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
Transcriber: Deborah Mello
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 is unedited and transcribed verbatim from the original recording.
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.
JR: Okay, we are going to get stared. This is May 27, 2015, and we are in Swansea, Massachusetts with Mr. and Mrs. Alphonse Abdallah. And Connie Mendes is our interviewer today. So we will let Connie get started.
CM: When did you start working at Har-Lee, is that in there?
AA: She, um, my gosh, before I went into the service. I went into the service in 1942 but I was there about three years before that. So let’s see…
AA: Yeah, ‘39.
CM: How big was it then?
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, it leaving. They’d never had left if the girls that learned and stayed. But you couldn’t blame them, they wanted to go to a smaller shop that would grow around them. And they tell them, ‘Go to Harlee and learn,’ which they were learning and teaching them to stay. 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 never criticized. Never. All I was told was make sure the floors are, oh my gosh, it’s supplied, the floors, and never behind. All the, um, over time you need, take it. You need more girls, get them from there, different places. Never, never being criticized.
JR: I just want to jump back a little bit, again, to the neighborhood. Tell me about your parents. They came from Lebanon?
AA: They came from Lebanon.
JR: Did your parents work in the mills?
AA: My parents, in the cotton mills.
JR: In the cotton mills.
AA: 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. See, I made $10 a week, I gave them $8 to the family, $2 for me. And that is what they all did.
CM: My husband did.
AA: They gave the family.
CM: My husband did.
AA: You had to do it in order to survive.
JR: You turn your pay over.
AA: Even though we owned a six-tenement house, 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 – gee – I can’t remember, Wampanoag one.
AA: Oh, my gosh.
CM: Were they up near Harrison Street?
CM: They would have walked.
AA: They were on, um, what was the one on Martine Street.
JR: Kerr Mill.
AA: Kerr Mill, Wampanoag Mill. And I used to, my Mom used to wake me up when I was in the first grade, wake me up at five in the morning, go to the local mills, wait for the engineer and the big wheelbarrow, empty the furnaces; and 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, fill it up, put it in the wagon, and come home. And in those cinders were coke, which originally they were coal, but they was still good to burn. And if we didn’t have any wood – somebody would be wrecking a house in the area – I would go there with a wagon. Whatever they didn’t want, whoever the contractor, that were broken, he’d let us take them, and start a fire. And if there wasn’t enough wood, we would get bobbins from the mill. And there was a big iron stove, so maybe four pilots, and my mother, what a wonderful cook. All she would say, ‘Just taste, just taste.’
JR: So, your mother was at home. Was she working in the mill too? No.
AA: No, when I was, uh, I was the seventh child.
CM: Out of how many?
AA: Eight children. And she was always happy, always happy. She cooked, you know? For ten people, and eight children and that, and she was always happy. Always say, ‘We will rely on the good Lord.’
CA: And grew her own food.
AA: ‘Just taste it.’ What a wonderful mother.
JR: How about your neighbors? You had six tenements in that house?
AA: The neighbors were Lebanese. There was one Portuguese family.
CM: What were they doing there?
JR: How’d they get in?
AA: It was just a mother and daughter, and the daughter was going to get married; I guess they left.
CA: They were down north where I came from.
AA: No, the Portuguese were mostly on Columbia Street.
CA: Right, right.
JR: The first area was Columbia Street, and then up on Alden Street with Espirito Santo.
AA: Yes, absolutely right.
AA: We had good relations with everybody.
CA: We didn’t worry about it at that point.
CM: Who owned Har-Lee to begin with, 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 over time you want.’
JR: I think that, I am trying to remember what someone else said, I think the name Har-Lee came from the family. They came – somebody in the family – they took the names and they connected it to make the name. So maybe that is how it got started?
AA: I don’t know. They came from Chicago. And 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, the whole plant, ‘Put Alphonse in charge, put Alphonse in charge.’ And they, managers, what a wonderful man, came up to me – I wanted to learn everything, wanted to know everything – let me know, ‘I am putting you in charge.’ At that time, they had two people running the department; one of them passed away in the war. So, when I got there, there was one more there, he wasn’t too well, he used to be, ah, mostly watching the girls. I never, never had to do that. All I did, all I got was, Alphonse, was a lot of requisitions into the office; I had thousands of dozens. So that meant for me to go over time, go in the office. I go in his room, get the records, and be sitting down and taking care of all the work. And sometimes he would walk in at night…
CA: And say how you are?
JR: Yeah, yeah.
AA: He would smile.
CA: Good memories.
AA: He would smile, 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 and six boys.
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?
CA: I think so.
JR: Your sisters worked in Shelburne?
AA: Yes, my sisters worked in Shelburne and one of my sisters went to Har-Lee, where I was working; she was there quite a few years. And then one of them went after Shelburne, went on Twelfth Street. When I was in the sixth grade at Davis School, I used to go, my Mom would make a dinner for her. 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, that’s beautiful. How about your brothers? What happened to them?
AA: One of them worked for Nasiff Fruit. They had a store, and he would work for them before going into the army. Another one worked in Attleboro, and in Attleboro at a jewelry place, I believe.
JR: Okay, that’s well known.
AA: And that is where he was at. In fact, before going to the Har-Lee, he got me a good job. My brother says, ‘Go see counselor so and so, who lives on Alden. Tell him I sent you.’ I went to see the counselor and said, ‘My brother Joe sent me to see you. I am looking for a job.’ ‘Go to the Flint Furniture; 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, doing 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 – he said, ‘Gee Alphonse I’m sorry I have to lay you off.’ But that is when my brother got me that other job. But then, when I couldn’t do too well, a lady friend of mine that lived on Harrison 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.
JR: Oh, okay, that’s true.
AA: 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 Lee, seeing I couldn’t cut it, The Jew says, ‘You are doing good.’ ‘How can I be doing well? I am not even penetrating the goods.’ … to Harvey Prober after. When I went to the Jew that was running the plant, I says, ‘Well, I am leaving, Sir.’ ‘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.’ ‘Gee, I hate to see you go.’ A good thing I went to the Har-Lee, and in a very short time the, a manager from the office 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, but not as good as I should have.
CM: How about medical things? Did they have a first aide 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. In fact, I used that doctor a couple of times for my hay fever. In the summer, hay fever. And you grow out of it – but you grow out of it. And that time, no matter what you took, it didn’t cure.
CM: I know, I have it.
AA: But now, they say they have something good for it. I don’t get it anymore. But at the time I used to get it very bad.
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, too, 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: It was?
JR: When did it start?
AA: I don’t know. But it was.
JR: It was a union shop.
AA: I know, I hated to see it go. All the years I was there, never, never criticized.
CM: When did it close?
AA: 1957 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.
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 had an office in New York and I visited that office once with my wife.
JR: Okay, so, I am just going to go back a little bit again, about your family life. You said there was no telephone. When you were living on Harrison Street, how did you heat the house?
AA: Coal and coke and wood.
JR: Right, and…
AA: And the cooking was a big iron stove.
CM: So, was the heat in the iron stove? Was the heater in there?
AA: No, later on, you got an oil burner. Later on.
CM: So was it a free-standing stove? The coal stove.
AA: Yeah, it was a big stove.
CM: I grew up with one.
JR: I remember those, they had an oven.
AA: Four inlets.
JR: When did you get your telephone?
AA: Oh jeepers, the telephone didn’t come after the war. Oh, yeah, after the war; way after the war.
JR: Were you already married at that time or still single?
AA: I was still single, I got married late. I waited for the right one.
JR: I can see that.
AA: I couldn’t do any better.
JR: I am going to move up on to Connie, too. Because Connie, 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, Connie?
CA: I started when my…
JR: How did you get started?
CA: My sister-in-law wanted me to have a better job, you know? I was working in Grant’s.
JR: In Grant’s?
CA: For a year out of high school.
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. So I just…
AA: This was before eight o’clock; 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.
AA: 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, for some unknown reason, he knew some Lebanese people.
CA: He worked in Flint Furniture.
AA: Didn’t want me, you know, to go out with her. So, he’d bring his wife, and my future, he’d be going up Pleasant, and I’d be going down Pleasant, 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 Maine.
JR: You had to run away?
AA: In Maine; my sister had a nice cabin there. And the church was, the ceremony was much, much better than if it was done on Rockland Street at the Polish church. 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 wasn’t too happy because, you know, he wanted me to get married there, in the Polish.
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 came from Poland. They worked the textile mills. My mother was a mill right across from me, and my mother worked there for years and years, even when my two brothers were in the service. And then my father worked in the Kerr Mill for a long time.
JR: Now, what area was this now?
CA: South End.
JR: South Main?
CA: Kilburn Street.
JR: Kilburn Street. Okay.
CA: There was a Portuguese church right up the street, but that closed, too. All the churches are closed.
JR: Wasn’t that the Berkshire, on Kilburn Street?
CA: I think they are going to knock it down. It’s a pity.
JR: Yes, they are. That brings back another memory of my own, because when I was in high school at Durfee, we took a field trip to the Berkshire; it was still running at the time. They all wanted, our teachers wanted us to see a real cotton mill in operation.
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. You know, 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 Durfee and I didn’t have a college course. But, I worked, after the Har-Lee I went to the Fall River Electric Light for a while. And 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, because I wanted someone, you know, that is really religious. Everything I did was religious. I never got a job on my own. Never got a job on my own. I prayed to the good Lord to guide me.
JR: So, how did you guys get to Maine? That is the question. If you are going to elope…
CA: His sister lived in Maine.
JR: I was going to say if you were going to run away, maybe go to Rhode Island. But not all the way to Maine.
CA: 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, you know? And the sales, you know, they give the sales would be. I said in Grant’s they had prizes and sales, you know? 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.
AA: She took care of Har-Lee. I can’t even name them.
CA: Belts, snaps, you know, whatever.
JR: I am going to jump to more of the social side, more of the social side of living in Fall River. And that was, again, 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 home.
JR: And that is where the teenagers would go?
CM: Would he go with you?
CM: This is before?
AA: We didn’t know one another.
JR: What did the Lebanese do to meet girls?
AA: To what?
JR: How did you meet girls when you were a teenager?
AA: A lot of us went to Lincoln Park. 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.
CM: Well, you have done all right.
AA: When they were running in Narragansett, I was there. If the dogs were running in Raynham, 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, and that brought to mind: What was that, 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, all I did was play. We had the schoolyard across the street, the big schoolyard. We played baseball, horseshoes, football, instead of going to Lafayette Park. That’s all I did. After that, with ten dollars a week, I went to the dogs.
JR: So, how did your parents make out during that time? They had eight children, and ties were tough.
AA: Well, thanks, thanks to the fact that my sisters – two of my sisters – worked steady, and then my older brothers, like I told you, one of them worked for Nasiff. They’d give the money to the family. Another one worked in a jewelry plant, gave money to the fmily. It was all …
R: 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 on Quequechan Street, that they used to have. ‘What do you want, Charlie?’ Whatever cut you want, they ct it. We never had anything …
J: No frozen. Because nobody had those refrigerators.
CM: You didn’t know it was a Depression.
AA: We had an ice box. I used to go to the ice box and I’d buy a ten-cent piece of ice with the wagon. They’d give me twenty cents for it. As I was coming home, I’d sell ten cents back because that’s all, ten cents, that would fit in the ice box. So, we’d get the ice for nothing. And we didn’t have an ice box until after I got out of the service in 1945.
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 don’t remember. 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, going to have to stop that.