Lewis Hine caption: Andrew Stefanik, (on right hand). (see label 2637). Arthur Asslin, (on left) 118 Front St. Been working here one year. May be 14 or 15. Location: Chicopee, Massachusetts.
“The mills of the Dwight Manufacturing Company are at Chicopee, three miles above Springfield, and embrace the Cabot mills, organized in 1832; the Perkins Company, in 1836; and the Dwight Company, in 1841. These mills were consolidated in 1856, under the present name, and now have 130,000 spindles, 3,400 looms, and upward of two miles in length of floor space. They form one of the finest plants in New England, and its goods have a world-wide reputation. Its heavy Cabot sheetings find a market in China and Turkey, Africa and South America, while its Anchor sheetings, Dwight Stars, and other brands of which a large variety are made have a leading reputation with the trades.” –King’s Handbook of the United States, 1891
“The Dwight is an early instance of combination, absorbing the Perkins and Cabot Mills and united their factories to its own by building in between them, till now their mill presents a frontage but a few less than a third of a mile. One of the beautiful sights from the north side of the river is this long mill with its thousands of lights shining in the darkness.” –New England Magazine, March 1898
Arthur Asselin apparently started working at the Dwight Manufacturing Company in the year that the first photo below was taken. According to the 1901 Canada census, he was born in Quebec on February 10, 1898, to Joseph and Delia Asselin, who reported six children living with them. When the family entered the United States, through Newport, Vermont, on October 12, 1909, they had three additional children with them. Their destination listed in the immigration manifest was Chicopee.
According to the 1910 census, the Asselin family was living at 118 Front Street, the address Hine attributed to Arthur in his photo a year later. The parents indicated that they were married in 1892, had nine children still living, and eight deceased. Arthur’s father was a moulder in a brass mill, two adult daughters were working in the Dwight mills, and one son was working for the street department. Their home was one of the many row houses across the street from the Dwight mill. Some, including the one occupied by the Asselins, have since been replaced by a small shopping center.
Arthur married Matilda in 1919. In the 1920 census, they were listed as boarders in a home at 20 Depot Street, in Chicopee. He worked as a polisher for an undetermined company, and she was a twister at the Dwight mills. By 1930, they had moved to 189 South Street, also in Chicopee. Arthur was listed as a carpenter, and he and Matilda had four children, including four-year-old Lillian, who I subsequently found still living in Chicopee. I interviewed her and her daughter, Theresa, neither of whom had seen the Hine photos.
Edited interview with Lillian Charron, daughter of Arthur Asselin, and Lillian’s daughter, Theresa Mitrowski, granddaughter of Arthur Asselin. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on January 22, 2008.
JM: What did you think when you saw the photographs of your father?
Lillian: I never had a picture of my dad when he was little, so it was kind of a shock. After looking through a lot of his pictures and comparing them, I started to see some resemblance. And the more I look at it now, the more he looks like my dad.
JM: Did you know that your father was working in the Dwight Mills at that age?
Lillian: No, I didn’t. He was building houses when he married my mother. That was in 1919. He was working for a contractor.
JM: How far did your father get in school?
Lillian: I don’t think he went to high school. Everything he knew he learned on his own.
JM: Where did your father live as a boy?
Lillian: He was born in Canada. When he first came to America, he lived up by the Dwight Mills, in the company blocks on Front Street.
JM: When you were growing up, was your mother working?
Lillian: No, she was a stay-at-home mom. My dad didn’t want her to work.
JM: Did your father continue to work for a contractor?
Lillian: No. I was born in 1925, right before the big crash in ’29. Then we had the Depression, and it was rough. Nobody was building houses. My parents had five little mouths to feed. My father got a job at the Bosch (American Bosch, located in Springfield) in 1936. He was working on magnetos (electric generators for ignition systems). He did that until he retired. Even after that, he was doing outside jobs. My father was tough. He could do anything. You see that garage in my driveway? My father built that. See all these cabinets here? He built them, too. He built cabinets for the church rectory.
JM: Did they have a union at Bosch?
Lillian: Yes, and it was a great place to work.
JM: Did he move up the ladder in his job?
Lillian: No, he wasn’t a boss or anything like that. He just went in every day, brought his lunch box, and did his job.
JM: Do you think he liked his job?
Lillian: Well, he never complained. When he came home, he was tired. My father never complained, because he loved to work. I’m the same way. I’d go nuts if I didn’t have anything to do.
JM: Did you work as a child?
Lillian: Yes. I also worked at the Dwight Mills. There was a hat company there. I started at age 16. We were poor, and I wanted to make a few bucks so I could buy myself some pretty clothes. Do you know how much I made? I was making 35 cents an hour. But it was a job, and jobs were hard to come by then. I used to trim hats, 35 cents a dozen, and I struggled to make one dozen an hour. I worked from 8:00 in the morning till 6:30 in the evening. In the summertime, we made winter hats; in the wintertime, we made summer hats. We made the silks in the summer and the straws in the winter. In November, they would lay us off, while they changed over the machines. Then my sister got a job at the Bosch, so I went down there, and they took me right away. That was during the war (WWII). I was 17. So I never graduated. I quit with one more year to go. As poor as we were, my mother sent us to Cathedral High School in Springfield. We walked down every day to take the bus.
JM: Did you work after you were married?
Lillian: Only until my daughter was born a year after I got married. I hated to quit, because I was making twice as much as my husband then. But I used to shovel all the snow, mow the lawn, and things like that. I even painted my apartment three times. My father taught me a lot of things. I’m pretty handy with the hammer, too. He taught my husband a lot of things. My husband was not handy at all when we got married.
JM: With all the work your father was doing, did he have any time for you when you were a kid?
Lillian: Oh sure, he had time for that. He was fun to be with. He used to take us out tobogganing.
JM: What would you do together as a family on the weekends?
Lillian: We liked to play cards. We always had a house full of company. My mother had five kids, but she was happy in her house. She wasn’t a visitor. So everybody visited her. Many times, we slept on the floor to give up our beds to company. When she was older, my mother said she must have been crazy making her kids sleep on the floor. But kids don’t mind sleeping on the floor. In the summer, it was cooler on the floor.
JM: What was your mother’s maiden name?
Lillian: Matilda Beaulac. She was born in New Hampshire, although her parents were living in Canada at the time. Her mother was visiting relatives in New Hampshire.
JM: Did your mother work when she was a girl?
Lillian: Yes, at the Dwight Mills, too. She was a winder.
JM: Did you know your father’s parents?
Lillian: No. They died when they were very young. I think his father was in his 40s when he died.
JM: How old was your father when he died?
Lillian: He was 69. He had a heart attack.
JM: When were you born, Theresa?
JM: How many years did you know your grandfather?
Theresa: 19 years. He died in 1967.
JM: What do you remember about your grandfather?
Theresa: He liked to laugh and have a good time. He liked to play cards and smoke cigarettes.
JM: Did you go to college?
Theresa: No. I’ve been working in sales for a company for over 20 years. Before that, I was working in insurance. I also do art – oil painting – on the side.
JM: Did you ever work in a mill?
Theresa: No, but I love mill buildings. I paint pictures of them. In Holyoke, when I was first married, I sewed a lot and made my own curtains. So I would go to the mill stores to buy the fabric. And I used to buy clothing at an old dress factory. There were always mills around. I think it’s inspirational to work in those buildings, or to have art shows in them. They have a lot of character.
JM: What do think of the photographs of your grandfather?
Theresa: When I saw the pictures, I thought of how hard he must have worked when he was so young. It’s a good thing that they passed laws to outlaw it. I think about the child labor that’s going on in other countries, just so Americans can buy fancy rugs or cheap products.
JM: When I saw the photo of your grandfather with the other children, I thought to myself, ‘They might have gotten into a little trouble once in a while, but they looked like decent kids.’
Theresa: They wouldn’t have had time to get into trouble then. They were probably too tired. They were working all the time.
Lillian: Your grandfather worked hard when he was just a kid, but when he met my mother and settled down and had a family, it changed his life completely.
Theresa: He was a good craftsman. He did things as close to perfect as he could. He was doing some carpentry work when he had the heart attack. He died with a hammer in his hand.
Arthur Asselin: 1898 – 1967; Matilda Asselin: 1900 – 1983
Dwight Mfg. Co. closed in 1927. In 1931, the site became the first multi-tenant industrial park in New England.
*Story published in 2009.