By Mike LaBella
---- — Mysteries involving faces from Haverhill’s shoe-making past are beginning to unfold.
The city’s Historical Commission kicked off a project 11 months ago to identify people in old photos taken around factories that made Haverhill a shoe-making giant for generations.
The Haverhill Gazette has supported the project by publishing photos of shoe workers for readers to identify.
Instead of focusing on the shoe industry’s history, the commission directed the project toward the workers who made the shoes, as well as people who sold the footwear and performed related jobs.
”As the result of reading the articles in the paper, people are contacting us with stories not just about the workers in the factories, but about people who played other roles in the city’s shoe industry,” said Kathy Kimball, researcher for the city’s Historical Commission.
The Gazette has regularly published decades-old photos of workers in factories and asked readers to help identify the workers and tell their stories.
”Our hopes were that people would identify some of the people in the photos that were published, but as time went on we found that most of the families of the people in the pictures were gone,” Kimball said. “But (some Gazette readers) did send us photos of themselves or family members who worked in the shoe industry.”
Seven people contacted the Historical Commission in response to the photos that ran in the Gazette since January, including Shirley Campbell, who was a shoe worker for the Laird Schober Shoe Company on Duncan Street from 1941 to 1944. After that, she gave birth to a son, but returned to the factory from 1947 to 1955 as a roving worker, filling in wherever she was needed.
A recent interview with Campbell, who still lives in Haverhill, brought the commission a treasure trove of historical information about Haverhill’s shoe industry in the 1940s. Campbell gave the commission a photo of her operating a stamping machine for Laird-Schober Shoe Company taken Jan. 23, 1943. A second photo, taken in 1943, shows employees of the same company who worked in the “making room.’’
Shirley Campbell wed C. Thomas Campbell on Feb. 21, 1942, and remained married for 61 years.
Her first job in the shoe factory was in the stitching room, tying square knots after the bows were stitched, securing the threads. Many of the workers were paid an hourly wage, while other workers were paid by the piece. Campbell made an average of $20 per week. When work was slow, she was transferred to the packing room. Her job there was to spray each shoe to make it shiny. At times, she got to sit with the women who repaired shoes, allowing her to learn their job.
”Then I was offered work as an ‘odd shoe girl,’” Campbell told the commission.
Women known as the packers would size the shoes in pairs, inspecting each shoe for imperfections. If these women noticed shoes were missing or found imperfections, it was Campbell’s job to find the missing shoe or repair any flaws. After that, the shoes would be ready for delivery to the customer.
Katharine MacGregor Gove wrote to the commission regarding a picture that appeared in the Gazette on Oct. 4, 2012.
”She identified the photo as the second floor children’s department of Bennett’s Shoe Store at 47 Merrimack St.,” Kimball said.
The store owner was Winthrop Brasseur, who was fitting a child for shoes in the photo. The woman seen in the background of the photo while waiting for her child is Suzanne McGregor Pope.
”We received another response to this photo from Carolyn Guiguizian,” Kimball said.
Robert Gardella identified the men in a photo published in the Gazette Aug. 9, 2012, as John Murphy Jr. and his father, John Murphy. Their shoe shop was located in Rock’s Village. The Murphys came from Ireland to Haverhill in 1849, Kimball said.
Another Gazette reader responded to a photo published in October.
”Pam Millington contacted us regarding the picture posted in the Gazette on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, which showed three men seated in a row,” Kimball said. “She thought the first seated man looked a lot like her grandfather, who spent most of his life in the shoe industry. She did not know who the other two men were.”
The commission to looking to create a memorial to honor Haverhill’s shoe workers and has received a $2,010 grant from the city’s Cultural Council for the purchase of a bronze plaque.
”We have been given permission to hang this plaque on the new parking garage, on the outside brick wall facing the trains,” Kimball said. “Then the next project will probably be a larger, more involved memorial. Eventually, we would like to make a brochure available to tourists, citing where all the shoe factories used to be, potentially with plaques providing background information on those companies.”
Kimball said Mayor James Fiorentini is very supportive of the project. During his time as mayor, Fiorentini has made it a point to recognize the shoe-making history of the city. His relatives worked in the industry.
Shoe factory workers were the city’s “soul” and helped shape Haverhill into what it is today, Fiorentini said in a letter of support to the commission.
”This project propels the momentum the downtown is realizing throughout the city’s Smartgrowth District, which has witnessed the transformation of old underutilized shoe mills into over 500 new units of housing, along with new shops, offices, galleries, restaurants and a parking garage around our Amtrak and commuter rail station,” Fiorentini said.
In the early 20th century, the city was a mecca for the manufacturing of women’s shoes in the United States. At one point, local factories made 10 percent of the shoes produced in the nation, earning Haverhill the nickname “Queen Slipper City.”
The decline in Haverhill’s shoe industry began after World War II, when it became much cheaper to manufacture shoes in other countries. The industry died out locally in the early 1970s. Much of the city’s history has been preserved — except that of the faces, the people behind the shoe industry, the ones whose sweat made the industry work, Historical Commission members said.
The commission has three new members, bringing it up to its full complement of seven members, including two architects and an attorney. Members are: Chairwoman Carol Crowell, Kathleen Kimball, Edgar Movesian, Kerry Fitzgerald, Frederick Paris, Katie Lynn Greco and Matthew Juros.