Interview with Anne Spisak
Broome County Oral History Project
Interview with: Anne Spisak
Interviewed by: Nettie Polityo
Date of interview: 29 December 1977
Nettie: This is Nettie Politylo talking to Anne Spisak of 43 Bernice St., Johnson City on Dec. 29, 1977. I understand you worked in a cigar factory here in Binghamton some years ago. We are especially interested in this industry because we don’t know much about it. Why don’t we start with the time you started work there—just tell me—how you got the job, what you did, what other people did to prepare the tobacco and make the cigars and just everything you remember about the operation of the factory. OK Anne—
Anne: I started working I think about 1929, I think I was around fifteen and I went to the General Cigar Factory—they asked our age, I told them I was eighteen which I was only fifteen. Whether I was supposed to lie or not but I don't know but I did. Then they gave me a job which was examiner. I liked the job. There was four people on the machine to work—one was a feeder, one was a binder and a wrapper and I was an examiner. I had to feel the cigars for their size, for their weight and the cigar. I had a box and there was 500 cigars in a box. I don't know what we got paid by the box but our average pay for the week was $12, so I think that it would be about 30 cents an hour. As for as I would figure it now. And I enjoyed it, I had a nice boss named Mr. Lawrence and once in a while he had his brother which his name was Lorenzo which I couldn't figure that out because they were both brothers. One of them bought a restaurant on Front St., a spaghetti place. The cigar factory, I think closed down for what reason I don' t know.
Nettie: Excuse me, Anne, do you have any idea when that closed down?
Anne: I don't know, it wasn't too long after.
Nettie: Before you tell me about the closing, how about telling me about the operation what you were actually doing?
Anne: I had to feel the cigars, it was on a big machine, feel the cigar for size and I had to put them in the box and if they didn’t match just right you had to take them out and patch them up—if there was a little defect in the tobacco you had to patch them up with little glue, we had our glue to put on, and the machine would operate like a conveyor and had to go to a place fast. If I thought I was a little behind, then I would put them in a big bin then I would take my time and when I had recess or noon, I would patch them up again. And if the big bosses came around they would put their hand in and stop the operation—fill those out, patch them up and start working again. The girls on the machine would help us because we could not operate any further until everything was done. And the big bosses were from Pennsylvania, one of the boss's name was Mr. Joseph, a big fat man with a big cigar in his mouth, is all I can remember. They were pleasant, no one was ever harsh. Then when they came around I had age on my mind all the time because I was afraid they were going to throw me out and I did want work and because I had to work. I figure I had to at that time. We didn't have any coffee breaks as far as I can remember.
Nettie: You never had any coffee breaks?
Anne: Not that I remember.
Nettie: You just kept on working?
Anne: Just kept right on working ’til noon, as far as I remember. The windows had to be closed in the place on account of the tobacco drying up.
Nettie: For the humidity?
Nettie: What kind of people worked there—what nationalities?
Anne: I think it was all kinds, mostly women. The men had the machine jobs or like repair men.
Nettie: Did you have any familiarity with the machine jobs? Any jobs?
Anne: The first one was a feeder—where they put in a big long tobacco into the machine that would feed it. And the other operation was a wrapper—was a machine that you would wrap it, you know, and the cigar would roll. And the third one—was the top of the process already of the cigar and I already had the finished product.
Nettie: How did they pay you—by the hour or by the week?
Anne: I think they paid us by the 500 can—cigars—500 cigars. You had to make 500 cigars in the can—to put in a can… You were paid by that—every 500—so it ran about 30¢ hour by the pay I got, so I got $12 a week. That was big money at that time.
Nettie: How did you commute back and forth from Endicott?
Anne: Street car. I don't know whether it was a nickel or dime for the street car, from Endicott to Binghamton. Once I got off on the Binghamton line and it was an extra and I didn't have the money. I started crying. Then finally a man gave me the dime. Never been without a dime.
Anne: I didn't realize I had to pay the extra after the arch—in Binghamton.
Nettie: Certain Zoning.
Anne: I didn't realize it was Binghamton—I never traveled before, we never had cars, nobody had a car, so I was never in Binghamton, so I didn't know it was a Binghamton line.
Nettie: The men were on the machines and the ladies did the other things?
Anne: Right—and the lady bosses—
Nettie: What were their names?
Anne: All I could remember was Celia Shawn and then she married a Barnes. I don't know if she is living or not.
Nettie: Many of these people have passed away?
Anne: Right—but all I know was her name was Shawn, she married a Barnes and lived in Endwell. I saw her a few times, I liked her.
Nettie: Did they make anything else besides cigars—like chewing tobacco, snuff?
Anne: They must’ve. I don't remember because I was on the machine floor. I don't know the bottom floor—I don't know—so I even asked this man today, "Did they pack them in boxes?" He said, "Yeah.”
Nettie: Cigars? Yeah.
Anne: I didn't even know that—you know you don't pay attention too much when you are working—you were only doing your operation. I don't know what was going on the other section.
Nettie: You were only working—doing your job?
Nettie: Did they ever have a union?
Anne: No, no not that I know of.
Nettie: Did they ever strike for more money?
Anne: No, we didn't know what a strike was—everybody wanted a job.
Nettie: What brands did they make?
Anne: William Penn and White Owl—those two I remember.
Nettie: Those are familiar. Did they make expensive brands?
Anne: No, not that I know of.
Nettie: Well, the conditions in the factory—was it smelly, was it dusty from the tobacco?
Anne: Well it smells, but I didn't mind it.
Nettie: That smell didn't bother you—so many of the ladies, it did bother them.
Anne: It didn't bother me at all and I enjoyed working there.
Nettie: I guess they had to have the windows closed—
Anne: Yes, because of the tobacco—it would dry the tobacco, more.
Nettie: How about the facilities for women—did they have couches for women if they became ill in bathrooms?
Anne: No—I don’t remember—
Nettie: Everything was crude—wasn't it?
Anne: No, I don't remember at all , I don't remember.
Nettie: Did they have more than one shift?
Anne: No I don't remember anything about that, that I don’t remember. And we had to wear aprons, green aprons.
Nettie: Were they given to you?
Anne: No, we had to buy them—green wraparound with a pocket—you had to wear a dress and apron or just the apron. Some girls just wore the apron.
Nettie: That was the standard gear at the time?
Anne: Green aprons, yes.
Nettie: Did anyone ever snitch some cigars in their pocket?
Anne: Yes, I suppose some did but I never did—I took it if it were a big one—one they didn’t—one out of the ordinary or a little one sometime but that was like a joke—my father smoked cigars but I wouldn't bring them home, he wouldn't want that because that was stealing.
Nettie: Did you say you had to pack them together—was that a mold?
Anne: No, the machine is—ok—the conveyor ‘til about here the big machine—that lady would have tobacco this long—tobacco comes this long—when it's dry.
Nettie: Wasn’t there some sort of center that had to be taken out?
Anne: There was a vein, yeah, it is was too hard, I think, out.
Nettie: Who took that out?
Anne: It must’ve been on the feeding machine because the feeding starts the process.
Nettie: They put that tobacco and then they take the vein out in that feeding machine.
Anne: I think if it was rough—it would do it itself—I think the machine would do it itself. Then the next process would go—it was big as this—it would have a layer of wrapper already, the tobacco would come from there and go to another process.
Nettie: Didn’t you have to do this by hand?
Anne: No, by machine, no this was all by machine.
Nettie: After this was cut, and the wrapper was on the bottom—tobacco sort of skimmed on top of that.
Anne: The next process already was a smaller one—this was another layer and then that process would come to this one—and it would roll it automatically and I would get the full cigar.
Nettie: How about the wrapper? It’s on the bottom and it would skim to this other machine. What was the third machine?
Anne: She would have to put like a layer—like to make kolachki layer—and then that would wrap around the machine just automatically would roll it. And then through the next process—the cigar would come out a cigar already—and sometimes they were soft or hard—
Nettie: —you had to feel them if they were soft or hard—
Anne: Then we had this little hole—if you didn't think they were just right you put them through the hole and if it didn't go through the hole you knew it was a reject. Then you had to throw it back to have the right size—because you know if you buy a box you want them to be the right size because you didn't want them to be bigger or smaller—and sometimes if the patches—if sometimes there was a hole on it, the tobacco was not right size—you would put it on that machine and you'd see a hole—see in there—and she would give me a cigar anyway—again—I would have it all—already rolled up then I would see a hole in it and I would take a little tobacco that was a reject and put it on top of reject with glue, and make it look like not a reject and we patch them up. The girls would put it in their mouths, which I never did.
Nettie: Why did they put it in their mouth?
Anne: They pasted them that way—I don't know how they did it but they pasted them—putting them in their mouth.
Nettie: I should think if they had the paste they would paste them with their fingers.
Anne: Right. No, they put it in their mouth.
Nettie: Do you think they wanted to taste the tobacco?
Anne: Maybe. I had the glue just like the white glue, patch it up, cut a piece a little bit and patch so it would be even with the cigar, because cigar is rolled. Then you see that cigar has a big vein that has to go—should have a smooth cigar, you take a little bit of tobacco, cut it up to patch the reject, the way the vein goes—can't go against the grain.
Nettie: That was interesting. Now after you got the cigar you felt it, after you had to patch it or not, it was hard, it was a good cigar, but if spongy it was a reject—then after a reject you return it to the girl—
Anne: —return it to the grinder and it goes all over—she will have to correct it. Then we have a big can—
Nettie: Now when you had it wrapped—when do you see the hole—through paper wrapper?
Anne: No, it was tobacco.
Nettie: Wait, do you know what I am thinking of—paper wrapper?
Anne: No, tobacco. Then—
Nettie: Then they put the bands on.
Anne: I don't know what they did. Then I put them in these cans of 500—top of can was open—had sides, back and bottom—you put the cigar in there—there was 500—how we were paid and then the boy come and took the cigars out and then started again. First job—you call it a feeder—long tobacco put into the machine and then it takes the vein of tobacco and chops it off. No. 2—called binder—binds already tobacco for them.
Nettie: What is rollers?
Anne: That—must be another department—downstairs. No. 3 - wrapper for cigars top of tobacco—I got the finished product.
Nettie: In other words yours are machine made.
Anne: Yes, they are all machine made.
Nettie: Maybe those that were hand made were the expensive ones.
Anne: They used to make the hand made on Water St.—someplace, someplace.
Nettie: Now at your place they were machine made? I thought they were all hand made.
Anne: No, I'd go back—if that was there I'd go back there—I loved that job—that’s the only job I liked. EJ—was one piece work—everybody was always fighting for lousy coupons—I was in EJ too, about a year.
Nettie: How long did you work there?
Anne: I worked there 2 years. You did the same job over and over.
Nettie: When did you go to EJ?
Anne: I don't know when I went to EJ before or after—I know I didn't work when I got married. I first had a job in EJ and then I went there—I don't know—
Nettie: Did they pay better at EJ?
Anne: No, I did not like EJ—I liked cigar factory better. I think I liked the work better because I didn't like working on a machine.
Nettie: After you left here, you got married?
Nettie: What did you do after you got married—stay home?
Anne: Got a job in EJ again.
Nettie: Went back to EJ again.
Anne: Good ol’ EJ and polished shoes.
Nettie: Where did you work in EJ?
Anne: That was in Endicott.
Nettie: Where was that located?
Anne: North St.—Fine Welt on 3rd floor with all men—5 women—I polished shoes—how lucky you were.
Nettie: You polished shoes—were they ladies’ shoes or men's shoes?
Anne: Men's shoes. Harry Spry was my boss—I liked that but after I was laid off.
Nettie: How about telling about your family?
Anne: Yes, first he worked as a bed laster then he worked in the tannery—Calfskin Tannery—where he ended up.
Nettie: I think they paid more.
Anne: He liked working there—he worked nights—he did his work days and go to church. Yes, he was a religious man—
Nettie: What church did he attend?
Anne: He attended the church on Hill Ave. Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox—that's where I was baptized.
Nettie: Did you say you had a brother who was a priest?
Anne: Yes, he went up study to Paris, France—to study to be a Russian priest—Russian Orthodox religion—as they were no seminaries at that time here.
Nettie: Where is his parish located?
Anne: Lakewood, Ohio.
Nettie: Was he now—very rev—
Nettie: In your immediate family—how many children do you have?
Anne: Nine children—5 brothers and 4 sisters.
Nettie: Are they all living?
Anne: One brother is not, George.
Nettie: After you married—how many children did you have?
Anne: 3 girls.
Nettie: You are a grandma? Ann, could you tell me anything else about the work—or something comical that you can recollect?
Anne: All I know we had no streetlights. We had to walk in the dark—we had to walk to work 2 miles to get a street car—we had no boots, no scarf.
Nettie: Did you ever catch a cold, not having boots?
Anne: No, never had a cold. The furnace went out at 4 o'clock—we got up and got dressed in the cold. We never knew what luxury was so we took things as they came along, we enjoyed everything, we had a happy home life.
Nettie: Happy home life and nice parents—
Anne: Right—we always got along. My father used to always say, “I'm wealthy because I got a good family and good health.”
Nettie: I think it is very true. If you have money and no health—that's not good.
Anne: He always made the sign of the cross before he left the house.
Nettie: People from that generation were very religious.
Anne: When he was dying he tried to get oxygen, he tried to bless himself, we didn’t know what he was doing but he was taking oxygen off and he was blessing himself.
Nettie: And he was always good to everyone—everybody liked him.
Anne: I remember him some—I can 't remember him too much.
Nettie: Anne, your husband ran a bakery, tell me about it.
Anne: We bought the bakery, it used to be Perl Bakery and we took it over—North Side of Endicott (Squires Ave.) and we built up and got all the Grand Union Stores—the bakery was run down at that time when we got it we built it up. My husband had to go to work to the bakery and stay inside. If the baker did not show up he had to stay inside and bake the bread, rolls and everything was going all over, he had to go help—he had 2 or 3 hours sleep a lot of times. It was pretty tough starting until we got situated but it was hard during the Depression because we couldn't buy anything. It was hard but we still got going. It was hard to get bakers and supplies—but we managed and then after—I worked—
Nettie: You worked in the bakery?
Anne: I iced the cakes—120 cakes a day I iced—I like the back work we got along pretty good until—after a while we [caught] some of them stealing and taking stuff which then after couldn't take any more of the business. I told him, "Let's just give up." And a lady gave me a hard time with a cake and she said, “I don't like the roses, I want them pinkish.” I got so nervous, went in the house and locked the bakery. And my husband came home and asked, "What happened to the bakery?" “Locked it,” because she gave me a hard time—she made me cry—she gave me a hard time so I quit. And I said, "I want to sell it, let's get out of here." And he said, "Don’t let that bother you.” And that's one thing I couldn't take if I saw someone was giving me hard time, and when I saw them stealing—I couldn't take it anymore. I said it's not for us—"Let's get out of here." My husband wasn't feeling too good already. ”I rather have you than the bakery.” So then we sold it to Roma's—now they got it. Even our bakers didn't know we sold it.
Nettie: Fast job.
Anne: They were all surprised.
Nettie: Well they probably all liked working for you.
Anne: So, Billie Shelepak worked there—still works there with Roma—he started with Perl and he is still there.
Nettie: He is an accomplished baker.
Anne: I guess so—he likes the bakery business.
Nettie: Did you do any of the baking?
Anne: No, my husband was a salesman, not a baker. He used to go on the truck and deliver—come in and help out when a baker did not show up—never gave a notice—just don't come in.
Nettie: Did he know how to make bread?
Anne: They had to show him and he would do it and I would do etc., bookwork—and whatever the salesman came in—I would either order or tell them George came home. But I saw George was going downhill fast and I couldn't·see it.
Nettie: You mean he wasn't feeling good?
Anne: No, he was run down and I couldn't see him doing it—
Nettie: It doesn't pay to have a business and money when your health is more important to you.
Anne: So, then he got a job with IBM—where he was better off—better off.
Nettie: What did he do in IBM?
Anne: He was putting in the transistors. He started as a maintenance man first and then they put him on transistors.
Nettie: Like an assembly line job?
Anne: He liked it—retired from there.
Nettie: Better he left the bakery—right? It was a pressure job—wasn't it?
Anne: Right—more of a pressure job. He was 43 when they took him in at IBM—lucky to get in at that age as nowadays it is hard to get in at that age. He didn't know anything—he told them but was willing to learn.
Nettie: That's what they want—a person willing to learn—
Anne: Then when he did get the job—he was rejected for high blood pressure. So he waited a year—finally got in—I always believe—if you wait and you want something real bad—the time will come you will achieve it.
Nettie: That's your philosophy.
Anne: I believe in it strongly—yeah—because we were going into Scranton one Sunday morning—when Vincent Peale was on—he said, “Just believe in something strongly and it will happen to you.” And a year later it did.
Nettie: I think Vincent Peale—he stresses positive—
Anne: Right—and I strongly believe in that—and believe and hope and things will work out.
Nettie: Anne, did you have any more recollections? You have a lot of experiences.
Anne: I just can't think—my husband had a lot of experiences on the bakery truck.
Nettie: Like what?
Anne: He delivered bread when he worked at West Side Bakery or Schwab’s—they
had the best bread in town.
Nettie: They had the best bread—
Anne: He used to deliver bread to Mrs. Rosefsky—her son is the best pediatrician today and he worked his way through selling ice cream.
Nettie: Who is this Dr. Rosefsky?
Anne: Every time my grandchild goes to him today—he always asks about their grandfather. When my granddaughter was ten she had spinal meningitis—we did not know whether she would live or die—it was either death or crippling—but thank God she pulled out and Dr. Rosefsky came to·Perkins—and Dr. Rosefsky told us there that your granddaughter will be ok. That was the best news we ever heard in a long time.
Nettie: That was a miracle.
Anne: My son in law was sick seven years ago—he had aneurysm—Thank God he is ok—which they didn't give him a chance.
Nettie: Very few people pull out of it.
Anne: So I strongly believe in something that if you believe in and hope—
Nettie: When you have faith—
Anne: Yes, you will come of it strong which way it turns. You just have to have faith—that is the only way it gets anyone going.
Nettie: I believe that too—
Anne: And a man came over about 10 years after we sold the bakery and said, “I have something to tell you.” He came over and I thought maybe our books were wrong—but he said, “I have a new faith and I have to pay my debt in this world.” He said, “I took stuff from your bakery. I wasn't even a worker—I sold it in the tannery,” and he said, “Whatever I owe you—please name your price.” I said to him, “Light a candle—and that is all you owe and God Bless you and God will see the the way.”
Nettie: Isn't that amazing.
Anne: To me I think has been that way—because when you have that faith—I think HE will help you materially health wise, not money wise. And I think in a long run you are doing something doesn’t show there—but it shows in that person that you gave it to and I strongly believe in that.
Nettie: That is amazing.
Anne: That is something I'm telling you. After all these years—we had so many close shaves and every time I think, I thank God—that light is still burning for us.
Nettie: I think God gives us strength, doesn't he?
Anne: When I see what my son in law went through, what my grandchildren went through so this is the way I see life and when my time comes I think I’ll be ready because when he wants us we have to be ready and if HE puts you to a test, because a lot of these things that we have to go through.
Nettie: I think it is really a test—don't you think?
Anne: Right—it is mostly a test because my husband had so many close shaves down the hill the brakes failed—coming with that truck and he went through Susquehanna, PA, and his brakes failed and if there was anybody in the way it would have killed a lot of people—but lucky no one was there—
Nettie: Thank GOD he was OK.
Anne: So, a a window fell once on Harry L. Drive, fell off the 2nd floor and it skimmed him by a half inch—he would have killed him right away.
Nettie: So when you see and go through these things—
Anne: You know someone upstairs is watching over you and you are so close and yet you are going on. I don’t know—
Nettie: Gee Ann, you have quite a few things—I know you could squeeze a few more recollections as I know you have a lot to tell me but can't think of them, at that time.
Anne: These are all true facts that happened—how quickly things can happen, that's why I pray. I pray every day that God’s will—that what happens you have to be happy and if you live that way—try to reason—you’ll think of that before you do something.
Nettie: Anne, do you remember any incidents when you were young—had gone to school—Russian school, etc.?
Anne: When I got my job in EJ I was scared—we were all there in the room—I think about 15 girls or so—all afraid—one day one of the girls said, “Why don’t you go in? Why don't you go in?” Finally I said—my heart is pounding—I said OK—”It’s me, ok, I’m going in.” I had everything I was going to say. So I came in there and Mr. Powell was there—he still lives at Ackley Ave. (I was talking fast) I said to Mr. Powell, "We have 9 children in the family, my father works in the tannery, he cannot afford to feed us so I have to get a job so I don’t know what I am going to do. Mr. Powell said, “You got the job.” So I went to EJ—I went on a stitching machine—I looked on the machine and 5 minutes later—I said, “I'm going home.”
Nettie: Oh come on—you could do that.
Anne: Well, I did it, I cut a couple of coupons off—the ladies helped me—they were very nice—they gave me the fancy stitch—where I stitched two pieces together to make a shoe. Well, when you saw two pieces together one side is going to be longer—I didn't know the difference—I just cut the bottom off—I couldn’t imagine what the next operation was—I wasn't working there too long—they didn't want to tell me but that was the reason they let me go. Then I worked in another place and I had to make belts—I had to turn the belt inside out, you know what you were going to have—I poked the hole on the other end—I didn't know about what to do there—so then I didn’t stay too long there—I quit. Them kind of jobs were not for me—they
were piecework—and I said, “if I get a job of piecework it's going to be on my own work—what I want do on my own. Finally I got the job at the tag department. I had to do proofreading—I liked it—no pressure—that's where I enjoyed it—that's where I quit from. At my age I think I had it—but EJ was all right—I liked it at the end. And when I was coming home I was crying—as I really enjoyed working there.
Nettie: After being at home all these years—raising the children—and get a work outside you enjoy it—figure you fulfilled your job at home and now you are going—
Anne: My husband wanted to quit because he wanted to go to Florida with him so I told him I’d do anything he wanted to—so I quit. And I cried all the way, missed the girls—and left everybody I liked.
Nettie: This was when your husband retired and you retired.
Anne: After a month we went to the cafeteria in IBM, the man—asked if you like retirement—no—and he went back to work on his old job and after three months—he said, “No—I'm going to retire.” Nobody ever got that because he got the first check—he was jealous of the job of garbage man because he always worked—he was hardworking—he couldn’t see sitting home when I was working. So I have to quit—because I don’t know what would happen—so he told me to quit—now we both retired and living the life of riley and enjoy everything and everyday cause you don’t know when the last day will be.
Nettie: Well, Anne, this was interesting—and thank you very much.