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Strike!

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

"Factory windows are always broken," wrote Vachel Lindsay, Illinois' vagabond poet, "someone's always throwing bricks." That line probably meant very little to the citizens of the small Illinois prairie town of Kewanee back in June of 1835. By October of that year, after every window in the Boss Factory had been broken, they understood.

Kewanee's Boss Manufacturing Company made workingman's gloves. It had provided generations of Poles, Belgians, Lithuanians, Germans, Irish, and Swedes with an opportunity to begin the American dream. Boss was the only large manufacturing industry in Kewanee. When it thrived, Kewanee thrived.

Then the Great Depression hit in 1930. Hours at the factory were reduced to as little as two a day, hardly enough to put meat on the table once a week. Kewanee awoke from its dream of Eden to the harsh realities of a class society divided into the haves and the have-nots.

By July there were rumors of a strike for better wages and for collective bargaining. The men and women at the leather cutting tables and sewing machines wondered how the management could pay starvation wages. The company was astounded that the immigrants they had hired, trained, and nurtured while they learned to speak English could turn against them. They had been like parents.

On August 5th, the strike neither side wanted, began, fanned by national union officials who had come to Kewanee. On October 9th, nine weeks into the strike, violence erupted. Rocks and bricks shattered factory windows and smashed machinery inside. Plate glass windows in town were broken as well. By October 14th every factory window had been broken. The State Militia was summoned. The governor of Illinois called for a general bargaining meeting. On October 16th, both sides agreed to end the strike. Neither side had gained a thing.

The next day everyone pitched in to replace the windows and repair the machines, and the Boss factory was soon busy making workingman's gloves again.

In weeks, it was as if the strike had been merely a hot August. Kewanee now knew that "factory windows are sometimes broken," but it seemed as if no one wanted to know why.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Community
Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.