The mill industry created the modern South — and left behind structures we can regard as civic monuments
By Jamil Zainaldin
Last week I began the story of Georgia’s cotton mills. The mostly crumbling brick structures are the remnants of massive buildings that employed hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. For the most part mill workers were poor, uneducated, and white. (Few blacks worked in the segregated mills until after World War II.)
Mill hands migrated from the countryside’s sharecropping and tenant farming families, as did laborers who struggled to scratch a living from a land that was still trying to recover from a devastating war.
Mill work was rough and not infrequently dangerous. The average day began with the factory morning whistle. Shifts typically ran 10 to 12 hours, and the workweek six days. The high-end hourly rate for men in 1928 was 25 cents, and as low as 10 to 15 cents for women and children. To survive, most of the family worked: women and children generally could be found in the spinning rooms, while men handled the carding and weaving. When God said he needed the seventh day for rest, the millworker understood why.
Mills were a phenomenon of the countryside and the city; they could be found everywhere in the rolling hills and valleys of the Piedmont. In the era before widespread paved roads and car ownership, mill companies attracted and retained their workforce by building entire villages for families, complete with housing, churches, doctors, sporting fields, and pastures and pens for the animals they brought with them. Sometimes companies paid employees in scrip, redeemable in the mill village’s company-owned store.
Working in the mills was a necessity, not an ambition. Not surprising, in census records, many of those who worked in the mills described their occupations as “farmer.” To be a mill worker in an agrarian society was to occupy an ambiguous status, to say the least. In reality, they were the state’s first permanent class of wage earners.
Townspeople often looked down on them as “lint heads” and “hillbillies,” or worse. Erskine Caldwell’s book God’s Little Acre, though written as a condemnation of the South’s rural poverty and the exploitation of its workers, actually had the reverse effect of stigmatizing mill workers and their families as ignorant, promiscuous, and comic figures, if also tragic. When the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice sued Caldwell and his publisher for disseminating pornography — a case they lost — the book was guaranteed to become an international sensation.
The view from inside the mill village was quite different. In their reminiscences and oral history interviews, some workers warmly recall mill culture as a “large family,” where fellow workers and managers cared for one another. For them, the mill village signified community, mutual reliance, and sense of place.
Others held a very different memory of mill village life, one of an entrapped and vulnerable labor force from whom every ounce of energy was wrung for the company’s profit.
By the late 1920s, demand for cotton goods fueled by World War I slowed down, reflected in dropping mill orders. The industry also had to contend with the rise of hemlines (shorter dresses meant less fabric). And, too, this was a period when foreign competition from Mexico and Latin America chipped away at the U.S. market.
One response of mill managers was to cut jobs or wages, and sometimes both. They also instituted practices of speeding up production, which translated as fewer people doing more, faster. Accidents happened. A single moment of inattentiveness in a long, monotonous, grueling day could cost a limb, or worse.
Inevitably, the worsening of working conditions sparked a firestorm of spontaneous strikes throughout the industry in Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina especially. (Union numbers also were growing.) Their impact was limited, however, because of the arrival of the Great Depression in 1929: thousands of unemployed people were more than willing to take the place of the strikers.
The mills certainly did not escape Franklin D. Roosevelt’s gaze during his trips to Warm Springs and his meanderings through the countryside. The 1933 National Recovery Act of the Roosevelt administration set new industry-wide standards for wages, hours, and workplace safety, eliminating once and for all child labor. The hourly rate for men in the mills hiked to 30 cents, with hours dropping to 40. Because the law applied to all mill owners, and nobody gained a competitive advantage, mill owners were not hurt.
Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the parent of today’s NLRB) granted workers the right to form unions and to strike, though the South’s business leaders and politicians, sometimes with the help of the National Guard, effectively stymied the union movement when they put down the General Textile Strike of 1934 (the “Uprising of ’34”). In Georgia, 44,000 workers joined the picket lines. As a show of force, Governor Eugene Talmadge declared martial law and directed that some of the protestors be held in a former World War I German prisoner-of-war camp until tried by a military court.
World War II brought improvements and money to everyone in the mill industry, introducing a new level of modernization to meet the military’s heavy demand (from parachutes to tenting, uniforms, helmet straps, rope, and socks).
With peace, Georgia’s mills eventually would succumb to the same challenge as New England’s a century earlier: cheaper labor elsewhere. With more than 90 percent of the nation’s cotton manufacturing now located in the South, this end of an era meant fundamental changes as mills began selling their housing to workers in the 1950s; a generation of mill children bypassed their parents’ employers. By the 1960s and 70s mills begin shutting down operations entirely.
The story of U.S. textile manufacturing’s heyday bears a distinctly southern imprint—certainly in volume of product but in other ways, too. Unlike the late-19th-century immigrants of central and southern Europe who populated northern factories, the workers behind Georgia’s belated industrialization were from its own countryside, children and grandchildren of a devastating war still fresh in memory.
Mill and village life must have been a profoundly disorienting experience for these people, even an affront to their proud heritage as yeomen. In the face of a grinding routine that nonetheless still kept many on the margins of poverty before World War II, mill hands worked and cared for one another. In the most trying of circumstances, they revealed a true nobility of spirit.
And more: it was these Georgians and the mill owners and managers who created the modern South, spearheading our passage into a modernity of industry, commerce, retail consumerism, distant markets, transportation, corporations, and wage earning. Their work created a world of new possibilities that most would never live to benefit from.
Why preserve and imaginatively reuse these old and vacant buildings people labored in, or their modest, crumbling village homes — those messengers from our past? To some eyes, the mixed-use loft apartments in these curious block-like structures may seem oddly out of place. But they are just the opposite: these structures are an essential part of this place. They are in fact our civic monuments, and as their modern-day beneficiaries, we owe them our remembrance.
Kelly Caudle of the New Georgia Encyclopedia provides Jamil Zainaldin with editorial assistance for his SaportaReport columns.