Elias and Julia Joseph, Part One
Lewis Hine caption: Batise Joseph. Winchendon. Doffer in Glenallen Mill. Father and Mother said, “He is 12 years old. Has been doffing all summer. Will go to school.” Query: Will he go to school? Another boy, 13 years old, in this mill said, “I’ll stay at work until they come after me.” Older sister and parents illiterate. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Lewis Hine caption: Illiterate 19-year-old sister of B. Joseph. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
The first day I visited Winchendon to research the 40 child labor photographs that were taken there in 1911, I had printed out all of them and arranged them in a binder in three sections: those taken at the Glenallan Mill, the ones taken at the Spring Village Mill, and the photos of children at their houses or walking in the neighborhood.
After lunch, I went to Glenallan, hidden behind the trees just off Glenallen Street. The mill was empty and gutted out and surrounded by tangled weeds. I was especially interested in this photograph. I wanted to see where the boy was standing when he posed for Hine.
It was easy to figure it out. The main entrance is at the bottom of the tower that also houses the stairs to the other floors. The door was missing, but the opening remained; the landing was there, but the steps on which he was standing were gone. I placed the photo on the ground and positioned myself so that it appeared I was right at the spot where Lewis Hine would have been standing; then I took the picture, as if young Batise were staring at my camera. Mission accomplished, but what about the boy? Who was he? And who was the unnamed sister?
Batise, the first name that Hine gave him, showed up in the census a few times, mostly accompanied by French-looking surnames, none in Winchendon. But there were 15 Josephs in Winchendon in the 1910 census, among five households, all of them listed as natives of Syria (actually Lebanon). One was a large family with a boy listed as Batrie Joseph, born in 1899, which would have made him the right age. His parents were Nagner and Conote Joseph. In the 1920 census, I found what was obviously the same family, but in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which is about 20 miles from Winchendon. This time, the parents’ names were spelled Nashner and Bount (later confirmed as Nashim and Bonout), but most of the children had the same names as in 1910, except for the boy born in 1899. This time, he was listed as Elsie.
It was on my second visit that I met Catherine Joseph Drudi, the proprietor of Winchendon’s legendary Joseph’s Store, a small variety store which looks like it could have been there when Lewis Hine snuck into town with his camera and notebook more than 97 years ago. It was there, in fact, though not quite in the same spot. Catherine, who has since become my best source for Winchendon history, said she was related to this Joseph family, but she didn’t remember anyone named Batise. She thought he looked like either Herbert or Louis Joseph, but when I later found their death records, I ruled them out because they would have been either too old or too young. But Catherine also identified the unnamed sister as Julia, which would prove to be correct.
I kept Catherine up to date as I continued my search. When I discovered the digital archives of the Fitchburg Sentinel online, I dug up all sorts of articles mentioning the Josephs, including some about an Elias Joseph and his family. I recalled “Elsie” in the 1920 census, who was oddly listed as a boy. I knew at that moment that I had finally found the right boy. Catherine remembered him and all of his children, including one named Madeline. I searched that name and found her wedding announcement in the news archives, then caught up with her, living now in California. She was understandably surprised, and grateful, when I sent her the photo of her father. The following is Elias’s story, as told by his daughter, Madeline Strasser. Julia’s story, as told by her sons, Edward and Paul, will follow.
Edited interview with Madeline Strasser (MS), daughter of Elias Joseph, conducted by Joe Manning (JM), on December 18, 2008.
JM: How did you react to the photo?
MS: I was taken aback by it. I had no impression at all of my dad’s youth. It certainly looked like him. I was surprised that he worked at that mill in Winchendon. He was such a wonderful father, and to fill in that portion of his life was quite a revelation. It opened up a whole new avenue for my sisters and me. I’m glad that you found it.
JM: Do you have any idea why he might have been called Batise in the caption?
MS: My sister Elaine remembers my father being called by another name. She said it sounded like Batista.
JM: When you saw him photographed at the mill, was your inclination to feel sorry for him?
MS: Definitely. My father was a very bright man. He skipped two grades in elementary school. I think he was the only one in his family who went on to finish high school. I think he had to drop out in the latter part of high school, but he had a tutor and was able to fulfill the requirements and was accepted at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He saved some money to go, but he couldn’t because his father wanted him to work and help with the family finances.
JM: Did he regret that?
MS: I think it was a great disappointment in his life, the reason being that from a very early time in our lives, my dad instilled in us that we were expected to go to college when we finished high school. He even encouraged our cousins to do the same. We all did go to college. He always helped us with homework. When our cousin was in high school, he got early acceptance to Holy Cross College. My dad encouraged him to accept, and if he needed financial help, dad offered help to his parents. However, it was not necessary as he received a full scholarship. My oldest sister told me that when she was a young girl she was envious of our cousin who had received a fur coat. When she asked my father for one, he replied, ‘That coat will only last a short while. You are going to go to college and that will last your lifetime.’ My brother-in-law, George, said my dad was so intelligent that it was a shame that he couldn’t follow through with his education. By nature, he was an engineer. It was unfortunate that he didn’t have the theory to go behind it.
JM: What kind of engineering did he do?
MS: Mechanical engineering.
JM: Was he building things or was he simply maintaining them?
MS: He did everything. He built them; he maintained them. He worked at Norton, in Worcester. Their concentration was grinding wheels, and tool and die. He worked for them a number of years, and he had quite a few inventions and patents with them, for which he got awards.
JM: What, for instance?
MS: Tools and dies. Not only did he come up with the ideas, but he also knew how to make the parts. He was a machinist, and because he was so good at what he was doing, he was assigned to teach others how to work the machines and also how to introduce his new inventions.
JM: Did he own any of the patents?
MS: No, the company owned them.
JM: Do you recall having any conversations with your father about his past?
MS: My father never talked about working as a child or any hard times in his past. He was always a forward thinker. He talked about Lebanon. He was born there in 1898. He came to the US (Winchendon) when he was eight years old (1906 according to immigration records). His family moved to West Street in Fitchburg in the early 1920s (records indicate the family moved to Fitchburg about 1918). After marrying, my father and mother lived on West Street, where my oldest sister Genevieve was born. They later moved into an apartment on 26 Blossom Street, where my sisters Elaine and Joanne and I were born. We lived next to the Crescent Apartments, which was owned by my grandfather (Elias’s father) and his children. As we grew older my parents wanted us to have a yard to play in so they moved to 64 Milk Street in 1941, where my sister Bernadette was born. We lived in a beautiful Victorian house with a large yard, and that’s where we all grew up.
JM: What kind of a neighborhood did you live in?
MS: It was a very nice residential neighborhood. We used to walk to downtown Fitchburg. It was only about 15 minutes away.
JM: How did your father meet your mother?
MS: My dad’s father had his eye on a woman in Lebanon who he wanted my father to meet. After going to Lebanon and meeting her, my father was unimpressed. He then went to Jezzine and stayed at the hotel which was next to my mother’s family home. One day he was coming down the stairs of the hotel and he saw my mother on the balcony. He was immediately attracted to her. Her name was Eugenie. He saw her several times after that. Once at a local store he asked the owner about her. It just so happened that my mother’s aunt was standing right there. She later introduced him to my mother and her family. After courting for some time, they got married in 1929. They sailed to the US via Egypt and Marseilles and Paris.
JM: Did your mother and father speak Lebanese?
MS: Yes, all the time to each other, and sometimes to us. We all speak a little Lebanese and understand a fair amount of it.
JM: Tell me more about your father.
MS: He was a math whiz, and he must have been good at science. He was very good at history. He loved to talk about history. He helped all of us with all of our homework, particularly our math homework. Even if he was not familiar with a particular math problem, he was able to work through it and come to the correct answer. My father encouraged us to do all the things we dreamed of doing, taking piano lessons, ballet, swimming lessons, etc. He never thought of us as girls who couldn’t do certain things. He taught us everything.
Before they came out commercially, my father motorized my mother’s sewing machine. She used to sew almost all our clothes. He also motorized our manual lawn mower. It made so much noise. When I would help cut the grass I always feared that my friends from school might come by and make fun of me.
JM: What did you enjoy doing with him?
MS: He worked so much. There were many times when he was working that we did things together. It was so wonderful that no matter what he was doing: fixing the car, working in the boiler room, plumbing, painting the house, working in the yard, fixing things and so many other chores, we would help him or just be with him and watch what he was doing. He bought the Bernson apartment building in the 1950s, and he did everything there, the renovations and maintenance and so on, and we would be with him, watching him and helping him. Because of this we learned so many of these skills as well.
He bought a 1937 Oldsmobile that we had until 1953. He did all the repairs on it and even replaced the motor. Every Sunday he would take the family to different historic sites and teach us about what happened there. He took us to so many special places in that car. After the Oldsmobile, we had a Packard, and then he bought a Chrysler only a week before he died.
JM: What was your mother like?
MS: My mother was a true homemaker. She was so sweet and wonderful and always loving. She would have put Martha Stewart to shame. Not only was she a gourmet cook, she was able to put out a feast on a moment’s notice. She sewed outfits for all of us, and they looked like they were purchased from a fine store. She was very fashionable and always well dressed. We had a very large vegetable garden and flower garden in which we all participated. My mother canned the fruit and vegetables from the garden. We never wanted for anything. There was always that dollar in my mother’s wallet when we needed it.
JM: You told me that your mother is still alive.
MS: Yes, she’s 96. She was younger than my father by 13 years. She had a slight stroke, so she lost her ability to express herself. Other than that, she is coherent. She walks with a walker and is in fairly good health.
JM: Where did you go to college?
MS: I first went to Elms College in Chicopee, Mass. I then went to Boston College for my master’s degree in chemistry. I worked for Dow Chemical in Framingham, and then I went to Polaroid in Cambridge, Mass. After I got married, my husband and I moved to California.
JM: Was your father still working when he died?
MS: He was no longer with Norton, but he was still working at the Crescent and the Bernson. He died in 1961, of a heart attack. It was devastating. He worked too hard his whole life. I can’t remember him ever taking a vacation. It was on Father’s Day. He had just bought a beautiful Chrysler Imperial. He was going to leave for Florida the next day with the family. After our noon meal, he went to the Crescent with my brother-in-law George to go over records and show him where everything was. When he came home, George was driving because my father wasn’t feeling well. Soon after, he was taken to the hospital where he died at 8:00 pm. It just strikes me that he died on Father’s Day. He was such a great father.
He had so many good qualities. If I had to pick out one, it would be integrity. He was honest down to the penny. He was very generous. At his wake, so many people came up and told us all the things he had done for them. He found jobs for many people. He was a religious man. He would say the rosary and would make sure we all knelt down and said our prayers. At St. Bernard’s Parish, it was pointed out in the bulletin that the heating bill was very high. My father checked the system and was able to modify it so it was more cost effective. He was very friendly and loved to visit with people. He enjoyed playing checkers with his family and friends. He loved to laugh. He was very warm and loving toward his family. We always remember him with that smile on his face.
JM: Having seen the photo of your father now, is there anything you’ve learned from it?
MS: It makes me realize how hard it was growing up at that time, and what the mentality was at that time. It was all about working, especially for the immigrants. I wonder if he had gone on for a higher education, knowing all he did to start with, what he might have accomplished and what contributions he might have made. You told me about the child labor law that passed in 1916. My father was 18 at that point. Too bad they didn’t pass it in 1910.
Five years after Elias was photographed, the first federal child labor law was passed. It was called the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act. The law prohibited the interstate sale of goods manufactured by children, extending the constitutional clause that gave Congress the task of regulating interstate commerce. The law effectively made it impossible for manufacturing companies who employed children to sell their products. Two years later, in a complicated legal decision, the US Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 1938, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, that most forms of child labor were outlawed nationwide.
Several months after I completed this story, I received the following email from Madeline Strasser, Elias’s daughter:
“When we visited Massachusetts recently, two of my sisters, my mother, my sister’s husband and I took a trip to Winchendon. As we drove past the cemetery, we saw the area where my father’s family lived. Then we arrived at the Glenallan Mill. I can’t find the words to describe this moment. There it was in reality, a haunting shell of a building telling a story from 100 years ago about these dear young children who labored there. I saw the doorway where my father actually stood. What an emotional experience. It was like we were still looking at the picture. It was hard to believe it was real. So many times we went to Winchendon with my dad and never knew of this time in his life, until we heard from you. It would be great if this massive and imposing building could be designated – as is – as a historic site commemorating this time in history. We took an old worn brick from the mill and printed on it, ‘Elias, Glenallan 1911.’ When we visited my father’s grave, we placed the brick in the ground next to his gravestone.”
*Story published in 2009.