Irish Tales of Turners Falls

Oct 11, 2012

First published in the Montague Reporter, October 11th, 2012.  Story Joseph A. Parzych

Great Falls - There may be a conflict of interest in my reporting on Irish night. Celtic people established
a number of settlement centers beginning in the early 4th century BC in Poland, mostly in the southern
mountains where my mother was born. They don’t speak Gaelic, but their dialect differs from Polish
spoken elsewhere in the country.Irish Night at the Discovery Center in Turners Falls, Friday September 28th, saw a crowd of about 40
people who braved a dark and rainy night. The evening began with Lisa Davol introducing the fourth and
final in a series of “Turners Falls Tales and Legends” sponsored by the RiverCulture program (although
cries have since gone up on Avenue A demanding equal time for the Italians).

Davol introduced town manager Frank Abbondanzio, who sounds suspiciously like he might be Italian.
But he began his presentation by publicly confessing to being of Irish descent before giving an overview
of Irish immigration to America.

He focused on the Irish immigration experience, working life, Irish neighborhoods, Irish family and
community life.

Irish immigrants flocked to America after the potato blight caused widespread famine in mid-19th
century Ireland. When the potato crops failed, the Irish farmers could neither pay their rent nor find
food to eat; potatoes were their main source of sustenance. Upon evicting the tenant farmers, the
English property managers often destroyed the Irish tenant’s cottages to forestall squatting by the now
homeless natives, leaving them to huddle by the roadsides in misery and desperation.

The Irish were the poorest of all immigrants coming to America in the 19th century and often lived in
cellars or shacks thrown together in the alleyways of New York and Boston, where they lived in squalor
and misery. The estimated death rate for infants born to Irish immigrants in New York City was 80%.

Because of the sudden influx of hordes of poor, often unskilled people, businesses posted “No Irish
Need Apply” in their windows.

Irish men took the dirty and difficult jobs few wanted, as laborers on construction of railroads, roads and
bridges, digging canals, brick making, bricklaying and jobs in factories. Others started up businesses, or
bought horse teams to hire out on construction jobs. Later they bought trucks and became construction
contractors, who came for construction work in the area, and like the Mackin family in Millers Falls and
Greenfield, they stayed on as permanent residents.

Single Irish women worked as washer women or maids taking care of children, cooking and cleaning.
The jobs didn’t pay much, but they offered free room and board, which was attractive to the virtually
penniless women who were often desperate to find decent shelter. The women, who were hard working
and did their work well, also settled in towns where they found work as maids or in the mills.

Not many Irishmen engaged in farming, perhaps having been soured by the disastrous experience with
potato farming in Ireland. And as Turners Falls High School history teacher Vicki Valley pointed out at
the Discovery Center, they didn’t have money to buy land or a farm.

The one outstanding local exception was Irishman Alvah Crocker, who established a 2,000 acre
experimental farm on the Montague Plains. He dubbed it the “White Coal Farm,” where he successfully
enriched useless sandy soil to bear all manner of crops, including potatoes, by irrigating with water from
the Connecticut River and enriching the land by planting sweet clover and other nitrogen fixing crops.

Crocker was a wheeler-dealer visionary who’d built a fortune after working and saving to buy a paper
mill in Fitchburg. He went on to found banks, and started a railroad in Fitchburg, among other things,
before coming to Turners Falls to found the Turners Falls Company, establish both the Crocker Institute
for Savings and the Crocker National Bank. He also laid out the streets for the new town in a grid, build
the power canal and bridges to cross it, and acted as promoter in chief for the industrial village of
Turners Falls.

Perhaps to seek solace in their misery, or perhaps because of their affable nature, Irishmen tended
to congregate while drowning their sorrows, resulting in a reputation for intemperate alcohol
consumption. There were three or four Irish saloons on Third and Fourth Street in Turners, and two Irish
saloons in the Patch.

Many Irishmen were reduced to penury because of alcohol abuse and ended up being sent to the poor
farm.

Abbondanzio told of the legend of John L. Sullivan, the last heavyweight champion of bare knuckle
boxing, getting drunk at the American House in Turners with another Irishman when he bragged, “I can
lick anybody in the place.” A logger took him up on it and knocked John L. out.

Someone said, “Do you know who that was?” Upon learning it was John L. Sullivan, the logger quickly
departed.

During the 1880s, the editorial pages of the Turners Falls Reporter, (the pre-cursor of the Montague
Reporter) frequently called attention to the outstanding work being done by the St. Mary’s Temperance
Society. “A large number of heavy drinkers joined the society and are now as worthy citizens as the
town possesses.”

Getting young men and boys interested in sports at an early age was one of the ways the church
steered them away from demon rum. Their efforts seem to have paid off, since alcoholism is no longer a
problem among the Irish.

Early on, the Irish recognized the value of becoming active in church, labor unions, and politics. They
began taking jobs in police and fire departments, and organizing political power.

Policemen used trucks with a caged body on the back to transport unruly people they’d arrested. The
nickname for Patrick was Pat or Paddy, and the police vans became known as Paddy Wagons, though it’s
not clear if this was in reference to the driver or to the passenger.

Peter Mackin, owner of Mackin Trucking, Construction, and other enterprises was an entrepreneur,
early on, working his way through college as a waiter in his college dining hall.

Peter came home from college to run the family business. He bid off a contract to haul steel to build
airplane hangers at Westover Air Base. There were no flat bed trailers available, so Peter instructed an
employee to remove engines and cabs from old trucks to convert them to trailers. The trailers had no
brakes, but that was ignored.

Peter later got a contract to haul aviation fuel to the base. That got him into the oil tanker business.

Peter’s father and uncle, John and Patrick, started in construction with teams of horses to haul
construction material for the Westfield Paper Company. When they got work hauling building materials
for the Millers Falls Tool and the Millers Falls Paper Mill, the brothers settled in Millers, just as the many
Irish bricklayers, masons, and others who came for construction jobs settled locally.

The two Mackin men settled in Millers Falls to haul paper, ice, coal, oil, sand and gravel. They later
replaced their horses with trucks. The brothers split the business, and eventually Patrick sold his trucking
business, chiefly hauling paper and oil, to Wasilewski Brothers. John sold his trucking company to
Carroll, who did business as Carroll’s Trucking, hauling general freight.

The Mackin family built a block next to the fire station in Millers Falls. They also owned the Bridge Street
garage, as well as the only hotel in town.

Another garage they owned, opposite the grammar school in Millers Falls, exploded one night. A battery
cable on a truck parked inside developed a short circuit and caught fire. The big saddle tanks held
enough gasoline to create an enormous explosion that damaged the building. From that day on, Peter
Mackin had a cut-off switch installed on every truck he ever owned so the driver could disconnect the
battery cable with a pull of a knob when he parked the truck at the end of the day.

After WWII, Peter’s son John Mackin returned to the job of postmaster in Millers Falls. His son James
was severely injured in an auto accident, which partially disabled him.

For a time, Peter Mackin had an office at the hotel in Millers, as well as an office at the sand bank in
Greenfield, until he consolidated all business at the sand bank.

What seems a bit unusual about the Irish is that unlike the French and Polish, who spoke their native
tongue at home and whose children took lessons in their ethnic language at home, school, or church,
the Irish tended to speak English, making little effort to retain Gaelic. This gave them the reputation of
being “more American than the Americans.”

There is a long list of Irish business establishments once active in Turners Falls, selling groceries, candy,
ice cream, men’s clothing, construction supplies, coal, ice, oil, feed, and automobiles. Pictures of many
of those establishments were displayed about the Great Hall.

After the story telling portion, chaired by TFHS history teacher Vicki Valley, a pickup band played
traditional Irish music with Ted Cahill on guitar, Jean Barrows on bodhran, Paul Crook on banjo and
mandolin and Ted Soulos on pennywhistle.

All too soon, the evening was over.

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