Katherine H. Purdy
These children are examples of workers who deserved Labor Day.
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;”
Faces of workers in need of help. This is who I think of on Labor Day.
When I see the pictures of young children who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week at the Roanoke Cotton Mills in Roanoke, Virginia it makes me sad for their lost childhood. On our Facebook History group, had quite a debate.
Take a good look at the faces of these precious, brave children. See how young they were. Notice the barefoot boys? Shoes hindered their job of climbing on the machines so they had to work without shoes. I cringe to think of the dangers involved. But they worked because they had to.
They didn’t take their pay to the local candy store, the soda fountain or to the ice cream parlor. No, they didn’t take their money to the Rialto Theatre on Saturday afternoon. They were working. They worked 12 hours a day, six days a week for low wages in order to help feed their family and to keep a roof over their head.
Parents who were in debt and couldn’t pay were sent to the Poor House along with their entire family. This is why some of the children were working. Others worked because their parents were sick, dead or failed to make enough to sustain the family so the children (as young as five years old) were sent to work. The money was turned over to their parents. Everyone in the family worked in order to keep the family together.
When I first started writing The Vision of a Mother’s Heart, I thought to break up a home was tragic and it is. However, to see children working hard in dangerous jobs at such a young age is more so. The picture with two boys standing together, the older with his arm protectively around his younger buddy makes me want to cry. Their eyes and facial expression seem “old”. They remind me of my grandmother’s two older brothers.
Eugene (the older boy) and James “Calvin” Minnix could have ended up in the same situation if their “Papa” hadn’t found homes for the children when he realized he couldn’t take care of them. This was often referred to as “Farming out” children to family and friends to stay (often working on farms to earn their keep) until the family was able to reunite. A story, I have found was all too common in the early twentieth century.
In Roanoke, the Poor House was in existence until 1958. It is now part of the Virginia Western Community College. It is said that conditions improved in the 1920s and inmates of “The Alms House” helped farm the surrounding land so they had fresh vegetables, eggs, and other good food. Inmates included from infants to the elderly. They were reportedly treated well. However, it was a shame for families who had to live there.
Things were different at that time. For centuries, children were apprenticed; they learned a trade by living under the supervision and care of a skilled business owner. For several generations, the Minnix men in our family learned to be blacksmiths and coopers. (Barrel makers) They also worked on farms sometimes in deplorable situations. My great-grandfather broke the mold and decided to become a farmer instead. His skill as a blacksmith came in handy on the farm.
By the time they learned their trade, they were proud to put their name on their work. They were thrilled and proud if they could write their own name. When there was a crisis or war, these young men didn’t think twice before enlisting to fight for their country. They taught values to their children and expected their children to learn responsibility. Yes, it is difficult for us to imagine children in such a sad situation but they were precious children who grew up to be hard-working, frugal, responsible citizens.
I don’t know about you, but I am thankful for each of these children.
For more information about the history of Labor Day, click on the link below.
Writers: Facebook history groups are treasures for research. Much of my research was found in local history books and also postings from the History of the City of Roanoke group as well as several local history groups including school nostalgia groups. Most who post are happy to share their stories, pictures, and documents with others. My thanks to friends who shared their stories and pictures with us and gave permission for me to use their pictures.