When the Bell Rang Over Ames Shovel Works
Easton's David Varella recalls memories of his father and the other workers.
When the sun gleamed over the horizon and they heard that bell, it meant it was time for the workers of the shovel factory to start their day. And so it rang from 1852 to 1952, six days a week, at the long granite buildings of the Ames Shovel Works.
Workers at the factory often toiled from sun up to sundown producing thousands of shovels a day, to be shipped around the world.
Recently, the Ames Shovel Works has been at the center of a plan to add affordable housing to the site, but in their heydsy, they played a huge role in the building of the United States.
Shovels made by the laborers were used to help shape the country, as much as they have helped shape Easton. From the Union Pacific Railroad, to the digging of the Eerie Canal, to the country's first subway station at Park Street in Boston, the shovels made by these men were used to help lay the foundation of the early industrial United States.
Ames shovels were standard-issue in the U.S. military from the Civil War to the conflict in Korea.
It was not merely the quality of the shovels that made them so renowned but the craftsmanship and the painstaking labor that went into making each one.
"You could hear it all the way to Baldwin Street," Manuel David Varella, of Easton, who goes by David, said of the bell.
His father, Manuel Varella, worked at the shop from 1900 to the mid-1930's. Varella said it was his father's job to fixate the handle of the shovel to its blade, using a 12-inch sledgehammer.
Working in the Long Shop in front of an open flame, the senior Varella would often come home covered in soot and metal burrs that blanketed his overalls and blue tee shirt.
"You're dealing with hot iron, and sparks are flying. It was very hot," said Varella. "He'd come home burned. Regardless of how bad he was, he went to work. Even if he was sick, you don't take days off."His pay was dependent upon how many shovels he produced.
"He got paid so many pennies per shovel." Varella
At one time, he was the third-highest paid employee at the factory according to handwritten ledgers kept by the company. On average he would earn about fifty dollars per week.
"They took care of him pretty well. He took care of them too," he said.
Varella's father, like many workers of the plant, was an immigrant who came to the U.S. seeking work and a better life.
After his long sail from Portugal, he didn't have to look far job opportunities.
"He came into Ellis Island and there was boss from the Shovel Works there and he hired him on the spot," his son said. "He couldn't speak a word of English but he was a big strapping kid and he picked him out of the crowd and brought him to Easton. That's how we lived in Easton."
The Ames set Varella and his family up in company-owned housing located at the entrance of where Frothingham Park sits today. Later, he would build a house on Baldwin St. where David grew up.
Today, the debate of the future of where David's father made his living remains a contentious issue in Easton. Last year, the buildings were placed on America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, after a group of developers wanted to to make way for affordable housing.
However, many town officials and supporters of the shops wanted to see the buildings remain intact.
"People wanted those buildings to remain as they are," said Colleen Corona, Easton Board of Selectmen chairmen. "They're a significant part of our history. Easton grew up around those buildings."
A new group, Beacon Communities Development, emerged in November of last year with a plan to buy the site from the Turner Brothers, the developers for the project. Their plan would add apartments and a park to the site, but said they would work closely with what the town wanted as well, which includes restoring the historic buildings.
Beacon is still in the process of waiting for approval by the state to buy the buildings.
"The current status of the site is it's in a holding pattern right now," Corona said.
In order for the deal to go through Beacon must await the approval of affordable housing and historic tax credits in the spring.
Corona said Beacon's plan is the ideal solution for the site.
"Restoring them brings new life to our downtown," she said.