The sweet satisfaction of labor

Arthur Belforti late 1920sAt this time of year, my family and I have two special reasons to contemplate the memory of my maternal grandfather, Arthur David (born Achille Alessio Riccardo) Belforti (1902-1996). First of all, his birthday is September 3 – a date that never passes unnoticed in my family. Second, there is no person we associate more with Labor Day than Grampy, not just because he worked so exceptionally hard and long, but because of the immense value he placed on work and the personal satisfaction and pride it brought him.

To complain about working is something that never would have occurred to my grandfather. He was always grateful to have a job, both for the income it provided as he and my grandmother struggled to raise a family during and after the Great Depression, and for the purpose it gave to his daily life. Simply put, work made him happy. Over the course of his life, he was employed as an auto-factory worker, landscaper, box-factory worker, butcher, sausage-factory cleaner, clock maker (for over 30 years), and church caretaker, among other occupations. He usually held down two or three jobs at a time and worked weekends. For many years he had no car and would walk miles to his jobs, or take a bus, or get a ride from a friend or employer. He would come home from one job to have supper and give a smile to his family, and then head out to the next one.

Arthur Belforti picking apples in Southborough Mass 1984
Picking apples in Southborough, Massachusetts, in 1984.

While I was in elementary school, I spent the afternoons with my grandparents, who lived across the street from the school, while my parents were at work. I was recently thinking about how fortunate I was as a child to get to follow my grandfather around at his church caretaker job and in his work around the house. Thank goodness there were no electronic devices to distract me, the way there are for today’s children, because having these opportunities to observe him left me with a rich supply of visual memories of this man, and it exposed me to the pleasure and pride a person might take in labor. He would bring me with him to the church, and I can still see him polishing pews until they gleamed and climbing up a tall ladder to replace bulbs in the lights that ran along the ceiling beams. This was no mere job to him. It was personal. If something had looked less than perfect in that church, my grandfather would have seen it as a reflection of him. When he had to give up the caretaker job in his eighties, it was, after the early death of his mother, the most unhappy event of his life.

While he enjoyed his moments of stillness – watching baseball on TV (a rare New Englander who was an avid and unapologetic Yankees fan), sitting in the shade of the trees reading the newspaper, playing cards with me, or bent over the dining-room table listening to news and talk shows on the radio he held like a precious object in his hands – I remember him primarily as a man of near-constant motion. I see him down on his hands and knees weeding flower beds; in the driveway scrubbing and shining his treasured, though never fancy, car; and going in and out through the basement bulkhead to retrieve tools from his workshop for repair jobs. The house was large and it was old, so he never suffered from a shortage of tasks.

I trust that most people have a similar story – someone in their family who worked especially hard, and perhaps even loved that work. At least I hope they do. If you have such a story, please share it with us in the Comments area. How many different occupations did your ancestor have?

I carry my grandfather’s love of labor with me as I go about my job, most of which is carried out on a computer and which involves more mental than physical activity. (The many flights of stairs here at NEHGS are a welcome source of exercise!) However, that feeling is especially palpable, and my grandfather is closest, when I’m down on my hands and knees weeding the garden. I imagine the same is true for my mother and her brother, and for my siblings. Thank you, Grampy, and a well deserved happy Labor Day to you!

About Jean Maguire

Jean Maguire was the Library Director at NEHGS until 2020, responsible for overseeing the Society’s library and special collections, including patron services; collection development, access, and preservation; and the Society’s volunteer program. Jean joined the NEHGS staff in 1999 after receiving her Master’s in Library and Information Science from Simmons College.

20 thoughts on “The sweet satisfaction of labor

  1. My grandfather came “over the mountain” (more of a glorified hill” to work in the knife factory. He and his brother eventually bought land and he had chickens, strawberries and vegetables that he sold from the front porch and around town on his truck. I loved to go with him on the truck and my first job was picking strawberries. His truck was old and he loved to work on it with his “alumium” paint.

  2. My father started working when he was 10 years old; mother worked from 16 years old until she got married — as at that time married women were not allowed to keep working at the Sausage Factory in Norfolk Virginia… did not tell her “employer” then, but with my showing up 18 months later— mom was “outed”. Dad with less of a 6th grade education.. was with his “smarts” able to run a very successful moving and storage company. For generations, all of my New England male relatives and female worked alike for it was the custom for women to hold some occupations such as Midwifery. My great – grand aunt, Martha Moore Ballard(nth) was so accomplished at this and literate that she kept a daily journal or log of her work… now a book. My grandma – the one that took her family to Virginia for better opportunities worked as a “pin money” girl in the mills of Massachusetts as did most of her relatives – both male and female at that time. But what has happened here ? In New England like most of the United States it is much easier to game the social welfare system, to get those entitlements that you have never earned nor deserve than to do a honest days labor ?

    1. like the southland, Maine like many other New England states has mutli- generational families on the “public dole”. This is the cycle that Governor Le Page is attempting to break — but the welfare lobby here is so opposed to it ….. afterall sadly their jobs depend on having welfare clients !

  3. Garrison Keillor says it all Monday through Friday on “The Writer’s Almanac.” “Be well, do good work, keep in touch.” These sentiments drove my grandfathers who always worked hard and well and spent time with their families whenever possible. They never complained about having to work long, hard hours; they loved work. They never became their jobs but always gave 100 percent. Thank you for letting me think about their legacy.

    My maternal grandfather, born 1870 in Preston, Lancashire, England, worked hard all of his life. In one job, he was a teamster when that really meant driving a team of horses. This grandfather could recite the beginning of Scott’s “Lady of the Lake.”

    My paternal grandfather, born 1884 in Providence, Rhode Island, was at one point a coffee and tea salesman with his own cart and horse. He traveled to Boston to the steaming kettle to buy the wares he sold in Providence. Later during World War II, he was a foreman at Brown & Sharpe Co. in Providence.

  4. I have a letter my 2x great grandfather drafted to his superiors complaining that he was being “shelved” in favor of younger workers. Didn’t he have experience? Didn’t his father and grandfather work into their 80s?
    He had been a sawyer in 1840, a soldier guarding the Canadian border against the American Civil War in 1860s, and a railroad worker from 1872 until his death in 1912.

    1. Candy, what a marvelous piece of history you have — not just family history, but labor history. It makes one wonder if age discrimination (so familiar to us today) was a widespread problem in those times.

    2. One of the saddest legacy of the mill worker versus management is that the latter always looking “to maximize company profits” pitted not only younger but desperate foreigners against each other in New England mill towns. Older and more experienced workers in the New England towns were universally replaced by those willing to do the same work, but at half the salary.

    3. …a sad legacy of New England mills when management learned that they could get twice the labor from French Canadian and other immigrants when their more expensive but experience worker was replaced !

  5. Thank you for sharing these stories. Rose, I wish I could have heard your grandfather reciting “Lady of the Lake,” and Judi, those strawberries picked with your grandfather must have tasted especially sweet. Since writing this post, I’ve learned from my mother something I didn’t know about my grandfather: apparently he was so disappointed when he reached the mandatory retirement age at the Telechron clock company that, before he got the job as a church caretaker, he sought out a dishwashing job in town. The man was unstoppable, and all work was of equal prestige in his eyes.

    1. Somewhat ironic in given the distaste of anything “socialist” in the United States ….. even universal access to medical care…that we are celebrating a movement with such Socialistic origins…. but of course giving the lack of historical knowledge in most Americans it just means that summer has come to an end !

    2. Indeed, Kendall, and my grandfather was pleased to be a member of the union at Telechron — United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers. Perhaps someday I’ll write about the two Maguire/McGuires who are credited with first proposing the holiday.

  6. During the time I knew him, my grandfather was always busy at something. He owned a laundry and a notions factory (it made all sorts of wooden items: knitting bag handles, lobster crackers, and so on) until he had to sell the laundry when my Dad was unable to run it due to illness. He also, at various times, served as president and/or chairman of the board of the local bank. His main hobby was a small farm with about a dozen dairy cows, where he grew all sorts of vegetables and flowers in season and of course, milked the cows twice a day. He also served many years in the Connecticut state legislature becoming the chairman of the ways and means committee. As a younger man he often when hunting and fishing and took a fishing trip to the Maine backwoods each fall, giving this up only a few years before his death. And yet, some of my favorite memories of him are sitting at the kitchen table with him dressed in his farm clothes: an old slouch hat, an old-fashioned tank style undershirt and old pants with a piece or rope serving as a belt.

  7. I don’t have grandpa stories because all my grandpas and great grandpas died earlier than they had to. The reason I am writing is that one of them, he died in 1915, worked with George W Bentley Tea Company importing groceries and tea and coffee. He became an accountant and then a vice-president before he died. His name John George Simonds Jr. Connection, to the teacart grandpa from Providence. He may have patronized G.W.Bentley’s.

    I do have a grandma story. My little grandma came from Sweden when she was 18. In Sweden housewives were extremely proud of a not only clean and immaculate home interior but also a clean and immaculate home exterior. Every week my grandma would sweep and wash down our front steps and walkway, and dust and wash our front door, and polish to a bright finish our brass door handle and door knocker. I remember her on her knees scubbing our brick front steps. And I remember her carrying a full to overflowing laundry basket filled with hand rinsed and hand wrung laundry out the back door and plunking it down with a great thump in order to hand hang it on our clothes line. After she hung our laundry she then went into the kitchen and whipped up a batch of doughnuts. I sit on the counter on the other side of our kitchen kicking my heels watching her fry them in deep frying oil three at a time, fishing them out of the oil with a stick stuck through the holes. My grandma was only 5 feet tall and coudn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds! She was a powerhouse!

    All for us.

    The most powerful incentive a woman has. But, pride in her work, the stamina to complete the most daunting tasks, and the native intelligence to do it well are the hallmarks of this whole generation both men and women!

  8. Though it’s nice to think that our ancestors derived a lot of satisfaction from their work, many of them also had to work long hours under poor and dangerous conditions. My grandparents all immigrated from Ireland in the 1880s, moving to Bridgeport, CT. Many of my aunts, uncles, and other relatives worked in the factories there in 1915, when there were a series of important strikes for the eight-hour day and other reforms, which eventually inspired a national movement for the eight-hour day. Onn this Labor Day of 2015, it’s interesting to think about their having a role in winning this important reform for American workers, one hundred years ago. An interesting summary of this history can be found here:

  9. Thank you for posting such a thoughtful, loving story of your grandfather’s life. I never knew my maternal grandfather, the son of Irish immigrants who owned 2 successful grocery stores in southern Illinois before he retired. His Irish charm prompted many people to name him as a write in candidate for city council although he was not elected he did not seek the nomination. Unfortunately he died when I was only 5 months old so I never got to hear his stories that so enchanted his 5 children and countless neighborhood children as well!
    My paternal grandfather grew up in Binghamton, NY, was a WW1 Navy veteran, a Cornell graduate who raised 3 children in an Oklahoma college town as a county dairy manager, later the owner of a paint & hardware store. He always grew his own vegetables, created his compost pile using storm window frames, was an elder in the local Presbyterian church for decades, bought his milk and dairy products from the college dairy, his brown eggs from a local woman, delivered meals for Meals on Wheels, drove elderly neighbors to doctor appointments (he was in his 80’s at the time). Oh, and he drove a 1965 Mustang hardtop, which he allowed me to drive when I started college in 1971. Quite a character, very fond memories.

  10. My Norwegian immigrant grandfather had his first formal job at 12, when he arrived in America and his family needed the income he could bring in by taking care of sheep on a neighboring farm. He never ate mutton after that! It was the end of his formal schooling, but he kept educating himself to the end of his 97 years. Among his many jobs were clerking in grain elevators throughout the Midwest; farming (among his least favorite, but he did manage to earn the homestead he and my grandmother settled on in South Dakota in 1907 immediately after their marriage); and many jobs in the lumber business. He worked on contract with the Canadian Pacific Railroad as they built the second, southern line going west. He would go in, open a lumber yard so there would be ties for building the railroad west, and lumber to build the town at the railhead. My mother was born in one of these tiny little frontier towns. When they reached the Pacific, and the family moved down to the Seattle area, he was hired by another lumber company as an assessor, to make sure the books were right. In that capacity, he even flew (as a passenger) in the Alaska bush in the 1930s and 1940s. By the time I remember him well, in the 1950s, he was retired, and his main job was taking care of my grandmother, who had a long series of strokes. He taught himself to cook, clean house, give her her medicines, take her to the doctors. Also very important to him was telling wonderful stories of his childhood to his thirteen grandchildren, and great grandchildren. I miss him a great deal.

    My father began working for money in the fifth grade, in his grandfather’s mercantile store during the summer, as did all his local cousins. I don’t remember his father, who died before I was born, but this grandfather of his worked hard into his own eighties, and I remember him well. My dad also worked on the family farm, and then in his parents’ Ma-and-Pa grocery store until his mother died and he and his father couldn’t keep it going with just the two of them. A couple years later, he found a job as summer replacement stock boy at a company that made heavy-duty trucks. Forty-two years later he retired from that company as director of international manufacturing. In between, he had more different jobs than I can possibly recount, among them inventory control manager, plant manager, purchasing agent, and efficiency expert, though probably not in that order. He’d come home from work, take a 10 minute nap, and at the dinner table everyone had to talk about the best parts of their day. No complaining allowed! Dad was an eternal optimist. He usually used his allotted time (that was the efficiency expert part of him) to talk about something that had happened at work. Two summers when I was in college, he got me jobs working in the same company, and it was clear that he was deeply loved and respected by his co-workers. He loved all of his jobs. I miss him too.

    1. Doris, I think I could happily read a book of stories about your family for the pure pleasure of it, and the detail with which you describe them and their lives!

  11. Very interesting story about your grandfather and all of his honest, hard work. It is so different today, unfortunately, with too many computerized jobs. The worth of the individual is no longer respected,workers are always replaceable. “Cheaper is better” is not necessarily true.

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