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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.

"It instilled a sense of togetherness, fellowship, whatever you want to call it," said Joel Jackson, who grew up in Bemis, Tennessee, a mill town about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Memphis. "It was a tight-knit community. I knew 90 percent of the people in town as a kid, and my dad knew everybody. If anybody got in trouble, or there was a death, everybody was there to help until they were not needed."

The mill life also had its idyllic aspects. "We were on the low end of the economic ladder, but we didn't lack for anything," Jackson said. "It was a simple life, but it was satisfying."

The simplicity didn't do away with ambition among textile families, however. Many sons and daughters inherited their parents' strict work ethic and went on to brighter futures far from the mill hills. Senator John Edwards, the son of a textile worker in Robbins, North Carolina, is now the Democrats' candidate for Vice President of the United States.

"The mill workers shared dreams of better lives, and they shared hard, physical labor under difficult conditions," Edwards said in a statement. "Their families shared the schools, churches, and recreation centers created by their employers."

But there was a darker side to the South's textiles industry.

The region's dependence on textiles began after the Civil War, when many towns desperate for industry scraped together their own capital to start cotton mills. Impoverished mountaineers and farmers left their land to work in those mills. Textile barons in New England, eager to take advantage of a large pool of cheap labor, also started moving their operations south.

North Carolina journalist Gerald W. Johnson said profit "never became the dominant motif" for many of these early mills. "Always it was the prospect of civic and social salvation that was stressed," Johnson said.

But with people willing to work for very low wages, most of the mills made money anyway. Profits started booming in 1914, when World War I began and Southern textile mills landed huge military contracts.

But things changed when the war ended and windfall profits stopped. Many mills were now in the hands of owners who weren't motivated by "social salvation." By the late 1920s their greed and mismanagement had brought hard times to the textile towns. Many mill hands lost their jobs, and those who continued to work faced ever increasing production demands.

Flaring tempers and violence took a deadly turn in March 1929, when textile workers fed up with pay cuts and ceaseless demands for more production went on strike in Gastonia, North Carolina. A sheriff and several mill workers were shot dead.

Mill owners often used brutal tactics to break textile strikes, and organized labor was never able to gain much of a foothold in the South.

By the end of World War II in 1945, the industry had stabilized again, and textile towns flourished for about 25 years. No one knows exactly how many people worked in the southern mills when they were at their peak employment. But in 1960 there were 505,000 textile workers in North Carolina alone.

The textile industry has never lost its appetite for cheap labor, and the jobs that once filled the southern mills started to be shipped outside the United States.

Norris Dearmon, who spent 43 years in the office of Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, North Carolina, recalls the days when 18,000 people worked in the giant plant there. But after changing owners and shedding jobs for more than a decade, that mill closed in July 2003. "All the equipment's been stripped out and sent to China, India, Mexico, wherever," Dearmon said. "They really cleaned it out."

Now Dearmon is helping with the textile heritage preservation effort. Among other things, he's collecting reed hooks that weavers used in the mills. When a thread broke on their looms, weavers used reed hooks to snag the strands so the threads could be tied back together. The hooks often became very personal tools, because many weavers made their own.

Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, said he hopes the work of Rumley, Dearmon, Jackson, and others will spur other people to restore the unused mill buildings. He'd like to see them used for other purposes and suggests that a textile heritage trail across the South be created to recount the times when the lives of generations of Southerners revolved around the old mill villages.

"It's always important to know where we came from," Hanchett said. "It's important to celebrate the hard work and vision that created the world we're in now, to realize that it didn't just happen [on its own]."

Willie Drye is the author of Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935, published by National Geographic.

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