Official website of novelist Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of The-Two Family House
The Wartime Sisters: Author’s Note
The history of the Springfield Armory is a particularly intriguing one. It began as an arsenal, a storage place for weapons arriving from France during the American Revolution. After the war, in 1794, President George Washington endorsed a new arms factory in Springfield. The arsenal became an armory, and manufacturing began. In the early 1840s, one hundred years before my novel begins, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow visited Springfield during his honeymoon, where the racks of finished muskets inspired him to write his poem “The Arsenal at Springfield.”
Although I grew up within ten miles of the armory, it took me 48 years to visit what now remains of its campus. In the spring of 2016, while researching the city of Springfield for my second novel, I came across the armory’s ‘Forge of Innovation’ website and was immediately drawn in by the articles about the women who had worked on the assembly lines as “soldiers of production” during World War II. Clicking through the site, I found recordings of interviews with former employees and armory residents. Once I heard their voices, I could not tear myself away.
Women were first employed in manufacturing at the armory during World War I, but after the war, most lost their jobs. During World War II, the armory again turned to women to overcome the labor shortage. By June of 1943, somewhere between 11,300-11,800 people worked at the armory, and of that number, 43% were women.
I spent dozens of hours listening to their stories and reading about them: the struggling mother who’d been desperate for a job; the young woman who had taken photographs for the armory’s monthly newsletter; the machine operator who had lost the tip of her finger in an accident. I listened to the recollections of a woman who had been the wife of a former commanding officer, and I read about an opera singer who had volunteered as a cook in the armory cafeteria.
The common thread in every interview was the sense of community the armory provided. Those who had been workers there spoke of armory bowling leagues and archery lessons, of midnight dances and post-shift tennis games. Those who had lived there reminisced about the mid-day concerts and the flower-filled greenhouses. None of it sounded like an “armory” to me. Further research revealed that the armory wasn’t just a single manufacturing building, as I had always assumed, but rather a park-like campus filled with trees and gardens. It was lined with elegant homes where officers lived, tennis courts and even a small swimming pool. It boasted not just a single factory, but facilities for research, storage and distribution. In fact, there were so many buildings, they were given numbers instead of names.
I reached out to Alex MacKenzie, the Curator of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, to arrange for a visit in July of 2016. Alex spent an entire day answering my questions and giving me a tour of the remaining grounds and buildings. Throughout the next few years, he continued to help me with all of my research. My most sincere thanks to him for his patience and his kindness. I would not have been able to write this story without him.
Today, much of what was once known as Armory Square is the campus for Springfield Technical Community College. The old arsenal building houses the armory museum and the commanding officer’s residence can be rented for special events. Alex walked me through a former officer’s home, and let me explore the commanding officer’s residence. Together, we walked the grounds, and he explained what I might have seen had I visited during World War II.
When I saw the area where the manufacturing buildings had once been located, I began to see the armory as two separate worlds – the pristine, park-like sanctuary of Armory Square and the manufacturing center of Federal Square, just across the street. The setting reminded me of the sisters in my novel: physically close, yet with distinct and opposite temperaments. Walking the grounds was a crucial piece of inspiration for me, as it influenced my creation of the sisters’ narrative.
During my second visit to the armory, I pored through every issue of The Armory Newsletter–a monthly pamphlet that was written, illustrated, and published by employees from the fall of 1941 to August of 1943. The pamphlets were a window into daily armory life: an article recapping an employee’s first day on the job; gossip pages listing engagements and weddings; sports pages detailing the scores for armory sports teams; hand-drawn cartoons poking fun at the war; and spotlight pieces about employees with special talents and backgrounds. With every edition I read, I was able to picture more clearly what it must have been like to work and to live at this remarkable place.
In writing The Wartime Sisters, it was my goal to offer readers a vision of the armory that was both personal and also historically accurate. The day care center Michael attends is based on the real day care center at the High School of Commerce across the street from the armory. The Army Navy “E” Award for Excellence in production was, in fact, presented to the Springfield Armory in September of 1942, and, as in my story, an unprecedented break in manufacturing was arranged in order for all employees to attend the ceremony. The “On to Victory” dance was a widely-attended event, detailed in the armory Newsletter with several photographs and an article describing the entertainment and refreshments. I must thank Mr. Cliff McCarthy, an archivist at The Springfield Museums, for his assistance in identifying the location of the dance: The Springfield Municipal Auditorium, now Symphony Hall.
In certain instances, I was compelled to take liberties with the timing of real events in order to move my plot forward. For example, the fire at the partially built field services building took place on January 30, 1942, but because I wanted Millie to be living at the armory during that time, I moved the incident later, to July of that year. The “Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands” radio show brought Benny Goodman to the armory for a concert on September 29, 1943. However, in the novel, I set the concert in May in order to improve the pacing of the story. In addition, in order to eliminate confusion, I did not include descriptions of a second manufacturing center–The Water Shops, which were located about a mile away from Armory Square.
Because I grew up so close to Springfield, I did, of course, have a slight advantage. I had childhood memories of Forest Park, Johnson’s Bookstore, and lunches with my mother at the Steiger’s department store tearoom. But I knew these places from the 1970’s and 1980’s; in order to be able to describe these settings as they existed in the early 1940’s, I enlisted the help of old photographs and newspaper articles from The Springfield Republican archives.
For anyone interested in the history of the armory, I strongly encourage a visit to the site. Renovations are underway on the commanding officer’s residence, and a plan is in place to restore some of the gardens. I also recommend the following sources, all of which were invaluable to me: Springfield Armory, Pointless Sacrifice, by C.L. Dvarecka, Eastern National, 1968; Forge of Innovation: An Industrial History of the Springfield Armory, 1794-1968, Eastern National, 2008; Cultural Landscape Report for Armory Square: Springfield Armory National Historic Site, by Allison A. Crosbie, ASLA, Historical Landscape Architect, 2010; Images of America Springfield Armory, by Alex MacKenzie, Arcadia Publishing 2015; Arsenal of Freedom: The Springfield Armory 1890-1948, A Year-By-Year Account Drawn From Official Records, compiled and edited by Lt. Col. William S. Brophy, USAR Ret., Andrew Mowbray Inc., Publishers 1991; “The Armory at Springfield” By Jacob Abbott, published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine No. XXVI, July, 1852; Postcard History Series: Springfield, by G. Michael Dobbs, Arcadia Publishing, copyright 2008; Our Stories: The Jews of Western Massachusetts, 2013 by The Springfield Republican; and The Springfield Armory, Forge of Innovation Website: forgeofinnovation.org.