One of the most common nicknames for Haverhill is the "Queen Slipper City."
It came from the early 20th century when Haverhill was a mecca for the manufacturing of women's shoes in America. At one point, the city's factories made one-tenth of the shoes produced in the nation.
As the city celebrates its new identity as a placed of mixed industry featuring new homes in its old downtown shoe shops, Haverhill is also memorializing its shoe-making past. It was an industry that for generations pumped the community's economic lifeblood.
In 2009, the city's "Shoe-la-bration" put on by the Haverhill Cultural Council unveiled shoe statues around the city to recognize the impact that Haverhill's footwear industry had on the nation.
Now, the Haverhill Historical Commission is kicking off a new project about the city's shoe heritage. Instead of focusing on the shoes themselves, the commission is directing its project toward the people who made the shoes.
"Haverhill has had projects focusing on the shoes themselves and the shoe manufacturers," said researcher Kathy Kimball. "No one has ever focused on the people who have actually made the shoes and that was the majority of the people who lived in Haverhill at the time."
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.
They were the city's 'soul'
Historical Commission members said they want to celebrate the "Souls of Haverhill" — the memory of the people who put their efforts into crafting countless soles and other parts of shoes.
They are the workers whose efforts kept the community strong when the country was going through tough times, both financially and politically. The Haverhill Gazette has teamed up with the Historical Commission to help identify those workers. The Gazette will regularly publish historic photos of workers in shoe factories and ask readers to help the commission identify the workers and tell their stories.
The first step in the project is constructing a memorial in front of the new downtown parking garage. The garage is central to the area where the history happened, as the shoe workers both toiled and lived within minutes of where the garage stands. The City Council has approved the commission's proposal to dedicate the small plaza in front of the garage to the shoe workers of Haverhill and name it "Shoe Workers Memorial Plaza.'' The commission also hopes to display pictures and stories of the workers in the first floor of the parking garage.
After the memorial is completed, the commission hopes to have a bigger comprehensive project which will display memorials to the workers all around Haverhill. The plans is to display photos which chronicle the stories of the workers and display them at local businesses and landmarks.
"We are going to try to enlist merchants to put various pictures in their windows, with the purpose for them to display stories of their own families," Kimball said. "I think people are interested in hearing the stories of Haverhill and the individuals who worked in the factories."
Public asked to recount history
For its mission to be completed, the commission is asking the community for help. The commission is looking for people to share stories about their relatives, friends, and neighbors who contributed to Haverhill's shoe industry.
The commission is targeting the time period from the 1890s to the 1950s.
Commission members said they found particularly interesting how Haverhill pulled its resources together to help the country during World War II.
"The government came to Haverhill and asked them to retool their (shoe) factories basically overnight to manufacture war materials," Kimball said.
Factories in Haverhill started spitting out uniforms, shoes, artillery and bullets to help the war efforts. The commission is hoping to bring out more stories similar to these and identify the workers who have been overlooked in past historical celebrations.
City Councilor Michael Hart's grandparents worked in the shoe industry.
"I think it's very significant that we look back to the people who really helped establish the city to make it what it is today," Hart said. "The history of Haverhill goes back to a significant number of immigrants from various parts of Europe and it's important we recognize those people."
The commission hopes to have the plaque and workers' stories displayed in the parking garage by the end of the summer. The commission hopes to raise $2,500 for the plaque through fundraising efforts.
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