What sort of life….
Looking at this photograph, taken by Lewis Hine in Macon Ga. in the early 1900’s, conjures up mixed feelings for me.
I love looking at the smiles on the boys’ faces as they play jacks around the old town railroad track. I love thinking about the men these boys grew up around, and grew up to be – men like my Granddaddy Ted, who was born and raised around Macon, Ga about this same time, and who’s family lived a lot like these boys’.
But the building behind them, the old brick building lined with wooden, many-pane windows. Buildings like this still stand in many a southern – and even northern – town in the US. One stood here in our town until just a year or so ago. Buildings like this create a sense of place to the small towns they used to dominate. They’re a piece of history that will never be resurrected.
That’s sad to me, but to these boys in the photograph if they could’ve only heard these words then, they would have danced for joy.
This was in the days of child labor, of mass production. After the Civil War and the Reconstruction, but before the First World War, the United States was in an era of industrialization that swept up the American society – and with it hundreds of thousands of newly arrived immigrants who had fled homeland and family to find refuge in the land of opportunity.
These immigrant families often consisted of more than ten children – all of them but the very small would work.
They would work the mills, alongside their parents.
And they would die – of cotton fiber inhalation, of pneumonia, of TB, of accidents turned fatal among the monstrous machinery they were taught to navigate and run.
But this was life to them.
This was what they knew – all they knew.
The little girl on the right was Daisy Estes about 11 to 14 years old in this picture. She and her family (she had nine siblings) lived in Chester, SC during the time of this photograph. There was no school within reach of them and she and the other three older children in the family worked in the mills. It is presumed that the second girl in the picture is Daisy’s sister, Cora, but the exact identification of both of the others girls is unknown. Hine recorded that all three of the girls were chewing tobacco. This picture was taken in November 1908.
By 1910, Daisy’s mother had died (perhaps even around the time this photo was taken, as two years later in the 1910 census her mother is not mentioned, but the family does include a two and a half year old daughter). Sometime after, the family moved to Gastonia, NC (not far from Chester), where, in 1915, Daisy’s dad, Carter Estes died of pneumonia.
Daisy either married before or shortly after her dad’s death, as ten months later on her own death certificate she is listed as married, though no husband’s name is recorded. She died between the ages of 18 and 22 of spinal meningitis or purple fever. The contributing cause listed on the death certificate is neglect.
(Thanks to Joe Manning and his Lewis Hine Project for the information.)
I have highlighted the rows of the Estes Family with yellow. You can probably enlarge this picture and read the 1910 census of their family for yourself, or download it to your computer.
Reading this girl’s story, I am brought to realize how she is only one in millions that grew up, worked, and died in these mills across the country over the century they were instated and used. They struggled to survive, to just live day by day – and some did. There are folks even round town here that we know who grew up working in the mills aside their parents, and years later retired from them.
But for those who were not so fortunate, for those who struggled – only to die neglected and alone.
We think we have it bad.
With our warm homes, our pantries of food, our machinery that does half our work for us. Our big department stores that carry almost anything anyone could ever want, our factories that run on computers – very little chance (little chance) anymore of a worker getting tangled up, mangled, and killed in the massive robots that make this country run today.
And we think we have it bad.
What our grandparents would have given to live like we do! Our grandparents, our great-grandparents our great aunts and uncles! Those that lived through the ‘roaring 20’s’ in mills and shrimp yards, picking cranberries by hand and shelling oysters with their little ones helping at their sides.
But they could still smile.
Clothes falling off, half blind, and no doubt completely illiterate.
They could still smile.
Because this was life to them. This was all they knew, all they could hope to ask for. And, they lived through it and in it.
I know they weren’t always happy.
Like Daisy Estes, her life seemed to be one huge loss and hardship after another. But I remember when I was ten, eleven, thirteen. I remember the hard times so well. But I remember those times of laughter. Those times of enjoying my family – and our life; my life.
I’m sure Daisy did too.
But why can’t we live life one day at a time? Why can’t we look to heaven, trusting our Father for what He has in store? If its working in a mill, or working on our own farm, working as a shrimp plucker or a construction crew member – whatever it is that’s in our lives today, whatever He has placed us in.
We can look at these people, long gone now; their lives over – the world they knew passed on forever. We can look at them and see the good that the Lord gave them.
Can’t we do the same for ourselves today?
“But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.”
I Corinthians 2:9