Drury High School

Service Learning » The Mill Children

The Mill Children

What was it like to be a child worker in a mill 100 years ago?

Students in the North Adams Public schools have been collaborating with a locally inspired art exhibit called The Mill Children produced by Ralph Brill of Brill Gallery.

In late August of 1911, photographer and social reformer, Lewis Wickes Hine visited the Eclipse Mill in North Adams to document child workers on behalf of the National Child Labor Committee. Many of the children photographed at the Eclipse Mill were ages 11 and 12 with the youngest being nine. In The Mill Children, two contemporary painters, a musical composer, a filmmaker, a historian and an educator revisit the lives of the child workers captured through Hine’s photographs. Now home to artist lofts, the Eclipse Mill Gallery hosted The Mill Children exhibit to commemorate the 100- year anniversary of Hine’s historic visit during.  The Mill Children has been exhibited additional museums and galleries including the Bennington Museum in Bennington, VT; the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham, MA.; the Cherry & Webb Gallery in Fall River, MA; and the 5 Hoosac Street Gallery in Adams, MA.

Visit the gallery website at:  www.brillgallery.com  to find out about the evolution of The Mill Children exhibit; to learn about Lewis Wickes Hine; to watch and listen to the exhibit’s original film and music; to read press coverage; and to access other resources.  The contents of the exhibit including art, photographs and narrative can be experienced through a virtual tour at:  www.brillgallery109.com/exhibits/millchildren/gallery.php

Contributors to the exhibit include painters Dawn Nelsen and William Oberst, musician Matt Hopkins, filmmaker Steven Borns, historian Joe Manning and educator Anne Thidemann French.  Author of A Teacher’s Guide to The Mill Children, French coordinates the Service-Learning Program for the school system and facilitated student involvement with the exhibit.

North Adams Student Involvement

Multiple classrooms and student groups utilized learning activities from the teacher’s guide, toured the exhibit and interacted with the artists.  Several classrooms participated in service-learning experiences connected to The Mill Children. Work from a number of the classrooms is described below including Brayton Elementary School, Greylock Elementary School and Drury High School.  A Student Performance and Exhibition was held at the Eclipse Gallery on September 22, 2011. In addition to the goal of demonstrating student learning, the event also served to draw a large number of local people to the exhibit that may not have otherwise experienced it.

Brayton Elementary School

Connected to lessons about local history and community, third graders from the classrooms of Robyn Lawson and Margaret Siracusa toured the exhibit. Students were transported by a historical trolley owned by the city and enjoyed a tour of important local landmarks and historical sites such as the North Adams Public Library. Students read the children’s novel “Counting on Grace” by Elizabeth Winthrop. Students wrote and performed a play based on the story under the direction of teacher Jessica Burdick.

Greylock Elementary School

Students in the 7th grade began their school year collaborating with The Mill Children exhibit.  In technology class with Marie Kelly-Whitney, students researched the history of child labor and downloaded images of children working in the local mills and in other occupations during the early 1900’s. Using AppleWorks paint program, students inserted their own photos into the images of the child workers. They also used the images to create PowerPoint presentations about their research. 
In art class with Christina King, students read excerpts from the book Counting On Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop and used artistic interpretation skills to create art pieces from recycled materials. For a copy of this lesson plan download the file "Mill Children Art Lesson" on the right. They then toured the exhibit at the Eclipse Mill gallery where they listened to a talk by artist William Oberst and interacted with historian Joe Manning during his portrayal of Lewis Hine. During their tour, students engaged in an assembly line beading activity that simulated the experience of doing mill or factory work and included conditions such as time constraints and physical limitations. A Student Performance and Exhibition was held at exhibit at the Eclipse Mill Gallery that featured Greylock and Drury students. The 7th graders exhibited their original art alongside the The Mill Children pieces, presented a multi-media slide show and served as hosts to their parents and the public. Please see the Drury High School section below to learn about and listen to the contributions of several 7th grade boys who worked with the high school music program.

A poem by a Greylock student written in response to his visit:

William Oberst Poem

I am William Oberst 

Who needs Physical and psychic space

Who loves dreams

Who sees the world as a fragile place

Who hates how the world can change so quickly

Who fears Anxiety

Who dreams of what he does daily

And creates art like Van Gogh, beautiful and focused

Who encourages young artists reach their full potential


Brodie LeSage

Drury High School

English teacher Melissa Quirk Cairns piloted a unit with her ninth grade Honors English course in conjunction with the exhibit at the Eclipse Mill. Now in its third year, all students in 9th grade English participate in a long term research project called: "Identity: Sense of Self/Sense of Place".  Students explore their sense of identity in several layers including personal, family and community. Students learn about the history of North Adams, about the city today and are challenged to imagine its future. Students write MLA-style research papers and also design advertising campaigns that promote a bright future and positive branding for the city. Students present their campaigns to city officials and community partners. Local historian Joe Manning teaches students about the history of child labor at the Eclipse Mill and about his research into the life stories of the children photographed by Lewis Hine. Students choose one the children to study further using Mr. Manning’s website and write “I Am From” poems from the perspective of that child.  In 2011, selected poems were presented at the Student Performance and Exhibition held at The Mill Children exhibit at the Eclipse Mill Gallery. To read comments by teacher Melissa Quirk Cairns and to read the student’s poetry, visit: http://www.sevensteeples.com/millpoems.html.

Instructions for the assignments for students can be found in the sidebar to the right. Also, provided is a copy of the teacher lesson plans for the "Identity Project". Additional teacher resources for this unit can be accessed at: http://resources21.org/cl/default.asp by browsing with the key words “Identity: Sense of Self/Sense of Place”


Students in Aldonna Girouard’s Chorus researched the history of child mill workers, explored musical and cultural traditions of the period and learned about how Lewis Hine used his art of photograghy as an agent for social change. They toured The Mill Children exhibit and later were able to act as hosts to their parents and others who visited the exhibit during the Student Performance and Exhibition at the Eclipse Mill. Students prepared three songs to perform at the event: Fais Do Do; Babies in the Mill and Donnie Cole. They were successful in attracting a large audience to the exhibit.  Chorus students continued their involvement with the exhibit and performed at special children’s receptions at the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation in Waltham and the Cherry & Webb Gallery in Fall River.

Fais Do Do is a traditional French lullaby that was commonly sung by French Canadian families who constituted a large part of the mill worker population in North Adams during the time of Hine’s visit. In fact, after the performance, members of the audience who were descendants of former mill workers fondly reminisced that they had been sung the lullaby by parents and grandparents.

Using the lesson in the Teacher’s Guide to The Mill Children (found to the right), chorus students learned about Dorsey Dixon, a folk musician and a life long cotton mill worker in South Carolina who was forced to leave school in the fourth grade to work full time. His song, Babies in the Mill describes the harsh day-to-day lives of the children and grieves the loss of their schooling and childhood.

While researching the lives of children photographed by Hine, historian Joe Manning was compelled to write the song Donnie Cole about a boy referred to as ‘our baby doffer’. He was photographed in 1910 in a cotton mill in the village of Avondale, in Birmingham, Alabama.  Although his real name was Lonnie Cole, Hine had incorrectly given his name as Donnie Cole.  He told Hine that he was 12 years old, the minimum age for such work, but Manning confirmed that he was only 11. Use this link to read Joe Manning’s story about Donnie (Lonnie) Cole, please visit.

Manning collaborated with Music Technology teacher Jamie Choquette to articulate the musical notation. With the support of their Greylock School Music teacher, Carolyn Jones, several seventh grade boys joined the high school chorus in rehearsals and for the premiere performance of Donnie Cole directed by Aldonna Girouard at the Student Performance and Exhibition at the Eclipse Mill.  The performance of this haunting and beautiful song was powerful and was accentuated with its delivery within the walls of the former cotton mill surrounded by the paintings and photographs of the children who had worked there.

To listen to the 7th grade boy's rendition of Donnie Cole visit Joe Manning's site "Morning on Maple Street".