Woven in Time (Excerpt)

                               WOVEN IN TIME:

                           An Oral History of the
                      Milltown (St. Croix) Cotton Mill

                                by Bill Eagan

                              ISBN 097351720-4

                        Korby Publishing, Bayside, NB
                      June 2004 (Second edition, 2006)

                [email protected] or (506) 529-4393 to order


Excerpt, p. 159 - 163

"I've tried to tell people about weaving, but nobody seems interested in what
the old people did."
                                 - Mildred (Underhill) (Kelly) Hogan / Weaver

Note: My conversation with Mildred took place in November, 2004. At the time
she was 96, the oldest person interviewed. Her experience in the mill
predates other interviewees as she went to work in 1924 at the age of 16. Her
memory remained true and complete and she looked back on her time in Milltown
with great fondness and attachment. The interview took place several months
after the publication of my book, so it is included in this second edition.

I was born in July 5, 1908, in Barnett Siding, Northumberland County (New
Brunswick). It was about three miles from Blackville. It was only a railroad
siding. We didn't have a station with an agent - we had to go to Blackville
for that. The place was named after an old gentleman that lived there at one

I went to school at Barnettville, the Barnett School, and I went to Grade 8
and I was ready for my high school but we lived three and a half miles from
the high school. I knew there would be days that I couldn't get there for we
 had some wild, stormy days and I knew I wouldn't [make it] every day. My
father was a carpenter but he was a good farmer too. We had a medium size
farm and we always kept three horses and three cows, and we raised pigs and
had hens and a good many sheep. We did very well.

There were seven in the family, three boys and four girls. I was in the
centre. My mother came from Irish parents and my father was from English
parents. My mother's great grandfather came from Ireland over there and my
father's ancestors all came from England. The Underhills have been in
Northumberland County since 1865.

I don't recall things being too difficult growing up. Oh, we didn't have all
the gum or candy we wanted. We would go to the store for my mother and we'd
ask if we could have what was coming back to buy candy, but there was [never
enough left over]. The old lady in the store would say, "You haven't enough."
But there was lots to eat on the farm. My mother was a good seamstress and
made clothes. She made two quilts every year.

Another thing I remember very well - we felt we were quite rich because there
was a big oak tree about 50 feet from the house and there was a bubbling
spring came up from that. My father would buy these puncheons (barrels) that
had been used for molasses. He'd cut them in two and use them for troughs at
the spring to water the horses and cattle. Oh, that spring was beautiful and
we thought, because we always had it, we were rich! My mother used to say
that men may come and men may go, but that spring goes on forever. It's still
there and I could take you there and show you.

When I finished Grade 8 I stayed home for two years, helping to take care of
my aunt's children. She had died and left seven children and the oldest was
seventeen and the youngest was a year old. Then my cousin, Bernetta (who
would later marry Jim Sweeney of Milltown) came home - she had gone to work
in the weave room in Milltown. She came home and she had all these beautiful
clothes, coats and everything that she bought in Calais. I said, yes I will
go back with her. After some persuasion my mother said, "Yes, you can go with
her. She is a sensible girl and you can go with her," and I was only sixteen.
That was 1924. Bernetta is a cousin. She had a relative, Jack O'Brien, from
Renous who had two daughters who went down to work [in the cotton mill]. I
don't know how they found out [about the mill] but they were both weavers.
They came back and told Bernetta and everyone saw how well they were doing.
Jack hooked up his old horse and a long wagon and loaded all the furniture
and moved to St. Stephen. They got a place in Mayfield (outskirts of St.
Stephen NB) and settled there on a farm. Nice home and everything; I was
there. They had two younger boys as well.

When I first went to Milltown I stayed with Bernetta at the Camicks. They
were from Deer Island. [We] stayed with them until the next spring and they
didn't have a bathroom, so we thought we could do better than that. Everyone
needs to better themselves, so we moved out to Darby Young's next to the
Murchie Building (now Charlotte Co. Museum) in Milltown.

I had to wait two or three days to start work. Bernetta  came home and said
they didn't need anyone in the weave room but I could go in the spinning
room. The [river] water was real low [at that time] and the spinning room was
working from midnight to 8:00 a.m. The weaver room was working during the
day. What I didn't like [about the spinning room] was having to climb the
three flights of stairs. My first day there I knew the name of the boss I
should be looking for - Sam McKnight. One of the spinners was working there
and he took me over and asked this girl to teach me how to spin. She started
telling me, so in no time I picked it up pretty well. I stayed in the
spinning room until July but I didn't like it there. They were just different
people. The web drawers were very nice. They were at the lower end of the
spinning room. I remember Sadie Waycott - she married Roy Hanson. And Viola
James worked there. The slashers were there too and I remember Jim Coffey
and Joe Coffey working on them.

I really wanted to go in the weave room and when I came back from vacation in
1925 I went to work there. I stayed until 1930. I never did shift work at
that time. They said the lights weren't good enough for that - weaving was
fine work. I loved weaving - I just loved it. When I first went to the weave
room I was put on with Hazel McMann. She was very good... very strict. You
had to do it right. I had Jack Baxter for a loom fixer and he was one of the
best. They put me first on a four-loom set and I did that for awhile. Then
the boss put me on a bigger set of looms and said I'd be going on piece-work.
Winfield Keith was the boss and Oran Morrison was the second hand. They were
both nice. The looms were Crompton-Knowles that had four shuttles and [could
weave] four patterns. [As weavers], we were responsible for making good
cloth. When a thread broke it was a real knack to bring it back through the
heddle with a nice little reed hook, then tie it up with a weaver's knot. If
you tied that knot really well you wouldn't notice it [in the finished
cloth]. I've tried to tell people about weaving but nobOdy seems too
interested in what the old people did.

I remember that Winfield Keith had this blackboard and if you were called up
(cited for mistakes), your name went on that board and you'd be fined. I
wasn't called up much, but Bernetta was because she had a loom fixer that
used to get drunk. He'd be out for two or three days and they'd have someone
fill in. It was always hard for her to [catch up]. Her looms were always
working bad. When you got called up they would come right down and get you...
you'd have to stop your loom. I can still see Winfield Keith with those great
big long hands going over this blackboard. If there was five picks [in your
cloth] you'd get 50 cents fine. If you made a lot of mistakes you could come
out of there with very little [pay] at the end of the week. The loom fixer
was important. I was lucky to have Jack Baxter as a fixer. Oh yes, the weaver
paid the price for mistakes - everybody knew that.

When I first went to the weave room my shift was 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. But
Saturday off. Every second week I'd make about $28.00. The noise there... I
could hear it night and day when I wasn't in the mill for awhile but then you
got used to it. I didn't grumble about it - I didn't mind. Nobody complained
about it. No. We had some wonderful people in that weave room. I remember
Bill MacIntosh, Steve Peterson, and Harry Tapley were some of the male
weavers. There was an other smaller weave room where they wove bed spreads.
There was also the cloth hall where you could buy yard goods and bundles of
remnants. I bought bundles of cloth and cut quilt blocks and mailed them home
and my mother and sister sewed and quilted them. I still have a quilt, "The
Dresden Plate" that they quilted.

I remember many times when the mill was down... you'd be out of work for some
time. At one time it was every other week, so in order for me to [get by], I
had to pay that week's board or go someplace where I didn't have to pay my
board. So I went to Mayfield to my friend's place - Johnny O'Brien's, and
helped them houseclean. There was another time that I went to the candy
factory and I wrapped. It was Christmas rush time and they took us in there
and paid us seven dollars a week and we paid four for our board. We worked
nights too - got home at 10:00 p.m. and there were 85 girls staying in Elm
Hall where I was boarding at the time. They'd have a big bucket of apples at
the door; that was our lunch before we went to bed. You had to rush, get in
quick, and get your apple because they were soon gone.

On the weekends we cleaned our room and then went down street. We put on our
best and went over to Calais and did some shopping. That was the only place
we shopped unless we were going to buy a good wool skirt or sweater, then we
went to Freddy Sears store for that. I remember one Saturday I had on a red
butterfly skirt and a red sweater and I also borrowed a red umbrella in case
it rained. Bernetta had a green [outfit] and a green umbrella and we walked
out and we felt we looked pretty nice.

Toward the end of the '20s they were beginning to put the big looms in with
the magazines (batteries) and the men would have 15 or 20 looms [to operate].
They started tearing down the Crompton-Knowles looms and I knew that was the
end of my time there. I wasn't laid off but I went home and I didn't go back.
Laura and Lena Melanson went to Saint John to work in the York Cotton Mill
out in Courtney Bay. They wrote me and said I could get a job there and stay
with them in their apartment on Duke St. So I went to Saint John and got a
job the next day. They were weaving denim and I didn't like it at all, you
know... going from the lovely fancy shirting and ginghams and things like
that, [which] we wove in Milltown. I stayed from January to July, 1930, then
I returned to Milltown. Bernetta and I got a room at Herbie Hall's. It was
just like home, they had room for two boarders. "Ma and Pa Hall" treated us
like daughters, in at 11 p.m. unless we were going to a dance, then we could
stay out later.

Bernetta was working in the spool room, across from the rewinders and she
thought I could get a job in there. Sam McKnight was still there and I got a
job right away. I still remember the people who were there - Vivian Nesbitt,
Mary Coffey, Mrs. Hacker from Upper Mills, and Alice Marsh.

The rewinders were the last thing the thread had to go through before it went
to the weave room. I remember different times Sam coming to me and saying I'd
have to work that night - they needed that black filling or that cherry...
and I would have to work until 10:00 p.m. They'd be crying for it down in
the weave room. I remember a lot of errors made [with that thread] down in
the dye house... and a lot of waste that we'll never know. No wonder the mill
went down for there was an awful lot of waste covered up.

Things were better in the mill by then and I continued to work on the
rewinders. After Bernetta got married to James Sweeney in  1932, Anna
Maillet, a little girl from St. Fabien in Kent County, moved in with me at
Hall's. She had a wonderful sense of humour, always laughing; we had so much
fun. Anna later married Helon Eagan; we always kept in touch. I always kept
such good memories of Milltown. I still have contact with Bernetta Sweeney's
daughters, Mary Francis Boehm and Gertrude Davis and my goddaughter Betty
(Coffey) Greenlaw, (daughter of Mary and Joe Coffey). The Coffeys were great
friends. I remember Bob Coffey drove me to the train when I left Milltown,
and Mrs. Coffey (Lizzy) cried so hard, she couldn't come down to say good-
bye. I visited Milltown regularly but never worked in the mill again.

In 1937, I married Burt Kelly and moved to Nelson-Miramichi NB. I never left.
For a while I had a large room in my own home and I spent many pleasant hours
weaving material for my own use, which I sewed into children's clothing,
bedspreads, and placemats. It was rewarding to use the skill that I learned
in my youth in Milltown. Yes, Milltown has always had a special place in my
heart; it was really home to me after I left my father and mother and went
out in the world. Milltown was the dearest place and still is.


My reflections on Nan's interview:

I had talked with Nanny on various occasions over the last decade or so, as I
became more interested in genealogy. I hope at some point, she knew how
interested I was!

I have been to the Underhill homestead a number of times; in fact, my son's
first unassisted steps took place there, in the front yard. Nan's sister-in-
law, Josie (nee Sturgeon) - Jim's widow - lives there still (January 2007),
with her daughter Mavis. Whenever we visit, their hospitality is wonderful -
they always insist we stay for tea or supper. Edit: Josephine passed away in
the summer of 2007, but Mavis still lives at the homestead.

Here are some of the memories Nanny told me of growing up at the homestead:

Nanny and her sisters and brothers had more fun in the winter than the
summer. They used Aunt Maggie Ben's (Margaret Vickers, widow of Nan's
uncle Benjamin Underhill) milk house as a playhouse, as well as the
other farm buildings. Nanny had the sheep house for her playhouse,
and had to carry in ice-cold water to clean the floor.

In the summer they would build playhouses from green boughs, but of
course they would shed their leaves and they would be left with nothing
but sticks!

One of Nanny's best friends was her cousin, Ada Underhill, Aunt Maggie Ben's
daughter (Uncle Ben had died the year Nanny and Ada were born). They lived
across the field from each other and you could see the Maggie's house from
Nan's kitchen. In 1918, when Nan and Ada were 10, they both became ill
from the Spanish flu. Nanny recovered, but Ada did not, and died on
October 13, 1918. Nanny was sitting in the kitchen window, and saw a long
black cart come up to Maggie Ben's house. Her mother told her they must
be getting their coal delivered, because she didn't want to tell her that
it was the hearse, and that Ada had passed away.

Mostly, though, Nanny had very fond memories of childhood. Although the
children had chores and school, they were not overwhelmed with duties - for
example, the older children did not have the responsibility of caring for
the younger children, as in many other families, since their mother was
there to do so. Some chores they did have were cleaning the lamp
chimneys, some scrubbing, and milking and churning. The cream was saved
until there was enough to do a churning, so it had soured by the time the
butter was made. A full churn took about an hour to make into butter, and
when done, there was sour buttermilk, which the other children drank, but
Nanny didn't like. They told her it was just like sour soda pop (they never
had pop around the farm), but she wouldn't drink it.

In the summer of 2005, while visiting Nanny, I made butter for my son Liam.
We put whipping cream in a jar and shook it until it turned to butter, leaving
skim milk. Nanny said she never realized that you could actually make butter
from sweet cream - because they made it from the sour cream, she thought you
*had* to start with sour cream.

Nanny and her siblings attended school in Barnettville. The school went to
grade eight, so Nanny attended from age six to age fourteen. It was roughly
three-quarters of a mile away, and during the tenure of one (presumably well-
loved) teacher, during the cold weather everyone would bring a few pennies and
the teacher would make cocoa for everyone.

The high school was in Blackville, three miles from home. Nanny knew at that
distance, she was not going to be able to finish high school, so in November
1924, at the age of 16, Nanny went to work in Milltown. Her cousin Bernetta
(Mary Bernetta O'Brien) was already working there at the Canadian Textile Mill,
and always had lots of beautiful clothes, so that was a definite inducement to
going. Nanny's mother let her go because she felt Bernetta was a good
dependable girl.

Nanny started out working in the spinning room, which she didn't like, and moved
to the weave room, which she did like. She worked in the mill for several years,
but the work was always uncertain, because the hours available fluctuated with
demand for the mill's products. For two autumns, Nanny worked at Ganong's
Chocolates in St. Stephens, packing chocolates. That was good enough to get her
a discount on chocolates when she visited the chocolate factory 75 years later!

When Nan's sister Mary had her daughter, Maureen, in 1930, Nan went home to
Blackville. Later, her friends the Melanson girls wrote to her from Saint John
that there was work at the York Cotton Mill in Saint John, so Nan went there to
work through the summer. 

After working in the mill for some months, she went to the unemployment office
looking for work in a private home. There were two jobs available at the time,
and she went to interview for the first, for a family named Mersetti. When she
was told there were eight children to care for, she said, "I'm not sure if I'm
the one," and went to interview for the second job. This was with the family
of Dr. and Mrs. Nase, who had two little girls, which was a better fit, and
Nanny worked there from Christmas to July, and then went back after summer
holidays. However she became ill and returned home in March, where she stayed
until May, and then went back to work in Milltown. She had received a letter
from Bernetta, who said she could get six looms, which meant good money.
Nanny was used to working with people (there were about 300 in the weave room
alone) and enjoyed working in the mill, so she went back.

For more information, contact Natalie Verge at [email protected]