Where the workers lived

Self-contained neighborhoods grew up around the earliest mills in Pittsfield.   Owners built houses and shops close to the work site to accommodate the hundreds of men, women and children spending up to 12 hours a day, six days a week inside the buildings.  The bell towers on many of the structures called the employees from their near-by residences to work in the morning and announced the end of the work day.

With mills and factories spread throughout the city to take advantage of the power source of water rushing down the rivers and streams, it took years before transportation developed to allow workers to live far from work.  The first horse-drawn street trolleys were introduced in Pittsfield in 1886.  Links between the trolleys and the mills were strong:  the President of Pontoosuc Woolen Mill, Thaddeus Clapp, served as the director of the new street car company, and the first electric trolley line ended at his mill on the northern end of town.

Residences varied from multi-family row housing to boarding houses and single-family dwellings.  Prior to the Civil War, the directors and presidents of the mills also lived close to the site of work.    There were stores and taverns located nearby, often owned by the company where workers would pay back their wages to the mill.

The neighborhood around Pontoosuc Woolen Mill (now Wyandotte Industrial Park) may have the best surviving examples of the different types of structures in a mill community.  When Pontoosuc Woolen Mill folded in 1927, it comprised over 40 separate buildings, and were sold at auction.  Wyandotte Mills bought the factory but not the outer dwellings.

Google Earth map of remaining buildings of "Pontoosuc village"
Google Earth map of remaining buildings of “Pontoosuc village”

What was at one time a store (and now Zucchini’s restaurant) was built shortly after the first mill buildings were erected around 1830.  Its brick walls are a foot thick.  By the turn of the century, the store had been converted into a two-unit dwelling, perhaps for middle managers.

Down the street from the store was a manager’s residence, built around 1830 as well.  The fanlight in the front gable is the only decorative feature of a simple two-story Federal style house, common for the time.

Also built around the same time was a large boarding house on North Street that housed many single workers.  Records indicate it also served as a tavern, unusual for mills before the Civil War.  While inns in New England often had taverns, managers and owners in mills strove to make their worker accommodations safe and proper to attract workers from the surrounding rural areas.

After the Civil War, the company built a number of two-unit houses up the hill from the mill complex on Chatham Hill.  The two entrance doors were paired in the middle with chimneys on either end of the separate homes.  City directories from the turn of the century place fewer mill employees and adults in these units, indicating these flat-roofed houses may also have housed more senior employees.

Row housing for Pontoosuc Woolen Mill.  Photo, 1980, courtesy of Berkshire Historical Society
Row housing for Pontoosuc Woolen Mill. Photo, 1980, courtesy of Berkshire Historical Society

Much more crowded were the row houses down the hill and across the river on New Road.  Still standing and inhabited today is a long, two-story brick building with ten different units.  Four gables grace the front of the structure separating the pairs of entrance doors.

Here again, the city directories tell a story of the families who lived and worked together in the mill.  The earliest directories did not indicate specific street addresses, but merely the “village” where they lived.  Thus, the listing includes many names of “factory operatives” living in “Pontoosuc.”

By the turn of the century, the directories began using street numbers for addresses of residents, identifying the number of adults living in any given dwelling.   The row houses on New Road, for example, had many more people listed as working in the mill than the two-unit houses on Chatham Hill.  One unit listed three employees of the mill – Joseph Decelles, his 17-year old daughter Georgianna and his 16-year old son Napolean.  A fourth child, Jenna, also worked at the mill but lived on Wahconah Street.  Both Joseph and his wife, Annie, had been born in Quebec, and emigrated to work in Pittsfield.  Annie stayed home with two younger children, and ten years later had two more children.  In addition, they had boarders staying with them, including at one point three under the age of 17, Albert, Homer and Laura Beauchemin, also from Quebec.

Next door in a separate row house unit were Charles Johnston, Theodore Vogsburg and Alonzo Vogsburg, all employees at the mill.   Also living there was May Vogsburg who worked in town at Berkshire Steam Laundry.  Up on Chatham Hill was just one employee, Abraham Vogsburg, probably a relative, living there with his wife and two children.  Since Abraham’s neighbor is listed as a foreman at the mill, it is likely that Abraham also had a senior position and may have used it to help his younger relatives secure both employment and housing at the mill.

Many more workers lived in close proximity to the mill, in houses along North Street and further north on Hancock Road, making an easy walk to work for a much harder and longer day at work.

Identical homes along Fourth Street built around 1895 for workers at the nearby shoe factory.  Photo, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Inventory
Identical homes along Fourth Street built around 1895 for workers at the nearby shoe factory. Photo, Massachusetts Cultural Resource Inventory

Many of the mills built housing for their workers near their workplaces.   These can be identified by their identical side-by-side structures.  On Wahconah Street just below the old Bel-Air (Pittsfield Woolen) Mill worker houses still remain, as is true of the houses near Russell and Pecks Mills at the junction of Pecks Road and Onota Street.   Along Fourth Street is a row of two-family houses for workers employed at Robbins and Kellogg Shoe Manufacturing.


Also, check out this story on Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1942 plan for worker housing in Pittsfield: What Could’ve Been


One thought on “Where the workers lived

    Judy Waters said:
    September 26, 2014 at 4:21 am

    Regarding worker housing…. I remember passing by these houses first as a child, later as an adolescent, especially those on upper North Street. They became a very familiar part of my experience growing up in Pittsfield. Later, moving away, they came to represent in part the look, feel, and character of my home city. There was an intrigue to these worker houses, though, earlier in my life, I was not able to recognize their significance, or the stories behind them. The Mill Tour is bringing all of that together in new light and new perspective. I feel very grateful for these images, stories, and the focus on this fascinating part of Berkshire County’s past.

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