Document 40: Lavina Hartsuck Describes Life in a Family of Millworkers

Reminisces of Mrs. Ben [Lavina] Hartsuck, accession 4749, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries.

Return to Document Concordance

The mills paid 20 cents an hour. There was an ugly joker in labor's pay. [In other words, the wages were extremely low.] It contributed to their [the workers'] unrest. When mill machinery broke down as it often did and mill operations were forced to close, sometimes for several hours, the wages of all labor stopped. The workers must remain on the job even though there was no place for protection from the bitter cold winds so prevalent near the ocean. When a man was told to return at night to work for two hours or longer at the same pay, he must [because] to refuse meant automatic firing. . . .

My husband's wages for ten and twelve hours [per day] for six days a week averaged between $27.00 and $43.00 per month that first year [1905].

Some mills hired Greek labor. They had their own stores. One day at the noon mill whistle, after a group of local men had determined to run them out of town, the Greek laborers were met and marched to the depot where they were herded into freight cars like cattle and taken out of the valley. Meanwhile the rows of shacks near the mill where they worked, and their possessions were burned. On both of these occasions Grandmother and I happened to be in town.

After seeing how easily some employers abused unorganized labor, Grandmother said, "I never saw slaves treated as inhumanly." . . .

My husband's ability was noted by the president of the company. More and still more responsibility was placed upon his shoulders. Within a few years, he was in charge of the operation of the mill. The same men kept their salaries and positions in name but they took their orders from him. Even the sales manager, who took periodical trips east could not sell a board until my husband had approved the order. His pay was grudgingly raised, a small amount at a time. . . .

One afternoon I went to town. No one locked their doors in those days. Upon my return, I found a telephone installed in my house. I used it to inform the telephone company that a mistake had been made. They told me that the mill had ordered it installed. My husband was angry as I but what were we to do? We were at their mercy as long as we remained. Henceforth, we received and paid a monthly telephone bill for which we had not signed and which we could not afford.

During nearly every night, thereafter, the telephone rang. From the engine room would come the word that the power was too weak to operate the street car. Each night my husband went to bed exhausted. When awakened at that hour, sleep again was impossible. That problem was finally solved. We went to the mill. Anything that might go wrong was explained and directions for overcoming each possible trouble were written down for me. A night rarely passed without a call from the engineer. He and I usually ironed out the difficulty, finding it unnecessary to waken my husband.

More and more the unrest among millworkers and loggers was felt.

The company brought a young civil engineer from the east to build a new logging road. In that rugged mountain country, high railroad trestles must be built. The new logging operation was to tap a section of virgin timber.

The young man built a trestle high in the air, he gave it a right angle turn. Every logger knew that a loaded logging train could not maneuver that turn.

The superintendent of logging operations, who, from his lifelong experience in the woods, could easily have built a safe trestle was so disturbed he braced the disapproval of the mill president and went to town to plead for a safe trestle. He was rebuffed. He came to my husband, and we went to camp the next Sunday. The seriousness of that turn was obvious.

Monday morning my husband urged the president to go to the camp and see for himself but it was to no avail. He was told to mind his own business.

One man went down with the first train as it fell into the canyon far below and was killed. That young engineer left camp in a hurry.

That episode was what the I.W.W. agitators needed. Now men going to work in the woods found donkey engines tampered with, often beyond repair.

The company was compelled to place night guards on all machines in the woods.

Large spikes were pounded into logs. One spike imbedded in a log as it passed through a saw would endanger the lives of sawyers [millworkers] nearby. Now each log going into the mill must be thoroughly examined.

It happened suddenly. Labor struck. Mills and logging camps in the northwest closed. Imported agitators fomented unrest to a feverish pitch.

Many loyal men remained to guard. Most had been very bitter at times but they could not condone lawlessness. . . .

The strike lasted six months. Among the main reasons for the strike were the demand for an eight hour day and the right to pay their $2.00 doctor's reduction per month [a mandatory payroll deduction] to the doctor of their choice. We never forgot our shock when we realized what a thin layer of civilization protects us. Had we been older and wiser we would have left town with the majority, but we had such faith in law and order we couldn't believe such lawlessness could be sanctioned in the United States.

Most of the officials of the company left town but the president and his young son remained.

The sheriff was an intrepid man and probably saved lives as well as property. One day he told me to lock my doors and take the first train out of town.

Meanwhile my husband was told to go to Seattle where he was to bring back a trainload of strikebreakers [that] he would find there. . . .

My husband was so shocked when he saw those strikebreakers, he wouldn't ride home on the same train but paid his fare and followed on the regular train. On this train a man by the name of Krebbs, one of the heads of the I.W.W. in the United States, introduced himself. He was coming to take charge of the strikers. The two men argued all of the way. My husband agreed that the men were justified in their complaints, but with good leadership they could right their wrongs within the law. He had the feeling that Krebbs did not want lawful settlement.

The train of strikebreakers was run into the mill yard. . . . The promised help from afar never came so the little handful of men managed a pretense of operating. Within a few days the strike in the northwest was broken. The bitterness remained. . . .

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest