Laurel Museum exhibit gives voice to forgotten mill workers

What's left of the old Laurel Mill lies serenely at the west end of Main Street in Old Town Laurel. The ruins are a proud reminder of Laurel's earliest history, of the economic growth and cultural enrichment that the mill brought to the area.

But there is another side to the mill story. Inspired by the hardships faced by rural families who traveled in from outlying areas for jobs at the factory, the Laurel Historical Society created an exhibit titled "True Life: I'm a Laurel Mill Worker," on display through the end of the year at the Laurel Museum.


During its grand opening on Sunday, Feb. 5, the exhibit offered an empathetic, interactive experience to visitors. Laurel Museum Director Lindsey Baker and her assistant, Monica Sturdivant, joined Laurel residents Shirli King, Regina Mima and James McCeney as they welcomed visitors to the exhibit.

Since opening the Laurel Museum in a historic mill worker's house on Main Street in 1996, the Laurel Historical Society has launched a series of yearlong displays about the history of the city.


For the current exhibit, members decided to focus on mill life from the workers' perspective, and to temporarily recreate the living quarters that once existed inside the museum's circa 1840 building.

Karen Lubieniecki, of Laurel, a member of the Exhibits Committee and one of the core researchers for the exhibit, said that this year's exhibit is special.

"We've never told the mill workers' story," she said. "We've never interpreted the site as a house museum before, and people wonder what it was like to live there."

Lubieniecki said there's no way to find out definitively who lived there, so the committee chose the 10-member Waterman family — a real mill family whose names were discovered in 1870 census records — to represent the life of mill workers in the late-19th century.

"We have a lot of information from the 1870s and '80s period, so we decided to go with that period to interpret," Lubieniecki said.

Much of her information came from census records, newspapers, maps and photos (some on loan from the Savage Historical Society) and the Library of Congress, as well as from one of the mill superintendent's diaries purchased through an antiques dealer.

A day in the life

Laurel started as a company town known as Laurel Factory. According to census records, out of a population of 1,648 residents, 251 were mill workers when Laurel Factory dropped "Factory" from its name and became incorporated as the township of Laurel, with an elected government, in 1870.


Displays in the welcome area of the museum provide information about life at the Laurel Mill and other cotton mills around the country. Some of the artifacts include an antique ledger, bits of broken crockery and antique marbles excavated from the museum walls; bottles and mill tools; antique newspapers too fragile to unroll; and tintype photos.

The exhibit reflects on the daily lives of the Waterman household: Mark Waterman; his wife, Ellen; their seven children (6-year-old Ana was the youngest); and a young female boarder. According to census records, all the family members except Ellen, who took care of the house, worked 11-hour days at the mill.

Visitors can select a specific family member to follow, and are given cards that reveal details of that person's life. They can also handle raw cotton and listen to a recording of the sounds mill workers would have been exposed to in the factory to gain a sense of the mill's noise levels and harsh working conditions.

When entering the recreated living area, one of two rooms on the museum's first floor, cutouts of life-size silhouettes designed by Sturdivant line the wall, depict the children leaving for and returning from the mill, with postures that reveal the grueling nature of mill workdays.

The three small rooms of the living quarters, and a downstairs kitchen, are furnished with authentic artifacts from the era. A rope bed in Mark and Ellen's bedroom is on loan from Historic London Town Home and Gardens in Anne Arundel County. The Montgomery County Historical Society provided some of the other period furniture, and the paymaster's desk belongs to the city of Bowie.

The exhibit shows that family members shared very small beds — privacy was nonexistent — and some of the children would have slept on bedrolls on the floor. Antique water pitchers, basins and chamber pots preceded any sanitary facilities.


A fiddle, a game of checkers, some toys and a baseball bat suggest activities the family would have engaged in when they weren't working.

Meals would have been prepared downstairs in a large fireplace in the basement kitchen, where a boarder likely slept on a cot by the fire.

Benefit of a small museum

"True Life: I'm a Laurel Mill Worker" drew visitors from outside of Laurel as well as local patrons. Denee and Diederik Sieburgh, of Silver Spring, said they drove in after hearing about the event on National Public Radio.

"It's just really great not to have to drive down to the district to get some kind of cultural experience," Denee Sieburgh said.

"These little museums are very personal," Diederik Sieburgh said. "There was someone standing there talking to us and interacting with us … we could pick up all the stuff and touch the books. That, to me, is what's so neat."


Steve Connair, of Annandale, and his wife stopped by the exhibit after visiting Savage Mill.

"It's a great exhibit," Connair said. "Very well done with a lot of research, and it's kind of interactive —they show you a little sign and then they ask you questions."

Baker believes that the lives of the mill workers in 1870 relate to issues that many people face today: the fear of losing their jobs due to uncontrollable factors or getting sick and suddenly losing their incomes.

"They were not living in complete poverty, but the mill workers were by no means rich," she said. "They were doing the best they could, which is something I think most people today can relate to and that I personally find particularly moving."

"I've worked on every exhibit we've done since we've opened the museum in 1996," Lubieniecki said. "This is definitely one of the best."

"True Life: I'm A Laurel Mill Worker" continues through December at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main St. Museum hours are Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Schools and tour groups are encouraged, with prior arrangement. For more information, go to or call 301-725-7975.