Tag Archives: textile industry

A Tour of Textile Town – Spartanburg, SC

It began with a brochure. I’m not sure who the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau thought they were targeting with this brochure, but as it turns out, it was me and friend Liza. She had picked it up on a recent trip through the area, and then asked if I were interested in joining her on the tour. And of course I was.

We met at stop nine, which really should be stop Number One, the Spartanburg Regional History Museum. I have written about regional museums many times, sometimes flatteringly, sometimes not. This time we got lucky.

As expected, the museum was heavy on the textile industry. That was a good thing. This huge cotton bale was sitting there for visitors to feel and marvel at the softness of it. In the background you can see the steam whistle that governed the lives at the Beaumont Mill, which was located just down the street.

After Reconstruction, Spartanburg promoted itself as the Lowell (Massachusetts) of the South. The combination of cheap labor, no labor unions, and the proximity of the cotton crop led to the rapid spread of textile factories across the region.

By the 1920 there were dozens of textile mills across Spartanburg, today most, if not all, closed.

One of the fun features of the museum was this wall of doors, which could be opened to reveal facts and artifacts.

Many were on the textile theme, as this door that told us just how poorly textile workers were paid.

Others touched on other topics such as education and sports. In the first college football game played in South Carolina, Spartanburg’s Wofford College beat nearby Greenville’s Furman.

In a refreshing change from what is often seen in local museums, the discussion of war focused on the homefront and local involvement in the various conflicts. A Revolutionary War battle, Cowpens, was fought in Spartanburg County, so there was a small display on the battle. There were several WWII era training camps in the area, and they too were featured. The homefront was remembered, as in this wallet for ration coupons and tokens.

Along with the display doors, artifacts are also stored in flat drawers with can be pulled out and studied. Unfortunately, there was usually little to no explanation about the contents.

However, where else could one get such a great look at a nineteenth century slipper?

There were few clothes on display, and this circa 1895 dress was labeled as Edwardian, and was displayed backward.

From the museum we headed to an actual mill, the Beaumont. The building was recently repurposed as part of the local hospital system. They have included a good display showing artifacts and photos from the history of the building.

As mills closed across the Carolinas in the 1990s, much of the machinery was sold to factories around the world. This is a survivor, a C & K shuttle loom.

This was probably used to make plaid cotton.

Beaumont was visited by photographer Lewis Hine in 1912, when he was documenting the child labor so prevalent at the time.

During WWII, Beaumont devoted their entire output to cotton duck.  Above is an advertisement to try and encourage workers to apply for war work at Beaumont.

It’s really interesting how old, empty mills, considered to be a blight on the landscape less than twenty years ago, are now being converted to all sorts of uses. The work at Beaumont is very well dome, and I loved how the history of the building is remembered.

The mill village at Beaumont is still there, and most of the houses are in good shape.

Click to enlarge

Next on the list was the village of Pacolet. This town is a bit outside Spartanburg, but we were enticed by the promise of an intact mill village and the presence of a museum. Unfortunately the museum was closed (on a Friday, no less) and we could not convince the people at the town hall to drop by and unlock the door, even though a sign on the door hinted that that might be a possibility.

I see Pacolet as a real lost opportunity to show all the aspects of the mill complex. There is a great map painted on the wall next to the museum, but orientation is difficult, and some of the building no longer exist. But the village is remarkably intact, and so are some of the ancillary structures.

Best of all is this 1915 school, which was built for the children of black mill employees. It’s a remarkable survivor of the era, when few black people were employed by the mills. This structure is in bad need of preservation. And yes, there are windows, all on the other side of the building.

As the day was drawing to a close, we had time for just one more stop. We picked the facility of German manufacturer Menzel which has two sections of the Berlin Wall installed on their grounds. This has nothing at all to do with textile history, but who could resist seeing part of this symbol of the Cold War?

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Filed under Road Trip, Textiles

Rocky Mount Mills and Mill Village

When it comes to travel, I’m a big believer in planning. So it came as a surprise to me to run across this cotton mill complex in Rocky Mount, NC. We were just passing through, but the sign made me slow down and take a small detour. What it led to was a textbook example of a 19th and early 20th century cotton textile mill and village.

The mill was first constructed in 1818 on the bank of the Tar River. The mill that is there today is not that old, as the original building was burned in 1863 by Union troops under the command of General Ferris Jacobs.

In pre-steam and pre-electrical power days, mills were powered by falling water. The earliest mills had to be built on a river with falls, or the falls could be made by damming the river as you see here. Part of the rushing water would be channeled into a mill race, which cannot be seen but still exists.

On the side of the Tar River across from the mill is a nice city park with good vistas of the complex, or they would have been good before the leaves leafed.

The mill complex had become run down, as production there stopped in 1996. The buildings sat empty and decaying until the site was bought by Capital Broadcasting Company. The part of the mill you see above now houses loft apartments.

This building in front of the mill was the power house, but today it serves as an event center. The little structure behind the water tower was the canteen. Other buildings in the complex are being used as restaurants and breweries.

It’s no surprise that this was the mill owner’s home. One of the founders of the mill was Joel Battle, and this was the home of his son, Benjamin Battle. Battle house was built in 1835.

Like most mill villages, low rent housing was available for rent to the workers in the mill.  The village at Rocky Mount seems to have been quite large, and much of it survives. There was also a beautiful old school that is no longer in the village.

When the site was bought by CBC, most of the houses in the village were ramshackle and vacant.

But today, the restored village looks like this. The houses are owned by CBC and are rented to tenants. The original tenants in the early to mid twentieth century could have only dreamed of the modern living spaces within.

Rocky Mount Mills had such a long history that it witnessed many changes in the making of cotton yarn and the people who made it. The first workers in 1818 were enslaved people, along with a few free blacks. After the mill was rebuilt after the Civil War, the jobs within were for whites only, though some black men held jobs outside the mill as loaders of materials going in and out of the mill. The mill was finally integrated in the 1960s after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

Along with the restoration, the owners have begun an initiative to collect and preserve the history of the mill, which included the memories of people who worked in the mill and lived in the village. Some of these videos can be seen on the Rocky Mount Mills website. The research is being conducted through UNC Chapel Hill’s Community Histories Workshop.

Some people have complained that the project is just more gentrification by and for rich white people. Having just been to Rocky Mount and having seen its downtown that is almost completely deserted, I have to hope that people will see the possibilities in Rocky Mount, and that even more old buildings can be re-purposed as living and working spaces.

 

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Filed under North Carolina, Textiles

Thoughts on a Return to USA Production of Textiles

With all the talk about Made in America and bringing jobs back to the US, it is easy to look at the textile and clothing industries through rose-colored glasses.  I was reminded of this yesterday while visiting the Upcountry History Museum in Greenville, SC.  Like many cities in the Carolinas, Greenville was built on the textile industry, and the city really suffered when fabric and clothing makers began closing due to foreign competition starting in the 1970s.

Today, however, the city seems to be doing alright.  There is a downtown that is returning from the brink of emptiness, and they have an arts center, Heritage Green, that is simply amazing.

Are the textile jobs missed?  Yes, I’m sure they are.  Would it be possible to return textile jobs to Greenville?  I have my doubts.  Would people even be willing to work in a textile mill like the ones that closed?  My guess is no.

Along with this weaving machine, the museum had audio to simulate the conditions inside a cotton mill.  The background photo shows the rows and rows of machines, all noisily running to produce the cloth.  People had to yell in order to be hear above the din.

And look closely at the vertical belt that connects the machine to the source of power.  See the wisps of cotton?  Cotton was everywhere in the mill, and workers inhaled a lot of it.  Many became sick with “brown lung.”  My father’s youngest sister died from it.

As time progressed, textile technology improved, something that did not stop when textile jobs first began moving to Mexico and Central America in the 1970s.  My guess is that a textile worker who lost his job in 1985 would not recognize a modern textile plant, with so many of the jobs once done by humans now being done by computers and machines.

And that is the first major obstacle to returning textile production to the US.  Technology has progressed to the point where we don’t have the trained workers in the US who could run a modern textile mill.  We don’t have the machinery, except for these examples found in museums and in rare factories like the White Oak denim plant in Greensboro, NC.  Some sewing factories have even had a hard time finding enough workers who can run an industrial sewing machine.

The museum has this great display on the “stretch-out”.  The stretch-out began in the 1920s, when in an effort to increase profits, doffers, the workers who tended machines and removed ( or “doffed”) bobbins holding the cotton yarn from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones, were given more machines to tend.  Slower workers were fired, and the ones remaining had to pick up the slack by tending more machines.

The museum let visitors time themselves at a doffing task, and then see if the time could be improved upon.  If not, then I guess you would be history at that mill.

The president-elect has said that tariffs will be imposed on products imported into the USA as a punitive measure toward those who do not produce in the USA.  I’ve said in the past that this is not such a bad idea, but the truth is, whether tariffs are imposed, or whether firms move to US production, people had better get used to paying more for their clothes and other textile products.

Unfortunately, even in the USA, we have garment workers who make less than the pitiful minimum wage.  Jen recently posted this link to a Department of Labor investigation, and it is eye-opening.  As much as we would like to think that Made in USA insures an ethically-made product, I’m afraid that is just not the reality.

And even if minimum wage is paid, this paragraph from The Fashion Law, tells the story:

The current federal minimum wage, the lowest amount a worker can legally be paid, is $7.25 an hour or about $15,080 per year, before taxes, for an average full time worker. To put that in perspective: The current poverty threshold for a household of one is $11,880.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers, no easy solutions.  The textile and clothing manufacturing industries have a very long histories of abuses and of circumventing law and human rights.  And when things improve for workers, this industry has a long history of packing up and moving where workers are more desperate for jobs and thus will tolerate less pay and dangerous working conditions.

It gets worse.  I recently posted a link to a company currently making camping clothing in the USA.  As it turns out, that company has ties to a White supremacy group.  Thanks to a reader who looked a bit closer at the company, I was alerted to the problem and quickly took down the link.

Do I want textile production to return to the US?  Of course I do, but I could do without the abuses of the past, and of the industry as it exists today in Asia.  This is just not a simple issue.

I’ll conclude with photos of company store tokens and coupons.

Remember that old Tennessee Ernie Ford song, “Sixteen Tons,” in which he sang, “I owe my soul to the company store”?  It was a common practice for workers to need a cash advance on their meager wages, and the payback was in tokens that could only be spent in the company-owned store.  With a system like this it was impossible to ever rise above the debt.

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Filed under Museums, Textiles