Driving through New Bedford along Route 195, it’s hard not to notice the long red brick buildings on either side of the highway. These are the old textile mills, built mostly in the early 1900’s. They’re a familiar part of the landscape, but many people don’t know the stories these buildings have to tell: of the immigrant workers who came here by the thousands; of the working conditions they faced; of a textile industry that exploded in New Bedford and then faded just as quickly; and of the present-day debate about whether to save these buildings or tear them down.
Walking into the empty second floor of the former Nashawena Mill, voices take on an echo. The huge room is a typical mill space - about 300 feet long, with high ceilings, oversized windows, and rows of evenly-spaced columns. The other floors house a clothing manufacturer and studio space for painters and sculptors. Aside from a rolling cart that occasionally rumbles by overhead, this second floor space is silent. But a century ago, it would have clattered with the din of power looms crowding the room from one end to the other.
New Bedford no longer has any working looms, but further north, in Lowell, 80 power looms at the Boot Mills Museum still produce fabric each day. And this deafening sound is what New Bedford’s mill workers would have heard day in and day out.
Anne Louro is Historic Preservation Planner for the City of New Bedford.
“With machinery running, it woulda been loud, it woulda been hot, it woulda been dusty,” she said. “There were cotton bits flying everywhere…you know, there’d be cotton and remnants all over the floors, and full of people because there were three shifts running 24/7.”
These mills attracted mainly young women eager to escape the drudgery of rural life in early America. Many were French-Canadians from Quebec, or immigrants from Ireland, England, Greece, or Poland.
“They felt comfortable here,” Louro said. “There were other people who spoke their language. They came here to New Bedford, and they built their families, and generations after them are what still exist here in New Bedford.”
In the mid-1800’s, cities like Lowell already had a thriving textile industry, but New Bedford was still riding high as the whaling capital of the world. Then, in 1858, the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania, and whaling was doomed. The whaling merchants who reaped huge profits needed new places to invest their money, and decided to build textile mills in New Bedford.
“The immigrant population of the city just exploded,” said Louro.
New Bedford wasn’t a random choice. These were savvy businessmen who knew the city was ideally positioned to enter the textile trade. It had an impressive port and easy access to rail transportation. And the influx of young women who were needed to operate the mills kept right on coming.
“In 1870, 1880, the North End of New Bedford was essentially farmland…stone walls and woods and meadows, and when the mills were established in this section of the city, that’s when the neighborhoods became established,” said Louro.
Parents taught their children the millworking trade, and most children started working in the mills by age 10 or 11. Men worked here too, mostly to repair and maintain the complex machinery.
During New Bedford’s textile heyday, the mills employed more than 41,000 workers. Ten-hour days were the norm for full-time workers; eight hours for part-timers. The work was monotonous and grinding. But the millworkers showed up day after day, because if they didn’t, there were many others eager to take their jobs.
Joe Thomas is a South Coast historian and publisher.
“At one time in New Bedford, we had the highest percentage of women workers in the country. And that was early on…that was right around World War I,” said Thomas.
Photos from the early 1900’s show millworkers posed in front of their machines. The women wear floor-length skirts, with their long hair bunched up over their heads. It’s not hard to imagine how easily hair or skirts could get caught up in the gears, levers, or belts of the machines. But there was little if any concern for worker safety in the mills, and many women and children suffered horrible accidents as a result.
Catherine McLaughlin’s father was a loom fixer. Each morning he ‘d leave their New Bedford home and head to the mills to repair and maintain the long rows of looms.
“I think he started when he was 13 or 14, ‘cause he was born in 1912,” McLaughlin remembered. “And they laid him off when he was 55 with no severance pay…not a penny. He was a loom fixer. Where do you go?”
McLaughlin feels a lot of bitterness about the way her father, and many of the other mill workers, were treated.
“There was no safety net…none. Once the mills closed down, thousands of people saying ‘What are we going to do?’ And there was no help for them,” she recalled.
With so many mills in so many cities, the market became glutted, and prices began to plummet. Production costs also were becoming much lower in the South. In 1928, with the industry close to collapse, most New Bedford textile workers went on strike.
“The workers weren’t striking to get something, they were striking to prevent a 10 percent pay cut proposed by the owners,” said Joe Thomas. “When they settled, they settled for a five percent cut. But then the owners speeded up the machines. So if you were a weaver or you tended so many looms, they gave you more looms to tend, and they sped up the speed of the looms. So the quality would deteriorate and the conditions still were bad.”
By then, the mill owners were doing anything they could to survive.
“Ultimately, the industry was doomed. The strike was a symptom of what was going on. People had no money. And they were making things that they couldn’t consume,” Thomas said, adding that the Great Depression came just a year later.
“All the mills, almost all of them just collapsed. And they didn’t move anywhere. A lot of them did move South, but most of ‘em went bankrupt,” said Thomas.
By the 1930’s, the days of New Bedford as a 24/7 mill town, with thousands of workers churning out fabric to meet an insatiable demand, were effectively over. The textile industry was gone, but during and after World War Two, other industries came in to occupy all the newly empty mill space. Today, efforts are underway to save some of these old structures, and transform them into something new and different.