Alfred Dyson was interviewed by Mary Giles on November 14, 1976. He spoke of his work as a weaver and his time on the Board of Selectmen.
Alfred Dyson was born in Somerset, Massachusetts in 1912. He has done many interesting things and been associated with many important things, especially with labor unions. He lived in Somerset until he started to go to school, and then he moved to Swansea. He says:
I went to school and graduated from the Swansea Public Schools. Then I moved to Fall River and went one year to Durfee Technical High School, and then I attended night classes at Herricks Institute and Durfee High School. After I grew up and got married, I moved to Westport – about 1944 – and have lived here ever since.
You have a family, I know because I hear you were picking up the children before you came here.
Well, I have three children and five grandchildren.
So it was grandchildren you were picking up. When you first came to Westport, what did you do?
I was working as a business agent for the Textile Workers Union.
These unions – here in Westport and Fall River – were they organized as labor unions?
Yes. The textile mills in Fall River were organized by the Textile Workers Union. At one time, we had 12,000 members.
There were textile mills here in Westport. Were they organized?
Well, they were not in business when I grew up. They were out of business – they had stopped.
So you didn’t organize the mills here?
They were just never organized. No. I started as a drop wire boy in a Berkshire Mill – Plant C – went to the Arkwright – finished with the Arkwright Mill on Carter Street and started picking up bobbins there. I then learned to weave on box looms—the old time box looms that made marquisettes curtains—the old type marquisette that women don’t use anymore, and I became a weaver there.
We have no weaver on any of these tapes, so I wish we could pause here and have you tell a little about your weaving.
Well, I – a weaver of course, runs looms, and the particular type of weaving that I was working on was called marquisette curtains. These were curtains that had anywhere from one to four shuttles on them.
They had little bumps in them didn’t they?
Yes, they would run back and forth across the loom and they would make a pattern for a curtain. Then after they were run off on the loom, they’d bring them down to the shearing room and all the excess cotton, which was in between where the pattern was cut off. A pattern could be a Poll Parrot – a ship – it could be most anything. As a weaver, you had to know how to operate these machines so that when the thread broke or stopped, you had to be sure you started up in the right place or you’d get half a Poll Parrot or half a ship, so you’d have to be very careful.
It was complicated, but not for me because I had learned on that kind of loom in the Arkwright plant in Fall River. It was complicated for many weavers who had started on just plain cloth with no pattern on it. But I grew up and learned on that type of loom in the old Arkwright plant located in the old Chase Mill on Rodman Street. Now it’s out of business—most of those mills don’t operate today. I keep saying Arkwright Finishing because we organized the Arkwright Finishing, which is in the rear of the Arkwright Cotton Mill, and that’s still operating.
When did you start working in the mill, and for how long?
Well, I started about 1932 as a drop wire boy. A drop wire boy is one who puts wires on each thread of the harness of a loom and it’s used so that when that thread breaks, the wire drops down and stops the loom automatically. When it breaks, you have to find which one it is and start the loom up again.
When I was picking up bobbins, before – I learned to weave and so I asked the boss for a job weaving and got a job weaving.
The bobbin was about an 8-inch bobbin and the shuttle, of course, was quite large – 14 inches.
In addition to making marquisette curtains, during the War, we made mosquito netting, which is very simple.
Where did you get your cotton?
It was brought in from the South – raw cotton. It went into the picker room where they broke the cotton up, then it went into the carding room where they carded it and put it into fibers, and from there it went into the spinning room where they made filling out of it or thread for wrap. The wraps were made in the slasher room and consequently came down to us. People don’t realize what a complicated process it is. Very complicated.
Where did your family come from before Somerset?
Well, my mother was born in Blackpool in England, but my father’s parents were born in the United States. Blackpool is along the coast up near Scotland. My mother and father were both weavers. They started in the old ironworks mill – that’s when they lived in the Flint section of Fall River and walked down to the ironworks mill in all kinds of weather – and walked back, you know. There was no transportation. They lived up in what we call the Flint, which is the East end of the city. We lived up there and my mother and dad would walk to work, which was down at the waterfront in Fall River where the ships are now, and they worked 12 hours a day from six to six, and then they walked back home. No union then. They worked six days a week.
When you worked (in the mill), I’m sure you got more money than they did.
Yes, I have an old pay envelope at home. The reason I have it is that my wife put some of my sons’ locks of hair in it when they were young. We were working a 48-hour week then and the pay envelope says $21 and some cents on it.
What year was that?
About 1936 – just before the NRA came in. Then, of course, when I was picking up bobbins, I was making $7.38 a week for a 48-hour week.
How old were you then?
I was 14.
Now what do you suppose your parents earned?
In the iron works, they were getting $5.00 and $5.50 a week as weavers.
About what year would that have been?
Oh, that would have been in the 1918s and 1920s – in the war years. They were earning about $5.00 a week for a 48-hour week.
Don’t you think we should have that on record because now you get $5.00 for picking up a blade of grass or something?
Well, you see, my parents – when we left Fall River and moved into Swansea, we had six children living with us – so my father went to work in a grocery store, and he was making $21.00 a week supporting the whole family. So my mother necessarily started looking for work and she found a job in Swansea in one of our public schools, which I attended. I had four brothers and two sisters. She got the job as the custodian of the school – a one-room school. There were six grades in it – one room and one teacher. She’d go up in the morning and make the fire, and I’d go up with her. I don’t know how I got chosen as I wasn’t the older brother – I was the second older. I’d put the flag up, get the fire started, go next door for water, and I had permission from the teacher – when school was going on and the fire started going low – to go up and throw some coal in the old pot bellied stove. I’d get up during the day and keep that stove going all day.
That would be around 1918-1919. I graduated from Swansea Public Schools in 1925; I skipped one grade. I liked school very much – that’s why I was able to skip. I guess they don’t do that anymore, but in those days you could.
Was it hard to unionize? Was it difficult to organize the mills?
Well, how I got interested – I was working in the Arkwright Mill when they had started an organizing drive, trying to get all the mills in. I joined the union when I was there, and when I was there, I got interested. None of us got paid – but I went around talking to the other people one by one, and tried to organize them. They had a strike way before my time, when they were cutting wages. We were working for peanuts. I had three children at that time, and I never had any insurance to pay for them. I paid one cent per week for insurance for myself, but I never had any medical benefits. All my children were born on the $20.00 a week that I was earning. You can imagine how far that would go.
How much did you have to pay for rent when you were earning $20.00 a week and had three children?
Oh, I’d say about $4.00 a week for rent, but you couldn’t go out. I can remember meeting my wife and going out and buying $2.00 worth of groceries, which lasted us all week.
So it’s all relative. Two dollars would take you all week. Now $2.00 won’t even get you in the store.
We’d take our lunch to school and to work.
What kinds of things did you put in your lunch – do you remember?
Well, we’d buy a bottle of milk at the plant. Sometimes we’d take a little bologna or a little tuna fish.
Just about what you would take today.
Yea, but it was much cheaper. In those days, when I first started to work in the mill, you couldn’t leave your lunch. You had to hang it up on the windowsill. If you did leave it, it would be full of cockroaches by the time you ate your dinner – infested with cockroaches. In the mill, you’d hang your clothes on the wall because of the dampness, and if you didn’t shake your clothes off, you’d go home with cockroaches on them. The conditions weren’t good.
Living in Westport is quite a different story, isn’t it?
Yes. My last year in Swansea I’d started to take the trolley car into Fall River and started going to Durfee High. You see, I graduated at 13, so I worked a year and then I went to work to help support the family. So, I only had one year of high school – then I went to evening classes, then to Herricks Institute and gained some knowledge there.
And now you’re retired?
Well, no. I work for the State. I’m on the State Board of Arbitration and Conciliation. I’m one of the labor members of the Board appointed by the Governor, so I go to Boston two or three times a week and hear the arbitration cases and the rest of the week we write them up and give the parties the answer.
So, you’re really working for the State of Massachusetts.
Yes, I am. When I was in the mill in Fall River, I became interested in the union. I first became the steward in the weaving room and then became president of the local union. At that time it went as high as 12,000 members. We had one local and I was the president. Around 1942-43, the union was growing fast, and one of the business agents took sick, so they asked me to take his place while he was out sick, and when he came back, we’d grown so much that I worked as a business agent. I worked as a business agent from 1944 to 1946, working full time, and in those times, even the union representatives worked six days a week – often at night – and then we’d have our business meetings on Sundays. I’d moved to Westport around 1942. I’d travel on the trolley car first, then on the bus.
Tell me about the trolley you traveled on.
Well, they were right in the middle of the highway – going up Route 6. Of course, in the summer it was nice to have the open cars, and you could enjoy it. In those days, they were very busy. When they changed to buses, I remember – not so much in the morning – but at night, I never sat down once.
Do you remember when they changed to buses?
No, I wouldn’t know. That’s quite a while back.
Where did you get the trolley car?
You could get it at Lincoln Park and it would go right to New Bedford.
So in 1966, when I was in the business agency, we had four business agents and six girls or men in the office, and while I was there, my boss, Ed Duman, who had been the manager since it existed, died suddenly. At that time, we were down to two business agents and I was the younger of the two, and the executive board of our constitution had to make a choice to who was going to take the manager’s place, and I was chosen. So I was the manager from 1966 until 1975, and then I was put in this position by the government.
In the town I’ve done many volunteer things. In 1952, I was elected to the School Committee, and I was a member of that committee for 12 years. Then I was defeated for office, and in 1963 I ran for selectman and served as selectman for nine years altogether. I’ve had 21 years of service to the Town of Westport.
In addition to that, my position in the union caused me to be appointed by Governor Furcolo to the Board of Trustees of the Bradford Durfee Institution of Technology (Fall River). I’m still serving as trustee of St. Anne’s Hospital, and I was the president of the United Labor Council of Greater Fall River, and I was also secretary and treasurer, and I was appointed by the Trustee of Fall River as the president of the Dyers and Printers Pension Fund. I was also vice president of the Massachusetts State Labor Council.
So you’ve given yourself to a great deal of public service. If you were going to change Westport in any way at all, how would you like to change it? Would you like to have it bigger or smaller – have a different form of government?
I think the time has come when we have to go into the town meeting form of membership. We have now a potential of 7,200 voters and the 150 people at our annual town meeting just don’t represent the town very well.
Do you think we’ll have to go into a representative form of government?
I think so, because we’re getting too large.
Well, Dartmouth is representational now, and if the representatives don’t show up, I suppose you’d vote for new representatives.
Yes. You don’t have any representation at all if the representatives don’t attend the meetings. At least you can get an attendance record of that person you voted for and change them.
At our meeting now, it starts out at about 400 and goes for three or four nights, until you don’t even have enough for a quorum.
Unfortunately, we’re getting a lot of people in our town that don’t understand town government. They don’t go at all, and if they do go, they don’t understand it, and when I was on the Board of Selectmen, many people felt that the selectmen had complete control of everybody, and that’s not true. The Board of Health is a separate group and the School Committee too. They feel that the Board of Selectmen can change or control everything, and they just can’t. So we’re outgrowing ourselves. I love the town, and I don’t want to see it get to be a great big town.
In my heart I’m saying I want commercialization so we can help pay our taxes, but I don’t want to see it get to be great big shopping centers and draw in the big industries and the big stores. Then you have problems. You wouldn’t have any privacy.
I appreciate your coming down to speak with me because the mills have been an enormous part of our growth and development here.