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SUMMER WOULDN'T BE SUMMER WITHOUT THE PICNIC
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We have had picnics before, and not one of them was to be sneezed at, either, but they will all be forgotten after this one.
— Western Electric News, July 1915
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July 24, 1915, 12:30 AM
In their darkened bedroom, 13-year-old Borghild "Bobbie" Aanstad and her little sister Solveig tossed and turned, struggling to sleep, knowing they had to be up early but likely whispering long past their bedtime. Near Bobbie's bed lay the outfit she had chosen for Saturday's trip to her uncle's employee picnic. It was her best dress, white cotton with lace trim, tied in back with a bow, purchased only months earlier for Easter. A matching wide-brimmed straw hat sat on her dresser. She especially loved that hat, which was covered with delicate flowers. Uncle Olaf had invited his half-sister Marianne and the girls to join him at the Western Electric employee picnic, but it was no ordinary trip to the park.
The girls probably imagined the day. There would be carousels spinning and roller coasters clickety-clacking, the grand parade marching down the main street, squealing piglets sliding through outstretched hands in the greased pig competition. Bobbie could hardly wait for the beach and the chance to practice the swimming strokes that neighbor Ernie Carlson had taught her years earlier.
Perhaps they talked about the SS Eastland, an immense steamship like nothing they had ever seen before. Sitting on the banks of the Chicago River, the ship waited to sail them away from the city, away from the congestion and noise, across Lake Michigan to the sandy shores of Michigan City, Indiana.
* * *
Six miles east, along the Chicago River, 60 tons of coal rattled and rumbled down the metal chute, dumping into the hull of the SS Eastland. The boat bobbed and rocked as the weight shifted between two bunkers.
"Fill her up," said Captain Harry Pedersen. With two round-trips carrying passengers back and forth across the lake scheduled for the day, the bins needed to be full, but the captain didn't pay much attention. On one side, 75 tons of coal filled the space; on the other, only 25.
Newly hired chief engineer Joseph Erickson oversaw the operation and afterward assisted the captain in moving the ship into its assigned position along the river, tied up at the Chicago and South Haven wharf. Then he and the captain headed to their bunks to grab some shut-eye before the early morning departure.
Erickson likely noticed someone new sleeping in the crew's quarters. Luman Lobdell was in charge of counting passengers beginning at 6:30 AM, and his boss, Robert McCreary, had made arrangements for Lobdell to sleep on board so he would be ready for the early call. Alongside his bunk sat the counting device he would click as each passenger boarded the ship in a few short hours.
One by one, lamps lit up darkened windows along neighborhood streets in the town of Hawthorne. Picnic day had finally arrived. Mamie Kelly rose early. She was still settling in to her new life, having arrived in Illinois just the month before. Her husband, Charles, had been transferred from the New York office to Western Electric's massive Hawthorne Works factory.
Because of their recent move, the Kellys hadn't planned to attend the picnic. But excitement for the excursion had bubbled up at the factory, with talk of a tango contest in the dance pavilion and a tub race on the lake. Charles changed his mind, deciding it might be good for the family. Afraid of boats, Mamie didn't like the idea, but their neighbors, the Thyers, convinced her to go. Mrs. Thyer laughed at the idea of any danger. Besides, the families had much in common. Their nine-year-old daughters, Jenny and Helen, would have a grand time together, and so would sons Charlie and Harry. The wives suggested they leave early so that they wouldn't keep the children out too late that night. The party of eight planned to meet at the pier and catch the SS Eastland, the first ship out on Saturday morning.
Scurrying to get ready, Mamie placed the overflowing picnic basket by the front door. Charles checked the time and wound his pocket watch. Jenny Kelly sat waiting for her hair to be brushed and tied with ribbons. "We have to get the 6:00 AM train," said Mamie. "To get to the boat and get good seats." With no time to waste, after a last glimpse in the mirror, adjusting a tie, and checking a hat, the Kellys were off.
The Eastland's crew tumbled out of their bunks and shuffled to the mess hall, looking for coffee and breakfast. Outside, the thermometer read 70 degrees, and a light wind blew out of the northwest.
From the pier, port agent Martin Flatow looked over the situation, sizing up the ship and its position in the water. He wondered which of the gangways was in the best spot for quickly loading 2,500 passengers. From the looks of it, only one door was suitable. One door aft, near the back of the ship. With the decision made, the crew lugged the 10-footlong, 4-foot-wide gangplank from inside the ship, stretched it across the water, secured it to the gangway, and attached a chain at the pier end to keep people from boarding early.
As the crew worked, the elevated trains roared along their tracks and streetcars clanged their way into the city. Along jam-packed Water Street, lined with delivery trucks waiting to transport fresh fruits and vegetables to stores across the city, the produce warehouses buzzed with business. In buildings that backed up to the riverfront, workers stacked crates of blueberries and blackberries, and baskets of the first peaches of the season. Frank Blaha rolled out empty barrels from the back of the Waskow Butter Company. The men at Cougle Brothers Poultry piled empty egg crates and wooden chicken coops on the loading dock outside the warehouse doors. Nearby factories puffed hazy smoke into the foggy, smoggy morning air, and tugboats chugged up and down the murky river, right behind those warehouses, whistling their warnings. "Watch out. Make way!"
In neighborhoods surrounding the city, Western Electric workers and their families rose early and loaded hampers with roasted chicken and ham salad sandwiches. They packed mason jars of pickles, along with flaky biscuits and crocks of amber-colored honey. Mothers carefully positioned chocolate cakes and cherry pies on top before closing the picnic basket lids. Fathers gathered up patchwork quilts to spread beneath the willow trees of Washington Park in Michigan City, Indiana.
The cloudy skies soon gave way to a persistent drizzle. But that didn't dampen Bobbie Aanstad's spirits. She and Solveig dashed through their Logan Square neighborhood to catch the streetcar headed down Milwaukee Avenue toward the city. Their mother and uncle followed behind, lugging the picnic gear. Bobbie wore the white cotton dress and tucked her long brown hair beneath the flower-trimmed straw hat. Hand on her head, holding tight to that precious hat, Bobbie dodged puddles and splashed her way to the streetcar stop a few blocks away.
"I don't want to go, but I must," Helen Greszowiak told her parents. "They want me in the lead of the parade. So I need to be on the first boat out." She grabbed her hat and handbag.
"Don't go," pleaded her mother.
"I must. The foreman said if I didn't go, I would lose my job." So 19-year-old Helen headed out that day, one of many factory girls who had received similar threats from their bosses.
The fifth annual picnic was promoted by a social organization at Western Electric known as the Hawthorne Club. The club organized the excursion and made arrangements with the St. Joseph-Chicago Steamship Company. Prices for tickets in advance were: adults — 75 cents, youth — half fare, five and under — free. That sounds cheap today, but most workers earned less than $15 each week. Even though it was a club outing, not technically a Western Electric–sponsored event, management supported the picnic by offering a paid day off to its workers, knowing it was good for employee morale. They also knew it would be good publicity for the company and planned to advertise it in newspapers across the country.
"The moving picture man will take your pictures," promised members of the Hawthorne Club. Women had a chance to be movie actresses in the beauty parade. Twenty-year-old Emma Grossman, a worker in the polishing department, gathered up the paper hat, cane, and paper bell decorated with the words Bell Telephone Company that she purchased for an additional 35 cents. Along with their tickets, female employees were expected to use their own money to buy costumes and props for the parade. Emma reluctantly went, even though she had begged her foreman to be excused. Her sister was being admitted to the hospital the next day for a serious operation and Emma wanted to be there. She even offered to pay for the ticket and not go. But her boss refused, instead giving her a letter instructing employees to meet under their department banner at 11:30 AM in Washington Park. She'd need to catch the Eastland if she wanted to get to the parade on time. The cameras would be ready to roll as the parade stepped off — ready to capture the Hawthorne Works's family on holiday. That movie would never be made.CHAPTER 2
FELLOWSHIP AT WORK AND HOME
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You can buy a good meal anytime for a couple of dollars. What you won't get with it though is Hawthorne good fellowship. That can't be obtained outside of Hawthorne. It is given away lavishly but you can't buy it at any price.
— Western Electric employee
* * *
Hawthorne fellowship, pride in work and family, was on full display on picnic day. Most Western Electric employees, accustomed to a six-day workweek, looked forward to a Saturday off and the opportunity to escape the city. Employees generally felt grateful for the jobs they had with a company that continued to grow and value the work they did.
When Western Electric outgrew its Chicago factory in 1902, it expanded just outside the city limits, onto prairie land in the town of Hawthorne, Illinois, where its massive iron gates first opened in 1907. To convey the sheer size of this expansion, Western Electric named it Hawthorne Works. The company hired primarily first- and second-generation immigrants from Eastern Europe, mostly Czech and Polish. By 1913 it was the largest company in Chicago, employing more than 14,000 workers.
Western Electric was the engineering and technology giant of its day. American Telephone and Telegraph, now known as AT&T, hired Western Electric to manufacture and supply products connected to communications. The company made telephones, wires, cables, and switchboards. It produced time clocks and intercoms, and developed the vacuum tube that made long-distance calling a new possibility. Housewives' lives became easier with luxuries like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, toasters, and irons, all manufactured at "the Works."
Until that time, there hadn't been anything quite like the Hawthorne Works, nicknamed the Electrical Capital of America. A huge complex of buildings surrounded by a parklike setting, Hawthorne was a city within a city, supplying every need its workers might have. It had its own railroad — "the biggest little railway in the world" — a power plant, a hospital, and a fire brigade. The company even persuaded the Chicago Public Library to open a branch there.
When it came to social events, the Hawthorne Club planned athletic competitions and dances for singles. Initially a "men only" organization, the club voted to include women in the spring of 1915. Need to learn English or to wire circuits? You could attend Hawthorne University. Want to pursue the arts? Take a dance or photography class. Need dinner or entertainment? Hawthorne had restaurants, a ballpark, and a band shell filled with its own uniformed musicians. With its beauty contests, bowling leagues, and the employee picnic — the biggest annual event — the Hawthorne Club at Western Electric was a social center for workers and their families.
Many "Hawthornites" chose to live within 15 minutes of the factory, and the majority of workers walked to and from work each day. Western Electric even provided low-interest loans so that employees could afford to buy their own homes. When Charles Kelly arrived from the busy New York office, he and Mamie settled a few streets over from Henry Thyer, only blocks from the plant. Small cookie-cutter cottages called bungalows and multifamily two-flats lined the narrow streets, their porches overlooking front yards landscaped with trees and grass. Out back, gardens, chicken coops, and goat pens provided vegetables, eggs, and milk. Many residents built brick ovens in the backyard to bake bread in the summertime and shopped at corner grocery stores that supplied familiar foods from their homelands.
Families clustered together in ethnic neighborhoods, surrounded by friends who shared the same traditions and customs. The Polish prayed together at St. Mary of Czestochowa church, and the Czechs built Sokol auditoriums, large gymnasiums where they could stay fit and strong. A family spirit flourished up and down the blocks, and this sense of fellowship supported the residents, contributing to their tight-knit community.
Western Electric employed an army of young workers. If you were a teen in the early 1900s, chances are you worked instead of attending school. High school was optional, and most families, needing the income earned by sons and daughters, sent their children to the factories instead. Western Electric encouraged employees, especially men, to climb the corporate ladder from office boys to managers. The company took care of the workers' welfare, providing pensions if they were injured or too old to work, and scheduling two-week paid vacations each year.
From the early days, Western Electric employed a large percentage of women, but with an important restriction. Company president Harry Bates Thayer believed female employees should be unmarried. One worker wrote in the Western Electric News, "We are in the month of June. The month of sunny days of roses and of brides. A few of us are planning to become brides this month."
But good jobs were important and families counted on the income, so women followed the rules. Much of the work was traditional women's work: braiding, weaving, and sewing. Women's "natural delicacy of touch and carefulness," the company said, made them better suited to perform tasks such as coil winding. In the "twine rooms" they sat on long benches at tables, winding cotton jackets around telephone wires.
When a visitor stopped by the cord-finishing department where Helen Greszowiak worked, he said, "The first impression is that [you have] landed in the middle of a large flower garden filled with beautiful blondes and brunettes picking flowers as fast as their fingers will allow. But in a second [you] realize that the flowers are piles of red, white, blue, green, purple, yellow, and golden cords and that the girls are binding them to soldering clips." The women sat at long tables, gathering and winding the colorful wires before joining them together and attaching plugs.
Women also worked as typists, stenographers, and draftsmen's apprentices. Hawthorne valued these workers, recognizing not only the quality of their work but also the bargain they represented. Women received less pay for their labor, so it made good business sense back then to hire female employees.
A group of Hawthorne women who organized a 1912 suffrage parade demanding women's right to vote became affectionately known within the company as the Window Smashers. This name was originally given to women in England who fiercely protested against the government and in support of equal voting rights. Dressed all in white, with purple Votes for Women sashes pinned across their chests, the group of Hawthorne women proudly marched in the company picnic that summer to express their beliefs. After Illinois women won the right to vote in federal and local elections in 1913, the annual parade continued, but it became more of a beauty competition between factory departments.
The 1914 women's parade earned the praise of Hawthorne's superintendent, Harry Albright. He liked the publicity it brought to his company. Hoping to make the 1915 parade just as memorable, hundreds of Hawthorne women assembled after work, night after night, in the weeks leading up to the picnic. They practiced drills for hours on end to perfect their formations. Some of the marchers resented being forced to practice, but they showed up. That very parade drew Helen Greszowiak, Emma Grossman, and the rest of the young working women to the pier, to the Eastland, to make the early morning departure for Washington Park.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Capsized!"
Copyright © 2018 Patricia Sutton.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Main Characters xi
1 Summer Wouldn't Be Summer Without the Picnic 1
2 Fellowship at Work and Home 13
3 Greyhound of the Lakes 21
4 Like a Pendulum Swinging 37
5 Stand By! Ready for Departure! 49
6 Forty-Five Degrees 57
7 Rescue and Recovery 79
8 Eighty-Five in Each Row 99
9 Buried Memories 107
Author's Note 131
Image Credits 149