Saturday, April 12, 2008

Company Towns



'Twas in Marion, North Carolina,
In a little mountain town;
Six workers of the textile
In cold blood were shot down.
--From "The Marion Massacre" by Woody Guthrie

WNC’s company towns now a fading memory appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times a couple of weeks ago. The story looked at "Western North Carolina’s one-time company towns — Enka Village, Champion Paper’s Fiberville in Canton, the neighborhood around the former Beacon Plant in Swannanoa, Martel Village in Woodfin, among others."

Helen Jones Rice recalled growing up in Sayles Village, a development of wood frame cottages for employees of Sayles Biltmore Bleacheries. "It’s like you’re owned by the company — that’s true," she said. "But we in the village did not feel that way because Mr. Sayles made sure we didn’t feel that way."

Rice’s comment illustrates the dichotomy of the company town. Utopia. But utopia with a dark shadow.

Reporter John Boyle talked with local historian Rob Neufeld:

…mountain mill towns emerged [beginning in the late 1800s] after large industries came to the area in search of local resources, including pure water, minerals, timber — and hard-working, relatively cheap labor. "Company towns provided extra incentive for people to come work in the community, but they also enabled the company to have a little more of a stranglehold on the employees."

A century ago, the mill towns of the Carolina piedmont attracted thousands of people from the mountains. Families traded a hard and tenuous life on the farm, for the relatively comfortable, but more restrictive, life in the factory.

Technology and economics brought about a massive culture shift throughout the Southern Appalachians, as people moved to towns like Cliffside, described on the cover of Cliffside: Portrait of a Carolina Mill Town:

Cliffside was a model town, lauded and envied like few others of its kind. It was the dream of its founder, Raleigh Rutherford Haynes, a home-grown tycoon who created an entire industry along the Second Broad River in Rutherford County. More than a town, Cliffside was a way of life. It was a society shaped by Haynes’s respect and concern for his workers and neighbors, by his unwavering sense of justice and fairness, and by his insatiable desire for perfection. Even now, long after his death in 1917, his legend and his principles live on in the people of this once-bustling little town. In recent decades, Cliffside, like many other mill towns in the south, has struggled to survive the decline of the textile industry. These photographs portray the gentle and loving nature of Cliffside and the generations of people who have called it home.

When the Mill Closes Down, a recent documentary, told a similar story about South Carolina towns - Newberry, Honea Path, Ware Shoals, Simpsonville and Pacolet. Residents described an idyllic time in the villages, with a strong sense of community and sharing.

It was similar to the way Helen Jones Rice remembered Sayles Village:

"We had good people who lived in the village. I never was embarrassed that I lived in the village because I always had more friends than anybody."

Of course, it’s ludicrous to think that life in the mills was all paternalistic mill owners, company baseball teams and community bands. WELCOME TO DYSTOPIA!

Take, for instance, child labor. A century ago it was common practice in the southern textile mills, as well as the mills of the North, where Mother Jones brought it to the public’s awareness:

I asked the newspaper men why they didn't publish the facts about child labor in Pennsylvania. They said they couldn't because the mill owners had stock in the papers. "Well, I've got stock in these little children," said I, "and I'll arrange a little publicity."

We assembled a number of boys and girls one morning in Independence Park and from there we arranged to parade with banners to the court house where we would hold a meeting.
A great crowd gathered in the public square in front of the city hall. I put the little boys with their fingers off and hands crushed and maimed on a platform. I held up their mutilated hands and showed them to the crowd and made the statement that Philadelphia's mansions were built on the broken bones, the quivering hearts and drooping heads of these children.

That their little lives went out to make wealth for others. That neither state or city officials paid any attention to these wrongs. That they did not care that these children were to be the future citizens of the nation.

The officials of the city hall were standing the open windows. I held the little ones of the mills high up above the heads of the crowd and pointed to their puny arms and legs and hollow chests. They were light to lift.

I called upon the millionaire manufactures to cease their moral murders, and I cried to the officials in the open windows opposite, "Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profit."

The officials quickly closed the windows, as they had closed their eyes and hearts."

Worker unrest simmered in 1929, with strikes in Elizabethton, TN, Gastonia, NC and Marion…just off the mountain from Asheville.

On October 2, 1929 the McDowell County sheriff and deputies gunned down unarmed strikers picketing Marion Manufacturing Company. Six workers died, 24 were wounded. The sheriff, the mill superintendent, two mill foremen and 14 deputies were all acquitted or otherwise exonerated of murder charges. All of the strikers were fired from their jobs and evicted from their company-owned homes.

Only two weeks prior to the Marion Massacre, organizer Ella May Wiggins was shot and killed on her way to a union meeting in Gaston County. The 29-year-old single mother of four, had worked 12 hour days, six days a week, and backed the union. She didn't shy away from a fight: "They’ll have to kill me to make me give up the union."

But that’s all in the past now. We’ve moved on. Civilization has advanced. In our current enlightened condition, we’ve conquered discrimination, exploitation and greed. Sent them packing. Benevolence rules! Ain’t the 21st century grand?

Mill Mother's Lament
We leave our home in the morning
We kiss our children goodbye
While we slave for the bosses
Our children scream and cry.

And when we draw our money
Our grocer's bills to pay
Not a cent to keep for clothing
Not a cent to lay away.

And on that very evening
Our little ones will say
I need some shoes, dear mother
And so does sister May.

Now it grieves the heart of a mother
You everyone must know
But we cannot buy for our children
Our wages are too low.

Now listen to the workers
Both women and you men
Let's win for them the victory
I'm sure twill be no sin.
-Ella May Wiggins (1900-1929)

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