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Woman's Day
November 1943
pp 16-17, 93

Everybody Works

by Howard Fast

What is the WAR Doing to Us?

Everybody Works

by Howard Fast

THIS town sits in a valley, ringed with green hills, and the houses crowd the narrow streets. Inside, it's a mill town, like so many other New England mill towns – and ten yards past its streets the country is as green and undisturbed as it was centuries ago.
Northern, Massachusetts; population about twenty-three thousand. They tell you its air is cleaner than that of most mill towns because it sits in the hills, a good height above sea level. They tell you too that the population has not increased any with the war, as is the case with the big defense centers in Connecticut and Rhode Island. This mill town isn't unique in that; a thousand other towns in America were left alone by the war in a population sense, so that the changes which came, came from within them.
A businessman of the town was saying something that a businessman would not have said twenty years ago. About changes, pointing out that the population of the town had neither increased nor decreased.
"We're self-contained and we're a unit," he noted. "No new housing projects, no new factories, no influx of workers from other parts. The hills bind us as closely as they ever did. Yet we have, out of this thing, a prosperity that we've never known before, even in the best of times."
He went on to say that the war had brought prosperity to the mill town, as it had to so many other places. Thousands of men are killed on far-off battlefields, and you have, in a New England town, an end to unemployment and an end to poverty. There was a note of irony in his voice, a good deal of bewilderment and a good deal of anger. That was the difference between now and twenty years ago. Twenty years ago he wouldn't have noted that it was a rotten thing for men to have to fight a war to find a decent standard of living.
He didn't know the answers when he was asked about after the war.
"After the war, we won't go back to the old way, the depressions and the unemployment."
"What else?"
He didn't know what else. He had ideas. Everyone in the town had ideas about after the war. But they weren't going to be content with the old way.

* * *

IT'S worth noticing the way a town like this came into being. When the settlers first came into the hills, and that was a hundred and fifty or two hundred years before, they needed a place to grind their flour and saw their wood. So in the valley bottom, at the junction of mountain creeks, dams were built, water wheels, a grist mill and a sawmill. The industrial revolution brought cotton spinning, weaving and dyeing to New England, and much of it came to the hill towns. But slowly at first. They turned the wheels by water and then they turned them by steam. With steam, they set up ugly rows of red brick mill tenements, the more ungainly backed as they were by the green hillsides. Farmers gave up trying to plough a living out of the rocky hillsides and came to work in the mills. French Canadians came to the town, Poles, Irish, and then, in a sense, the process of change was completed, and year after year, cotton goods and leather shoes were shipped out of the town to the market.
With this, there were the cycles, employment and unemployment, prosperity and depression. When the town was hit, it was hit within itself; there were just so many factories, so many shops. If a factory or a mill closed down, the workers walked in the streets, and their desperation was very nearly complete. When so much of the cotton industry moved to the south, the town knew hunger that was real and hopeless. That's why they say that after the war, they'll go ahead, not back.

LET'S take a look at the old way, as it was just before the war. At the edge of the town was the cotton dyeing plant that sprawled through five low, red-brick buildings. The buildings clustered around a mill pond, the destination of three mountain creeks. If you looked up, you saw the green hills and the bubbling springs coming out of them. You looked down, and you saw the town.
The town is in the bottom of the valley. Look at it from the textile works, and you have the impression that once it was built on the hillsides, and then the earth rumbled and houses and plants slid together in the narrow cleft of the valley bottom, the streets too narrow, the sky shut out, the buildings tall and ugly and dirty. The cobbled streets suggest Europe more than America, and here the experiment of erecting slums in the New England countryside has been successful. For with all the clean, green country around them, the mill people have been crowded into miserable, windowless red- brick tenements.
That's what you see from the textile works, an industrial community created not for people to live in but for people to operate factories from. And if you look into the mill pond itself, you still see the raw stain of dyes, although for a year and a half the plant has been closed.
The closing of the plant was a part of the old way. Two and a half thousand people worked there, a sizable proportion of the industrial capacity of a town of less than twenty-five thousand; and then the plant closed down, lock, stock and barrel, and the two and a half thousand people found themselves on the streets.
There were definite reasons why the print works closed; but the reasons themselves are not too important. Competition from the south is one; war scarcity of copper plate was another. A slackening of orders – numerous reasons that together forced the liquidation of the plant. What is important is the fact that the town found itself facing economic annihilation.
This prospect was not confined to the people who worked at the mills. The storekeepers, the small tradesmen, even the nearby farmers shared in the bleak prospect, for they knew out of experience the paralysis that creeps over a single industry town when the one big plant closes down. They knew what it meant to have streets crowded by people who had no money to buy.
All of this was not new to the town. Though never on such a scale as this, it had happened before in each depression period. What complicated it further now, what gave it a tinge of actual terror, was the fact that the young men were going away, into the army and into the navy. You might say that industry was booming elsewhere, but it's not an easy thing for a family to tear up its roots and go away.
Well, that was the old way in this mill town, brief periods of prosperity, and then after each one a sharp downward curve into despair. This time, the war itself changed the situation.
A small concern in the town made radio parts. Suddenly, government orders began to come in and the business boomed. Business doubled, and the electrical company took over one of the abandoned plant buildings. More and more radios were needed, on ships, on planes, on the fighting fronts. Detection and directional equipment was needed.
Posters were put up in the town, reading: MEN AND WOMEN WANTED. The people in the streets read them, and for the first time their eyes held a glint of hope. A hundred men and women were taken on by the expanding electrical firm – then a few hundred more, then as the business once again doubled itself, a full thousand; and still the need for man power was not satisfied. One by one, every single man and woman thrown out of work by the collapse of the textile plant found a job.
Not only that, but wages were good and better than before. Storekeepers, doing more business, put out signs for help; so did the hotels in town; so did the smaller industries.
A town changes as the people in it change. You sense hopelessness or you sense hope. There is hope in this mill town. Paint and whitewash are fighting against the ugliness. The people are a little better dressed than they were. But they haven't forgotten, and they haven't embarked on any wild joyride. Just by a hairsbreadth, they escaped complete poverty and complete despair.
Now, a majority of the working people in this town are making something – and what they make is needed. They are a part of a nation that is working toward a single goal, and by their own sweat and toil they've produced the Army and Navy E banners that fly over the big plant.
That's a new feeling for the people of this mill town. Before the war, things were hit or miss. A depression came, and nobody seemed to know why, and nobody was at fault.
"But," reason the people of this town, "if poverty was licked simply as a byproduct of fighting a war, then why can't it be licked by the determined effort of a people living in peace?"
We spoke to a soldier who was back on leave, who had gone off to the army just as the works closed, leaving behind him a father without a job, a mother and two small sisters. We walked down the narrow, ugly main business street of the town, and then we went into a bar for a glass of beer. The soldier said he had been thinking about this matter for a long time; he said, suppose we left the war to chance, just let it go along and happen and didn't care who won. He put it this way:
"Everything that happened in this town in the past hundred years has been a matter of chance. My father loses his job – hard luck. The mill closes, nobody knows why. A new industry starts up, and they say that's the luck of the town. Well, I say it's a hell of a way for twenty-three thousand people to live, just trusting to luck. Do you suppose when we come out of the service, it's going to be good luck if we find jobs and bad luck if we don't?"

* * *

Another man spoke about the old times and the new times. He was a New England Yankee, and his people had lived in these hills for a century and a half. Fifty-eight years old, he had a son in the armed service, and he had worked with his hands since he was sixteen. For two generations, he had observed the fat times and the lean ones in Northern. His comment was a good deal like that of the businessman and the soldier.
"These are good times," he said. "Not good times the way we looked for them. You work, and it don't comfort you to know that wages are high and jobs are plenty only because a war's going on. They could have done this in peacetime. They might not have been any wars if they had."
He didn't know how it could have been done in peacetime, any more than the businessman knew how. But he did know that they weren't going back to the old method without having something to say about it. He spoke about the boys coming back.
"There's a big to-do about jobs for them. Well, I don't see that. They come back a few at a time, and if the plant should keep on working, well, they'll just move in where their wives and their mothers were. On the other hand, if the plant shuts up, we'll all be in the same boat: We're putting money away, but how long's that going to last if the plant closes down?"
And he had ideas for the plant sustaining production.
"It's radio, isn't it?" he said. "Well, nobody's been buying radios this year past. They're going to want them. They're going to want television. How about Europe? They'll want radios there. Russia will want radios. China. I say, sell Russia and sell China. Mister, if the plant closes down the moment the war's won and the boys come back to that, well, it's going to be hard and lonely. And maybe people will get angry –"

* * *

An executive of the booming electrical company seemed uncertain about what the future would hold. This New Englander, a man in his sixties, a Yankee, shook his head and said that nobody could prophesy about the future.
"We've mushroomed," he said. "We've tripled our business. I don't know how it will be afterwards."
We asked whether he was hopeful.
"Maybe – not too much. To a large extent, it depends upon the government. Well, we don't even know what kind of an administration will be in then, much less what their plans will be. I suppose there'll have to be a gap, a period of readjustment."
But the executive of another concern in the mill town said unequivocally of the future:
"This has to go on. I don't know how. Maybe if I was in Washington, I'd know; here I don't. But, mister, I know one thing – that if this country can live decently in times of war, then, by God, it can live decently in times of peace. Shortages? Sure there are shortages, but in spite of the shortages people are eating better than they ever ate as long as I can remember. Maybe they're eating right for the first time in all our history. And that goes for both the armed forces and the civilian population. Just take our local situation here in town. No unemployment, no poverty, no hunger. And all this based on destruction. That's the point to remember – that it's based on destruction. Then is there any limit to what we can do if the whole country works together on a plan based on construction? Maybe that's dreaming, but it's the kind of dream that has to come true if there won't be hell to pay when this war is over."

* * *

To a great degree, this town is a sober town. Champagne isn't bought at ten dollars a bottle. The people are living in reality, not in a never-never land. Bank deposits have gone up. Tremendous quantities of bonds are sold. Almost every family in town has a member in the service; that keeps their feet on earth; it's their basic insecurity, and it evidences itself in yearning for security, in a half-acknowledged fear that all this might end in a 1931-type debacle. Their eves are open.
Jackson, of Grew & Jackson, the largest women's clothing store in town, had something to say about what people were doing with their money.
"Spending it wildly? No they're not spending it wildly." He admitted that they were buying some better things, things they had always wanted and just missed being able to afford. But there was no wildcat spending. He told about a sale he had had, a few soiled dresses from the year before. They were snapped up. People were not throwing their money away.
We asked whether that could be a specific New England quality, that cautiousness. He didn't think so. The people were not fools; they were keeping their heads. That attitude, he thought, might well be the attitude of the majority throughout the country.
Curiously, the other storekeepers in town were in complete agreement with him. There was no rush to accumulate clothes, jewelry, shoes, hats. More food was being sold and of a better quality, but housewives still asked about prices. Food is being bought more carefully than ever.

* * *

The manager of the Hotel James, the best in town, had his finger on things. As he put it, you could look at the hotel business as a barometer, and now the barometer was up. Yet these were not boom times in the old sense that one used the expression. Men traveling through were not on the crest of a wave. They were swimming, as he put it, and swimming carefully.
His business was good, in spite of the fact that no large camps were located near this town. Traveling men moved more slowly now that they worked without cars; they stayed longer. But what was more important, the hotels had taken on another function, and here he repeated what other people in the town had said. The mill town, as a unit, was more self-contained than it had been in a generation. In that way, the clock had been turned back, and he thought it was not a bad thing.
Take the Hotel James, for instance – a large, brown building, forty years old, badly in need of modernization, but with a certain ancient grandeur about it. It had been a place for people outside of the town; now it was becoming a part of the town itself. The gas shortage had isolated the town to a certain extent; even the country club was a distance away, and a trip to the nearby city became next to impossible. In that situation, the town turned in on itself.
The manager of the hotel decided to organize dances in the Blue Room. That had been tried before, and had failed, the mill town being unable to compete with larger, nearby cities. This time it worked. The manager imported a four-piece orchestra and one or two good acts each week, and the townspeople crowded in, anywhere from two to three hundred and fifty of them on a Saturday night. They enjoyed it, too, because it was their own thing; they weren't strangers, and they weren't rubber-necking at the big city.
"Social barriers?" we inquired.
That had changed too. He pointed out that the Blue Room at the Hotel James wasn't the country club; whoever wanted to come could come; there were no barriers. When the Knights of Columbus gave a square dance, the same rules held. They came from silk-stocking row as well as from the mill homes, and each group discovered that the other wasn't quite as bad as might have been anticipated. When the electrical company, in desperation, sent out a call for workers, a good many daughters of the wealthy, who would have shuddered at the thought of a factory a few years ago, found themselves at benches alongside the mill people. And that wasn't as bad as they had anticipated either.

* * *

A workman at a woolen mill, a Pole with three sons in the armed forces, spoke about these changes. "They're good," he said. "They are small things that come out of all the badness and suffering of war, but in themselves they are good. I try to understand that we move forward as people, and it helps when news is so bad from the old country."
A young girl, just married, her husband in the air corps, she and her husband both of Irish descent, said: "I try to think that this is going to last. Even if my husband is gone, this town is better than it was before. I like to think that one of the things he fights for is that it should stay this way – go ahead, I mean, not go back."
The Italian Padre spoke of the day nursery in his church. That was a step, he said. Before, people mistrusted day nurseries. Now that they were badly needed, people came to depend on them. You went forward; you didn't go back. The day nursery, in peacetime, would mean a great deal to many mothers.
A sixteen-year-old boy was putting aside money for college, once the war was over.
A sergeant in the armed forces was sending home a sizable check for his mother each month. She put the money away in savings and bonds and worked in the mill, and in addition she put away some of what she had earned. It made her feel she was helping her son; it made her feel she was part of a struggle.
A workingman, a Yankee, said: "They talk about a people's war. Maybe, in a way, this is becoming more and more a people's country. Maybe it can stay that way afterwards."

* * *

There was no Pollyanna attitude. Out of the misery and ruin of a world war, this New England town had found that it was capable of a great effort – that it could produce, and it is not to be blamed if it takes a certain joy in the strength of that production.
Prosperity, as a by-product of ruin, is not something to bring tears of joy to the eyes of people. The fact that a mother can lay ample food upon her table and feed her family well does not lessen the pain of knowing her son is overseas. But it is a fact for her to hold onto, and the decency of her life at home becomes a part of what he fights for.
This mill town is a New England town; and like so many other American towns it has lost and profited by the war. The young men have gone away, some of them to die, others to be maimed. Those at home are working as they never worked before. And in both groups is a feeling that somehow, when it is all over, the right to work shall not be denied a people who have shown their strength, their courage and their capacity.

RETURN