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Woonsocket, R.I., museum honors workers’ heritage

Lifelike model works a loom on a textile mill shop floor circa 1920 at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, R.I.

JAMES F. LEE FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Lifelike model works a loom on a textile mill shop floor circa 1920 at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, R.I. R

WOONSOCKET, R.I. — The conditions were appalling: It was stifling hot, with hundreds of looms making a deafening clatter; workers couldn’t wear shoes because of the oil covering the floor, so they had to go barefoot for their 12-hour shifts. Windows couldn’t be opened even during the hottest days because a drop in humidity could cause the threads of wool to break. As one man made clear, he hated going to work, but he really had no choice.

We learned this in a film at the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, dedicated to the working and social lives of the thousands of French-Canadian immigrants who transformed this town on the Blackstone River into a textile manufacturing dynamo in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our guide, Ray Bacon, co-director of the museum and a descendant of Quebec immigrants, pointed out the special nature of Woonsocket’s immigration history when nearly 70 percent of Woonsocket’s population was French-Canadian.

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“The immigrants who came here literally created a new community. Talk about other immigrants groups who came to the United States, and the story is the same, but not on this scale,” Bacon said.

Housed in an old mill, the museum traces the movement of French-Canadians from rural Quebec to the mills of southern New England at a time when farms could no longer support growing families. The chronologically arranged displays include walk-through exhibits, films, and interactive activities for children. We entered the first exhibit, a typical Quebec farmhouse from the mid-19th century. The furniture was simple, a wooden table and chairs, a cupboard, a picture of the Blessed Virgin on one wall. In humble farms like this one “La Décision” was made — the decision to pick up and move south.

The Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket is housed in an old mill near the Blackstone River.

James F. Lee for the Boston Globe

The Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket is housed in an old mill near the Blackstone River.

We emerged from the farmhouse into a large room dominated by the facade of the Church of the Precious Blood. A wall-size map showed Woonsocket in 1875 during the early years of “Le Départ” — the 90-year diaspora of immigrants from Quebec. Inside the church was a lovely mosaic depicting a fallen soldier rising into heaven, several rows of pews, and electric vigil candles. A portrait of Monsignor Charles Dauray, who served this church from 1875 to 1931, hung on one wall.

The road to assimilation was a persistent one despite the desire for “La Survivance” — the fight to maintain a distinct cultural identity. Much of that change came from work. Initially, the French-speaking community was resistant to the demands of the labor movement, but deplorable conditions at the mills, including the use of child labor, induced workers to join unions in the 1930s and to unite with other workers fighting for their rights.

In the World of Work section of the museum, Bacon stood in front of a metal gate. “When you cross this gate, you now belong to the mill,” he said. This section of the museum re-creates a mill floor with a figure of a woman operating a loom and of a man threading a machine. In a display cabinet we saw three arms extending forward from the wall: a man’s, a woman’s, and a child’s; and in each hand was a paycheck showing the amount of money each was likely to receive in 1905 for a 55-to-60-hour workweek: $9.88, $7.80, and $3.96 respectively.

Co-director of the Museum of Work and Culture Ray Bacon leads a tour. In the background is the scaled facade of the Church of the Precious Blood, one of Woonsocket's French churches.

James F. Lee for the Boston Globe

Co-director of the Museum of Work and Culture Ray Bacon leads a tour. In the background is the scaled facade of the Church of the Precious Blood, one of Woonsocket's French churches.

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But not all was bad. There was a home life and social life as well. The church was central to the lives of the workers and their families with many French-speaking priests from Canada serving as pastors. The museum contains a replica of a parlor from a traditional New England triple-decker, furnished with a piano, radio, old telephone, and easy chairs and sofa. The mills sponsored an industrial baseball league. A display cabinet shows paraphernalia from that league and also honors hometown hero and baseball Hall of Famer Napoleon Lajoie.

At the parochial classroom exhibit, rows of desks were bolted to the floor with attached seats; the desktops lifted on a hinge and at the upper right corner was a hole for an inkwell. At the front of the room lifelike figures of a priest and nun were teaching the day’s lesson.

Other exhibits include a replica of the union hall of the Independent Textile Union and one of the surviving Merci Train boxcars sent in 1948 by the people of France in appreciation for this country’s contribution to France’s liberation. French people contributed whatever they could as gifts to fill the 49 boxcars, one for each state in the union plus Washington, D.C.

At the end of our visit, Bacon, a retired high school history teacher, explained the focus of the museum. “Lowell tells a great story about the textile industry, and so does Slater Mill [in Pawtucket], but we like to think about the working people,” he said.

Museum of Work and Culture 42 South Main St., 401-769-9675, www.rihs.org, adults $8, seniors and students $6, under 10 free, free parking.

James F. Lee can be reached at jameslee@bucknell.edu.

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