Nostalgia, Pain All Part of Hood Rubber Memories


By Anna Yukhananov
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BELMONT, Mass. — The lecture hall was overflowing on Thursday, March 11: 115 chairs filled, with more people crowded near the door.

All had come to the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NASSR) to see a screening of Roger Hagopian’s documentary, “Destination Watertown: The Armenians of Hood Rubber.”

The film tells the story of the Hood Rubber Company, founded in 1896, and the Armenians who worked there. Hood Rubber’s Armenian employees formed the core of the Armenian community in Watertown.

More than 100 years later, a big condominium stands where the factory used to be. And most people had forgotten the story of Hood Rubber and its employees — until Hagopian interviewed survivors, collected documentary evidence and dug into industrial archaeology to present a vanished history.

Hagopian has his own theory about why people did not want to tell the story of Hood Rubber until now.

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“I think people don’t want to talk about it because they want to forget the fact that it was menial work,” he said. “The next generation of Armenians did not have a legacy of factory work in their experience in America. Factory work was a means to another end.”

Most Armenians who came to the United States wanted to own their own farm or business; few had multiple generations of the same family working on the assembly line.

Yet, many Armenians in Watertown are still tied to the Hood Rubber Company.

“People should know their roots,” Hagopian said. “But they should also look at what they have now, and how far they have come from those humble beginnings. I felt that people should understand why Watertown was chosen. The factory is the reason for the establishment of the community.

“I wanted to tell people, this is why your church is right here. Indirectly, it’s why you’re as successful as you are,” he said.

Hagopian said that within one block of where the Hood Rubber company used to be, there are now four churches, three of them Armenian.

Hagopian’s film intertwines the company’s history with vivid oral histories of former workers and people from Watertown, recalling the effect of the factory on their lives. The conditions were at times brutal: some lost fingers, others became sick. But most were grateful to have jobs.

“It’s amazing how many people liked their work,” Hagopian said. “I’d have a nervous breakdown if I had to work in a factory. But their objective was survival.”

While people may not be comfortable remembering their own modest beginnings, they want to learn about the hard luck stories of their ancestors.

“When menial work is about their grandfathers, they glorify it,” Hagopian said.
His film tells a quintessentially Armenian story: driven by massacres and genocide, Armenian immigrants came to Watertown, living in the shadow of the company’s smokestack. It defined their lives. While Armenians formed only 10 percent of the labor force at Hood Rubber, the company’s name spread all the way to the Ottoman Empire.

The audience at NAASR watched the film screening as if it were a home video, as personal as family photographs. They repeated familiar last names, laughed at descriptions of Armenian customs, relished the snippets of Armenian language threaded into the narrative.

At the end of the film, Hagopian asked if anyone in the audience had family connections to Hood Rubber Company. At least a fifth raised their hands.

Hagopian said the response was fairly typical of other showings of the film, with 20 to 25 percent of the audience somehow connected to Hood Rubber. He pointed out that the percentage in the Armenian community would be even higher if you excluded those Armenians who came to the United States in the 1960s.

While Armenians feel a special connection to the film, Hagopian said he was surprised to learn that others were also interested in the story of Hood Rubber.

“The biggest thrill for me is that non-Armenians are purchasing this,” he said. “Even though the themes are about Armenians, others can relate because it’s about being poor, about working hard. They were all in the same boat.”

Hagopian hopes to show the film at Watertown High School, so that teenagers can also learn their heritage.

Now, Hagopian said, “People want to talk about it. They want to remember. It just set off something in them.”

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