When Lawrence Young came to work at the Winchester Rifle Factory in 1942, he chiseled gun parts by hand and worked without a union.
Young returned seven decades later to trade stories with other gun-factory survivors at a new exhibition recounting the evolution of the legendary plant.
That exhibition, Our Community at Winchester: An Elm City Story, drew a crowd of of nearly 100 mainly former employees and their families to the art gallery at its opening at Gateway Community College. It recounts Winchester’s history, including the formation of the International Association of Machinists Local 609 union, the strikes, the art and the music in the workplace, and the impact the factory has had on Newhallville and New Haven.
The show runs through March 21. It was put together by the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, the culmination of eight years of work.
In Winchester exhibit, the chisels, vices, hammers, and other tools that workers used to fashion the stocks and other wooden parts of firearms give their quiet testimony in a vitrine in the middle of a room otherwise filled up with movable panels carrying reproductions of photographs of life in the plant.
These are augmented by documents, newsletters, newspaper accounts, memorabilia, and oral histories assembled from International Association of Machinists Local 609 records and interviews conducted by Greater New Haven Labor History Association. (Click here and here for stories on workers’ efforts to save the plant and its ultimate closing in 2006.)
Wednesday’s reception drew many workers from that time and a handful of hearty survivors from generations, such as 90-year-old Young, a trained craftsman from Arkansas who worked at Winchester from 1942 to 1985. They swapped stories and shared recollections in an event that had all the hugs and sight-for-sore-eyes warmth of a class or even family reunion.
As she looked at Young’s tools on display, B.J. Butler reminisced about her 35 years at Winchester: “I started in ammunition, making shells. That involved punching,” meaning punch-making machinery that made a huge racket.
“They tell you you don’t go to sleep there, but that’s the biggest lie,” said Butler (pictured).
Her next assignment was in sub-assembly, then woodshop. (She recognized all of Young’s tools.) She finished her career in “set up process inspection.” That meant when raw materials came in, she checked that they lined up precisely with what was ordered and needed.
Turning a corner in the exhibition, Butler saw a photograph of some of the recreational activities and declared to her daughter who was accompanying her, “We used to love those picnics.”
Former Local 609 President Craig Gauthier (pictured) recalled the jazz group called the Winchester Specials and how a stage was set up at the corner of Winchester and Munson periodically for employees to perform, recite poetry, or dance. Often a band played inside as workers sat on bleachers in the warm weather and ate their lunch, he recalled.
“It made you feel good there was arts in the workplace. It made us realize the workers going in and out of the doors were creative people, not only machine operators. [Local] 609 at Winchester was such an important part of the Newhallville community,” he said.
“Shred the Files” Moment
In 1976 Marcia Biederman was an energetic freelance journalist with the weekly New Haven Advocate in its muckraking heyday. From her temporary job in Winchester’s administrative offices, Biederman had an inside look at how Winchester was illegally selling arms to apartheid South Africa.
She wrote a story that, when picked up by other media, led to prosecution and fining of the company. She recalled many moments when the authorities were on their way to the offices and word would come down: “Shred the files,” she recalled.
“I walked the line with you in 1979,” she said, reminding her interlocutors of the chant she joined in on: “Hey, hey what do you say, 609 is hear to stay!”
Local 609 didn’t stay. But it has lived on, thanks to this exhibition.