Ten months ago in May of 2021, I was reading a book called “Belles of New England,” by William Moran. I selected this book out of respect for my Great Grandmother, Emilie LaHaie, who migrated to Maine around 1873 with her parents, two brothers, and sisters. In the photo above Emilie is standing second to the left in the back with her seven sisters and mother, Julie Desfosses. It’s likely her wedding day. Although Emilie and her sisters were of French Canadian stock, her initiation into American life began when her mother and sisters started working in the New England mills. Emilie remembered before she died in Turtle, Wisconsin what it was like to work from dawn until dusk in the mill at age twelve years old, and when she came home was obliged by her mother to spend the evening in prayer. She worked hard like this until she married Delphis DuBois in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1884. Emilie and Delphis subsequently migrated to Wisconsin, along with all her sisters, mother, and one of her brothers, Frank LaHaie. They spoke French but not English very well, nor did they read or write either language, with any fluency to speak of. To avoid isolation and culture shock, it was extremely important the entire family lived in close proximity to each other to comfort, support and keep each other company.
I let them be called Belles of New England because in the book this referred to the young women of all ancestries who worked in the mills. Mary Lyon an advocate for women’s education and rights is quoted as saying about the women of the mills. “As other women vanished from the mill cities, they also left behind scant details of their lives except for their record as pioneers in American labor history.” They were as Mary Lyon said, ‘the bone and sinew and glory of the nation.’
Emilie’s life after the mill was spent in having numerous children, and continued hard work on the family farm. Fortunately she had the presence of her daughters and sisters for care and help, but her life passed throughout the decades at a great price. When she told her stories about the mill in her last years of senility, it was repetitive, and grandchildren and great grandchildren weren’t very good at lending an ear. But the stories were told and people like my mother listened and showed an interest. She always told me Emilie worked in the mill in Fall River, Massachusetts, and other places too. In telling, we remember. Je me souviens.