The winding road passes a few farms and then comes to a crossroads in the village of North Pownal. The first
thing you notice are the shacks and tiny houses on French Hill Road, and the badly maintained wood-frame duplexes that look
like what they once were - mill housing. The mill is long gone, but it has left its legacy. By the river, there is a glass-enclosed
sign on the spot once occupied by the North Pownal Manufacturing Company, a cotton mill that prospered in the 1800s and early
1900s, later becoming a tannery. It was demolished after it closed in 1988, resulting in a daunting and expensive hazardous
waste cleanup project.
|North Pownal Manufacturing Company (date unknown)
The sign includes a picture of the
mill, and another of a young mill girl, once erroneously identified as Addie Laird, who was photographed by Lewis Wickes Hine,
one of the world's most renowned and influential documentary photographers. He referred to her in his notes as "an amemic
little spinner." From 1908 to 1917, Hine took thousands of pictures for the National Child Labor Committee, exposing
the dangerous and unhealthful conditions that children endured working at textile mills, coal mines, vegetable farms, fish
canneries, and as late-night "newsies" on urban streets. In 1910, Addie became what would later be one of Hine's
most famous subjects, her 12-year-old frail body leaning against a spinning machine, her tired eyes staring out as if to say,
"Hey, mister, what are you gonna do about me?"
Addie's iconic photo appeared on
a US postage stamp in 1998, in a Reebok advertisement, and has hung quietly on the walls of museums for decades. One of those
museums is the Bennington Museum, just up the road from Pownal. In 2002, during a special exhibit of Hine's work, author Elizabeth
Winthrop saw the photo, and subsequently wrote Counting On Grace (Random House, 2006), a haunting novel about the
life of a fictional mill girl (Grace) in Pownal, who has an encounter with Hine when he takes her picture.
I met Elizabeth in the summer of 2000. She came to North Adams, Massachusetts, to begin research on Dear Mr.
President: Letters from a Mill Town Girl (Winslow Press, 2001), a children’s book that was to focus on
a fictional Italian-American girl named Emma, who writes to President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. I had
recently moved from Torrington, Connecticut, to the Florence section of Northampton, Massachusetts, and was working on Disappearing
Into North Adams (Flatiron Press, 2001), my second book about the city. Elizabeth was living in the Berkshires as a summer
resident. We became good friends, frequently meeting in coffee shops to compare notes and talk about our books.
Several years later, she showed me Addie's photo and told
me about Counting On Grace, which she was just starting to write. After the book was finished in the summer of 2005,
she confided that she was overwhelmed with curiosity about what the life of the real mill girl had been like, but
she had been unable to find a record of anyone in Pownal named Addie Laird, or for that matter, anyone at all with the surname
of Laird. She told me that when the postage stamp was created, the US Dept. of Labor had suffered the same frustration with
Shortly thereafter, Elizabeth made a startling discovery. By searching the US census
in 1900 and 1910, at the Conte National Archives in Pittsfield, she was able to determine that although Hine had written down
Laird, Addie's correct name was Card. With this new information, she learned through town records that Addie was born in Pownal
on December 6, 1897, and that she had an older sister named Annie, who also worked at the mill and later married Eli Leroy
of Cohoes, New York. Annie moved to Cohoes, where she and Eli had three children.
|Addie's first name was recorded later.
In 1900, when Addie was two years
old, her mother died and her father left home, and she and Annie went to live with their grandmother in North Pownal. In 1915,
Addie married fellow mill worker Edward Hatch. In the 1920 census, she is apparently childless and living with her mother-in-law,
while Edward is serving in the Navy. Elizabeth could find no further records of Addie or Edward, not even in the 1930 census,
which is the last one currently available to the public.
That subject came up immediately when she invited me for dinner in Williamstown, on October 17, 2005. She dropped
the search for Addie in my lap and offered to hire me to find the rest of the story.
How long did she work at the mill? Did she finish school? Did she have children? How long did she live? Could she
have living descendants? Had she been aware of Hine's famous photo? That's what Elizabeth wanted to know - and at that moment,
so did I. As a historian, author and genealogist, I had experienced the excitement of the hunt and the elation of turning
over the right rock at the right time. I wanted to forget dessert and just bolt out the door and start looking.
Elizabeth assigned me one special task for starters:
take photos of all the gravestones of people named Card that I could find in the cemeteries in Pownal. I started my research
the next morning, excited, confident, but unaware of the many serendipitous and eureka moments that were to follow.
I have a paid subscription to Ancestry.com, which has
the most comprehensive data bank of genealogy information on the Web. And so before my first trip to the cemeteries, I camped
out in front of my computer. Elizabeth had identified Edward Hatch's eight siblings, including Margaret, whose married name
was Harris. It occurred to me that if I could find an obituary of one of those siblings, Edward might be listed as a survivor,
and I might learn where he was living at the time. While searching on some Pownal-related websites, I found a list of the
names and dates of death of Pownal residents from 1921 to 1980. One of those listed was sister Margaret, who died in 1954.
I called the Bennington Library and learned that it had the Bennington Banner archived on microfilm.
On October 20th, I left early on a chilly,
foggy morning. Around 9:00, I entered Addie's dreary little world. I parked at the spot along the Hoosic River where the cotton
mill once stood, and where Addie's photo stares out toward the hovels on French Hill. There's a bench next to the sign, so
I sat there and listened to the river and wondered about her life. Then I headed for the cemeteries.
When I drove into the Oak Hill Cemetery, a large one on a slope overlooking the
valley, I chose to park in a small grassy space near the top, just off the winding dirt road. I got my camera and started
looking. To my surprise, the first gravestones I encountered, no more than 30 feet from my car, were members of the Card family.
In a total of five cemeteries, I spent the whole morning walking past rows and rows of family history, anticipating that at
any moment, I might discover Addie's grave, although there were no records of her death in Pownal. That didn't happen.
Then I headed to Bennington. A half-hour later, I was
in front of the microfiche at the library, with Margaret Harris's obituary staring back at me. There it was, "survived
by a brother, Edward Hatch, of Millerton, New York." On the way home, I thought, "If Addie was still married to
him then, she might be buried in Millerton."
next day, I called the only funeral home listed in Millerton. They looked up Hatch and found only one, Edward, who died December
12, 1982. He was buried at Irondale Cemetery. But his surviving widow was listed as Elvina (maiden name Goguen), not Addie.
So I knew that Edward had married a second time. Had Addie died, or had her marriage ended in divorce? I called the local
paper and ordered a copy of Edward's obituary.
went back to the 1930 census. That's when I found Edward Hatch in Detroit, living with wife Elvina, but no children. His occupation
was listed as automobile mechanic, and I figured that he had moved out there to work for General Motors or Ford. I looked
up Elvina, and learned that she was born in New Brunswick, Canada, and had immigrated to Bennington in 1922.
My wife, Carole, and I talked about Addie all evening.
Carole thought out loud: "If Addie had any children by Edward, and then died soon after, or in childbirth, the children
might have been placed in the care of one of his relatives. In those days, it wouldn't have been traditional for the father
to raise them alone." That intuitive thought turned out to be a turning point in the search.
Chapter Two: "Addie, Tell Me Where You Are."