The Suffolk Mills Exhibit raymond j. harding

Effective communication happens when speakers and listeners both understand the context in which their words should be understood. Communication will happen when words are written or spoken, but a joke or chance remark, offered in jest, can be disastrous if the other party does not know it is intended to be humor and not an insult.

A poem by Ray Harding, my oldest brother, is published below. As a poem, it speaks for itself. I’m adding some of the context here as I feel it makes the message all the more personal.

Ray wrote this in his later years, having retired from teaching English in several Massachusetts high schools and then taking up a second career with the United States Park Service, guiding tours of the Lowell,MA, Suffolk Mills Turbine Exhibit []. Lowell being a major player in the cotton textile industry in the US for most of the 19th century and early 20th century. Take a moment to follow the link to the Lowell National Historical Park site listed above.

The mills were a prime source of steady jobs for many an immigrant worker during that period; men, children and women alike. Park Ranger Ray’s job included writing scenarios describing mill life in the 1800’s and giving tours through the one remaining building where the history of the power source for operating hundreds of looms is recalled, showing the transition from water-driven fly-wheel arrangements to the final introduction of turbines for greater efficiency and speed.

He commemorates, here in the poem, the poor working girls who came to this country from around the world to start a new life.


Suffolk Mill Exhibit


Lowell, 1990:

Lowell, 1830 —


Raymond J. Harding



It is dark here

And there are ghosts

their groans lost in the relentless grinding

Of the aged turbine.

A child cries, and I hear the thin, crystal sound

From beyond the limits of time

As though some long-dead sorcerer

Sweeps the long dried tears through the spinning gears

And spills them out like fragile, golden threads

Drifting at my feet.


It is dark

And the canal, burnished by a dying sun

Sets the sky ablaze

And the shadows creep slowly

Across the oil-soaked boards.


There is music here:

Faint, sad music

Beyond the hum and beat of the whirling turbine

Wooden gears mesh with iron to grind a blood-pulse rhythm

Down the light stripe etched into the floor from

Generations of weary feet

But now –

I see the weary mill girls as delicate and ethereal

As faded water-color portraits

Twirling deftly between

The oil-soaked rows of phantom looms, clacking in syncopation

With much too old a sound for the human ear to catch…


The dour, stern-faced men would have frowned at this!

Are they frowning now?


On duty:

I feel rather than hear the music.

And yet I hear the other music, set to falling tears.

Out in the streets

The long parade of girls, white-gowned, with colored sash

And banner

Parade for the host of guests.

Men who have come to gaze on the spectacle of women

At their work.

But, come –

Back to the mill and dance!


Shy Yankee farm girl.

Spin, mill girl! Bare-footed golden girls of Greece –

Dance, now where once you toiled.

Bienvenue, my dark-eyed Canadian

Welcome to the dance!

Welcome, Colleen –

Twist and weave between the rows

Of laughing looms.



Higher and higher the pitch –

Can the wheels turn faster than the human heart pump blood?


Dance, mill girl, dance –

Dance away the night,

The years,

The centuries –


The coughing

And the tears –


And when all the dancing ghosts of long-lost girls

Have tapped their lives away among the looms

And gone dancing

To the grave…


Then, perhaps, the sharp-eyed men of dour disposition

Who brought them to the dance

And taught them all to sing –


May find no meaning in the song.


We will continue to publish the extant works of Raymond J. Harding as we restore them from family sources.

Ray Harding  –  1928-1997



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