`We looked after one another'

You don't have to be famous for your life to be history. - Nell Sigmon, textile worker

BEFORE World War II, the working conditions in Southern textile mills in the five-state Piedmont region were harsh and unrelenting. Exposed to heat, mechanical dangers, air pollution, and the constant banging of weaving machines, tens of thousands of men, women, and children worked long hours in low-paid obscurity between the 1880s and the 1930s. Labor laws were virtually unknown then. Pension plans were nonexistent.

In a new book, ``Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World,'' published by the University of North Carolina Press, workers like Nell Sigmon tell of their experiences in the mills. To help paint an accurate picture of the culture of mills and company towns, 200 workers who worked there before World War II were interviewed as part of the research for the book.

The authors state in the preface, ``...we committed ourselves to presenting our arguments in a storytelling style; by allowing millhands' voices to drive the narrative, we hoped to reach an audience that makes history but seldom reads it.''

The workers speak, in vivid and poignant words, about the cruel circumstances of their lives. But they also talk about the warmth of their feelings for each other. The metaphor of ``family'' was mentioned often - an idea that helped sustain them in hardship and need.

In selecting these excerpts, The Home Forum pays tribute to that spirit of family.

George Shue: ``Back in them days the cotton mill people was about the lowest class of people there were. They called them linthead. That's right, that's what you'd hear - linthead. Well, cotton mill people didn't worry about it; they were the best people in the world. They're about that way all the way around. They love people. They love to do things for people. And they don't take nothing off of people. People come and want to give them a dirty deal, they don't take it. They just fight for theirself.''

Hoyle McCorkle: ``I guess there were two hundred houses on this village [mill town], and I knew practically all of them from a kid up. It was kind of a clich'e: You grew up here and you knew everybody. It had its bad points; we didn't make too much money, I know my father didn't. But like I said, it was kind of one big family, and we hung together and survived. It was a two-hundred headed family. Everybody on this hill, we looked after one another.''

Ila Rice: ``On a cold, clear morning you could hear them [textile factory] whistles so plain.''

John Wesley Snipes: ``I never had no use for a cotton mill. Look at it run twelve hours a day, and the same old thing in the morning, and the same old thing next morning. I didn't like it at all, but I had to do it. I had to make bread and butter.''

Carrie Gerringer: ``We worked five days and a half, ten hours [a day], and just made five dollars and a half a week. Mama would take all but fifty cents. We felt like it wasn't right, but we didn't say nothing: we knowed better. She had three young'uns to raise.''

Eula Durham: ``There was twelve of us, and whenever one would outgrow anything, Mama would take that thing and cut it down and fix it so the younger ones could wear it. And when they got where they couldn't wear it and they hadn't wore it out, she'd patch that thing and fix it up and the one down below you got it.''

Geddes Dodson: ``When I was a little fellow, my daddy was a-working in the Poinsett Mill. He was a loom fixer. He'd run the weavers' looms through the dinner hour so they could go eat their dinner. We lived about a mile and a quarter from the mill, and I'd carry his lunch every day. He'd tell me to come on in the mill, and he made me fill his batteries while he run the weavers' looms - and I was just a little fellow. See, I knew a whole lot about the mill before I ever went in one.''

Curtis Enlow: ``I was about thirteen years old, and I decided I would go to work [in the mill]. Well, I went to work, and my Dad says if I quit when school started, he'd let me work. I went back to school but I wasn't learning nothing - I didn't think I was. So I went and told him, and he says, `All right, you ain't learning nothing. Well, you can go back to the mill.'''

Nannie Pharis: ``We was all happy. We didn't have anything, so we didn't know what to wish for and what to long for.''

Ralph Austin: ``Childhood, I didn't have much.''

Edna Hargett: ``Back then, when anybody got married, we'd celebrate them, beat on tin cans and things like that, give them a serenade. They didn't go off on honeymoons back then, you know. They went on back to work right after they got married. So we'd go down there [to their house] and we'd take cans and beat them together and holler. They'd raise the window and come out and speak to us, and then we'd come home. We had a good time celebrating them.''

Mary Thompson: ``...Now anyone that come in there [drawing-in room where threads were fed into machines in patterns] and didn't have nobody to teach them, had to pay somebody to teach them. They wouldn't hire you unless you could hire someone to teach you, because it was expensive to teach anyone. It'd take more skill. And the bosses couldn't teach you that, because they didn't know it theirself. He could see how it was supposed to be done and all like that, but he couldn't have sat down and done it hisself. ... I loved drawing-in. I enjoyed it more than anything I've done . ... I'd rather draw-in than eat when I was hungry.''

Eva Hopkins: ``They didn't have air-conditioning in the mills and it was terribly hot. They wouldn't let you raise the windows very high; air would come in; it would make the ends come down. Sometimes they'd let you prop a bobbin under them. I'd put the window up at the end of my frame, then here'd come the section man along and take it down. When he'd leave and go off, I'd raise it again. I couldn't stand the heat.''

Carl Durham: ``Some of that dust was terrible. Whew! That dust would accumulate. ... It got to where [the machine] wouldn't do its work, it would be so full of particles and dust. When I was coming along, and for a long time, that was all in the air.''

Lela Ranier: ``He [the mill owner] would come in ... and go thro' the mill lookin'. I wouldn't think he would know most of the people that worked in the mill 'cause he wasn't there long enough to learn 'em. They'd come around in the spinning room and tell us, `We got to get it cleaned up now. Mr. Heath's a-coming.' And everybody'd get to cleaning and everything'd be just shining and Mr. Heath'd come through the spinnin' room lookin'. Then after he left everything got back to normal.''

Paul Cline: ``It was almost like slavery.''

Blaine Wofford: ``They tried to run your life - tell you what to do outside the mill. They thought they owned you. They could really browbeat the people, no doubt about that. They had them over a barrel. They would threaten you with [taking away] your house. They pretty well had the upper hand over you all the time.''

Eva Hopkins: ``My husband and I got married, and we started having babies, and you just have to go on from there. You're just more or less trapped in the job you're in, because when you have children you just can't quit and go looking for something else. ... Before I was married I would daydream about who I was going to marry. I was going to marry somebody that was rich so that I wouldn't have to work; I could have a nice home and beautiful clothes. Then after I married, I still had daydreams. I dreamed of wanting a better life for them. It's been a good life, but I'd like for them not to have to work in the mills, to live in better sections of town, to have nicer homes, more conveniences, nicer cars, nicer everything than we had. Dreams like that.''

Edna Hargett: ``I'd get up at five o'clock in the mornings, because you had to be at work at six. ... I'd make up the dough and have biscuits for my children, so whenever they got up they'd put it in the oil stove oven and cook them. Then we'd come home and do a washing, and had to wash on a board outdoors and boil your clothes and make your own lye soap. It was just a day of drudgery, but with God's help, I got it done.''

Don Faucette: ``You take during the Depression years, everybody had a few beans. Well, they had a great big old pot, five or six neighbors had a big old pot out there. Put all the beans in one pot and made a big pot which would go around to all the families instead of just feeding one.''

Icy Norman: ``...You know, money can't buy happiness. Money can't buy joy. That's why I said I enjoyed working on my job. ... When I come out of that mill, I knew I had done the very best I could. Somewhere along the way I felt a peaceable mind. ... We had good years, we had bad years. I reckon that goes through life. Like I said, everybody up there felt like just one family....''

From ``Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World,'' by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, James Leloudis, Robert Korstad, Mary Murphy, Lu Ann Jones, and Christopher B. Daly. To be published Dec. 18. Copyright 1987 the University of North Carolina Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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