One of the things I love about researching my family history is finding out what people did for a living. Some of my ancestors were laborers. Today, in honor of Labor Day, I thought I’d write about some of those laborers who worked so hard to support their (sometimes very large) families.
The dictionary defines a laborer as someone who does unskilled physical work for wages, but I think it’s a rare job that does not require skill. A good deal of my ancestors performed physical labor throughout their lives, but often they owned their own businesses or were more skilled, such as being blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, shipbuilders, and millers.
I believe that many of my ancestors from Plymouth and Barnstable counties worked a variety of jobs to make ends meet. They often lacked education and the opportunities in these areas were often quite limited. They may have worked seasonally—perhaps painting houses or doing odd jobs in the spring and summer, cranberry picking in the fall, ice cutting in the winter. They might have started out as mariners, but when that bottomed out, they tried other things. This was the case with my great-great grandfather David Howes Kelley. He was born in West Dennis on 2 March 1842, the son of Hiram and Abagail (Howes) Kelley.
|David Kelley's house on Ferry Street, West Dennis, built by his father Hiram|
He went to sea, but then worked a variety of jobs as a “laborer,” most commonly as a house painter. He was still working at age 83 when on 19 August 1925 he came home from a painting job, felt tired so went to lie down. When his wife Mary Ann went to check on him, he had died from a stroke.
|Mary Ann and David Kelley|
David Howes Kelley’s daughter Ethel, my great-grandmother, married Wallace Booth, a man from Cowansville, Quebec. Wallace had lost a leg as a child to tuberculosis of the bone (although the family story says it was from frostbite because his family was too poor to buy proper shoes).
|Wallace with family and neighbors, note crutch laying on ground|
He moved to Manchester, New Hampshire and then to Brockton, Mass. to work in the shoe mills. He moved onto more lucrative jobs including running a painting and wallpapering business, helping to run his brother George’s Charlestown machine shop and real estate holdings and eventually was an industrial real estate broker. He provided well for his family and owned a nice, although humble, home, drove fancy Cadillacs and traveled with his wife, Ethel.
|Wallace and Ethel with first child Cedric|
When people talk about the American Dream, I always think of Grandpa Booth. He immigrated to the United States as a young man without a high school degree, but was smart and had an incredible work ethic. He never let having one leg slow him down—he climbed ladders, drove all over the country and had a positive attitude as well as a very strong faith.
|Wallace Booth at my grandparents' place in Onset|
My great-great-great grandfather Seth Washburn lived in Plymouth all of his life. He was born 16 March 1828, the son of Ephraim and Mary (Lucas) Washburn. In 1850 he was a seaman, but after that was a laborer. He worked for Robinson’s Iron Works, as a farmer and for the town’s street department. He enlisted to serve in the Civil War at age 33 and had chronic health issues following his service.
|Robinson's Iron Works ca 1880 source: Images of America Plymouth|
In 1909, at age 81, Seth was still listed as a laborer in the Plymouth directory. When he died in 1921, at age 92, he had been the oldest man in Plymouth.
|Seth Washburn's house, Russell Mill Road, Plymouth|
Rowland Sturtevant Bumpus, my four times great-grandfather was born in Wareham in 1805, the son of Jonathan and Martha (Chubbuck) Bumpus. He worked at the Tremont Nail Factory in Wareham, but he had dreams of bigger things as he was a 49er, going twice to San Francisco in search of gold. I don’t think he struck it rich as he came back to his wife and children in Wareham and seems to have led a humble life. He died of consumption in 1853, at just 49 years of age. I wonder if he became sick in California or on the ship to or from.
|Lucy (Pierce) and Rowland Sturtevant Bumpus|
My great-great-great grandfather Valentine Kelley was born Harwich 14 November 1828, the son of Oliver and Priscilla (Chase) Kelley. He lived his adult life in Dennis Port and was called a mariner at the time of his 1852 marriage to Rosana Eldredge/Eldridge, as well as the 1860 census and his 1863 draft registration card. His death record lists him as a laborer, but I have yet to discover more details about the type of jobs he held. I'd love to hear from anyone who may know. He died of cancer on 8 October 1882, age 54 years.
|Valentine and Rosana (Eldredge) Kelley's house on Main Street, Dennis Port|
With all of the opportunities my generation has had--education, plentiful skilled jobs that require little physical labor, weekends, paid holidays and vacations to spend at our leisure, technological advances to make so many things easier--I very much appreciate how hard our forebears worked for their families. Now that I think of it, most of our early female ancestors were unpaid laborers. They worked from morning until night cooking, cleaning, baking, laundering, sewing, gardening, and even doctoring.