The story below is an excerpt from our March/April 2016 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Can a summer job and its demands and revelations serve to change the direction of a life? Perhaps for only a few of us.
Textile mills are now a memory in much of western North Carolina, and those which now exist are modern facilities bearing little resemblance to those of the past. In the southern foothills of North Carolina the textile mill was the lifeblood of existence for dozens of small towns including Henrietta, my home town located in southern Rutherford County.
Henrietta was typical of many small North Carolina mill towns with most houses in town built and owned by the mill and rented to employees. In the early part of the 20th century the mill paid employees in scrip redeemable for rent or for merchandise at the company-owned store; however this process had been abandoned by the mid 20th century.
The work environment in the mills was noisy and dusty and the air was filled with floating dust and cotton fibers. The machine clatter of hundreds of working looms was deafening, as many employees were to learn in their later years. There was no OSHA, and standards for air quality or noise levels were non-existent, as were hearing and respiratory protective devices. Inhalation of cotton fibers resulted in a respiratory disease called byssinosis (“brown lung disease”) for many in their later years.
Most mills ran 24 hours a day with eight-hour shifts beginning at 8 a.m., 4 p.m. and 12 a.m., and many operated six or seven days a week if orders needed filling. Despite these conditions, millions began work in the mills as teenagers and retired 40 to 50 years later from the same job.
Henrietta had a grocery store, a filling station, a drug store, and two churches, with the mill occupying the center of town. Cliffside, Avondale, and Caroleen were all within a few miles and much the same except for Cliffside, which had a movie theater. At one time there were two grocery stores in Henrietta, with one owned and operated by my Dad.
I was a small child when he sold his store, but the adage about a nice guy finishing last proved true in his case. Dad gave too much credit and the customers did too little paying to sustain his store so he became a mill worker out of necessity. Dad worked the second shift from 4 p.m. until midnight for 27 years. Due to these working hours I never saw him from Sunday night until Saturday morning during the school year as I was growing up.