Focus on History: Knitting mill workers struck in 1886

Amsterdam had labor trouble at its knitting mills in 1886.

Amsterdam had labor trouble at its knitting mills in 1886.

In August, the Rev. John McIncrow of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church chided his parishioners for attending a riotous picnic for knitting mill workers, committing what McIncrow called a great number of sins.

The next month, knitting mill workers, represented by the Knights of Labor, went on strike. They were locked out of the mills by management on Sept. 17, according to the progressive newspaper the Sentinel.

The dispute stemmed from an incident in which a company foreman tried to bypass the union. William A. Firth, foreman at the Schuyler and Blood mill, asked a spare hand or apprentice to do work normally done by a spinner. There were union spinners who could have done the work, said P.H. Cummins of the Knights of Labor, but the union men had been blacklisted. Firth retorted he simply had promoted the spare hand to spinner.

In an editorial, the Sentinel said, “Nothing is gained by saying that the Sanford [carpet] mills employ more hands than do the knitting mills collectively, because the unwelcome fact remains there are 2,000 knitting mill hands out of employment.”

The editorial concluded, “In the twinkling of an eye a change has come over the spirit of our dreams and doubt hangs heavily above us.”

A woman, Leonora Carney Barry, was a Knights of Labor leader in Amsterdam at the time of the strike. Barry later left Amsterdam for a national role with the union.

The work stoppage continued into the winter. A more pro-management newspaper, the Democrat, reported that union picketers were arrested and nonunion spinners were assaulted. The Democrat published an exposé on what it said were the secrets of the union. On Jan. 12, the Knights of Labor finally went back to work amid “great excitement.”

According to historian Hugh Donlon, the mill owners eventually prevailed in ousting the Knights of Labor from the city, at least temporarily.

Newspaper wars

According to Washington Frothingham’s History of Montgomery County, George H. Loadwick, who owned the Sentinel, had a “keen wit,” was a brilliant debater and was “blunt and abrupt in manner and speech.” He was editor of the Recorder from 1878 to 1882, when he bought the Sentinel, which he made into a daily paper. Loadwick was “aggressively progressive” in his editorial stance, according to Frothingham.

Ironically, the Republican paper in those days in Amsterdam was William J. Kline’s Democrat. Kline, from Fultonville, had purchased the paper, if not the political philosophy, in 1879. In 1893 Kline bought the Recorder and relegated the Democrat name to a subsidiary position. The Sentinel competed with the Recorder until the Sentinel folded in 1918.

At the 1902 annual Board of Trade meeting, the Sentinel’s Loadwick gave an impassioned speech praising the city’s growth from the time of its founding as a hamlet a century earlier around Albert Vedder’s gristmill on the Chuctanunda Creek.

“The creaking of Vedder’s mill has given place to a chorus of industry in which thousands of mighty wheels whirl and spin in merry thrift,” Loadwick said. “The old creek, once the power upon which the commercial life of this community depended, may now ripple along in its lazy beauty since steam, with all its power, has pushed it aside.”

Loadwick said, “The carpet mills, the oil mills, the knitting mills, foundries, rug mills and scores of other industries, great and small that add to the noises of the world are active evidence of the strides of enterprise and advancement.”

He added that wagon springs made in Amsterdam “afford comfort to the carriage riding world,” while every “well-swept household in America” benefits from Amsterdam-made brooms.

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