Featured image: Immigrant workers at the Ipswich Hosiery Mill, by Ipswich photographer George Dexter.
The earliest evidence of habitation in Ipswich was discovered in the 1950’s at the Bull Brook Paleoindian site, where hundreds of stone instruments were recovered, made by early Native Americans who migrated here after the ice age glaciers receded. The Agawam Indians who greeted the first Europeans and their relationship to the PaleoIndians is unclear. Puritans began settling Ipswich during the Great Migration of the second decade of the 17th Century.
The first foreign-born refuges to arrive in the town of Ipswich was in 1756 after British forces began the systematic destruction of Acadian villages and farms, and deportation of their 11,316 inhabitants, known in Canada as “Le Grand Dérangement.” Their homes and barns were burned, their cattle were confiscated by the soldiery, and the inhabitants were crowded into small vessels and shipped to New England, Pennsylvania, Maryland and the Carolinas. The Town voted £20 for assistance to the 20 refugees, and provided them with food, a loom and tackling and two spinning wheels, plus scythes, hoes and spades for their gardens. In 1764, the British government permitted Acadians to legally return to British territories, provided that they take an oath of allegiance. The Town refused to pay for their transportation home, and some began the journey on foot. In August 1766, their transportation by ship was arranged.
The Revolutionary War, the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 left the town of Ipswich seriously in debt and so impoverished that it did not recover until the industrial boom of the mid-19th Century. Thousands of farm families left New England for the Midwest in search of better growing conditions, joining a migration that began when a group of settlers left Ipswich to found Marietta, Ohio in 1787. Ipswich fell into a steady decline, the population dropping from 3,369 in the 1810 census to 2856 in 1830. The reputation of Ipswich was that it had “gone to seed.”
Industrialization in the mid-19th Century eventually reversed that trend, and by 1860 the town had 3,300 residents. A large percentage of today’s residents of Ipswich descend from immigrants who arrived at that time to work in the mills, and their labor made this town prosperous after a century of decline. Thomas Franklin Waters wrote about the successive waves of people who came to Ipswich in his 1917 book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Volume II.
“Various and numerous and revolutionary as the changes in the old Ipswich are, the most striking certainly is the great and constantly increasing change in the character of the population. Until the year 1822, the people of Ipswich were almost invariably Ipswich-born.”
Between 1830 and 1860, thousands of farm girls arrived from their homes in rural New England to assist their families by working in the mills. Waters noted,
“The migration of the English lace and hosiery makers, which then began, introduced an alien element, which was scarcely recognized as foreign, because of the identity of race and language, and the sympathetic union which was easily made. The opening of the cotton factory in 1827 wrought no essential change. The operatives were largely residents of the Town, and the rest were country girls from rural New England communities. Many girls came from quiet homes, in Maine and the neighboring British Provinces, and found ready welcome in the homes, the churches and all social circles.”
In the 1840’s and 50’s, Irish refuges sailed to America in the wake of the Potato Famine to seek employment. Waters wrote,
“The first variant element was the incoming of the Irish, driven from their homes by oppressive land laws, the failure of crops, which resulted in severe famine, and general unrest. They adhered, naturally, to the Catholic religion, but they spoke our language, and were readily assimilated as citizens. A priest from Newburyport ministered to them spiritually until 1871, when Rev. Wm. H. Ryan of Beverly took charge. In 1873, they had increased sufficiently in numbers and strength to erect a church edifice which was dedicated Nov. 9, 1873.”
By 1860, over half the population of New England mill towns was foreign-born. A large percentage of them were Irish, who became victims of the same hostility that they had experienced from the English when in 1854, the anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party swept Massachusetts elections. Originally named the “Native American Party” it was organized with the intent of preventing Irish Catholic immigration, fed by unfounded fears that the nation would soon be controlled by Irish bishops obedient to the Pope.
The book, “The Belles of New England: The Women of the Textile Mills and the Families Whose Wealth They Wove” states that in 1881 Massachusetts prisons held 366 Irish-born women, the largest female ethnicity group behind bars.
French Canadians also began arriving in the 19th Century, at first by wagon, and later by train, many to work in the textile mills of the Merrimac River Valley. Waters noted that “the migration of French-speaking Canadians was the first of an alien language to appear. They found employment in the hosiery mill, and soon took the places of the girls from New England towns and the Provinces. The French-speaking Catholics have built their church and rectory.”
Ronnie Martineau Jr. shared the following story with our Facebook group:
“My great grandfather (William Martineau) came down from Canada to make a better life for himself and his newlywed wife. Coming to this new land, not speaking the language, they worked in the Ipswich mills. But tragedy struck when his wife passed away in 1938. Grampa Bill later worked at the town dump, which was at the football field next what is now the town hall. He did learn the language, but not very well.”
Gilles Jean-Charles Tremblay was interviewed for the book People and Place – Oral Histories and Portraits of Ipswich Seniors:
“My parents were from Quebec. In the Province of Quebec in those days, the French Canadians were second-class citizens. They compared themselves to the black people here. Somebody working in a factory could never get into management, so many French Canadians came to this country. Some, like my father, went to Salem. The Cajuns–or Acadians–from Nova Scotia came to Ipswich looking for jobs.”
“When we moved here, you had the Greek and the Polish sections, the French Canadian section, and the rest of the town was all English. The Polish and Greeks were very together, but when the French Canadians came here, they wanted to lose their language and become American. They wanted their children to speak English.”
Mass immigration of young Greek men to the United States began in 1880 and continued into the early twentieth century. Working long hours, they were able to send millions of dollars to their families in Greece. Many of the Polish descendants in Ipswich descend from a wave of 1.5 million landless and impoverished immigrants who fled starvation, arriving en mass to work at the Ipswich Hosiery Mills at the beginning of the 20th century.
Thomas Franklin Waters described the foreign-born mill workers at the beginning of the 20th Century.
“A large influx of Greeks, Poles, Russian Jews, and some of other European nationalities, compelled to leave their native land by unjust oppressions or unsatisfactory conditions, were attracted by the industrial opportunities offered by the Ipswich Mills and the large heel-factory of Frank H. Burke and Son. They all hold loyally and rigidly to their religious faith. The Greeks, devoted members of the great Eastern Church, have their house of worship, erected in 1907, St. Mary Greek Orthodox Church. Their Priest, full bearded, garbed in his striking priestly dress, brings a touch of color to our streets.”
“Greek shops for food supplies and dry goods, Greek barbers, tailors, cobblers, the Greek Club House with its conspicuous sign in the Greek language, Polish shops, as well, Jewish department store and clothing shops, Jewish junk dealers, the Italian cobbler, the Armenian florist, scores of unpronounceable names in the Poll List, the street talk in Greek and Polish and other unknown tongues, have completed the transformation of the old New England town. Though the population by the last census was 6272, the English-speaking, American-born, constitute probably a steadily decreasing fraction. The Polish Catholics have become so numerous that they erected in 1908 a large church edifice, the Church of the Sacred Heart, and a rectory adjoining for their Priest.”
Tadeusz (Theodore) Lezon (18918-1914) related his parent’s journey from Poland, in the book, People and Place – Oral Histories and Portraits of Ipswich Seniors.
“My parents had emigrated from Poland in the early 1900’s, hoping for better economic opportunities in the United States. Things were really brewing in Europe at that time, with many signs of World War I already apparent. Life was very difficult. One of their friends, Mr. Tuzik, from the same village as my parents, had come to Ipswich. He had a tailor shop where the post office is now. He urged my parents to make the same move. The plan was that my father would come first, find a job and a place to live. The others would come later.”
“My father got a job in the Ipswich Mill right away. He spent his first night in Ipswich in a boarding house on Estes Street, the area known as “Pole Alley.” Many Polish immigrants spent their first nights there. My mother has told me that the boarding house was full of fun and laughter. Many of the boarders were musicians. On Saturday nights they would clear a room, get their instruments out, and have a party, with a keg of beer from the nearby Riverview. The owner of the Riverview, Mr. Waronowski, also a Polish immigrant, would often join the party.” The rest of the family came a few months later.
Gilda Carmena Orsini Ryan was also interviewed in People and Place:
“I didn’t feel like an Italian when I was growing up. There were very few Italian families in Ipswich at that time. We did speak Italian at home, and my mother cooked Italian food. My father was very proud of his Italian heritage. He would say, ‘Remember, I’m an Orsini and you’re an Orsini. We’re a very prominent and well-known family in the history of Italy.’ I would say, ‘Okay.'”
“When people were immigrating, the breadwinner–most always the husband–would come to America first. So my father married my mother, and in a month or two, he came to America to make his fortune; then he was going to go back to Italy. They used to have these shanties that the men lived in, and my father was in one of them. My father had lots of discipline and he never wasted his money. He made two trips back to Italy to see my mother. Two sons died in Italy, one from the smallpox epidemic. So, in 1912 he decided to bring his wife to America.”
“To think they didn’t even have the language! It was brave. My mother was illiterate, but she decided she wanted to learn how to read and write. She attended the night school for people who wanted to be naturalized. It took her a couple of years, but she got her citizenship papers.”
Steve Georgakopoulos was in his early 20’s when he arrived from Greece to Ipswich in 1911 to work in the Ipswich Mills. It took Georgakopoulos four years of sheep-herding before he was able to earn the $60 fare to America and join his brothers who had arrived four years earlier.
Georgakopoulos vividly recalled that “Bloody Tuesday,” June 10, 1913, when he and other workers at the Ipswich Hosiery Mill were wounded while on strike, and a young Greek girl was killed. He loved the town and when interviewed at age 95, said, “This is a nice place, good people. I’m very happy to be alive.”
The Highland Annex Cemetery, better known as the Immigrants, Greek or Polish Cemetery, is located on Fowlers Lane in Ipswich. This cemetery was used for the burial of immigrants to the town from about 1913 until about 1939. Most came to Ipswich to work at the Ipswich Mills and the mill on Brownville Ave, no longer standing.
- Mill Girls of Lowell
- Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony: Part I. Historical, Part II. Houses and Lands with Seven Appendices
- The Lowell Offering: Writings by New England Mill Women (1840-1945)
- The French Canadians in New England 1871-1930
- Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States
- Our branch of the vine: Saint Joseph’s Church, Ipswich, Massachusetts
- People and Place – Oral Histories and Portraits of Ipswich Seniors
Please feel free to share your stories in the comments section below.