Museum of Work and Culture celebrates textile workers

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Museum Work Culture

A statue in period dress stands in front of an Industrial-era textile machine as part of the textile mill exhibit at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, R.I.

For decades, immigrants — mainly French Canadians — labored in this city’s textile mills, turning out everything from cotton to woolen fabrics.

Their story was that of an American melting pot in miniature, with Yankees and Quebecois living and working side by side with Russians, Poles, French and Belgian families.

Their factory work schedules, usually from dawn to dusk, left little time for recreation. But they still managed to live a rich cultural life through religion, music and especially baseball.

The story of those who came from Canada and other countries to toil in the mills and put down roots in northern Rhode Island is embodied in the Museum of Work and Culture on Main Street in the heart of Woonsocket, a city once home to at least 100 mills.

Today, only one mill remains active. But the heritage of those who lived, loved and toiled in the city comes alive at the museum, which includes nine immersive exhibits and sight and sound collections that capture the spirit as well as history of the place.

Visitors to the museum, operated by the Rhode Island Historical Society, enter to find a reproduction of a rough farm family home in Quebec, from where many of the French Canadian workers emigrated.

Beginning in the 1800s, workers were actively recruited from eastern Canada, where an expanding population and a dwindling supply of arable land were exerting increasing hardships on local families.

Workers were eager to accept the offer of mill work in Rhode Island because factory wages of about $1.50 a day were far more than the 55 cents they could expect back home.

Museum Work Culture

A statue dressed as a nun stands in front of a school room blackboard during a French language lesson as part of the school exhibit at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, R.I.

In the museum, mill families’ lives are dramatized by realistic exhibits that include a reproduced factory floor complete with looms, a Franco-American Catholic church, a school classroom and the living room of a typical worker’s tenement dwelling.

Woonsocket’s mills prospered by manufacturing cotton goods all through the 1800s and early 20th century before major changes began to overtake the textile industry.

In the 1920s, the cotton mills began moving south, leaving northern communities built on textiles in decline. In Woonsocket, however, mills turned to woolens and other fabrics.

The city’s textile boom continued through World War II, when war production peaked. By the 1960s and ‘70s, however, the tide was turning. Aging plants and intensifying competition led to the closing of mill after mill, to the point where only a vestige of Woonsocket as a textile city remains.

While it was a city of industry during its textile heyday, its story is also about workers.

Factory laborers initially had little say in their pay or working conditions, but as the 20th century dawned more workers were immigrating from France and Belgium, where labor organizing was strong. Unions quickly became a fact of life in the local mills.

Museum Work Culture

Independent Textile Union's hall is reproduced as part of the union hall exhibit at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, R.I.

The museum also tells the story of workers through reproductions of a union hall and part of a factory floor. There’s a recorded narration from retired mill workers about life in the factories.

Not everything during Woonsocket’s textile era was dedicated to work. Canadians and other immigrants brought their music, dance and cultural traditions. There was even a local baseball league promoted by the mills.

Baseball has always been revered in Woonsocket, birthplace of two legendary major league hitters and members of the Hall of Fame.

Second baseman Nap Lajoie was a career .338 hitter who played for four major league teams around the turn of the century. He also managed the Cleveland Indians.

Gabby Hartnett, admitted to the Hall of Fame in 1955, was the ironman catcher of the 1930s Chicago Cubs teams. In 1934, when he batted .344 for the season, he was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

A part of Woonsocket’s links to baseball lives on today in the form of Northwest Woolen Mills, which manufactures material used in the making of baseballs. Northwest also makes army blankets.

The Museum of Work and Culture is located at 42 South Main St. in Woonsocket. Hours are 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday and 1-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors. Group rates are available. More info: rihs.org/museums/museum-of-work-and-culture, 401-769-9675.

Rick Foster can be reached at 508-236-0360.

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