In search of opportunity in the mills

PITTSFIELD -- They came in waves during the 19th and early 20th centuries, many lured by the promise of employment in the bustling factories of Berkshire County.

They were of Irish, French Canadian, Polish, and Italian descents or belonged to a number of smaller ethnic groups. And like many who first settled in Boston or New York City, these immigrants or their offspring moved west or north in search of greener economic fields.

"I would say the mills were probably the biggest part of [the migration], particularly for the Italians and French Canadians and Irish," said Maynard Seider, the retired sociology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who wrote the script for, directed and co-produced the award-winning documentary "Farewell to Factory Towns?"

That 2012 film focused on the city of North Adams after Sprague Electric Co. began its sharp decline in the 1970s.

It is interesting to note, Seider said, that the major immigrant groups in the Berkshires remain at roughly the same percentages as they were during the heyday of the large mill era, when the county's population was larger than it is today.

The odds are good that you're living here in Berkshire County because an ancestor migrated to the area to work in one of its mills.


The first ethnic group to arrive in large numbers was the Irish, from the 1840s on, many escaping famine in their home country. Some early arrivals sought work on rail expansion projects, such as the Hoosac Tunnel, before working in local mills.

A bit later came French Canadians. Around 1900, large numbers of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe began arriving, including Poles, Jews and many other groups.

There were even two 95-member groups of Chinese workers brought to North Adams in 1870 to break a strike at the C.T. Sampson shoemaking factory. Nearly all of them are believed to have left the area by 1880.

Political opposition to the millions arriving in the U.S. led to federal legislation, including the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited immigration from certain nations. Those restrictions weren't relaxed until the 1960s.

According to Eagle archives and a booklet produced in the 1970s by the Pittsfield Folk Arts Council, which organized the annual Ethnic Fairs, the Irish began arriving here in 1839 and by 1860 made up 71 percent of the city's foreign-born residents.

French Canadians arrived over a similar period but their numbers built more slowly -- they made up an estimated 750 families in Pittsfield by 1890. Arriving mostly from the Canadian province of Quebec, French Canadians benefited from easy access to the mills of New England, compared to immigrants who had to cross the Atlantic from Europe.

The Italians and Polish were two other immigrant groups that found their way here in large numbers, arriving from the 1890s through early years of the 20th century.

Each ethnic group formed communities focused around their churches -- mostly Catholic -- or synagogues, and also fraternal or political organizations.

"Not surprisingly," Seider said, "they tended to settle in the same neighborhoods. The French Canadians settled in the Greylock section of North Adams, and the bulk of the Polish settled in Adams."

Most of those houses of worship remain standing today, although a number of Catholic churches have closed. They no longer have the thriving congregations of the early to mid- 20th century, when the population of Berkshire communities peaked.

With a swelling immigrant population and humming factories, North Adams, for instance, had 24,200 residents in 1900, compared to about 13,700 today. Pittsfield had 21,786 residents in 1900, hit a peak of 57,876 in 1960 when the General Electric Co. was the largest employer, and is at approximately 44,700 today.

Despite sometimes fierce opposition from the dominant ethnic groups at the time, these immigrant groups eventually elbowed their way into government and economic positions of authority to ensure their interests were protected and voices heard.

People of Irish descent, for instance, held more than 50 percent of the city council positions in Pittsfield during the early 1920s. Those of Italian descent held more than 30 percent of city government positions from the late 1950s through late 1960s. The city's first mayor of Italian descent, Remo Del Gallo, was elected in 1965.

The lists of councils, select boards, police and fire department rosters and other positions from the late 1800s to late 1900s reflects similar trends for all of the major immigrant groups. In a general way, their experiences reflected what was known as the American Melting Pot.

To reach Jim Therrien:,

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Twitter: @BE_therrien