Museum works to profile sawmill workers

Submitted photoThis is a scene of late 19th century Clinton.

The Gilded Age was a time of great dissonance and stark contrasts. During the last half of the 19th century, income per capita rose for all Americans. Yet, there was also a significant wealth gap. The wealth gap was driven in large part because a few industries were acquiring America’s resources. So GDP rose because of things like the railroad. This meant a failed railroad could break the economy but also that an immigrant household could obtain a higher standard of living than ever before.

It was also true that for the couple of decades after the Civil War, the average American saw a decline in their health, as life expectancy and overall height declined. Politically, corruption was at all levels. Farmers and workers were unionizing and taking to the streets. And through it all, the economy was booming and busting. Of course like all historical topics, it seems every field has its own interpretation of the Gilded Age.

With the national backdrop as a guide, one would expect to see Clinton being a hotbed of labor unrest. Especially since in any given year, up to two-thirds of the town’s workforce was employed in the mills and that for most years, there was a 30 to 40 percent turnover rate at the Young mills.

Yet, only three strikes are known: 1865, 1877, and 1890. In 1890, 19 men demanded a salary increase to $1.75 a day, a raise of 30 cents. The paper, firmly in Young’s back pocket, stated “cash in hand once a month for labor is much better than idleness and unpaid grocery and board bills.” While over 70 workers struck, the original 19 were let go. Overall, the labor strikes in the papers don’t provide an insight into Clinton’s workers nor is it necessarily what the Sawmill Museum wants to learn from the workers.

So to learn more about the workers, the museum collected 1,229 names of sawmill workers from the 1880 census. The long-term goal is to build a binder of individual workers and to make a scrapbook of all the sawmill workers. In the meantime, we can provide a general sketch of what life was like for a sawmill worker.

First, what were the jobs in the sawmills? There were more than two dozen different jobs in a sawmill. The best job to have was the engineer, the head sawyer, or the foreman in the lumber yards. They generally made around 25 cents an hour. The young boys in the planing mill made less than 10 cents an hour. General laborers in the mill, planing mill, and railyard made around 14 cents an hour. However, next to the railroads, the sawmill was the best job you could have in Clinton. And with the all the area sawmills comparing wages, one of the best jobs along the Mississippi River.

To make it in the 19th century, one source states a household needed to earn $500 to afford groceries and board. While a worker made $1 to $3 a day, they only worked 200 days a year in the sawmills. This is why the sawmill owners tried to keep their best employees working year round and even during the downturns. In addition, it’s clear from the census records that a household would have two or three sawmill workers to make ends meet.

In the record of 1880 sawmill workers, one sees an array of ages. The youngest were 11 to 13 and only a few were above 55. The workers aged 16 to 22 made up the large number of native born working in the mills. In reality, they were first generation. Most of their parents were from Germany, mainly Schleswig-Holstein, and the rest from Ireland. In a household, brothers and cousins not only lived together but worked together. Households had “children” up until the age of 21 living at home. This was because, like in an 1871 note from John Kraus, parents could claim the child’s income up until 21.

The seasonal nature, the long hours, the dangers, and the youth of workers caused a lot of turnover. In Young’s mills, 30 to 40 percent of workers didn’t return from year to year. The dilemma is we don’t know if they were going to work in other mills in Clinton or left town. For example in the 1890 strike, the paper mentions that the group of strikers were off and on in the employ of Young for multiple years. Yet in 1893, 25 percent of the workers in Young’s mills had worked 5 to 33 years. This is a tale familiar to many industries, even today.

A driving force behind turnover rates could have been injuries. Injury rates are hard to quantify, but weekly, there were injuries reported in the paper. Quite a few concussions and head injuries were reported along with appendages getting caught in belts. Injuries came to all ages, but surprisingly, children seemed to have been injured less than adults, given the jobs they were doing.

To combat injuries and turnover, workers banded together to support each other. The workers created an Aflac-like insurance program funded by their own contributions. For the worker of the 19th century, most of the assistance they received from the owners came from the benevolent paternalism of the sawmill owners. With that said, it seems that from the worker perspective, they truly loved Aunt Jane Lamb, and to a degree Chancy Lamb. It is not a surprise that there is Jane Lamb Hospital when you read all the Jane did for not only her husband’s workers, but especially for those who were working a lesser job in Clinton, like the brickyards.

My biggest takeaway from this glimpse at the workers is that the 19th century working class provided the roots of a middle class and blue collar working class that would go on to define Clinton in the 20th century. Clinton could not have survived the collapse of the sawmills without a diversified source of capital, a growing middle class, and perhaps, a working class that was doing better than many other locations.

Given the newspaper records and stories, it seems that the larger urban areas were feeling the growing pains of industrialism acutely. In Clinton, the population on the whole seemed more insulated from disease and the economic downturns. Note, this doesn’t mean everyone was living in prosperity or achieving the American Dream. Outside of the sawmill, prospects were slim. But then again, Esek Chandler could lose an arm and leg in the mill, a few years later own a restaurant, and then two decades later become city treasurer.

After the mills started closing in the 1890s, it is recorded maybe up to 5,000 people left town. One could argue that maybe Clinton missed out on the labor fights because just as Clinton’s sawmills were closing was when the sawyers, lumberjacks, and river pilots started official unions. Then again, while in 1893 Davenport sawyers fought for 10 hour days, Young had long worked 11-hour days but with an hour break and regular cooling breaks in the river. Counterpoint to the counterpoint is a story I’ve heard that WJ Young would sign his tablecloth in charcoal every night to make sure his servants did the laundry.

Whether true or not, the anecdote is evidence that some Clintonians noticed the differences in status. But overall, enough families made a good enough living in Clinton to stay around and transition into the 20th century. After the mills closed, the workers and middle class actively fought for improvements in Clinton to attract new businesses and new opportunities for work. The citizens also fought for education. Most of all, Lyons and Clinton joined together.

So in essence, telling the worker’s story is the hardest thing for any museum. Before we place workers in a larger narrative, the museum wants to allow the workers to tell their own story as it’s equally important to capture who they were, where they lived, their kids, the businesses they went on to create, and the future generations they begot. And most of all, selfishly for us staff, we can then tell the stories of the women and children of the time.

Matt Parbs is the executive director of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum.

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