FALL RIVER HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Women at Work: An Oral History of
in Fall River, Massachusetts
Interview with Mrs. Alphonse Kalil Abdallah, née Constance Joan Waskiewicz
Interviewer: (CM) Constance C. Mendes
Interviewee: (CA) Constance Joan (Waskiewicz) Abdallah
(AA) Alphonse Kalil Abdallah
Additional Commentary: (JR) Joyce B. Rodrigues, Fall River Historical Society
Date of Interview: May 27, 2015
Location: Abdallah residence, Swansea, Massachusetts
Constance “Connie” Joan (Waskiewicz) Abdallah was born in Fall River on February 11, 1932.
Alphonse Kalil Abdallah was born in Fall River on September 9, 1920.
The Waskiewicz family
Connie’s father, Wacław Waszkiewicz, and mother, Stefania Bukowska, emigrated from Poland to the United States in 1905. They met in Fall River and married in 1916 at St. Stanislaus Parish, a Polish-American Roman Catholic Church. The family lived in the South End, the Globe Village section of the city and worked in the textile mills. Connie was the youngest of four children, and had a sister and two brothers. She graduated from BMC Durfee High School in 1949.
The Abdallah family
The Lebanese-Syrian communities in Fall River are predominately Lebanese and members of the Maronite Eastern Rite Catholic Church. Lebanese immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century to escape political and religious persecution by the Turks.
The first Lebanese immigrants to Fall River lived on lower Columbia Street and in the Globe Village section of the city and worked as shopkeepers. Later immigrants settled in the Flint Village particularly around the Quequechan Street area and found employment as mill operatives.
Alphonse’s father and mother were in this second group of immigrants. Alphonse was the seventh of eight children, two daughters and six sons. The Abdallahs struggled through the Great Depression years. Alphonse, his brothers, and sisters, worked and brought their pay home to support the family. He graduated from BMC Durfee High School in 1938.
Working for Har-Lee Manufacturing
Alphonse and Connie were interviewed as a couple because they both worked for the Har-Lee Manufacturing Company, the largest cotton dress manufacturer in the United States. Their narrative tells what it was like to work in the garment industry during the 1930s and 1940s and the obstacles they overcame to marry outside of their ethnic group.
Alphonse was a supervisor in the trimming department. Connie worked in the same department and managed the shop’s inventory. At its peak, Har-Lee employed over 2,000 employees and was a union shop.1
Har-Lee Manufacturing Company
Har-Lee Manufacturing Company, a division of Wentworth Manufacturing, was founded in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901 by Russian immigrants. In 1934, the company moved from Chicago to Fall River.
The plant was located at 425 Pleasant Street in the former Durfee-Union mill complex. The Durfee-Union mills, founded in 1866, were one of the more successful of Fall River’s textile corporations and had an impressive group of large mill structures in the city.
Har-Lee Manufacturing moved to South Carolina in 1957. The business was restructured by Gerhard Lowenstein, a supervisor for Har-Lee, as Lowenstein Dress Corporation.
- See “Learn More” for information on working at Har-Lee Manufacturing: Excerpts from a Diary of an Operator at Har-Lee, Fall River, Mass., Hilda Tanner Papers, ca. 1930s, Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Martin P. Catherwood Library, Cornell University. at: http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/EAD/htmldocs/KCL05780pubs.html. Also, reference the link at the end of the Abdallah introductory material for the work process as described by Alphonse Abdallah
Note: This interview has been slightly edited for continuity and readability; in order to preserve the integrity of the conversation, the phraseology remains that of the interviewer and interviewee. Italicized information in square brackets has been added for the purposes of clarification and context.
This transcript begins with a conversation with Mrs. Abdallah’s husband, Alphonse, who spent a number of years employed at Har-Lee Manufacturing Company in Fall River, Massachusetts; the firm was, at the time, the largest producer of inexpensive ladies dresses in the United States. His notes on the Har-Lee Manufacturing Process can be located here.
CM: When did you start working at Har-Lee [Manufacturing Company, 425 Pleasant Street, Fall River, Massachusetts]?
AA: See, um … before I went into the service [during World War II]. I went into the service in 1942 [United States Army, enlisted November 14] but I was there about three years before that….
AA: Yeah, ‘39.
CM: How big was the factory at that time?
AA: That was what it was, they had over twenty-two hundred girls. That was the worst thing to happen to Fall River, [Har-Lee] leaving [in 1957]. They’d never had left if the girls that learned had stayed. But you couldn’t blame them, they wanted to go to a smaller shop that would grow around them. And they’d tell them, ‘Go to Har-Lee and learn,’ [where] they were learning and teaching them…. They modified, and the plant, you couldn’t beat it, conveyor belts and all. And nobody bothered you, it was very, very, very nice. Um, all the years I worked there, I [was] never criticized, never. All I was told was make sure the floors are … suppl[ied] … and never [get] behind. All the, um, overtime you need, take it. You need more girls, get them from there, different places. Never, never being criticized.
JR: Let’s go back to the beginning.… Was it Harrison Street that you came from?
AA: There was Harrison, Flint, Quequechan, [and] Barnard [Streets], all this was [where] the … people that came from Lebanon congregated….
JR: Tell me about your parents. They came from Lebanon?
AA: They came from Lebanon…. [His father, Kalil Abdallah, was born in Beit ed-Dine, Lebanon, and immigrated to the United States in 1905; his mother, née Nazara Joseph Solomon was also born in Beit ed-Dine, and immigrated to the United States circa 1907.]
JR: Did your parents work in the mills?
AA: My parents, in the cotton mills. I went only once, I carried a …
AA: Dinners for my Dad. Oh, this is not for me. You shout, you have to shout to see what is what. My dad, because of his health, didn’t work too long, and in those days, I think all the family [helped out]. See, I made $10 a week, I gave them $8 to the family, $2 for me. And that is what they all did, they gave [to] the family. You had to do it in order to survive.
JR: You turned your pay over.
AA: Even though we [his parents] owned a six-tenement house [at 322 Harrison Street, Fall River], the people couldn’t afford the rent, we were paying for them to live there. And I said, ‘Gee, Dad, what are you going to do?’
JR: Do you remember the mill your father worked in?
AA: Oh, it was … Wampanoag [Mills, 69 Alden Street, Fall River]….
CM: Were they up near Harrison Street?
CM: They would have walked.
AA: And I used to, my mom used to wake me up when I was in the first grade [at James M. Aldrich Primary School, 295 Harrison Street, Fall River], wake me up at five in the morning, [to] go to the local mills, wait for the engineer [with] the big wheelbarrow [to] empty the furnaces; we knew where he was going to empty them. And not only I, but other people, would be there with a digger, a potato sack, [to] fill it up, put it in the wagon, and come home. And in those cinders were coal … which … was still good to burn. And if we didn’t have any wood – someone would be wrecking a house in the area – I would go there with a wagon. Whatever they didn’t want, whatever the contractor [said] was broken, he would let us take them, and start a fire. And if there wasn’t enough wood, we would get bobbins from the mill.
JR: So your mother was at home? Was she working in the mill, too?
AA: No … I was the seventh child.
CM: Out of how many?
AA: Eight children.
CM: Who owned Har-Lee … when you went to Har-Lee, who owned it?
AA: Oh my God, how can I forget it? What a wonderful man, what a wonderful man. All the years I was there, I never, never was criticized, ‘Just make sure the floors are supplied. Take all the overtime you want.’ [The ‘wonderul man’ he is referring to is Alvin Abraham Sopkin, the general manager of Har-Lee; he was the son of the company’s president, Benjamin Sopkin.]
JR: I think that … someone else said … the name Har-Lee came from the family.…
[Har-Lee Manufacturing Company, was a division of Wentworth Manufacturing Company; its manufacturing plant was at 425 Pleasant Street, Fall River, and its corporate office and showroom was at 1350 Broadway, New York, New York. The Wentworth firm was founded in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, by Russian immigrant Benjamin Sopkin, who served as its president. The Har-Lee division of the company was founded in Chicago by Sopkin and a business partner, Harry Lee, also a Russian immigrant, who served as its treasurer; Har-Lee was derived from the name of the latter. In 1934, the company was moved from Chicago to Fall River by Sopkin’s sons, Alvin Abraham Sopkin, and Henry Sopkin, in order to take advantage of the city’s abundant supply of labor and manufacturing space.]
AA: I don’t know. They came from Chicago. [The company’s president, Benjamin Sopkin, and its treasurer, Harry Lee, were former Chicago residents.] And [on] each floor was a young floor manager, and when I got there, they all took a liking to me. They told the big boss, the manager [of] the whole plant [Alvin A. Sopkin, general manager], ‘Put Alphonse in charge, put Alphonse in charge.’ And … what a wonderful man, [he] came up to me – I wanted to learn everything, wanted to know everything – let me know, ‘I am putting you in charge [as supervisor of the trimming department].’ At that time, they had two people running the department; one of them passed away in the war [World War II]. So, when I got there, there was one more [man] there, he wasn’t too well, he used to be … mostly watching the girls. I never, never had to do that. All I did, all I got was … a lot of requisitions into the office; I had thousands of dozens. So that meant for me to go overtime [and to] go in the office, I go in his room, get the records and [would] be sitting down and taking care of all the work. And sometimes [the manager] would walk in at night [and] he would smile.
CA: Good memories.
AA: He would smile [and] look at me.
JR: I am going to go back a little bit to your family. Your family of eight. How many girls and how many boys?
AA: Two girls [Josephine Kalil Abdallah, later Mrs. Thomas Joseph Moroon, and Izabel ‘Isabel’ Abdallah] and six boys [Joseph Kalil Abdallah, Michael Kalil Abdallah, Albert Kalil Abdallah, Abdallah Kalil Abdallah, Alphonse Kalil Abdallah, and George Kalil Abdallah].
JR: What was their careers like?
AA: They all went to the shops.
JR: They worked in the shops? Tell me about that, where did they work?
AA: Shelburne [Shirt Company, Inc., 111 Alden Street, Fall River].
JR: Your sisters worked in Shelburne?
AA: Yes, my sister [Josephine] worked in Shelburne [circa 1942 to 1945. From 1932 to circa 1940, she was employed as a sewer in an unidentified factory, and circa 1941 at Auerbach Bathrobe Company, 473 Pleasant Street, Fall River], and one of my sisters [Isabel] went to Har-Lee, where I was working; she was there quite a few years [from circa 1945 to 1956. She was also employed at: Stella Anne Frocks, 420 Quequechan Street, Fall River, circa 1957; K & G Manufacturing Company, 273 Pleasant Street, Fall River, from circa 1958 to 1978; and Tiffany Sportswear, 372 Kilburn Street, Fall River, circa 1979]. When I was in the sixth grade at Davis [Grammar] School [33 Quequechan Street, Fall River], I used to go – my Mom would make a dinner for [Josephine] – I would go in the wagon, and go and do lunch hour, take it to her, and she would give me ten cents a week.
JR: To bring the lunch…. How about your brothers? What happened to them?
AA: One of them [Michael] worked for Nasiff Fruit [395 South Main Street, Fall River]. They had a store, and he would work for them before going into the army [United States Army, enlisted April 13, 1942]. Another one worked in Attleboro … at a jewelry place [Lloyd Garfield Balfour Company, Attleboro, Massachusetts], I believe. [In fact, two of his brothers, Joseph and Abdallah, were once employed at L.G. Balfour Co.]
JR: Okay, that’s well known.
AA: In fact, before going to the Har-Lee, [Joseph] got me a good job. My brother says, ‘Go see … so-and-so, who lives on Alden [Street]. Tell him I sent you.’ I went … and said, ‘My brother Joe sent me to see you. I am looking for a job.’ ‘Go to the Flint Furniture [Company, Inc., upholstered furniture manufacturers, 410 Quequechan Street]; tell him I sent you.’ Just then, I went to Flint Furniture; right away I started working, and it was a, I mean, doing that was a very good job, you know … making furniture.
CM: Did you do that before Har-Lee?
AA: Yes. No, wait, I went to Har-Lee for a very short time, and they were very slack, and the boss said – I don’t know who he was – said … ‘Alphonse, I’m sorry I have to lay you off.’ But that is when my brother got me that other job [at Flint Furniture Company, Inc.]. But then, when I couldn’t do [it] too well, a lady friend of mine that lived on Harrison [Street] knocked on my window before I went for breakfast, before I went to work. ‘Har-Lee has been looking for you.’ They came looking for me for a long while, because, in those days, we didn’t have a telephone. Then she says, ‘Alphonse, they have been looking for you for a long time. My sister didn’t want to tell you, hoping to get it for one of our relations.’ She told me the truth, she was a good friend. So, when I went to work, seeing I couldn’t cut it, the Jew [David Kass, president of Flint Furniture Manufacturing Company] says, ‘You are doing well.’ ‘How can I be doing well? I am not even penetrating the goods.’ When I went to the Jew that was running the plant, I says, ‘Well, I am leaving.’ He said, ‘You are leaving? You’re doing fine,’ and, ‘How come you are leaving here? You are doing fine.’ I said, ‘I am not doing as well as others.’ ‘I hate to see you go.’ A good thing I went to Har-Lee, and in a very short time, the manager came upstairs and said, ‘Alphonse’ – I was doing mostly stock work – he said, ‘You won’t be doing this all the time.’ Then, they took a liking to me, they saw something in me I didn’t see.
CA: You are reliable.
AA: I never cared to learn, never. I did well in high school [B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, Class of 1938], but not as good as I should have.
CM: How about medical things? Did they have a first aid room there or a nurse?
JR: In the Har-Lee?
AA: Yes, yes. They had twenty-two hundred employees. A doctor would come once a week….
JR: So you had a doctor come to the factory?
AA: Once a week, if anybody needed anything.
JR: What happened if there was an accident on the job, or if someone needed medical attention?
AA: I guess they would have to contact him.
CA: Did they have a nurse in there all the time or a first aid person?
AA: I don’t know.
JR: The other question I had … was about the union. I don’t know if Har-Lee was a union shop. Was it ever a union shop?
AA: Oh, yes.
JR: When did it start?
AA: I don’t know, but it was. [Following an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in 1941, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) successfully unionized Har-Lee Manufacturing Company; eighty percent of the ballots cast were in favor.] I know, I hated to see it go. All the years I was there, never, never criticized.
CM: When did it close?
AA: 1957 [at which time the company moved to Lake City, South Carolina] and the owner – how can I forget his name? What a wonderful man. Any time he came from New York, he had to pass my department; always says, ‘Good morning, Al.’
CM: Was he Jewish?
AA: Oh, yeah.
JR: Many of the factories…
CA: Almost all of them.
CA: They worked hard, and their sons inherited. [Three generations of the Sopkin family were involved in Wentworth Manufacturing Company.]
JR: Yes, they did. A lot of the manufacturers came from New York. You said Chicago on this one. A lot of them come from New York.
AA: They [Har-Lee Manufacturing Company] had an office in New York [Wentworth Manufacturing Company, 1350 Broadway, New York, New York] and I visited that office once with my wife [née Constance Joan Waskiewicz].
JR: I am going to move up on to Connie … because Mrs. Abdallah was also an employee of the Har-Lee. I want to ask some questions about that, because I heard this was a Har-Lee romance.
JR: How did you get started there?
CA: My sister-in-law [Mrs. Theodore Joseph Waskiewicz, née Mary Veronica Rys] wanted me to have a better job, you know. I was working in Grant’s [W.T. Grant Company, department store, 149 South Main Street, Fall River].
JR: In Grant’s?
CA: For a year out of high school [B.M.C. Durfee High School, Fall River, Class of 1949].
JR: I remember Grant’s on Main Street.
CA: And then, um.
AA: That was a blessing for her and me. This is the truth now.
CA: I went to the Har-Lee because my sister-in-law offered me a permanent job. So, full time.
AA: This was before eight o’clock [a.m. that] she and her sister-in-law would punch the clock, and my department was caged in.
CA: The romance began.
AA: I was outside the cage. So, as I am doing my work on requisitions, I look up and I saw her and her sister-in-law – her sister-in-law was an excellent worker – working; none of my workers were bad. I looked up and this girl is for me, okay?
JR: Just like that.
CM: How long did it take for you to hook her?
AA: Unfortunately, her mother took a liking to me.
AA: Fortunately. Unfortunately, her brother [Theodore], for some unknown reason, he knew some Lebanese people.
CA: He worked in Flint Furniture [Company, Inc.].
AA: Didn’t want me, you know, to go out with her. So, he’d bring his wife [Mary] and … he’d be going up Pleasant [Street], and I’d be going down Pleasant [Street, and] he’d look the other way; I always looked to smile, he would look the other way. We had to elope.
JR: This is even getting better! This is a great story!
AA: We got married in [Waterville,] Maine [on April 1, 1959].
JR: You had to run away?
AA: In Maine; my sister [Josephine] had a nice cabin there. And the church [St. Joseph’s Church] was, the ceremony was much, much better than if it was done on Rockland Street at the Polish church [St. Stanislaus Church, 40 Rockland Street, Fall River]. They had a choir, they sang the Ave Maria, she was dressed beautifully; you can see the picture. And she was kneeling at the altar while they sang. Very, very nice ceremony.
CA: The Polish priest [in Fall River, Rev. Hugo Emanuel Dylla] wasn’t too happy because, you know, he wanted me to get married there.
JR: That brings up the question of this competition between the Polish and the Lebanese. So, are you saying your brother didn’t care for a boyfriend that was not Polish?
CA: That’s part of it. Because all of the members of my family married Polish, you know? He was an oddball.
AA: They all said, ‘It’s all Mary’s fault.’ And Mary was the one who, her sister-in-law, that worked for me.
JR: Now did your parents, Connie, come from Poland?
CA: Yes, they [Wacław Waszkiewicz and his wife, née Stefania ‘Stella’ Bukowska] came from Poland [in 1905 and 1909, respectively]. They worked [for] the textile mills. My mother was [in] a mill right across from me [Berkshire Fine Spinning Company, Plant E, 372 Kilburn Street, Fall River], and my mother worked there for years and years, even when my two brothers [Theodore J. Waskiewicz and Mecislaus ‘Mathew’ Joseph Waskiewicz] were in the service. [Theodore, United States Army Air Forces, enlisted April 20, 1942, and ‘Mathew’, United States Army, enlisted March 9, 1943.] And then my father worked in the Kerr Mills [American Thread Company, Martine Street, foot of Kerr Street, Fall River] for a long time.
JR: Now, what area was this?
CA: South End.  Kilburn Street.
JR: Kilburn Street?
CA: When I was about six, seven years old, I wanted to go see Mom in the mill. So, I went with my neighbor, a little boy; we went to the mill. When they saw us coming in, they were screaming, ‘Get out of here … there is stuff you can get hurt on. It’s dangerous.’ So, I saw my Mom and she says, ‘Take off, go, go home.’ But, that was it, I had to go see her that time.
JR: But she didn’t want you to go to the mill.
CA: No way.
JR: She wanted you to go work somewhere else.
CA: I never, you know, that didn’t come up. Because I wanted to, I had the regular course in [B.M.C.] Durfee [High School] and I didn’t have a college course. But, I worked, after the Har-Lee I went to the Fall River Electric Light [Company, 85 North Main Street] for a while [as a clerk, circa 1957 – 1960] … until I got pregnant; I couldn’t work anymore there.
JR: You got a smart lady, here.
AA: I knew when I looked at her, I knew she looked smart. I knew she came from a good family, because Polish people are good religious people, just like the Lebanese. That is why I married her….
JR: So, how did you … get to Maine? That is the question. If you are going to elope….
CA: His sister lived in Maine. It wasn’t easy to do, you know. It was very hard.
CM: What did his mother think? What did your mother think?
CA: My mother was very upset but, as it turned out, my two brothers came to the wedding.
JR: I guess that Durfee class worked. You went into retail when you were at Grant’s, so you weren’t in the mill. Your mother must have been happy about that.
CA: I worked a long time, a few years part-time. And then they had nice prizes … if you did so much in sales, they gave me prizes. That was something to look forward to.
JR: When you went to Har-Lee, who taught you how to sew those dresses?
CA: I didn’t sew anything.
JR: Oh, you didn’t sew anything?
CA: No, I was in the trimming department, I was perpetual inventory. I took care of that, and the buttons and stuff, and then I took care of the parts department. Belts, snaps, you know, whatever.
JR: Well, I am going to move on…. I am going to jump to more of the social side … of living in Fall River … going back to the Polish and the Lebanese holidays. What about holidays, how do you celebrate those? And Thanksgiving and Christmas?
CA: I always used to…
AA: It’s multi-family with us.
CA: I used to love polka dancing in my teenage years and twenties. I’d go and they had a lot of Polish dances at the Polish [National] Home [872 Globe Street, Fall River].
JR: And that is where the teenagers would go?
CM: Would he go with you?
AA: No. We didn’t know one another.
JR: What did the Lebanese do to meet girls? How did you meet girls when you were a teenager?
AA: A lot of us went to Lincoln Park [State Road, Westport, Massachusetts]. I didn’t socialize too much. My social life was, this is true, was going to the dogs and the horses. I loved to gamble. Loved it.
JR: You did that when you were single and married?
AA: I loved to gamble. When they were running [horses] in Narragansett [Park, Pawtucket, Rhode Island], I was there. If the dogs [greyhounds] were running in Raynham [Park, Raynham, Massachusetts], I was there six nights a week.
CM: Where was she?
AA: She was taking care of the house and children, but I was holding my own; that is what counts.
JR: You mentioned the Depression. What was that … like in Fall River when you were growing up, during the Depression? You couldn’t get jobs during that time.
AA: No, all I did was play…. We had the schoolyard across the street [James M. Aldrich School, 295 Harrison Street, Fall River], the big schoolyard. We played baseball, horseshoes, football, instead of going to Lafayette Park.
JR: So, how did your parents make out during that time? They had eight children, and times were tough.
AA: Well, thanks to the fact that … two of my sisters worked steady, and then my older brothers – like I told you – they’d give the money to the family.
JR: You all chipped in.
AA: And, uh, we ate good, I can say that. Depression, but we ate good. Anything we wanted, it was fresh. If we wanted steak, we’d go to the Polish Market [Polish Co-operative Grocery Stores at 177] Quequechan Street [Fall River], that they used to have. ‘What do you want?’ Whatever cut you want, they cut it. We never had anything …
JR: No frozen. Because nobody had those refrigerators.
CM: You didn’t know it was a Depression.
AA: We had an ice box.
JR: So, so up ‘til that point, everything had to be fresh from the store.
CM: But you didn’t know you didn’t have a lot of money to do this. You didn’t think there was a Depression … I grew up during the Depression and I don’t think I ever knew that there was a Depression. They do with what you have. You made do with what you had.
JR: Yeah, you just had to make ends meet. Oh, my goodness, [we are] going to have to stop [at] that.