Lewis Hine caption: Group of workers in Glenallen Mill. Smallest girl helps her sister Dora Roberts in mill. Lives at 13 Woodlawn St., there are 13 in the family, five or six working. Apparently prosperous. In this group is also Corinne Cuillette. Location: Winchendon, Massachusetts, September 1911.
“It made me very sad to see her at the mill. I knew my father went to work when he was young. His mother got very sick, and he had to quit school in order to stay home and take care of her and his brother and sister.” -Ann Webb, daughter of Mary Roberts
“My mother was just happy all the time. No matter how bad things were, she was still happy. Things must have been really rough during the Depression. She did complain once, because she had to go down to the welfare, where she got oranges and apples. All we had to eat sometimes for supper was bread with milk and brown sugar. My mother cried sometimes because there was nothing more to give us. -Geraldine Richard, daughter of Mary Roberts
“By 1848, Winchendon Springs had grown to be almost as large as Winchendon village. In 1870, Joseph N. White went to Canada and hired twenty-six men from Ottawa to work in the mill at Spring Village. The following year he visited Montreal and hired another group of people to come work in the mill. From that time on, the influx of French people into the neighborhood continued for several years. Mrs. Mary Bosworth, present Postmaster of Winchendon Springs and former secretary to Nelson D. White, remembers his telling her that the first French family to come to Winchendon was the Alverez Roberts family.” –The Winchendon Years, by Lois Greenwood
Lewis Hine took most of his child labor photos under considerable duress, since mill owners would not have looked kindly on his investigative work. He tried to engage his young subjects in conversation, hoping to gather information such as names, ages and how many years they had worked at the mill. He scribbled down some notes and typed them out later. His notes were often incomplete, and names were often misspelled. Eventually, they were used by his employer, the National Child Labor Committee, as captions for the photographs. Occasionally, the Committee took liberties with the wording when they published them in journals and periodicals.
That doesn’t make my research any easier when I am trying to identify the children. In this photograph, the caption mentions Dora Roberts, but Hine doesn’t tell us if she’s in the picture. Even worse, he points out Dora’s young sister, but doesn’t tell us her first name. Thankfully, my research filled in the details.
The Robert sisters were two of 14 children born to Alvares Peter Robert (later Roberts, which I will use from here on) and Parmelia Guertin, who were married in St. Simon, Quebec, on February 2, 1875. According to the 1880 census, Alvares entered the US in 1873. He returned to his hometown two years later to marry. Further census information lists his immigration year as 1869 or 1870. Their first child was born in Quebec in 1878, after which Mrs. Roberts and baby joined her husband in Winchendon. Interestingly, one more child was born in Quebec, in 1883, and another was born in Maine, in 1897. All the others were born in Winchendon.
Among them was Mary, born May 27, 1900, the youngest of Dora’s sisters, a fact that confirms that she was the unnamed sister in the photograph. When I contacted two of Mary’s daughters, they recognized her in the photo, and also spotted Dora. According to the 1900, 1910 and 1920 censuses, Mr. Roberts continued to work in the Spring Village mill, first as a loom fixer, then as a stationary engineer. Dora, who was born on May 11, 1892, worked as a spinner, and Mary worked as a winder. Their mother, Parmelia, died on March 13, 1916. Mary was only 15 then. Their father, Alvares, died on April 24, 1933.
Dora married twice, but had no children. Her first husband was Eugene Ryan, a box factory worker, whom she married in 1925. He died in 1939. Her second marriage was to Dolphus Dumas, a leather worker, who already had five children. Dora died in Ayer, Massachusetts on January 29, 1971, at the age of 78. She is buried with her first husband in Calvary Cemetery in Winchendon.
Mary married Adolph Lefebre on June 7, 1920. He was a moulder in a foundry. They had five children. Mary died in Winchendon on May 13, 1964, two weeks before her 64th birthday. She is also buried at Calvary. Her husband died four years later.
Edited interview with Geraldine Richard and Ann Webb, daughters of Mary Roberts. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on April 22, 2009
JM: Did you recognize Dora in the photograph?
Geraldine: Yes, we think we do.
Ann: She and Mary are dressed alike, and their hair is the same. She was eight years older than my mother.
Geraldine: The more you look at them, the more you can see that their faces are very much alike.
JM: What was your reaction to seeing this photo of your mother for the first time?
Geraldine: If I hadn’t seen it in the picture, I wouldn’t have believed she went to work that early in her life.
JM: You grew up in Winchendon. Were you aware that children had been working in the mills there at one time?
Ann: It made me very sad to see her at the mill. I knew my father went to work when he was young. His mother got very sick, and he had to quit school in order to stay home and take care of her and his brother and sister. But I really didn’t know much about my mother’s life when she was young. She never talked about her childhood.
Geraldine: My mother told me she went to school through the eighth grade. I figure that if she was going to school, she wasn’t working. So perhaps she was just working in the mill in the summer.
JM: She was photographed at the mill in the first week of September.
Ann: So she could have worked there in the summer when there was no school.
JM: The caption says that she helped her sister Dora in the mill, not that she worked in the mill. Hine would have said that not because he had witnessed it, but because that was what your mother told him. He often asked the children questions. She might have been told to say that by the mill owners, because she was under the legal working age. Mill owners often told children to lie about their age, or not to answer any questions from outsiders.
Ann: I can believe that.
JM: When you were young, was your mother working?
Ann: My mother always worked. She worked at Mason Parker. It was a toy factory. And she worked at the box shop. They made boxes out of wood. Both places were in Winchendon. Later, she worked at Winchendon Hospital. And then she worked in the Ben Franklin store. Every Christmas, she would play Santa Claus at the store.
Geraldine: Also for the American Legion. She belonged to the American Legion.
JM: Did you go and sit on your mother’s knee when she was Santa Claus?
Ann: No. I was afraid, even though I knew it was her.
Geraldine: My mother was very musical. She played the piano. They used to have minstrel shows upstairs at the town hall auditorium. My mother was one of people with a blackened face and a turban on her head.
Ann: And she sang. She was very good. She did that for many years. She made a little recording once of two of the songs she used to sing. We don’t have that recording anymore.
Geraldine: My mother had 13 brothers and sisters.
JM: Did you know your mother’s parents?
Geraldine: I knew my grandfather.
Ann: He died the year I was born.
Geraldine: He lived with my Aunt Dora. I would go down to their house a lot. Dora never had any children, so she loved to have me around. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s knee. My grandmother died when my mother was only 15. My mother went to live with her sister, Virginia, who was married and living in Winchendon. There was 25 years between the first child and the last.
JM: According to one of the history books about Winchendon, your grandparents, the Roberts family, were the first French Canadian family to be recruited by the White Brothers to work in the mill.
Geraldine: I didn’t know that.
JM: Where did you live when you were growing up?
Geraldine: On Woodlawn Street. The house is still there. So is the house my mother was born in on Woodlawn Street, across from the house we lived in. We also lived on Cedar Street and Maple Street. At one time, my father worked in Barre (30 miles south of Winchendon), and it was hard for him to get a ride down there. So we moved to Hubbardston, which was closer. But we only lived there about six weeks, and then we moved back to Winchendon and finally bought a house on Goodrich Street. That was the first house my parents owned. Her sister, Virginia, gave us the down payment.
JM: When did your parents marry?
Ann: June 7, 1920.
JM: What was your father’s name?
JM: Was he a Winchendon native?
Geraldine: He was born in Gardner.
JM: What did he do for a living?
Geraldine: He was a moulder in a foundry. We’d go down there sometimes in the afternoons and watch him pour the hot liquid into the mold.
JM: How many children did your parents have?
Geraldine: Five. Lorraine was born in 1922. I was born two years later. Kenneth was born in 1927, then Ann in 1933, and then Pam in 1936.
JM: Both of your parents were working, so who took care of the children?
Ann: There was 11 years difference between my oldest sister and me. When I started school, there was a lady that my mother hired. She watched over my little sister, and made lunch for us when I came home from school for lunch. After school, my older sisters took care of me.
JM: What was your father like?
Ann: He was a very quiet man. Except if he had a couple of drinks; then he liked to dance.
JM: Where did your parents go dancing?
Geraldine: Oh, just places around town, you know. My mother loved to dance. A lady named Bea Elliott used to have a radio program. Once in a while, she had my mother on as a guest. Sometimes, my mother would substitute for her. She would sing and talk and joke. For a while, she worked at the Toy Town Diner. I used to love honey donuts, and whenever she was working there, she would bring one home for me. She didn’t drive, but she rode her bike all over Winchendon. I think she was in her late fifties when she finally learned to drive and got a car.
Ann: Aunt Dora lived in Winchendon. But after her husband died, she went to work at Fort Devens (Army base in Massachusetts). She met a widower that had five children, and she married him and moved to Ayer.
JM: What was Dora like? Was she different from your mother?
Geraldine: She wasn’t as jolly. My mother was just happy all the time. No matter how bad things were, she was still happy. Things must have been really rough during the Depression. She did complain once, because she had to go down to the welfare, where she got oranges and apples. All we had to eat sometimes for supper was bread with milk and brown sugar. My mother cried sometimes because there was nothing more to give us. All of us girls had the same shoes and the same dresses. One was yellow and another was pink.
Ann: Aunt Dora could sew. She would sew rickrack to put on the dresses to make them look different.
Geraldine: When my mother was a girl, they were burning leaves once, and her dress caught fire. One of her brothers pushed her to the ground and rolled her around. She was okay, but she had a scar. She had a brother that was killed in a horse and buggy accident when he was a teenager. And she had a brother that died in World War I, during the flu epidemic.
JM: Did you or any of your siblings go to college?
Geraldine: No, but three of us graduated from high school. Lorraine got married and quit high school.
Ann: Kenneth quit school when he was a senior and went into the Navy.
Geraldine: My son had his First Communion on Mother’s Day, here in Gardner. That was in 1964. My mother came down for it. She stayed with us maybe three or four hours, and then she went home. She died three days later. She was 63.
JM: Do you think of your mother any differently now that you have seen the 1911 photograph?
Geraldine: I feel sorry that she didn’t have a happy childhood.
Ann: Maybe she did. We don’t know.
Geraldine: When I graduated from high school, Aunt Dora took me on the train to St. Simon in Quebec. That’s where my family came from. When we got off the train, we took a taxi for a short distance, then some relatives met us with a horse and a wagon, and it was all dirt roads. We rolled on and on over those roads, and when we got to their house, that’s all there was.
Ann: If that’s all there was, I can see why the family moved down here.
Mary Roberts: 1900 – 1964
Dora Roberts: 1892 -1971
“We didn’t have much growing up, but we had the love of our parents. On Sundays after church and dinner, we would go for long walks. They would play games with us, tell us stories, and we knew that they loved us and were trying the best they could. We were all happy and grew up with not one of us getting in trouble, and all happily married thanks to our mother’s love.” -Geraldine Richard, daughter of Mary Roberts
*Story published in 2010.