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Close-Knit

Elementary Teacher at Perry Knitting Co. Open House

Mrs. Charles Torrey, a first-grade teacher at Perry Elementary school, visits the knitting mills in 1954

What do you think about when you hear social news of the week? A concert, a celebrity collaborating with a brand, maybe some well-known politician attending a Fashion Week fundraiser? At least for a large city like New York that would be expected. Here in Perry, “Social News of the Week” included nine ministers and their wives touring the Perry Knitting Company! That event was notable news in the Herald and was also listed a second time under the “Church Notices” section of the newspaper (“Ministers”). The mill must have been a big deal to the town, not just a place to work. A decade earlier, classes were canceled at Perry Schools so that teachers like Mrs. Charles Torrey could tour the village’s factories on Industry-Business-Education Day. The event was organized by the Education Committee of the Perry Kiwanis Club, followed by a dinner that evening at the Masonic Temple. Threads like these between the mill and other social institutions made me realize how close-knit Perry was.

Most of these threads are invisible now, all of the friendships made inside of the PK that carried on after work; instead we have many little pieces that leave us with questions and speculations. In 1907 the Perry High School basketball team played a game against a team from the Perry Knitting Co. It was the warm-up for a game between the Perry team and one from Hornell. That’s at least three different teams in Perry! How did they know each other? When they played at “The Rink”—a large roller skating hall and community space on Bordon Avenue—who were the spectators? Is it strange that a factory and a high school basketball team would compete? Unless the factory workers were about the same age as the high school players? And where did they practice before their games?

Grand Opening of the Perry Bowling Center

Grand Opening of the Perry Bowling Center, 1940

P.K. Bowling Team

Melanie "Mel" Lynch, Eileen MacQuarrie, Betty Dunning, Marjorie "Marge" Ostrum, Inez Brant, and Ruth "Ruthie" Palmer are the team representing the PK at 1961's NY State Championship Tournament.

Each little window into the past shows connections between the PK and the Perry community. At the Dom Polski (Polish House) on Water St., Polish American workers held social events and organized labor unions. Brass orkiestras from the Polish church, St. Stanislaus, marched in parades and performed at public events. During the Great Depression, a PK superintendant named Edward H. Gorton directed the Red Cross campaign at the mill, which totaled more than half of all contributions in Perry. Employees must have served on many other civic organizations, and been active in all of Perry’s churches. For a few years, there was even a daily radio show called "Life Begins With a Song" that was broadcast from a studio within the factory!

But what seems to come up the most often is bowling. In 1909 A.D. Campbell, Manager of the Robeson Cutlery Bowling Team, published an item in the Perry Semi-Weekly Herald: “We hereby challenge any five or ten man team employed in the Perry Knitting Mill, to bowl a series of ten pins” (“Bowling Challenge”). Many employees participated in one of the town’s bowling leagues, and the Perry Knitting Company News often reported on their results. The best bowlers at the PK formed a sort of all-start team that traveled to state championships. In 1940, the Perry Rotary Club purchased the old Ford Garage on Covington Street and converted it into the Perry Bowling Center so as “to make the hall the recreational center of Perry youth, giving them clean and wholesome atmosphere under capable supervision.” This was where the Perry Knitting League met and socialized with other bowling teams. For sociologist Robert D. Putnam, bowling leagues weren’t just recreation but an important symbol of civic connection. As more and more Amercans go “bowling alone” and not in organized leagues, they lose “the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo” (69). He writes that “networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration, which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration....[D]ense networks of interaction probably broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the “I” into the “we” (67).

It is quite easy to make assumptions about a town when you are looking from the outside in; the best way to find out more information on a town is by observing and speaking to actual residents. Sandy Schneible grew up in the town of Perry, moved away and then returned to the area, and now is a board member of its Main Street Association. She knows the middle names of other people, the names of their dogs. She told me that the Rotary Club still continues to meet every Thursday where the majority of the town comes to participate. When you are from a big city like New York, like I am, you get used to people moving—even if it is to a different borough. The chances of moving away and coming back to the same neighborhood are extremely slim. Sometimes even the owners of the stores around the neighborhood change! I learned a lot about the social fabric of small towns through the Perry Knitting Co.

Special thanks to Sandy Schneible for speaking with me about the town of Perry.

Works Consulted

-- “$900 Contributed Red Cross Fund as Drive Closes.” 20 Nov. 1935: 1. Web link here.

-- “Basket Ball.” Perry Herald and News 14 Mar. 1907: 1. Web link here.

-- "Bowling Challenge." Perry Semi-Weekly Herald and News 16 Mar. 1909: 1. Web link here.

-- “Dom Polski, Perry, NY.” James L. Ławicki II / Andrzej D. Gołębiowski. Polonia Trail. Web link here.

-- “Local Broadcast to Go on WKBW.” Perry Herald 29 Jan. 1948: 1. Web link here.

-- Putnam, Robert D. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Journal of Democracy 6.1 (Jan. 1995): 65-78. Accessed via Project Muse. Web link here.

-- “Ministers and Wives Dine.” Perry Herald 14 Feb. 1963: 4. Web link here.

-- “Teachers Tour Local Industry.” Perry Herald 19 Nov. 1959: 1. Web link here.