Voices of the Mills: Oral History Interviews with Connecticut Mill Workers, Mill Managers, and Residents of Mill Communities

In the 1990s, the Mill Museum conducted oral history interviews with retired textile mill workers, mill managers, and residents of textile mill communities in eastern Connecticut, mostly Willimantic, the former “Thread City.” By then, most of the state’s once vibrant textile industry had left, first for the American South, and then overseas. The Museum wanted to record the voices of the last generation of Connecticut’s textile mill people before they were gone. The interviews were carried out under the supervision of the late Dr. Bruce Stave, of the University of Connecticut History Department and Institute for Oral History. Most of the interviews were conducted by Thomas R. Beardsley, then an M.A. History student at UConn and scholar-in-residence at the Mill Museum. Most of the interviews were recorded on tape cassettes. Written transcripts were created, some of which were published in Thomas R. Beardsley, Willimantic Industry and Community: The Rise and Decline of a Connecticut Textile City (Willimantic: Windham Textile and History Museum, 1993). Recently, the Mill Museum was able to digitize the tape cassette recordings, thanks to Dr. Anna D. Jaroszyńska-Kirchmann of the Eastern Connecticut State University History Department and E.C.S.U.’s instructional technology staff, where the recordings were used in advanced History classes. The Museum is now placing the digital recordings online, here on its website, for public access. The recordings are (c) Windham Textile and History Museum.

Bowman, Gladys: Teacher. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990.

Gladys Bowman was a descendant of an English tailor who arrived in Willimantic, CT shortly after the Civil War. She never worked in the city’s thread mills. Gladys was a teacher, one of the first degree recipients from the Willimantic State Teacher’s College. She possessed a deep knowledge of local history, and gave insights into the various districts of Willimantic, its various ethnic make up. Her French Canadian mother lived in “Cork Alley.” She recalled the “Tab,” and the famous dance bands that performed there.

Blackburn, Edith Hartley: Mill Worker. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990. “I Still Miss England.”

Edith Blackburn was born in Lancashire, England in 1908. She emigrated to the United States twice. She recalls her youth in a Lancashire mill town. These experiences prepared her for life in New England — but not for American weather. She began work at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT in 1923 and worked in Rhode Island for the duration of the 1925 ATCO strike. She returned to Willimantic in 1927 and worked as a spooler at American Thread for the next 27 years. there are recollections and opinions about the Great Depression, mill work, unions, other ethnic groups, and old time Willimantic.

Deshaies, Rose: Mill Worker. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990. “I Was Always for the Union when It Started. I’m Not Afraid to Say It.”

Rose Deshaies as born in Quebec in 1916. Her parents were recruited by the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT as replacement workers during the 1925 ATCO strike. She recalls being insulted by local kids whose parents were on strike. She began to work at American Thread herself in 1932, and was put to work as a waitress for the State Police lodged in the Company’s “Elms” boarding house during the duration of the national textile strike in 1934. Rose became a staunch unionist and worked as a winder. She retired in 1980.

Dunham, Rose: Teacher and Mill Worker. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990. “There Were Policemen in the Trees with Drawn Guns.”

This is an account of a woman who considered herself to be “extremely Irish,” despite the fact that she was born in Willimantic, CT in 1906. Rose trained to be a teacher bust worked summers at the American Thread Company packing spools. She vividly recalled the 1925 ATCO strike, including the marches, police, guns, and the dispute’s subsequent impact upon the community. Rose worked in New York City during the Great Depression, but returned to her home town. This is an informative interview covering many topics.

Garneau, Arthur: Mill Worker. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990. “You Knew You Had to Work Under Those Conditions, Because There Were Four or Five People Waiting for Your Job.”

Arthur Garneau was born in Barford, Quebec in 1907. After a varied adventurous life, and a momentous cross-country drive, he arrived in Willimantic, CT in 1930, during the Great Depression. There is a graphic account of working conditions in Willimantic’s Corn Spinning Company plant on Bridge Street. The interview also contains some interesting accounts of life and characters in Willimantic.

Monroe, Irene: Mill Worker. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1991. “I Was Just a Mill Hand. It Was in My Blood.

Irene Monroe spent more than 30 years at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT — save for some wartime service and family leave — and she enjoyed every minute of it. She was born in Willimantic in 1919. Her father was a blacksmith. Irene worked in the finishing department in Mill Number Six. She witnessed the gradual change from cotton to synthetic textiles. Irene recalled the various ethnic groups, management, and a member of the 1960s pop group, the Monkees, who spent his summers working at American Thread.

Pender, Corrine: Mill Worker. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990.

Corrine (Krombie) Pender was born in South Coventry, CT in 1903. She recalled her early childhood in New York City and New London, CT. Her family eventually resettled in Coventry. Corrine started work as a teenager in Willimantic, CT’s telephone exchange. She later worked in the Holland silk mill and was briefly employed as a nurse. She returned to the silk industry and worked at the Corticelli silk mill in Putnam, CT. From there she went to the Washburn silk mill in Coventry and then to Pratt and Whitney.

Tyler, Ken: Mill Foreman. Interviewed by Thomas R. Beardsley, 1990.

Ken Tyler was a foreman in the dye shop at the American Thread Company in Willimantic, CT. He was born in Sterling, CT in 1926. His working life began at the U. S. Finishing plant in Sterling, where he was employed as a jig dyer. He did service in the Navy for three years, and worked several jobs before landing in Willimantic in 1955, to begin work in the priming department at American Thread. He quickly progressed and became assistant foreman in the dye house. This interview includes views on ethnicity and gives detailed accounts of the dyeing process involved in textiles.