In this letter dated 29 January 1930, J. Foster Smith, the agent for the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, recalls the influx of Polish immigrants to Salem beginning in the 1890s. Many Polish immigrants sought work at the Naumkeag Mills and the many other textile and leather factories in Salem. Alphonse Bachorowski, the recipient of this letter, used it in compiling his article “Seventy Years in Salem.”
Many people know Salem as the site of one of the earliest settlements in the colonies (1626) or as the site of the infamous witchcraft trials of 1692, or even as a major shipping port of daring merchants who established trade in far-flung places, but, for a time, it was also an important industrial center, attracting waves of immigrants to staff its tanneries and textile establishments. As this letter from J. Foster Smith outlines, Polish immigrants played a vital role in the history of the Naumkeag Mills in particular, and in the life of the city as well. Although a few people of Polish descent were in Salem earlier, the main influx of immigrants began in the 1890s when immigrants began to arrive from western Massachusetts towns to work in the tanneries and the Naumkeag Mills. Later arrivals to the city came directly from various parts of Poland, so not only were there difficulties to face in assimilating to a new country, but Polish immigrants from different parts of the old country held very different views from each other.
Having arrived in Salem, the Polish mainly settled in the Derby Street area, close to the waterfront (not desirable real estate at the time) and the mills. They established a close-knit community there, opening their own shops, school, and church (which survives to this day, despite a rash of closings of ethnic churches in Massachusetts) and obtaining work in the factories. Men and women alike worked long hours, establishing nest eggs that would bring more family members to this country, provide their families a better standard of living than could be had in Poland, and sometimes, to pay for an eventual return to their homeland. For those who stayed in Salem, the Society of St. Joseph was established as a mutual aid society and social organization for the Polish community in 1897 and provided an infrastructure of assistance and advice for new arrivals. As the neighborhood thrived, more immigrants came so that by 1911, there were 3500 people of Polish descent in Salem—eight percent of the total population. Of the names mentioned in Smith’s letter, many can still be found among today’s Salem residents, although the mills and tanneries are long gone and the descendants of the Polish immigrants scattered throughout the city. As Smith indicates, within just a few years, the Polish immigrants had worked their way from the bottom of the mill’s workforce to success in all aspects of the organization, and although Polish workers were implicated in many of the labor disputes and strikes that befell Naumkeag over the years, Smith seems not to have held that against them, admiring them instead for being “the steadiest of our workers—industrious, self-respecting citizens—worthy members of the community.”
For a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Salem was an industrial center, home to numerous tanneries and one of the largest and most successful cotton factories in the United States—the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company, producers of “world famous” Pequot sheets. After the devastation wrought by embargoes before and during the War of 1812, the maritime supremacy of Salem was at an end and the numerous ship captains and merchants in town were seeking new ways to make money (or sustain the fortunes they had earned). Mindful of recent successes in cotton manufacture on the Merrimack and Charles Rivers, in 1839 a group headed by retired sea captain Nathaniel Griffin chartered the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. Unlike factories established on rivers with ready access to water power, Naumkeag was established on Salem’s waterfront, with coal (to provide the steam power to the factory) and cotton shipped by sea directly to the gates of the mill. Construction began in 1845 and less than two years later, the mill was in business, with 30,000 spindles and 640 looms. Prior to the arrival of the Polish immigrants to Salem in the 1890s, the mill’s workforce was predominantly French-Canadian immigrants; these two ethnic groups seem to have been mainstays during the entire life of the mill, often, as Smith describes, with several generations of family members going to work in the mill.
By the early twentieth century, the factory complex had grown to more than twenty buildings, only one of which survived the Great Salem Fire of 25 July 1914. Despite the total loss, Naumkeag was back in business by February 1916 with a new electric-powered factory, with modern facilities and amenities for workers. By the late 1920s, the mill was producing 25,000 miles of sheeting per year in seven colors. Ultimately, however, cheap Southern labor and other changes in the textile industry lead to the demise of the Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company. Although Naumkeag outlasted many New England mills, in 1953 the factory in Salem closed for good and the business was moved to South Carolina.
Josiah Foster Smith was born in 1860, the son of John and Mary Ann (Perno) Smith of Salem. After his graduation from Salem High School, Smith began his fifty-seven-year career at the Naumkeag Mills as a “cotton boy,” later becoming Corporation Clerk, and then Agent, a position he filled from 1918 until his death in 1936. He was named a Director of the Corporation in 1929. Having moved up through the ranks at the mill, Smith maintained the respect of his workers and was credited with settling contentious strikes in the years before his death. In a speech at the dinner held for his fiftieth anniversary at the mills in 1929, Smith attributed the company’s success to “this active spirit of harmonious co-operation on the part of every employee of the company from the highest to the lowest.” He was well-respected in textile circles and active in local organizations including the Essex Institute, Essex Lodge of Freemasons, Salem Public Library, the Rotary Club and many others. He married Josephine Tillinghast Chadwick on 9 January 1889 and had two daughters and a son, Philip Horton Smith, a well-known architect on the North Shore of Massachusetts.
This letter is contained in the J. Foster and Josephine T. C. Smith Papers.
Bachorowski, Alphonse S. “Seventy Years in Salem,” Poland, January 1931, p. 30-33.
Borkowski, Elizabeth. “One Hundred Fifteen Years in Salem,” in Immigration in American Life: Graduate Seminar Research Papers on North Shore Selected Topics (Salem: Salem State College, 1977).
Stanton, Cathy and Jane Becker. In the Heart of Polish Salem: An Ethnohistorical Study of St. Joseph Hall and its Neighborhood (Boston: Northeast Region Ethnography Program, National Park Service, December 2009).