By BRENDAN SORRELL, special to THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Laconia is blessed with having the oldest unaltered textile mill in America, the Belknap Mill, a spectacle that students from all over the state come to experience. This Tuesday, fourth-grade students from Barrington Elementary School came to take part in a program called "My First Day of Work at the Belknap Mill," in which they are given a job and told to work as if it is their first day in 1918: World War I is just underway and the soldiers are in need of socks from the mill.
The jobs the students are given are knitter; looper, responsible for closing the toes of socks; boarder, who shapes the socks in a steam chamber; turner boy; who turns the socks inside out for the looper and right side out for the boarder; finisher, responsible for checking the finished socks for mistakes; machine fixer; and supervisor, who oversees the whole operation. Students learn about the gendered workplace of the time, as girls can only be knitters, loopers, or finishers while men take the other jobs. Only machine fixers and supervisors, all of whom are men, are paid by the hour, while all other jobs are "by the piece" paid for each sock they finish.
Students are greeted by Bill Nunamacher, who, in costume with a top hat, plays the owner of the Belknap Mill and chides them for being late as they were supposed to arrive at dawn. Students then rotate through four interactive stations. The sluiceway outside the Belknap Mill introduces students to the importance of water at the time. The knitting room shows students what the knitting processes of the time were like. The powerhouse room demonstrates how energy was generated and sent to the different areas of the mill. Lastly, the finishing room shows students how the socks were steamed and inspected.
Asked about the parallels to the curriculum, Barrington Elementary teacher Cathy Neild at first joked, "This is a field trip," innocently downplaying the obvious historical perspective gained and highlighting the fact that this is a lot of fun for the students. "We talk in class about the differences between a modern factory and a mill. Also," she said, "we talk about the differences between the colonial times and focus on the changes the Industrial Revolution brought. In the colonial piece, they all made everything at home, then came the mill, and now we have factories."
One student, Lily Fitzgerald, was asked what position she would take, and after the young man next to her said he would be a supervisor said she would keep the job she was handed in the morning, knitter, because she had been a weaver when they studied the colonial jobs and felt the two worked nicely together.
"We also talked about the dangers of the industrial revolution," Neild said, "with kids working in the mills at the age of 10." As most of the students visiting were 10 years old, points like this one truly hit home. It was apparent from looking on and hearing what they talked about in class that the day was bringing their classroom conversations to life in a way they would never be able to imagine if a place like the Belknap Mill did not exist.
Simply having the mill is not enough, however. These programs thrive only because of the volunteer support for them. Volunteers ran each of the stations teaching the students about the different aspects of the mill. The assembly line in which all the different jobs came together at the end was overseen by Helga Stamp, who, volunteering since 1999, has almost been there from the start of the program and currently serves as program organizer.
The program, which goes through May and about half of June, is always looking for volunteers. The time commitment is not overly demanding, a few hours in the middle of the day four times a week. It can also be quite rewarding. One of the volunteers, Sue Witham, compared it to being a teacher except you get new faces each day.
"It's wonderful to be a volunteer," she said. "Everyone wants it to stay alive."
Fourth-grade students from Barrington Elementary School learn about early 20th-century knitting practices. (Brendan Sorrell photo/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
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