In U.S. South, Textile Mills Gone but Not Forgotten

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
October 19, 2004

For more than a century after the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, the working day began across the South with the shriek of whistles at textile mills.

The whistles have nearly stopped blowing, however. The jobs that once underpinned the economy of hundreds of small towns from Virginia to Mississippi are now in Mexico, India, and China. The handsome old redbrick buildings where people once earned the money to raise families are empty, and many are falling into disrepair.

Today some people question whether younger generations understand how hard their parents and grandparents worked to make ends meet and build their communities.

Now a determined group of former mill workers, professional and amateur historians, and volunteers has launched a grassroots effort to preserve at least some of what remains of a vanishing era.

"We're trying to create a big, giant vacuum cleaner to capture those memories, or the stories will be gone," said Lynn Rumley, the great-granddaughter of a Virginia textile worker. Rumley lives in the former mill town of Cooleemee, North Carolina—about 26 miles (42 kilometers) southwest of Winston-Salem—and is leading the Southwide Textile Heritage Initiative.

Rumley wants to raise money and recruit members to compile oral histories of textile workers, to persuade school systems to teach students about their textile heritage, and to lure tourists to the old mill villages.

"We really do believe that this is a story people want to hear about," Rumley said. "It's a way of life that's gone, by and large."

It was a compact lifestyle so nearly identical throughout the South that, if you asked mill hands in the rolling hills of northern Georgia or the coastal plain of North Carolina where they lived, they'd probably say, with a mixture of pride and self-effacement, "I live on the mill hill."

In small towns such as Haw River, North Carolina, and Valley, Alabama, and larger cities such as Macon, Georgia, and Columbia, South Carolina, hundreds of thousands of men and women went into the mills every morning. They ran the spindles and looms, loaded and unloaded the trucks, kept the books, and signed the paychecks.

At the end of their shifts they went home to mill-owned housing that they rented for a few dollars a month. When they went shopping they bought groceries and supplies in mill-owned stores. They watched movies in theaters built by the mill, and they played baseball for mill-sponsored teams.

They also developed deep personal bonds. They looked after their neighbors' children when parents had to work. And when there was a death or illness, they cleaned their neighbors' houses, cooked their meals, and comforted the bereaved families.

Continued on Next Page >>


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