The instant Henry Boucher walked into the weave room of the Woonsocket mill on a Friday morning in 1938, he sensed something was wrong. The looms clattered, the men moved about, the belts and pulleys whirred. But no one talked, no one laughed.
Joseph Boyce, who worked next to Henry, didn’t raise his head from his loom or ask Henry what he planned to do that weekend.
Henry was a 40-year-old father of three, and he suspected the tension in the room had to do with the layoffs rumored to be coming. He’d spent most of his life working in the Woonsocket mills, and he well knew to fear unemployment.
Henry Boucher told his work history to a Mr. Guilfoyle for the Federal Writers’ Project American Life Histories series on Jan. 12, 1939. His story was typical of the many French-Canadians who lived and worked in the Woonsocket mills. They’d arrived from Quebec since the 1840s to work in the city’s textile and rubber factories. By the 1930s, Woonsocket was the most French city in the country, with 75 percent of its population French Canadian.
Woonsocket’s textile industry faltered during the Great Depression. Many people were thrown out of work and forced to go on relief. With the approach of World War II, nearly every Woonsocket mill would revive. So would Henry’s fortunes.
Henry Boucher was born March 27, 1898, in the basement of a tenement on Social Street. He was the youngest of Henry and Marie Boucher’s seven children. His father had little education and his mother was too ill to work in the cotton mills, and the family went without. When work was slack, they subsisted on pea soup and slices of bread covered with lard.
Henry attended Precious Blood parochial school, where everyone spoke French all day except for an hour of English. At 14 he got his working papers after passing a scholastic test: writing his name and address.
His brother found him a job in the Lippitt Mill card room in West Warwick. The pace was leisurely and the workers had time for practical jokes and horseplay. Until Henry was drafted, he worked in several mills, first as a spinner, then as a weaver.
Four Suits and a Ford
Life was good. He had money left over at the end of the week, he bought four suits and a Ford. After work he socialized with his friends in the local saloon, Fats.
Henry served in France during World War I and returned to the mills. He got a job at the Woonsocket Rubber Co., where he met his wife, Alice Deschamps. He married her after moving to a new job as a weaver earning $35 a week. She was earning $24. They decided to save $20 a week, and figured that after 20 years they’d have $20,000. They could buy a farm and never answer the mill bell again.
By 1924 they had saved $2,500. Then Alice gave birth to their son Henry and she quit her job. Henry got a raise to $50 a week and they could still save money. Then their daughter Marie was born. They could no longer save $20 a week, but they could save some. When their third son Homer was born, Alice got sick and they couldn’t save anything.
End of the Woonsocket Mill?
Woonsocket’s textile industry was collapsing. Henry was laid off in 1928, but got a job in the Saranac Mill for $40 a week. The next year, he took a layoff again for three months. In 1930 he was laid off for six months.
During the entire year of 1931, Henry couldn’t find a Woonsocket mill that would hire him. The family used up most of their $3,500 in savings.
By 1932 Henry was at the end of his resources. He had no job, no savings and a wife and three kids to support. Henry went down to the city to go on relief. There he had to wait in line outside – where everyone could see him – to get food. He once waited four hours for a small bag of flour and 2 lbs. of dried peas.
For the next four years he worked when he could, for more hours and less pay than he had before. When the inevitable layoff came, he went back on relief.
In the spring of 1938 Henry got a job as a weaver at another Woonsocket mill, called the Montrose Mill. He had worked there five months when he walked in that Friday morning and sensed the tension in the air. At lunch all the men talked about were the rumored layoffs. At the end of the day, the foreman came out of his office and, one by one, told the workers the sad news.
He told Henry he was sorry to see him go, and when work picked up at the Woonsocket mill he could have his job back. Henry thanked him and said, “After eating good for the past five months, the first few meals of that relief canned corn beef is going to be hell for the kids.”
Same Old Thing
When he got home from the Woonsocket mill, Alice knew right away something was wrong. “It’s the same old thing,” he told her. She told him to sit down and eat dinner. The children stared at him silently. Henry told the Writer’s Project researcher,
Only too well did they know what this meant, less food, no new clothes, no money to go to the movies, peeking through the window curtains when someone knocked at the door, to see if it was a bill collector, moving to a less desirable tenement, in short, misery for everyone in the family.
For the next six months they struggled along on the $6 a week they received from relief. On the morning of Nov. 25, while Alice was visiting a neighbor, a deputy sheriff knocked on the door and handed Henry an eviction notice. He sat down at the kitchen table, alone, forlorn and in despair. He needed a $3 deposit to rent a new tenement, and he had no idea where he would find it.
Alice came home, and he handed her the eviction notice. Silently she laid it down and started to make dinner.
The Big Woonsocket Mill Order
Then they heard a knock on the door. Assuming it meant more trouble, Alice slowly and listlessly walked toward the door.
Their friend Adrian Bonin stood on the doorstep, grinning broadly. “Oh boy, Henry, I have these fine news for you,” he said. “De boss wants for you to come to work tomorrow morning. Thees mill she’s got the big order. We’ll work all winter.”
It seemed like a miracle. There would be new clothes for everyone and toys and presents at Christmas. The family wouldn’t have to move and they could pay down their debts.
Alice and Henry went to bed happy. For, as Henry told the Writer’s Project writer,
“While the mill operated we would be able to eat what we wanted, we could dress our families and have a dollar left so that meeting our fellow workers in ‘Fat’s’ saloon on Saturday night each one of us could stand up and pay for a round of beers.
This story about the Woonsocket mill order was updated in 2021.
Image: Woonsocket mill complex By Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28106964.