hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Children of industry

Exhibit tells story of those who toiled in region’s mills



Contributing writer


Looking at the canvas, you can almost hear the enormous machines whirring and clanging and feel the cotton lint hanging in the air of the mill room as you, a child, work.

In another, you see “the overseer,” an ominous, shadowy presence. Maybe he’s there, or maybe he’s just always in the back of your mind as you try to keep up with the spinning spools so you don’t get struck.

At least at the end of the week, there’s some time for rest. A painting that’s a swirl of color shows the fiddle music. In another, a little girl is dressed up in her Sunday best and finally sitting down.

A visit to the Bennington Museum this month is a trip back 100 years to the life of the children who once worked in the region’s mills. An exhibit at the museum features works by two local contemporary artists – one realist, one abstract – who have interpreted the experiences of those children.

Anchoring the paintings are a couple of photographs taken at area mills by Lewis Wickes Hine, a small sampling of the thousands he took across the country to document the conditions of child laborers. Hine’s photos ultimately helped lead to laws limiting the hours and improving working conditions for children.

“The Mill Children” is part of a larger exhibition originally shown at the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, Mass., a former textile mill that now provides living and working space for several dozen artists. The show will be traveling for the next few years to former mill towns that Hine photographed around the Northeast.

Set up in a single long room at the Bennington Museum, the exhibit also includes two photos from Bennington’s past. One, by Frederick Burt in 1910, is the inside of the former Bradford Mill, which still stands on East Main Street. The other, by Hine in 1909, shows row houses on the former Mill Street, now Benmont Avenue, where employees of the Holden-Leonard Mill lived.

Slice of local history
Ralph Brill of Brill Gallery Productions in North Adams, Mass., got the idea for the show about 18 months ago after a series of visitors to his gallery at the renovated Eclipse Mill asked about the building’s history.

“We decided to tell the story,” Brill said.

That decision fell just in time for the 100th anniversary of Hine’s local photos, which were taken for the National Child Labor Committee, a private group that pushed for restrictions on child labor – and for compulsory education – in the early decades of the 20th century.

Because Brill wanted to use art as a way of explaining to people what the children’s experience was like, he asked realist painter William Oberst and abstract painter Dawn Nelson to join the project.

Oberst lives near the Eclipse Mill, and Nelson, a teacher in Weston, Mass., lives and works at the mill on the weekends.

They all spent a year doing research: reading books, interviewing former mill workers and their relatives, and visiting a textiles museum in Lowell, Mass., that has a lot of equipment that would have been typical of the kind used at the North Adams mill.

Brill also got the composer Matt Hopkins to sit in on some of those interviews and write original music to go with the exhibition, although this is not part of the Bennington exhibition. The music is intended to express, from a child’s point of view, the sounds of the mill and the emotions of being a child laborer at the time.

Local historian Joe Manning contributed some of the hundreds of life stories he’d dug up through his research, including interviews with the family members of children depicted in Hine’s photographs.

The show also includes a video by filmmaker Steven Borns of the artists working on their pieces and Manning talking about his findings.

Growing up fast
At the turn of the 20th century, poor children in northwestern Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont often had to quit school and go to work to help support their families.

The area was a hub of textile manufacturing at the time, producing cotton and wool garments, and the children went to work at local mills. The Eclipse Mill, for example, processed cotton shipped up from the South.

Starting at sometimes very young ages, the children worked 10- to 12-hour days, six days a week, amidst the deafening roar of machinery, while breathing dust-filled air, all without masks or ear protection.

“A lot of kids were hired because they could get their hands into areas that an adult couldn’t, and they had to do things that were dangerous,” Brill said.

In one Hine photo in the exhibit, boys stand in front of the North Adams cotton mill, gazing at the camera, looking older than their years. Their clothes a little dirty and ill-fitting, faces set and tired, they took a break for the shot.

Hine, a former schoolteacher and sociologist, took photographs of children inside the mills -- or outside if he wasn’t allowed in.

He took about 5,000 photos of children working in mills, factories, canneries, coal mills and other industrial facilities around the country between 1908 and 1917.

In 1911, there were 2 million children under the age of 16 working, some as young as 6.

Lessons for today
Nelson, the abstract artist in the show, has been a middle school art teacher for more than 25 years and lives and works at the Eclipse Mill on weekends, so the project had immediate appeal for her.

The children she teaches are the same age as some of the mill workers. In those pre-teen and early teenage years, she said, young people try to act grown up but are still just children.

“I think the story of the kids that worked in the mills was that they were so proud to be a part of making the money that they knew their families needed,” Nelson said.

But she added, “They just couldn’t get a sense of the danger. It really makes them the perfect prey for people wanting to take advantage of them.”

She was also moved by Hine’s background, since both were from the Midwest and became teachers, striving to improve children’s lives.

Nelson said she uses the “Mill Children” exhibit to teach today’s children that child labor still exists in other countries, including places like India and China that produce clothing widely sold in the United States.

“My kids definitely knew the connection to the way it’s happening today,” Nelson said. “They know it’s still happening and we’re still buying the stuff.”

Because her studio is in the former mill, she was able to work in the same space where children used to, “looking out the exact same windows these kids were looking out of.”

Some paintings show the harsh working conditions. One shows the fun of time off.

“It’s not cut and dried where it’s all bad or all good,” she said.

But it’s clear, she added, that the child laborers of 100 years ago had lives that were shorn of possibilities – first, of finishing school – and filled with danger.

Oberst, the realist painter, said the machines that he saw in photos and then in the mill museum startled him.

“They were these huge, complex, very foreign, alien-looking things,” Oberst said.

He envisioned a 9-year-old girl in such a place, working long days and long weeks.

“That’s when it started to hit me what this was about,” he said.

In his oil painting “Mill Girl,” Oberst used a North Adams girl as a model and painted a young girl standing with her back to one of the machines to emphasize the separateness between the girl and “this big hunk of iron … this monster,” he said.

In “Sunday’s Rest,” he used the same model for a painting of a young girl sitting in her Sunday clothes.

The artists said they loved the experience of working together to learn about and plan the project, which will be traveling to more mill towns along with a study guide for students.


The Mill Children” remains on view through Dec. 31 in the Regional Artists Gallery at the Bennington Museum and features an educational presentation by the artists and other guests at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, followed by an artists’ reception at 3 p.m.

Further information about Hine and the mill children and additional art from the original show may be seen online at www.brillgallery109.com. More information about the Bennington exhibit is at www.benningtonmuseum.org.





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