I would like to thank Mark S. Auerbach, City Historian of Passaic, NJ for the time he has spent detailing stories of early Passaic and for the images which he has so kindly given me permission to include in my posts about early Passaic and St. Michael’s Church.
The story of the founding of St. Michael’s Church in Passaic, New Jersey will be the subject of the next few posts and is written in memory of my grandmother, Julia Scerbak Sabo, my “Nana,” who was born on 17 August 1893 in Passaic. She was a devout Catholic and lifelong parishioner of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, which today is the Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, Byzantine Catholic Rite, located at 96 First Street, Passaic, NJ.
What is a “quasquicentennial”? It is the 125th anniversary of an event. St. Michael the Archangel Byzantine Catholic Church was founded in 1890 in Passaic so this year is its Quasquicentennial Anniversary.
In order to tell the story of St. Michael’s, a little bit of the history of Passaic, New Jersey needs to be told first. Passaic was originally called Acquackanock back in 1679 when the Dutch settled the area, so its history is lengthy. However, Passaic didn’t become a city until 1873 and didn’t really begin to grow until the 1880’s. The 1880 census shows a population of about 6,500 people, but that was about to change.
The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century continued to influence American life in the 19th century. Factories were springing up all through the northeast after the Civil War and Passaic was no exception. You see, Passaic had two items that interested businesses that operated factories. First, the Passaic River flows along the eastern border of the city.
With the addition of the Passaic Dundee Canal, completed in the early 1860’s, flowing water, needed by factories, was readily available. (There will be more about the Dundee Canal in a later post.)
Portion of Dundee Canal in Recent Times
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Train service had also been established in Passaic prior to the Civil War and the main track ran through downtown Passaic near the areas where factories were being built. Therefore, goods could be produced in Passaic and then easily shipped to their destinations. The Erie Railroad ran the trains through the city until well into the 20th century. (More on the Passaic trains in a later post, too.)
What was life like for the mill workers? One thing is for certain, it didn’t change much over the period of forty years or so. While there were cotton and wool mills in Passaic in the 1860’s, they didn’t really thrive. In 1887, Botany Worsted Mills came to town. (Worsted fabrics are fabrics in which the fibers have been combed so they all run in the same direction, producing a finer fabric.) Botany Mills was a big company and it needed a lot of mill hands.
Botany Worsted Mills
From the American Textile History Museum collection
in Lowell, Massachusetts
Other mills soon popped up along the Passaic River and the Dundee Canal. These photos of workers in the mending department of Gera Mills include Minnie Wnuk Tarris, grandmother of Margaret Tarris Bauer of www.pysankybasics.com, who kindly gave permission to share these with you.
Minnie Wnuk Tarris at her desk in Gera Mills
Mending Department of Gera Mills, Supervised by Minnie
My grandmother, Julia, is second from the right, standing, in this picture below taken at one of the mills. It may have been Botany since they hired “Hungarians,” which at the time included many ethnic groups that were part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. My grandmother was Slovak.
Julius Forstmann opened his mill in the early 1900’s and became another large factory employer.
Although his factory is long gone, Julius Forstmann’s name is still recognized in Passaic, as his former mansion was razed and the land became the site for the new Julius Forstmann Public Library on the corner of Passaic and Gregory Avenues. Although involved with the design of the new library, Mr. Forstmann passed away before the building was completed and the new library opened in 1941.
An aside – Passaic, with its immigrants forging new lives, had many families with little money. I grew up loving books and became a teacher, likely in part due to the fabulous children’s section of the Forstmann Library, where I could read to my heart’s content. Of 290,000 books in the collection, in the 1950’s, 152,000+ were children’s books. Mr. Forstmann, a very wealthy man, gave an invaluable resource back to the city.
Day-to-day life was hard in the mills, but it still held more hope for the future than the workers’ European homes and the dire poverty most had left behind. They were still poor in America, but better off than before.
A typical work day was eleven to twelve hours long. Fifty-five and sixty hour weeks were common for the time period. There were no paid sick or vacation days and if you didn’t show up for work, you were easily replaced. By the 1920’s, about 16, 000, mostly immigrants, worked in the Passaic mills. Men typically earned $1000-1200 per year, but a basic standard of living for the time necessitated an income of about $1400 per year.
Ventilation was poor in the factories and since workers often came to the job when sick, tuberculosis was a common affliction. Most couldn’t afford any kind of medical care so home remedies were the order of the day. The young girl on the left in this photo is Maria Scerbak Tidik with her future husband Stephen Tidik. Maria, or Mary as she was called in America, was my grandmother’s younger sister. She emigrated to Passaic with her husband and two young children in the mid-1920’s, but quickly caught tuberculosis and died at the age of 26 in 1926.
Safety measures were almost non-existent; management had all the rights and made all the decisions. It was pretty much “my way or the highway” when a mill hand had a difference of opinion with the boss.
Sunday, however, was the day of rest. By 1890, many of these new mill workers were from two small, neighboring villages in today’s Slovakia, called Ujak (today, Udol) and Hajtovka. These villagers formed the nucleus of those who founded St. Michael’s in 1890.
Next post – the life left behind in Udol.