Recollections of work, life in the mills
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PITTSFIELD -- They often worked six days a week. The area where they toiled was hot and sometimes cramped. The work itself? Dangerous, at times.
But more than half a century ago, this work offered steady employment, and it took place in most of the Berkshires' cities and towns. Working in the county's many mills was a way of life for the families who had relatives that worked there.
Some of these former mill workers remember those days well. Here are their stories.
Jane Geary quit Pittsfield High School at age 15 in 1942 to replace empty spools of cloth thread with full spools at the Elmvale Worsted Mill. She performed this task for three years. Geary was a "dobber," a common job description at the mill.
Geary did not aspire to mill work, but she really had no choice.
"My dad died when I was just 11," Geary recalled, sitting in her kitchen. "So it was hard. We, my brother and [two] sisters and I, had to go to work to help my mother. That was it.
"It was tedious. And you always had the fuzz from the spools floating around the room. There was oil on the floor, so you had that smell."
The working conditions often changed with the weather.
"In the wintertime, you welcomed the heat," she said. "But in the summer, there was no air conditioning, so every chance I got, I'd run into the ladies' room, turn on the faucets and let the water run over my arms. It was also a chance to clean the wool off our faces and clothes."
On pay day, Geary would give everything she earned to her mother.
"I honestly don't recall if we actually got checks, because that would mean I had to go to a bank and I don't think I ever did that," she said. "I'm pretty sure we got paid in cash, believe it or not.
"It was a job," Geary said. "It was something you had to do. I enjoyed seeing my friends every day, but it was something that had to be done, that's all."
Fresh out of the Navy in 1953, Charles Taylor was hitchhiking from the Boston Navy Yard to his home in Stock bridge when an official at the former Hurlbut Paper Mill in Lee offered him a ride.
The two got to talking, and Taylor told the man he needed a job.
"He said, ‘Come down to the mill on Monday,' " Taylor recalled. "That's how it started."
Taylor's first task at the paper mill was third hand in the beater room. This was the area where papermakers beat wood pulp into the consistency that is needed to manufacture paper products.
Looking back, Taylor said he was fascinated with the process that went on at the Hurlbut Mill, and the tasks that he performed.
"I wish the old days were back," he said. "There was a lot of bull work. But looking back, we enjoyed it. We had a lot of fun. And the company was good to us."
Taylor left Hurlbut after he married in 1963. He worked in several professions, including a stint as a commercial pilot.
"I look back at my life," said Taylor, who is 79, "and I don't regret a day of it."
Veronica Kelley was 16 when she graduated from St. Joseph's Central High School second in the Class of 1949. She wanted to go to college, but her family didn't have a lot of money.
A family friend was leaving the Elmvale Worsted Mill to get married.
"She knew I was looking for a job," Kelley said. "So she asked me if I wanted to work there, as a payroll and records clerk. I said, ‘Well, I guess I'll try it.'
"So in July, after I graduated from St. Joe's, I started in the payroll office at Elmvale. Imagine, a 16-year-old doing payroll for the company!"
Luckily, Kelley had taken accounting courses in high school because she wasn't sure she would go to college. She remembers her supervisor, Mr. Cooper -- "I don't remember his first name," as a "nice man" who let his employees listen to World Series games on the radio.
The workers on the floor were given a half-hour for lunch, but Kelley had an hour, "so I could go home for lunch every day."
By 1953, Kelley had earned enough money to go to college, and left Elmvale for Westfield State Teachers College (now Westfield State University).
"It was a good place to work, very pleasant," Kelley said of Elmvale. "I have good memories of it."
Like Kelley, Daisy Dyka also left school at 16 to work in the mills. But unlike Kelley, she had not graduated from high school.
"It was the Depression," Dyka recalled, while sitting in her living room in Adams. "I was not happy to leave Adams High School. I liked school. But all of the children in my family had to work."
Mill work was difficult, and school officials wondered if she could handle it.
"I remember when I went to the principal's office to tell him I was quitting school to work in the Berkshire Mills, he was concerned," said Dyka. "It was hard work, and he thought it would kill me."
Dyka remembers the mill as being hot and humid.
"When you walked in the front door, it was like a steam bath," Dyka said. "And the noise was very loud."
Work was conducted in three shifts, and the machines ran all day and all night.
"I'm hard of hearing now, and so were a lot of people I worked with," Dyka said. "The noise was really awful."
Dyka spent nine years working at the mill, leaving at age 25 to get married.
"I'm 90 now, so that was, what, 65 years ago?" Dyka said.
"A long time ago, wasn't it?"
To reach Derek Gentile:
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