Lewis Hine caption: King Philip Mill – Card Room. Doffer on Jack Speeder. Bertha Bonneau, 15 years, 105 Slade St. Location: Fall River, Massachusetts, June 21, 1916.
“My mother kept us clean. People would give her clothes. She would take the clothes apart, wash them, and make us dresses and pants and whatever. She would also get those cloth feedbags from the store and make clothes from them. We always looked good.” -Dorothy Tremblay, daughter of Alberta Bonneau
When Alberta Bonneau was growing up, Fall River was a bustling city of over 100,000, still riding the wave of prosperity that began in the 1870s, when the dramatic expansion of its textile industry turned this community of immigrants into the biggest cotton mill center in the US. The city had fancy hotels, opulent theaters, beautiful parks, impressive schools, streetcars, a public water supply, and a modern sewer system. Typically though, that prosperity did not extend to most of its workforce, most of which lived in crowded tenements and depended on the employment of their children to supplement their income. This was the case with the Bonneau family.
The King Philip Mill was established in 1871 with an initial investment of $500,000. Later on, a new mill was built, which boasted more than 50,000 spindles. In 1930, it was taken over by Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates. Lewis Hine took more than 200 photos of child laborers in Fall River. At that time, Massachusetts law stipulated that children under the age of 14 were not allowed to work in factories, so Alberta, at 15, would have been working there legally at the time. But it is likely that she had already been there a few years.
Alberta Bonneau was born in Fall River on July 12, 1900, the first child of Joseph Bonneau and Zenaide (Croteau) Bonneau, who were born in Quebec. They married in 1899. Alberta married Octave Saucier, a mill machinist, in 1919. He was employed later as a cabinet maker. He died in 1930. Alberta remarried in 1942, to Ludger Dionne, who died in 1968. Alberta passed away on April 21, 1995, at the age 94. She was survived by two daughters, three sons, seven grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, and a great-great-grandson.
I contacted one of the daughters, Dorothy Tremblay, who lives in Swansea, just several miles from Fall River. She had seen the Hine photograph before, but did not have a copy of it.
Edited interview with Dorothy Tremblay (DT), daughter of Alberta Bonneau. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on September 23, 2008.
JM: Had you ever seen the photograph of your mother in the mill before?
DT: Yes. About 15 or 20 years ago, one of my cousins told me about an exhibit at the Battleship Cove museum in Fall River. She told me my mother’s picture was on the wall. I laughed and asked how she knew it was my mother. She told me that her name, age and where she lived was written below the picture. So my husband and I went right down. I knew she worked in a mill until she got married, but never saw a picture of her in the mill. We went through the whole museum and it was very interesting. She looked tall in the picture, but she was only 5′ 1″ when she grew up.
JM: Did the museum have any information about Lewis Hine and the historical importance of the photo?
DT: No, and we didn’t talk to anyone about it. Around that time, someone was writing a book called Spinner: People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts. So the author asked to interview my mother. I wasn’t there with her when it happened. She told me that she didn’t like some of the questions that the author asked her. She also posed for some pictures. But we never heard anything after that. The book came out, but she wasn’t in it.
JM: Did your mother tell you about working in the mill?
DT: Not much. She just said, ‘I just did my work, went home, and then got my pay. That was it.’
JM: In the 1910 census, her father’s occupation is listed as a wagon driver for a grocery store.
DT: I didn’t know much about my grandfather. My grandmother died soon after my mother was married, in 1919. After that, my grandfather was more or less a loner and lived by himself in a rooming house. He lived to be about 80. My brother told me that my grandfather couldn’t read or write, and he never had any real good jobs.
JM: What did your father do for a living?
DT: He worked in the mill. He was very smart, and did a lot of the book work for them. He died in 1930, when he was only 31 years old. I was only three years old then. He had a leaky heart valve, which can be easily treated nowadays. My mother remarried in 1942, when I was 15.
JM: What did your stepfather do for a living?
DT: He worked at Brown and Sharp. They were toolmakers.
JM: When did he die?
JM: What street did your parents live on when you were born?
DT: I was born on Bedard Street, right next to the Notre Dame church. When I was about two years old, my parents bought a house on Tower Street. But a year later, my father died. The people next door had a farm. My brothers would do little things for them. When my mother got on welfare, the state always gave us too much cornmeal and flour, so my mother would give some to our neighbor at the farm, and she would give my mother eggs and milk. They would barter. It was hard. You can’t go out and work when you have six children. I really don’t know how she did it. People didn’t get the kinds of help then that they get now.
We were poor, but we didn’t know it. My mother kept us clean. People would give her clothes. She would take the clothes apart, wash them, and make us dresses and pants and whatever. She would also get those cloth feedbags from the store and make clothes from them. We always looked good. My mother couldn’t go anywhere with six kids, so we stayed home and did what we had to do. One of my older brothers told me that my mother would get up every morning at 5:30 and wash the floors.
She finally lost the house. We moved to a tenement on Pleasant Street, and lived there about two years. The neighborhood was called ‘The Flint.’ It was mostly French, but there was also some Lebanese. My mother did a lot of baking for the store downstairs. She made donuts and cakes, and they would take that off her bill. When I was about 13, we moved to Anthony Street. Her brother helped her buy a house, and she was able to pay him off later.
JM: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
DT: I had four brothers and four sisters. One sister died when she was 11 months old, and one died at 11 hours old. My brother, Octave, died in the war (WWII). He was on his way home, and the ship hit a mine.
JM: Did you or any of your brothers and sisters work when you were young?
DT: Henry and Octave sold ice cream bars from a bicycle when they were teens. Leo worked at a Chinese restaurant when he was young. We lived above the restaurant. When my brother, Henry, was 17, he graduated from high school and got a job with the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp). When I was 16, I quit school, got my papers, and went to work. My mother told me later on to go to continuation school at night, but I didn’t care for school that much. I worked at a sewing shop for a year, and then I went to Firestone and worked on tires. I was tall and strong and I could do a man’s work. I did that until I got married and had my first child.
JM: Hine was taking the pictures in order to convince people that child labor was wrong and that laws should be passed to prohibit it. He wanted children to be in school, not working.
DT: I guess my mother had to quit at a young age to go into the mill, but she was smart. Civics and geography – my mother was great at that stuff. She had beautiful penmanship. She was a good seamstress. When I got married, my mother made all the gowns. She made my going-away outfit. She even made the wedding cake. She did the same for my sister Janel.
She married my father when she was 19. My father came from Canada. I don’t know exactly when the law was passed, but my mother lost her citizenship when she married him and did not know about it. When the war came, she suddenly got deportation papers. They wanted to deport her to Canada. I was 14 years old. We were going crazy. My mother had to go to night school to get her second papers. So she was born in this country, and still had to be naturalized.
Note: In 1907, a law was passed stating that a wife’s citizenship was determined by the status of her husband. This resulted in American-born women losing their citizenship if they married an alien. In 1922, Congress passed the Married Women’s Act. This gave each woman her own citizenship status. From this date, women who had lost their citizenship status due to marrying an alien could apply for naturalization.
DT: In 1951, I moved to Swansea (five miles from Fall River). My mother and stepfather built a house right next door to me a year later. But then they moved to California. My stepfather got a job out there with Brown and Sharp. After about six years, they decided to come back, and they moved to Pawtucket (Rhode Island). Then my mother bought another house, in Swansea, and she stayed there until about 10 years before she died. Then she moved in with a son and lived there the last 10 years of her life.
She lived a good life. We didn’t become millionaires, but we all came out of it okay. When she got to be in her seventies, her sister lost her husband, and they traveled places together. They went to Europe. I went to Hawaii once and we took her with us. She was 85 then. My mother had not been to a doctor for a long time. She was a very private person. We finally got her to a doctor. He examined her and said there was nothing wrong with her. She died from a stroke about 10 years later, in 1994. She was 94 years old.
JM: Is the King Philip Mill still there?
DT: Yes, but it’s not a mill now. There’s a little bit of everything in there. When we were young, we used to bring lunches to my aunts who were working there. We didn’t like those big straps that would go around and around at the top. We would have to run underneath them. It was scary.
Alberta Bonneau: 1900 – 1995
*Story published in 2010.