The year 1928 was the last really good year for the shoe industry in Derry. In that year Derry had a population of about 5,000 with 3,000 working in the shoe factory. The next year brought the start of the Great Depression. Soon most of these factories were closed and Derry had a 30-percent unemployment rate.
The Progressive Shoe Company came to Derry right after World War I and occupied a factory at the corner of Elm and Maple Street. It employed about 50 employees to manufacture the McKay brand of women's shoes. The workers earned about $1,200 a year for a six-day, 48-hour work week. The factory was cold in the winter and stifling hot in the summer. In those pre-World War II days, few locals finished high school and there was no such thing as Social Security or retirement plans. This resulted in a labor force that ranged from the very young to the very old. You started to work as soon as you could and you kept on working as long as you could.
Starting in 1925, the Progressive Shoe Company began giving its workers a Saturday off with pay. Each year the company would take the workers and their family to a local beach such as Salem's Canobie Lake Park or to Pine Island Park in Manchester. On Saturday, Aug. 28, 1928, the destination was the piney woods of Baboosic Lake in Amherst, N.H., for its swimming beach, picnic ground and pavilion.
Rain had poured down on Derry the night before but the skies had cleared in the morning. At 8 a.m., the Progressive Shoe Company staged a parade through town. Decorated vehicles representing the stitching, lasting, and making departments won the first, second and third prizes for the best floats in the parade. They were followed by marching units from the cutting, packing and stitching rooms; each participant was dressed completely in white and each lady carried a "Japanese parasol." The parade snaked from Maple Street, down Broadway and at Park Avenue began a "countermarch" back to the factory. Silver loving cups were given for the best float and marching unit.
At the shoe factory, the revelers boarded buses and automobiles for their field day. By 10 a.m., everybody was at Baboosic Lake Park. Here they were greeted by Abraham Cohen, the owner of company, who came from the Boston headquarters just for the occasion. Soon the games began! There were separate heats for the men women, boys and girls. Try to imagine all field events taking place with all the men wearing dress shirts with neck ties and the women and girls in knee-length dresses.
Among the events were: 50-yard dash, three-legged races, fat man's and fat women's races, potato race and an interdepartmental tug of war. For the less athletic there was a bowling alley. In the lake they had canoe, boat and swimming races. There was also something called a "duck race." I do not know what it was but a witness said that it was won "after one of the most thrilling and amusing series of adventures ... and the win came only after the duck had become tired of dogging, diving, etc. to escape his pursuers."
At noon, there were hot dogs, hamburgers, bowls of potato salad, fruit and sauerkraut. That was followed by dozens of pies and cakes which were washed down with lemonade and coffee. Cigars were available afterwards for the men.
In the afternoon, an orchestra played popular music with prizes given to dancing couples for their best efforts at waltz, Charleston and fox trot. Most of the crowd likely used the free time to swim or nap in a hammock. At dusk, the shoe workers and their families boarded their transports back to Derry. It would likely be another year before they had another Saturday off from work.
• • •
Rick Holmes is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack's Apples. The Derry Museum of History has several panoramic photographs of outings by the Progressive Shoe Company.