Sampson Shoe Factory
North Adams, while nowadays a hub of arts and culture in New England, has a much longer past as a factory town. One of the larger factories, a shoe factory run by Calvin T. Sampson, was the site of one of the most significant historical events in North Adams' history. Sampson was raised on a farm in Vermont, owning his own farm by 1850. In the same year, Sampson began selling shoes for his cousin, George Millard, who at the time ran a shoe business in North Adams. Using his earnings, Sampson began his own business in 1853 out of his shoe store on Main Street and started his first factory on Eagle Street in 1861. In 1869, Sampson made the last move of his factory onto Marshall Street. This location is opposite what was then the new Arnold Print Works, then Sprague Electric Company, and currently MASS MoCA.
Sampson’s shoe factory, and North Adams as a whole, was incredibly successful and provided a large number of jobs while producing large amounts of goods. Due to the factory being quite large, in both production and literal size, the work was taxing. Sampson employed many French-Canadian immigrants as well as immigrants from Ireland to keep work steady, helping make immigrants comprise nearly one third of North Adams’ population. Sampson’s factory operated smoothly and took part in the boom of automation in shoemaking and factory work, providing a cheap and productive method of employment and work that meant there was always a large supply of workers.
In 1867 the Knights of Saint Crispin, a union comprised of shoe factory workers, was formed, and quickly became what was potentially the largest union in the United States with almost 50,000 members by 1870. The Crispins were not happy with the low wages and increasing automation pushing them out of jobs and lobbied for higher pay and against ten-hour workdays. Sampson refused to meet the Crispins’ demands, and promptly fired all the employees he could certify were a part of the Knights of St. Crispin. Originally workers from a town over were brought in as scabs, but the union convinced those workers to leave. Sampson then sent his superintendent, George W. Chase, to California to bring back 75 Chinese immigrants to work in his factory in their place under a 3 year contract.
With the success of the scab workers, Sampson later employed 50 more Chinese immigrants at his factory without the threat of a strike. Sampson and his actions unfortunately started a nation-wide trend of bringing in scab labor in the face of strikes and helped perpetuate the concept of immigrants coming to the United States to steal jobs, which led to much hostility towards Chinese immigrants across the nation. Of the 125 Chinese workers who populated North Adams due to the shoe factory, once their contracts were up, many chose to leave North Adams, with only about 3-4 Chinese workers remaining.
Out of those remaining, the most famous is Lue Gim Gong, a young boy who left China at age 14 for San Francisco, and soon after moved to North Adams to work for Sampson’s company. Lue lived on his own before moving back to China around 1885 to rid himself of tuberculosis, but due to a family conflict over an arranged marriage, he returned to the U.S. and was adopted by Fannie Burlingame, who he befriended while first living in North Adams. Fannie owned an orange grove in Florida, and when she died it was left to Gim Gong, who learned horticulture in both China and the U.S. In 1909, Lue Gim Gong created a frost-resistant orange due to a weather disaster in 1904, earning him the nickname “The Citrus Wizard,” cementing his place in history and setting the foundation for the Florida orange industry.
Despite the scope of these events and individuals, the following years at the factory were relatively quiet. In 1878 the factory was changed into a corporation known as C.T. Sampson Manufacturing Company, with Sampson as the president and George W. Chase as the Treasurer. Sampson retired in 1891 leaving Chase as president, and a number of North Adams residents on the board in the following years. The building itself no longer exists as the C.T. Manufacturing Company’s property, but the history of the factory played an integral part in the formation of the North Adams we know today.