Sept. 27, Woonsocket, R.I. – Yesterday, all I knew of Woonsocket was that baseball Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie was born here. That was a while ago (1874).
Ninety-seven years after Larry Lajoie made his debut on this mortal coil, I learned that little nugget about Woonsocket. Which means I hadn’t learned anything new about this northern Rhode Island mill town in more than 40 years.
You might say I took the long way around to get to Woonsocket, which sits in the cradle of America’s industrial revolution. Woonsocket lies just 27 miles down the Blackstone River Valley from Worcester, Ma. I drove 118 miles to get from Worcester to Woonsocket. Well, I’ve never been known for efficiency.
Today, in an effort to chip away at my Woonsocket ignorance, I visited the Museum ofWork and Culture on Main Street. At $8, it is a stone-cold bargain. There are two 15-rominute films, the first offering a concise and thoughtful overview of Woonsocket’s industrial history, the second covering the rise of the Independent Textile Union.
Lajoie’s parents came here as part of the flood tide of Quebecois migration that turned this town into a French-Canadian stronghold. Their farmland increasingly failing to produce satisfactory yields, Quebecois came here by the thousands and thousands, lured south by pie-in-the-sky promises that capitalists have always fed the people they hoped to exploit. To seal the deal, mill owners handed out free train tickets. Later they would deduct the cost of those tickets from employees’ paychecks.
Those French-Canadians are a plucky bunch, though. They survived unfavorable conditions, and even thrived. They adopted the motto “La Survivance!” in a drive to sustain Francophone folkways, language and culture. Soon they became the dominant ethnic group in Woonsocket, comprising as much as 75 percent of the population.
Woonsocket, I learned, had a pivotal role in the development of the American labor movement. In the late 1920s and early 30s, as the New England cotton industry buckled and then collapsed in the face of competition with southern mills, workers, including children, faced increasingly onerous conditions. It was dangerous, uncomfortable work. The ceaseless clangor of machines rattled eardrums. The mills were cauldrons of insufferable heat and humidity. There were frequent speed-ups on the line. Foremen exacted favors from workers in exchange for decent work. And if you didn’t like your job, there were a hundred people who’d grab it yesterday.
Fear was always on the side of the owners.
Into this milieu came a man named Joe Schmetz, a skilled mule spinner and socialist radical from Belgium. Schmetz emerged as the driving force in the founding of the Independent Textile Union. All workers, skilled and unskilled, were included under the ITU banner.
Then, in 1934, a great textile strike swept across the nation like a prairie fire. With 400,000 workers walking off the job, it was the largest strike in U.S. labor history. Following the lead of his southern counterparts, Rhode Island Governor Theodore Green summoned the national guard. On Sept. 12, during a protest outside the Woonsocket Rayon Plant, the only mill to remain open during the strike, all hell broke loose. A 19-year-old boy named Jude Courtmanche, who was just walking by the demonstration, was struck by a bullet and killed.
Bloodshed in Woonsocket and elsewhere helped sway public opinion in favor or the workers, giving the ITU a critical momentum boost. By 1941, the union had 1,200 members.
My favorite part of the museum tour was upstairs, and it wasn’t the baseball exhibit with Nap Lajoie at center stage (for the record, I didn’t realize Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett, aka “Old Tomato Face, also was a Woonsocket native). It was an exhibit showcasing the triple-decker tenements. You ring a door bell and got to hear recollections from three different tenants in one building. One of them is a fellow named Harvey LaRiviere. After noting that 90 percent of the people in his neighborhood were of French-Canadian descent, he said:
“It didn’t matter, because everybody seemed to be happy to me, more than they are today. Today it don’t seem like they’re satisfied. In them days, we were satisfied. It didn’t take much to satisfy us, but we were satisfied.
“How we lived through it, I don’t know. But we made it. I’m happy it’s all gone. I wouldn’t want to go back to them days. Never.”
Yeah boy, Harvey sounded as if he was damn satisfied, I mean really satisfied, to be alive in those days he’d never want to go near again.
I left the museum and took a walk around Woonsocket. The architecture is outstanding. The town has more than its share of handsome buildings. Many cry for renovation, but beauty shines through the decay. The mill owners might have been parsimonious bastards, but they knew how to put together a nice-looking little city.
Nowadays Woonsocket is reeling and scuffling to figure out some vision of the future. Which is the trouble facing most former mill towns. A lot of squirrelly looking young men walk the streets smoking cigarettes and trying to appear dangerous. Maybe they’re looking to make a score or a sale, or just trying to look cool. There are plenty of social services offices, and plenty of vacant storefronts.
But there’s life here. You can eat Chinese, Thai or Tandoori. New York Lunch on Main is the real home of weiners, or wieners, depending upon which part of the signage you’re reading.
The Hanora Mills, a lovely stone building, has been converted into low-income housing. The Providence and Worcester Railroad depot, dating to 1882, is a real jewel. It was lucky. The brick and terra cotta structure got a makeover for the 2009 Richard Gere vehicle, “Haichi: A Dog’s Tale.” The sculpted likeness of Haichi sits out front of the depot building, next to a marker which says it was “gifted to the citizens of Woonsocket by the students of the Beacon Charter High School for Arts …”
I mean, really. Why must we always turn nouns into verbs when perfectly acceptable verbs already exist? But the best part of the refashioned depot, which now houses the offices of the Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, is it is a “shellfish-free” building.
Farther downtown, the Stadium Theatre has been renovated and turned into a Performing Arts Center. The lineup is retro-comatose, with Don McLean’s November date topping the bill. If you buy tickets, which range from $36-$96, you are guaranteed McLean will perform all his ancient hits, most notably “American Pie.”
My mind reeled back to Bellows Falls, Vermont, which was touting Mavis Staples’ upcoming performance. Bellows Falls also had a handful of really cool, vital acts on the way, stuff right in my wheelhouse, including Billy Bragg, Michael Tarbox and the criminally obscure Jon Dee Graham.
Not so the Stadium, which has Jo Dee Messina and the Blues Brothers to look forward to in addition to Mr. American Pie. I guess we all have our preferences.