire took me to a talk about the Amoskeag mills. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Amoskeag textile mills employed as many as 17,000 people -- one company fueled the city of Manchester and built more than a mile of brick along the Merrimack River.

To anyone who lives in Pittsfield, this sounds familiar.

Robert Perrault, who spoke that day in Concord, had talked with families who had worked in the mills, or knew people who had, before they closed in 1937. He helped to research a book, he said, because he spoke French and could talk with the French Canadian families who had come south to work with the knitting machines.

He showed us slides of remote villages in Quebec. Imagine, he said, coming from this settlement of a few dozen families, and getting off the train here. He gave us another image: Manchester's railway station in a city haze. This was a Manchester steadily growing, a city full of languages -- in 1860, more than a quarter of the city had been born in another country. People came here to find work. One local shop owner hung plucked chickens along his awning just before the mills changed shift in the evening, and workers heading home would buy out his stock every evening.

This, too, sounds familiar. The Berkshires in those days had church services in Polish. The town records at the the North Adams Historical Society list family names in Czech, French, German Bennington's Catholic congregation outgrew its building, and the Bennington Museum, housed in the old church, has a painting of the parishoners kneeling outside the church' doors on Christmas eve.

Now as I write about Pitts field's Art + Industry exhibits, as I talk with Ed Shaw about his work in the mills and his ministry, I think about what our industrial life here means.

After the Amoskeag talk, my friend Teresa brought me home, and while she made pasta with tomato sauce from local tomatoes, she handed me another book to read.

"Lucy Mattsen was nobody -- like all the women I worked with -- until the day the baby fell out the window. It was break time at the mill. Us girls from Knitting leaned on the rail over the North Canal, airing our armpits and sharing smokes. ..."

And I was captivated. On a rocking chair in the kitchen, with the fragrance of tomato sauce in the background, I fell into Tracy Winn's "Mrs. Somebody Somebody," stories set in Lowell.

She winds good and bad together -- in her understanding, the mills meant opportunity, food on the table, the power of the managers, respect from fair bosses and oily wandering hands from unfair ones, monotonous hard labor, hearing loss from the noise, heat and exhaustion and wear on the body, smoke and poisoned rivers, companionship.

I have worked physical jobs for 10-hour days, and at the end of the day I could close my eyes and see the, sheep dung I'd been forking, and after a day on my feet washing dishes for a caterer I'd come home too tired to think.

So I read with respect about Lucy Mattsen making shrewd jokes as she pushes a broom as wide as her armspand.

Perrault and Winn, one in nonfiction and one in fiction, brought me into the mills in motion and made an art of the drives of the people in them.


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