Like steamboats, the button makers are now gone from the White River.

A Bradford Girl Visits the Button Factory

By DOROTHY JONES HOWARD

As told to her daughter Barbara Weaver

 

I

n the early 1930s I went to see Aunt Julie and Uncle Elvis McFarland in Newport. They had come to Bradford in their Model-T to see Mom and Dad, Emma and Virgil Jones, and spend the night.  Then Mama let me go home with them to spend a week.   I can't tell you how excited I was to get my first ride in a car.  We didn't have paved roads then and the trip was rather frightening to me as it had rained and there were deep ruts full of rain water, and that old car would jump up on top of a rut, then slide back down in the grove. Really sloshed you around, and the back seat wasn't plush like nowadays.  Felt like you were sitting on a board with some leather stretched over it.  There was no bridge over White River at that time so we took a ferry to get into Newport. 

They lived in a little unpainted cabin-like house with one bedroom.  There was a wide board shelf in the living room, and Aunt Julie had some big feather beds stored on it, and that is where I slept.   It was so soft and high, I felt like I was on a cloud.
    

Uncle Elvis worked at a button factory in Newport, right at the edge of town, which wasn't much then.   One day, he took me to the factory to see how they made buttons.  There was a line of machines down both sides of the wall that would accommodate six or eight men with just enough elbow space to keep from bumping each other.  All the men wore goggles and leather gloves that came partway up their arms.  There were tons of mussel shells there, and each man had a pile placed in front of him that he worked from. He would pick up a shell with a pair of tongs made for that purpose.   Handles were probably 12 inches long.  They would position the shell, pull a handle and the machine would cut the button, all while a steady stream of water was spraying over it.   I guess, because the shells are very hard, that was to cool the equipment while cutting.  They judged a good cutter by how many buttons he could get from a shell. 

 Buttons, of course, were very much in demand, as I can remember no zippers then.  I always liked to play with the leftover shells as they were so odd looking, and a lot of people decorated graves and flowerbeds in their yards with those shells with the holes punched in them.  They sent the raw cut buttons to another factory where they were polished and finished with x amount of holes punched into them and sized, of course.  

 One day Uncle Elvis took me to downtown Newport.   Talk about being scared!   It was full of Negroes (which I hadn't seen much of at Bradford).   On our way back home we went by a park (another first for me) and there was a vendor on the street selling Coney Islands.   Uncle Elvis bought me one.  It was a hot dog with chili on it, and I had never tasted anything so good in my life.  What a treat. You have to know that I never had a store-bought hamburger until I got married.   (What a country hick, huh?)  That just wasn't in our budget.   

You would have thought I'd have spent the whole week there, but NO!    I got homesick after two or three days and they put me on a bus and sent me home as Uncle Elvis couldn't take off work and I'm sure he didn't want to listen to me crying the rest of the week.  

 I can't remember if Uncle Elvis got his finger cut off in that factory or not but he had a finger missing and they moved to Bradford after the button factory job.   I donít recall that he worked again but they lived ok.   I think Aunt Julie had a little money put away.