From the Spinner Archives

This week we have chosen to feature a series of essays published in Spinner People and Culture in Southeastern Massachusetts Volume IV. These essays, which deal with ethnic surveys of various groups in southeastern Massachusetts, were originally produced as part of the Federal Writers Project, one of the programs that made up the WPA (Works Progress Administration).

To read more from the Federal Writers’ Project and to learn about other WPA projects in Southeastern Massachusetts check out Spinner IV, available on iBooks.

From These Strains
The Scotch of Fall River
by Irene Posey

With the starting of textile printing around 1832 came the first immigrants from Scotland. They drifted in small numbers and located “below the hill,” as the section south of Pocasset Street to William Street came to be named. When the colony grew large enough to warrant more than the makeshift for worship used in 1846, with the help of the Irish Presbyterians a commodious church was erected in 1851 at Pearl and Anawan Streets to which was given the name “United Presbyterian Church.” Rev. William MacLaren was among the first of the denomination’s ministers to serve congregation under its own roof-tree. That he was forceful, progressive, and public-spirited, the incident of his election to the school committee the year after coming to Fall River is illustrative. He was with it seven years.

R. W. McWhirr & Co., on South Main Street, closed its doors in 1974 after 97 years of doing business. It was one of Fall River’s largest and most popular department stores. Courtesy of the Fall River Historical Society.

Rev. John J. Turnbull is another Scot whose popularity was not confined to the people to whom he preached. He suffered the loss of an arm before accepting the local call. His ministration embraced the decade, 1875-1886.

Rev. William J. Martin succeeded Rev. Turnbull in 1886. It was on his urging that the novelty of serving breakfasts to poor children Sunday mornings in the church basement was introduced. Those who supported the plan most actively included the musical family of McLeods, whose pride in nationality was whole-souled. Mr. McLeod was leader of the choir and a splendid singer; a daughter was a soprano who developed into one of the city’s most accomplished vocalists, while a son, Andrew, was for years connected with minstrel companies. For two years he had been a member of the instrumental band of the E.R.A. and W.P.A. workers.

Mr. Martin’s religiosity was virile and fervid, and because of his zeal and learning, at one sitting of the presbytery he was dignified a doctor of divinity. Modestly he accepted the offer, and in the same humble spirit he did not demur when his people assumed the responsibility of commending his merits so as to obtain for him in 1895 a school committee nomination and election for two years.

With the increase in affluence of the original parishioners, they contributed generously to a fund for the erection of a granite structure on a commanding site on Rock Street. That location signified that most of the Presbyterians had found it desirable to select a residential neighborhood of a character more in harmony with their beliefs and habits than developed gradually through foreign intrusion downtown.

Comparatively small as is the record of Scotland’s contribution to Fall River’s general history, in its relative importance it looms commendably large in comparison. To one William Gilmore it was indebted in our manufacturing infancy for the impulse to the application of power to cloth production when he evaded England’s close watchfulness for expropriation of British ideas in this state, by introducing what is known as the Scotch loom, a name changed afterward to Cartwright and a machine superior to the make in use.

No sentimental obligation to a foreigner for becoming identified with the city’s industrial expansion rates along with that incurred when the Kerrs of Paisley, Scotland, chose Fall River as the place in Massachusetts in which to establish a branch of their business as makers of cotton yarn and thread. Fourteen acres of the Flint Mills holding, near the outlet of the South Watuppa Pond into the Quequechan River were bought, and with a capital of $292,400 the investors erected in 1890 and equipped a brick factory of five stories, 100 feet wide and 131 feet long. Six hundred persons found work. A son of Scotland, Richard B. Cook, was their superintendent.

In 1893 the success of the enterprise justified an addition of 150 feet to the mill and $500,000 to the capitalization. James B. and Robert C. Kerr represented the family in the management. That was uninterrupted until about 1906, when the Kerr’s products were produced under the label of the American Thread Company as a result of company amalgamation.

R.C. Kerr became an official of the buyer and removed to New Jersey for service in the Newark plant. In September 1928 James B. Kerr died; industry felt his loss. His widow retains her Fall River residence. She showed a lively interest in the recent news that the prosperity during her husband’s administration, which the depression interrupted, has been revived sufficiently to cause the starting up of long idle machinery.

Scottish connection with local merchandising, a noteworthy incident in gauging racial standing, dates from about 1872. Steward and Hamerton was the firm name over a store on the east side of South Main Street, near Borden, in which drygoods were sold. The partners were Scotch. Mr. Steward was one of the pillars of the Presbyterian church, and he exemplified in his relations with his fellow man the depth and earnestness of religious convictions, tolerance towards dissenting beliefs.

David Morrison was another of the clan to become a successful merchant. With his brothers he established the nucleus of a department store in Flint Village. After a few years here, three of the newcomers went to Chicago. In that city they made good and acquired wealth. The local brother did not suffer through his preference for Fall River in carrying on business, for his scruples caused the villagers to do most of their buying at his establishment instead of going “to the city” to shop. Moreover, he had so bound them to him that in the election that made him a senator party lines were broken.

Mr. Morrison was so rigid a sabbatarian, though without intolerance, that he considered it to be in derogation of the commandment on the observance of the Lord’s day if he should use a conveyance to take him over the three miles between his home and the Pearl Street church.

There exists but one department store in the city. It is conducted for R. A. McWhirr Company by two men who as boys began working for Robert A. McWhirr. He had just started as a merchant when Elizabeth Oregan, a teacher, became his wife. The hustling qualities McWhirr displayed made possible the solidity of the foundation of the enterprise on which he had embarked with limited capital within a short cycle after he had left his home in Scotland for America. He did not live to see the wonderful growth that attended his venture, which for a time had the appearance of an unpromising investment, but it was large enough in his lifetime to satisfy him that he had left ample provision for his successor in the person of a son who had inherited the talent of the parent. The wife and mother was doubly and grievously bereft when death deprived her of her boy’s companionship. She shares with two partners the large earnings of the imposing emporium in which there is a small army of workers.

Robert Nicholson, recognized better as “Bob,” is another who, emigrating from Scotland and foreswearing allegiance to the British throne, after coming here in 1878, entered the ranks of city fathers in 1887 by grace of the votes of fellow citizens. That choice was made three times without prejudice. The councilor and son had their office as contracting masons on Morgan Street and never were accused of skimping on a job.

William and Peter Connell did not remain idle when they exchanged Scotland in 1857 for America in which to promote their ambitions. Peter devoted himself early to the manufacture of brooms, the first introducer of that industry, and became father of a boy who made himself an efficient member of the Police Department for several years.

William Connell was more assertive than his brother by reason of broader aptitude and richer intellectuality, as he had interested himself as a councilman from a southern ward in 1866 and 1867. His interest in education brought about Mr. Connell’s assignment to the superintendancy of schools 17 years afterward. There were frequent changes in the membership of the committee, but the superintendent was retained for 23 years. He is credited with the passage of the free textbook law for the city. Illness that forced his resignation soon caused his death.

The two sons of Mr. Connell, who was the father of five children, adopted the medical profession; Charles the elder, since deceased, in 1887, and his brother, Arthur, in 1901 and still in practice.

The father of daily journalism, as Fall River has known it, was John Cruickshank Milne, whose life work terminated in 1918. The country of his birth in 1824 was Scotland. Upon the death of his father and mother, his grandparents took him to Nova Scotia in 1832, and in 1835 to this city. His job was secured in the Rodman Print Works. It was in a room set aside by the manager for the benefit of the youthful employees that the youngster obtained his first schooling.

John C. Milne, Engraving by E. G. William & Bro., N.Y.

While he was learning to set type in his uncle’s shop, a minister, who was to be created a Colorado bishop later on, encouraged young Milne to try for a collegiate education. That prospect was blasted by lack of means. However, he made of himself so good a compositor that his relative took him into partnership and in 1845 the Weekly News was launched. In 1859 the firm, which had been alienated politically on the slavery question, took over a struggling newspaper called the Beacon and made it the Daily News to further Republicanism. In the course of time it became as the family Bible for its readers until, owing to the mortal illness of Joseph D. Milne and the disinclination of the Almy heirs to continue the publication, the News was taken over by the publishers of the Daily Herald and merged.

The junior Milne was unlike the senior in a variety of ways. He was without any ambition to enter public life, whereas the father was five years in the City Council and four years in the General Court. In the latter body he commanded broad influence by reason of his ability and fearlessness as an advocate and critic, and his political lampooning of his associates. He was easily the most versatile and individualistic scion of a Scotch household that has ever lived here.

It is not altogether inappropriate to bring this chronicle to a close by reporting the most recent incident involving a representative of the race, who had made good as an officeholder, and who is affiliated with the Caledonian Society and the Burns Club, the latter a social association limited to men either born among the highlands of old Scotia or who are Americans in line of descent. In a heated contest for the mayoralty, Alexander G. Murray sought re-election. He was the first city engineer, then city manager and next chosen city executive. The last promotion was received at the polls in 1934, to cover two years. His opponent at that time he had to face again on December 15, 1936. His republicanism was urged as a reason for a democratic city to deny re-endorsement of his candidacy. That his first administration as mayor and his managerial reputation satisfied many democrats of his deserving was revealed when the balloting showed Mr. Murray to have received another vote of confidence. Its size did not weaken the sentiment expressed.

[Top Banner image: Young workers play ball on grounds belonging to the Kerr Thread Mill. Photographer Lewis Hine, who had little praise for mill owners, hailed Mr. Kerr for being a conscientious owner whose mill had “a high type of operatives.” Lewis Hine photograph, 1916 from the Library of Congress.]

1 Comment

Thomas F Kerr · August 24, 2021 at 3:54 pm

Fascinating read! I’d love to learn more about the Kerr brothers. Robert is my great grandfather and I know little or nothing about James. Did he and his wife have family? Where would they be?

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