As colonizers settled the Fitchburg area, they recognized the rocky terrain and dense forests were not conducive to farming. However, the Nashua River provided ample water power. The Kimball Family opened this first grist mill in the city around 1750.[x] Following the American Revolution, industry began to grow in Fitchburg. The first factory and a dam to power it opened in 1807, shortly after the Slater Mills, making it one of the earliest in the state of Massachusetts.[xi] Over the next 50 years, additional dams were built to support paper mills, additional cotton mills, and machine shops.[xii]
When the Fitchburg Railroad was constructed in 1844, connecting the small mill town to Boston, it provided crucial transportation of goods to the city. Additional Lines to Vermont, Worcester, Clinton, and Upstate New York were also constructed over the following years, making Fitchburg an important railroad crossroads.
Increased connection to New England’s major cities and beyond helped the manufacturing industry grow, bringing immigrant workers to the areas. From 1790 to 1830, the population of the city doubled to 2,169, growing five times that number to 11,260 by 1872. Irish, French Canadians, Finns, and English immigrants made up the core populations who settled in Fitchburg.
The Beoli Mills, where Fred Hedenburg was employed, was built in 1847, originally for woodworking. It was converted to a woolen mill in 1854.[xiii]
An interesting January 24, 1890 article in the Fitchburg Sentinel highlighted the life of girls, aged 15 to 50, who were employed in the Beoli Mills. The article promoted these young women as “in many respects in advance of their sisters of other cities and towns” because of their education, fine dress, ambition, and “most always a native American” (meaning white colonizer versus recent European immigrant, not an Indigenous person). The article reads almost like a personal ad or dating profile for the “girls” employed at Beoli, likely serving to attract young men to work at the mill or to set Beoli-produced products apart as refined.[xiv]
In 1899, the American Woolen Company assumed “formal possession of the various concerns” of mills throughout New England, including the Beoli Mills.[xv] The American Woolen Company was managed by owners of previously independent mills throughout New England, allowing production to be coordinated across twenty-six factories. In 1901, the company was capitalized at $49.5M;[xvi] this has equal value to $1.6B in 2022.
In 1901, the Beoli Mills employed 600 employees who churned out 100,000 yards of cloth each month over 10 carding machines, 3,504 spindles, and 240 looms.[xvii]
BEOLI’S ROLE IN THE LABOR MOVEMENT
Workers’ rights as we know them today, from safety to pay to schedule, are rooted in the advocacy of factory workers in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Beoli’s involvement can be traced to the 1902 American Woolen Company strikes. The strike began when William Wood, manager of American Woolen, instituted a two-loom system at the Olneyville mills in Providence, RI. By having each worker manage two looms, American Woolen could maintain production while decreasing labor costs. They also implements a premium system, rewarding workers who could produce beyond their quota, which was already difficult to achieve. Understanding that the mill workers were increasing labor demands only for their own profit, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance coordinated a strike.[xviii]
Word of the Olneyville Strike spread throughout the regions, both in sympathy for the Olneyville weavers, but also in anticipation of the two-loom system being implemented throughout American Woolen mills.[xix] On March 28, the weavers at the Beoli and neighboring Fitchburg worsted mills left their looms, a total of 400 workers walking out.[xx] Weavers were joined by loomfixers when the clock struck eight, with workers involved in other stages of production (approximately half the payroll) remaining at their stations.[xxi]
Strikes in solidarity echoed throughout New England across eleven mills, totaling 2700 striking workers in the first month of striking.[xxii] When American Woolen’s largest mill, Washington Mill in Lawrence, MA, joined the strike on April 22, that total went to 4300 looms sitting idle.[xxiii]
Newspapers were sympathetic to mill owners, writing that the Fitchburg walk out “was a surprise, as in the absence of grievances here it was thought weavers would steadfastly adhere to their previous decisions and remain at work.” The Boston Evening Transcript described the strikers as aggressive, saying that mill owners “are not in the mood to compromise with the rebel forces” and described the allyship of other mills as “agitation.”[xxiv]
Other mills took the opportunity to strike both in sympathy for Olneyville, as well as make their own demands. In Lawrence, for example, weavers demand a 20% pay increase and abolishing the premium quota system. Unfortunately, both Lawrence and Olneyville’s requests were not accepted.[xxv] By September, the remaining strikers, which still spanned eleven mills, had run out of funds to carry on the strike. Workers agreed to return to work, but only in mills that had not adopted the two-loom system.[xxvi]
Another strike occurred in the picker room at Beoli in 1918, when employees requested a pay increase from $18.60 to $22. With the pickers off work, only about a day’s work of cotton was available for weaving before the mill would have to close.[xxvii]
Strikes like the 1902 American Woolen strike or smaller factory strikes like the Beoli pickers in 1918 helped lay the groundwork for labor movements nationwide and continuous progress towards the worker’s rights we appreciate and continue to fight for today.
By the 1890s, textile production began to slip throughout New England. Military contracts during World War provided a short boon, but most mill towns throughout New England began a steady decline. Technological gains made production possible with fewer workers. Aging mills were no longer competitive with newer mills throughout the country. Following the Civil War, Southern states promoted their abundant land, lower taxes, and freedom from labor and safety laws that had increased the cost of production in the North.[xxviii]
Mill communities were severely impacted by the Great Depression as nationwide unemployment was exacerbated by the closing of mills.[xxix] For the Beoli Mill, that time came in May 1930. The mill was shuttered for “lack of business” totaling several million dollars and a resultant concentration of manufacture in a few plants.” At one point, Fitchburg had been considered for the location of American Woolen’s centralized mill operation, but ultimately was not the case.[xxx] In 1932 when all property, including buildings and machinery, were transferred to a holding company “organized for the disposal of American Woolen Co. Mill property.”[xxxi]
World War II provided yet another period of temporary relief with factories providing textiles and ammunition for the Allied Forces. When those orders ceased in 1945, mill towns continued on their downturn.[xxxii]
In the 1970s, urban renewal projects began to bring new life to many mill towns. Mills in Lowell, renowned for its major impact on national industry, became national parks, a university, and home to new industry. Lowell has continued to experience cycles of progress and decline in the decades since, still striving to become a beacon of innovation and community.[xxxiii] This story is all too familiar in mill towns across New England, including Fitchburg.