Picking on Tops: French Millworkers in New Hampshire

Belknap Mill, 1859

A collaborative project with the Belknap Mill in Laconia, NH, Picking on Tops created new songs in the New England tradition from oral histories of the Belknap-Busiel textile mills. 

Fall 1995: Worked with Belknap Mill Society Director Mary Boswell to research and select oral histories collected by the BMS from former millworkers, largely of French-Canadian, Shaker, and Irish descent. Winter 1996: Wrote two original songs based on oral histories and traditional French, Shaker, and Irish tunes: Picking on Tops and Shaker Socks. Prepared a 45-minute program with additional material from traditional songs of mill girls and river history. 

Spring 1996: presented the Picking on Tops program live on WEVO from the Belknap Mill, in concert with Franco-American trio Chanterelle and Alex Demas of Lowell National Historic Park. Spring 1997: returned the songs to their singers in a tour of Laconia nursing homes sponsored by the Laconia Chamber of Commerce. Summer 1997: Composed a third song, Patent Leather Waltz, from oral history interviews conducted during the nursing home tour. 

Fall 1997: Returned to Belknap Mill for Picking on Tops concert and school programs to accompany a new exhibit of millworker history. 

The Belknap Mill: Constructed in 1832, the Belknap Mill is the oldest unaltered brick textile mill in the U.S. Once a hosiery mill, it houses an intact hydraulic power plant and a bell cast by George Holbrook, apprentice to Paul Revere. The Busiel Mill, built in 1853 as a hosiery mill, was later used for the manufacture of clocks, electronic relays, and organs. The Belknap-Sulloway Mill and the Busiel-Seeburg Mill were individually listed on the National Register in 1971. In the 1980s, the mill was converted to a cultural center. The Belknap Mill preserves the original appearance of the 1st Boston Manufacturing Company mill and is a one-of-a-kind resource. It serves as the Lakes Region's only year-round art and history center, providing converted space for exhibits, workshops, classes, and community meetings.