In 1898, Merrimack Manufacturing Company in Lowell, MA, chose West Huntsville as the site for two new textile mills. By 1901, both mills and 296 homes had been constructed, forming Merrimack Mill Village. In its heyday, Merrimack Mills employed over 1600 people and produced over 9 million yards of cotton cloth each year.
Charlie Foster was one of many children who worked in Merrimack Mills. When the adult workers took their twice daily coffee breaks, the children who had jobs in the mill played marbles. According to a 1914 edition of “The Merrimacker,” a newspaper circulated through the mill village, Charlie won the marble shooting contest for the second consecutive year. Charlie started working in the mill in 1910, when he was 10 years old and worked there until 1919, when his family moved to Limestone County.
From 1905 until 1938. Investigative photo-journalist Lewis Hine travelled to mills and industrial plants in the north east and south, documenting the difficult working conditions, with a particular emphasis on the use of children as laborers. When he visited Huntsville in 1910, Hine photographed Charlie Foster as he was leaving his shift at the mill. Hine featured Charlie’s picture, along with dozens of others, in a presentation to Congress that eventually led to the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the abolishment of child labor.
In 1998, after 100 years of continuous operation, Merrimack Manufacturing (aka Huntsville Manufacturing) closed its doors. Merrimack Hall, a building that was once the center of activity and social life in the village, was renovated in 2007 and offered to the community as a performing arts center dedicated to offering visual and performing arts education to children and adults with special needs and includes a 300 seat theatre. As all great theatres should, Merrimack Hall has a ghost – one who is playful and mischievous. The founders named the theater’s ghost Charlie Foster because the inexplicable antics seem like pranks that Charlie would have enjoyed playing.