Nearly four decades after Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, Peter Joseph was learning the meaning of hard work.

He was 8 in 1931 and working in the family store, Joseph’s Market, on Front Street in Waterville.

He’d come in at 6 a.m., sell cigarettes, chewing tobacco and other items to mill workers, and then at 8 a.m., walk across town to North Grammar School on Pleasant Street.

When school let out in the afternoon, he’d head back to the store and work some more.

“I remember every Friday my mother made a Lebanese dish with lentils and black olives and when I came home at lunchtime, I’d take the pot of food to Wyandotte Worsted woolen mill at Head of Falls where my father worked. I’d sit there while he ate his lunch, bring the pot back to my mother at the house and then go back to school.”

Joseph, who will be 89 in October, recalled that his father, John R. Joseph Sr., did not want to leave the four looms that he ran in the mill, so he ate his lunch there.

“They were dedicated to their work, the people who worked in mills. He’d work there from 7 o’clock in the morning until three in the afternoon and then go to work in the store.”

Back then, the Wyandotte was one of several mills in the Waterville area that employed hundreds of people from the city and surrounding communities including Winslow, Oakland and Fairfield.

The Wyandotte was just north of the Two-Cent Bridge, and people coming into the city from Winslow would pay two cents to cross it; Waterville Ironworks was farther up Front Street, near an old entry to the street that runs under the railroad tracks. Hollingsworth & Whitney Co. produced paper on the Winslow side of the Kennebec River; the Cascade Woolen Mill in Oakland also was bustling.

Waterville was a booming city then. Head of Falls was home to Lebanese, French and some Italian families. C.F. Hathaway Co. workers made shirts at the factory north of Appleton Street, and the Lockwood Duchess Cotton mill complex on Water Street also was in full swing.

Cigarettes were 10 cents a pack and most mill workers couldn’t afford a pack so Joseph’s sold them individually for a penny. The Joseph family was generous to poor people and often gave them food.

“People working the mills were making $16 or $17 a week,” Peter Joseph recalled.

His father had come to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1900 and married Lena Ferris, also from Lebanon. They had six children, all of whom worked at the store which John Joseph opened around 1926. Peter, the youngest, is the only child still alive. He and his late wife, Patricia, had six children who also worked at the store.

Kevin Joseph, his nephew, now owns the business, but Peter continues to help out.

“I take care of the produce department — I order the produce,” he said.

While he officially retired from the grocery business in 1985, he continues to work as a deacon at the nearby St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church and as a per diem chaplain at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s Thayer Campus. The World War II veteran also is chairman of the Waterville Safety Council, on which he has served 46 years.

It’s no stretch to say that it’s people like Peter Joseph who have helped make this country great.

And it’s for people like him that Labor Day was established 118 years ago as a holiday to celebrate their contributions, the first Monday of every September.

While today may be a well-deserved day of rest for many, Joseph stands by, waiting to help those in need.

“I like to keep busy,” he says. “I don’t mind working — it’s either that or doing the crossword. I never turn the TV on until after supper and I usually watch comedy shows — unless a good movie comes on with Clark Gable or Tyrone Power.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays.