Lewis Hine caption: Elizabeth Demaris [i.e., Demarais?], 13 years old. A spinner in the Spring Village Mill, Winchendon, Mass. Been working since May. Lumina Demaris, sister of Elizabeth, admitted 12 years old. Been a doffer in Spring Village Mill all summer, Father and sister Elizabeth works steady. They keep two boarders. Her doffing crew has three girls and 5 boys. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Several decades after the Civil War, Joseph Nelson White, owner of two denim mills in Winchendon, Massachusetts, started traveling to Quebec to recruit French-speaking men and their families for his workforce. With the Industrial Revolution in full swing in New England, especially textile manufacturing, there was strong competition for cheap and relatively unskilled labor. One of those men was Zoel Desmarais, who arrived in Winchendon with his new bride, Alexina Lefevre, in 1897.
Three years later, they already had two daughters, two-year-old Elizabeth, and her one-year-old sister Lumina. Before they reached their adolescent years, the girls were working in the Winchendon Springs mill, where their father worked as a weaver. In September of 1911, child labor photographer Lewis Hine encountered the girls at the mill and took a total of seven pictures of them, alone, together, and with others. They were both under the Massachusetts legal age limit of 14 years for such work. Their two younger brothers would follow them into the mill later.
Lumina would go on to marry Paul Dube. Elizabeth would marry Ludger Cote; and later, Leon Archambeault, after Ludger’s death in 1958. An article in the Fitchburg (Mass) Sentinel in 1958 announced the 61st wedding anniversary of Zoel and Alexina, noting that they had four children, 13 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren. They lived at 161 Glenallan Street, no more than a short walk from the Springs mill.
My research, both in the Winchendon Town Hall and on the Internet, quickly turned up a lot of information, including the names, addresses and phone numbers of Lumina’s only son, Richard, and one of Elizabeth’s daughters, Alexina. Both live within an hour of Winchendon. Like most descendants of child laborers I have contacted, they were stunned by the existence of the photos. On the following pages, see the text of those interviews, plus many photographs.
Lewis Hine caption: Comparison of ages: On right end is Mary Deschene, admitted 11 years, helped sister spool all summer in Glenallen Mill. Next her is Lumina Demarais, admitted 12 years, and doffing all summer in Spring Village Mill. Next is Rosina Coyette, said she was 14 but Mr. Hine doubted it; has steady job doffing and spinning in Spring Village Mill. Left end is Eva Caonette, spinner in Spring Village Mall, said she was 14 but may not be. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Lewis Hine caption: Lumina Demarais, admitted 12 years ol[d] Been doffing in Spring Mill all summer. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Edited interview with Richard Dube (RD), son of Lumina Desmarais. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on March 12, 2009.
JM: What did you think of the photo?
RD: It was such a nice surprise.
JM: Did you know that your mother and her sister Elizabeth worked at the Springs Mill, and did it surprise you they were so young?
RD: I knew that they worked when they were very young, but no one in the family discussed it to any extent.
JM: What do you think about the fact that the photos were used as examples of child labor that the photographer wanted to outlaw?
RD: It was a good thing that he was pointing that out.
JM: When were you born?
RD: 1934. I was the only child.
JM: Where were you living at that time?
RD: 148 Glenallan Street, in Winchendon. My parents were married on August 2, 1927, and they bought the house in 1928.
JM: Where did your father work?
RD: He first worked at New England Wooden Ware, in the Waterville section of Winchendon. They made wooden buckets. Initially, he worked in the saw mill cutting the wood and sizing it for the buckets. For the last several years at the shop he was in charge of filing all the saws. Then he worked for Temple-Stuart furniture factory in Baldwinville (town next to Winchendon). He had become an expert at filing saws, and that is all he did at Temple-Stuart. He retired from there at about the age of 70.
JM: Did your mother work when you were growing up?
RD: Not that I remember. Unfortunately, my mother had what was then considered a mental illness. In today’s world, it would be called an eating disorder. She was fairly short, and sometimes she would weigh over 200 pounds, and then she would stop eating. No matter how we tried to convince her to eat, she would not want to eat. Ultimately, she went to Gardner State Hospital (Mass). In those days, they used shock treatments. When they did that to her, somehow they would get it out of her system, and she would seem to recover. So she would come home, but then a while later, she would be faced with the same problems all over again. Finally, my father felt he just couldn’t deal with it, so she ended up in Gardner State Hospital for quite a long time, and then went from place to place. I can’t remember all the places she went to.
JM: How old were you when your mother started having this problem?
RD: When I was a teenager.
JM: Who took care of you when your father was working?
RD: At that point, I was taking care of myself. But my grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived right down the street, and my uncle, my mother’s brother, lived next door. I spent a lot of time at both places.
JM: Before you were a teenager, did your mother have any difficulties?
RD: I wasn’t aware of any. As far as I remember, she was okay.
JM: When she was in the hospital in Gardner, did you visit her?
RD: On occasion.
JM: Was that hard to do?
RD: It was very difficult.
JM: Did your father continue to visit her?
RD: He didn’t visit her much at all. Both of us were struggling with visiting her. We were living alone. Fortunately, my mother’s brother Peter Desmarais, and his wife, lived right next door. They had several sons, and I used to pal around with one of them. His name was Norman Desmarais.
JM: Were you very close to your father? It seems like you would have been depending on each other for support.
RD: Sure. We took care of each other. We were relatively poor, but we got by okay. We owned the home. We also had a car, but we didn’t go far.
JM: Did he have a big influence on you?
RD: Definitely. Like him, I tend to be financially conservative. I am a Democrat because he was a strong Democrat. He never used foul language. He never drank. All those things rubbed off on me. He wasn’t very social, and neither am I. When I was a kid, I was pretty much of a loner. My father and I did a lot of work together at home. We built two barns, both of which still exist, in back of the house, and we used one of those barns as a garage. I rebuilt a truck engine once in it. I still have a lot of my father’s tools.
JM: Was your father always working, or did he have some leisure activities?
RD: He liked to garden. He came from a farm family. His parents owned a farm in Quebec. He always had a garden.
JM: Was Winchendon Springs your neighborhood when you were a kid?
RD: Yes. All through my childhood, until I graduated from high school in 1953. I went into the Air Force a year later. I didn’t live at home again after that.
JM: Did you go to college?
RD: I spent four years in the Air Force. And then I got the GI Bill and went to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for four years. I majored in mechanical engineering. I graduated in 1962 with a BSME. I married my wife Carol in 1959. We lived in Amherst for a few years, and then in nearby North Hadley. My first job was with the New England Electric System. I was in a six-month training program, and we moved to Salem (Mass), where I worked at the power plant as a trainee. Eventually, I worked for the same company in Worcester (Mass). Then I worked at the Brayton Point Plant in Somerset (Mass). I left New England Electric in 1965 and went to work for Metcalf and Eddy. I worked there for about six years and then went to work for Stone & Webster Engineering Corp. in 1972. I left Stone & Webster in 1994 to go to work for DB Riley (now Babcock Borsig) in Worcester. I retired from Babcock in 2002. We’ve lived in Billerica (Mass) since 1967. We have one daughter, Dawn-Marie.
JM: When did your parents die?
RD: My mother died in 1987, at the age of 88; and my father died in 1986, at the age of 93.
JM: Did you continue to visit Winchendon when you settled down in Billerica?
RD: Yes, we went back frequently to visit my father, which we did until he passed away. I still visit my cousin Leo Desmarais in Winchendon about twice a year. My father lived with us for about six months when he had a hip operation at about the age of 88 or 89. Then he went to a rest home in Winchendon. When he needed more care, he went to Parker Hill Nursing Home in Gardner.
Before my father went to Parker Hill Nursing Home, I sold the house. I drive by it when I go back to Winchendon. The house is still pretty much the same. It has the barns in the back that my father and I built. The porch that goes all the way around was there when I lived there. We had apple trees all around the property. But we had a wind storm that blew them down.
JM: For the period that you knew your mother before she had the problem, what was she like?
RD: She was a very good mother. She took really good care of me. We got along very well. She let me do pretty much whatever I wanted, which was okay because I was shy and didn’t get into any trouble.
JM: Did she have interests outside of the home?
RD: She visited relatives quite often, including her sister Elizabeth, who lived in town, though she later moved to Gardner. She loved playing Bingo.
JM: Is there any other thing you can remember about your mother?
RD: She and my father were very religious Catholics, and very active in St. Mary’s Church, which is now called Immaculate Heart of Mary. She liked buying shoes and hats. She used to have a small room full of shoes and hats. She would buy some inexpensive jewelry, and I remember that she had a fur coat that she loved. And there was one other thing. My mother loved to play the harmonica. I don’t know how well she played, but she played it, and played it, and played it, even when she was in several different facilities. When she passed away, my cousin Alexina gave us one of her harmonicas.
“My father and I did a lot of work together at home. We built two barns, both of which still exist, in back of the house, and we used one of those barns as a garage. I rebuilt a truck engine once in it. I still have a lot of my father’s tools.” -Richard Dube
Lewis Hine caption: Elizabeth Demarais [i.e., Demaris?], 13 years old. A spinner in the Spring Village Mill, been working since May, Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Edited interview with Alexina “Marie” Couture (AC), daughter of Elizabeth Desmarais and niece of Lumina Desmarais. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on July 30, 2009.
JM: When were you born, and where were your parents living then?
AC: I was born in 1926. At the time, my parents were living in Winchendon, above Brousseau’s Bakery. I think it was on Maple Street. Then we moved to Glenallan Street (142). We had no water or electricity, and we had an outdoor toilet. We left there when I was in the fifth grade. My parents bought a house on Spruce Street, the street the Catholic church is on. Later on, they bought a house on Belmont Avenue.
JM: Was your mother still working when you were born?
AC: No. But when we lived on Belmont Avenue, she went to work nights, from about 2:00 to 10:00, at the Springs Mill. She would take the bus. She did that for maybe a year. I was 13 years old then.
JM: Where was your father working?
AC: He was working for the railroad. Later he worked for Davenport, which was a coal and oil company. He delivered it. He used to carry sacks of coal on his back.
JM: How many siblings did you have?
AC: Three. Joseph was the youngest.
JM: Did you stay at Belmont Avenue the rest of your childhood?
AC: No. We moved to Gardner. My parents later bought a house on Pine Street in Gardner, after I got married.
JM: Why did your parents move to Gardner?
AC: My father got a job at Siebert’s (Siebert Carriage Co.), which made carriages and strollers. My brother and I both got jobs there. I was sixteen when I started. I didn’t graduate from high school, but I finished the tenth grade. The first job I had was at a dress shop in Winchendon. I was sewing.
JM: When did you get married?
AC: In 1946. I married Alfred Couture. We lived on Graham Street in Gardner. We finally bought a house in East Templeton. In 1969, we moved to Worcester. We had nine children. The first one died as a baby, and we adopted one.
JM: Did your mother ever go back to work after she moved to Gardner?
JM: Your Aunt Lumina spent most of her later life in various nursing homes. Did you visit her often?
AC: Yes, I did. She was a very nice woman. She just had a problem with an eating disorder. I used to take care of little babies for Catholic Charities. I would sometimes bring them to the hospital when I visited her, and she used to love to talk to them. And I would bring her Graham crackers and a bottle of milk, so she could have something nice to eat.
JM: Do you think she was happy in the nursing home?
AC: There was no other place for her to live.
JM: Did you know your grandparents, your mother’s parents?
AC: Oh, yes. They were very nice people. They spoke French most of the time. When my grandmother was older, she loved to deal in antiques. She bought and sold them. She was a good businesswoman. She braided rugs and sold them. She raised and sold chickens, and also sold eggs to the local store. My grandfather worked at the Springs Mill, and he also worked in Waterville at the bucket factory (New England Wooden Ware).
JM: How far did your mother get in school?
AC: I don’t know, but she didn’t graduate.
JM: Did she speak French?
AC: Yes, both my parents did. In fact, when I started school, I didn’t speak much English. But I learned it very fast. My mother could also speak English, because she was born in Winchendon. But my father was born in Canada. He went to school to get his naturalization papers.
JM: When did she die?
AC: May 23, 1972, in Gardner. She was living on West Street then. She was a diabetic, and she had lost both legs. My father died March 24, 1958, of lung cancer. My mother remarried, to Leon Archambeault.
JM: What was your mother like?
AC: She was a very nice lady, always full of joy, always singing. She was a great cook and a good seamstress. She liked to play the harmonica, like her sister Lumina. She played the piano, by ear, and she played the accordion. She liked to play mostly French music. She also sang a lot of war songs, like “Over There.”
JM: Were you surprised that your mother and your aunt were working at the mill at that age?
AC: My mother mentioned that she worked there, but I didn’t know my aunt did. My mother said she made $3.10 a week, and her mother took it and gave her 10 cents of it which she could spend on herself. She told me that there was a girl who went to work with her, and they were supposed to start at age 14. The girl said she was 14, though she was actually 13. So my mother, who was also 13, said she was 14. Until you sent me the pictures, I didn’t have any pictures of my mother when she was that young.
Lewis Hine caption: Group of workers going to work at 6:45 A.M. In Spring Village Mill. In this group are Mamie La Barge, Elizabeth and Lumina Demarais, Als de Gauthier, Erena La Prise. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
Lumina Desmarais: May 8, 1899 – June 4, 1987 (88 years old)
Elizabeth Desmarais: May 4, 1898 – May 23, 1972 (74 years old)
*Story published in 2009.