The mill workers

Nancy Battick , Special to The County
4 weeks ago

Settlers in New England harnessed the power of river rapids by building earthen dams. They used that power to operate mills. These mills dotted the landscape and provided employment for local people. 

In the 19th century, cotton and woolen mills sprang up, and workers from Canada, other states, and new immigrants provided the labor force needed to operate the mills. Young women often worked there until they married. Many people spent their entire working lives in New England mills. Did you have a mill worker in your family tree?

Here in my hometown of Dover-Foxcroft, there were sawmills along the Piscataquis River and two woolen mills. Both mill buildings survive, though neither is an operational mill today. 

Nearby communities hosted their own mills. Some people spent their lives as mill hoppers, moving from one community to another, always working in mills. Major mill communities such as Lewiston, Maine, Manchester, New Hampshire, and Lawrence, Massachusetts employed hundreds of workers. Surviving mill buildings are now being repurposed into housing or other business usage.

How do you learn if your ancestor worked in a mill if there is no family tradition? Start with the U.S. Censuses. While these only offer a 10-year snapshot of your ancestor’s life, you’ll often find large boarding houses where mill workers found housing near their workplaces. If your ancestors were recent immigrants near the time of the census you’re researching, don’t be surprised to locate them in boarding homes with other immigrants from the same area. German, Swedish, Irish, Polish, and other immigrants are found with those from their native countries. It makes sense that people would seek to live with those who spoke their language and knew their cultural customs.

While many mill workers were listed as “common laborers,” others were given titles related to their skills such as weaver, spinner, teamster, etc.

Mill records rarely survive, but if you’re researching mill workers in your family tree, here are some resources. In addition to the censuses, try city and town directories. Local and area libraries and historical societies may contain photos taken of mill workers or even possess some mill records. Prosperous mill owners often built mansions near their work, and some of those may now survive as museums and may have an archive attached. 

Don’t neglect county historical societies or state ones. Search online for any surviving records of the families that owned the mill your ancestors worked for. Some diaries or letters of mill workers may also survive. Local newspapers may have run articles about the mills as well.

While mill working conditions in the 19th century wouldn’t pass today’s OSHA standards, some mill owners looked after their employees if they were injured. The wife of a local mill owner established a book club for the young women employees to help improve their minds. Sometimes there were picnics or gatherings of workers and there was often a photo taken at the event. You may locate your ancestor or relative in one of these.

Columnist Nancy Battick of Dover-Foxcroft has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds an MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist. Reader emails are welcome at nbattick@roadrunner.com.