Big Read, Tough Times
February 4, 2008
This year's communitywide project is 'The Bridge,' which examines labor unrest back when textiles ruled the valley. (Featured comments by Dr. Gary Freeze, Catawba College Professor of History)
By Hannah Mitchell, CharlotteObserver.com
For generations, almost everybody who grew up in the Catawba Valley worked in a mill, lived in a mill village or had relatives who were mill hands, if not all three.
The manufacturing way of life that replaced farming molded the people, along with the economy, influencing standards of living, community and more.
But few people remember a swatch of local history that pitted neighbors against neighbors and caused some mills to temporarily close.
Strikes, fistfights between workers, owners silencing protest — it all seems so alien now. But it happened here during a period of labor unrest that spread through the South during the Great Depression.
The bloody Loray Mill strike in Gastonia and others like it still make headlines, but quieter local struggles are largely forgotten.
This year's Big Read project, a communitywide book-reading sponsored by Catawba County's colleges and public libraries, has revived talk of that history. The 2008 selection is "The Bridge," a novel by the late Doug Marlette about a violent mill strike in North Carolina.
Though most of the people involved in that era's labor conflicts are gone, a few survive and still others remember their parents mentioning it. We talked to a few with stories to tell.
Change — and resistance
As Southern mills, one by one, introduced faster machinery and scientific management practices in the late 1920s and the 1930s, some workers started to resist.According to historical accounts of the period, companies instituted the new methods to get more work out of their employees, who called the changes the "stretch-out."
Along with electrification of machinery came stopwatches to measure efficiency and standardization of jobs, leading some workers to feel as though they were being treated like machines.
Then the Depression brought with it job insecurity. So when President Roosevelt instituted his New Deal, historians say many workers seized upon the promises by striking or joining unions to pursue better working conditions and wages.
In Gastonia and other places, those efforts led to bloodshed, leaving dead workers and others in their wake.
In Hickory and surrounding towns, the unrest resulted in sporadic violence at mills, but unions largely failed to take hold here and elsewhere in the South for complex reasons that people disagree about.
Some say hands and bosses worked out mutually acceptable agreements, while others say the state's one-party political system gave textile owners an unfair advantage and forced workers to acquiesce to keep their jobs.
Either way, memories of the tensions show just how heated things became in what had been close villages, not unlike extended clans.
Trouble in 1934
Grady Allen, who lives south of Brookford, in Catawba County, was still a young teenager when he witnessed a fistfight at the Brookford Mills main gate in 1934.
It was the day that some hands participated in the big general textile strike that started on Labor Day that year and took place at mills across the South.
Watching from across the street, young Allen saw two company men — workers loyal to the bosses — jump a striker. But he said another man stepped in and stopped the fight.
Allen, now 87, remembered that a lot of mill workers simply stayed home that day and that the strikers managed to shut down the mill, despite its manager's plans to keep operations going. Other mill owners closed their mills in anticipation of the strike.
"The company men wanted to work; they had their regular pay scale," Allen said. "And the union wanted to stay out 'til they could get the union scale. The union finally did win out, though. But they talked their way through it. They held sessions with the company and finally the company figured it was a time that they were losing money, and the opportunity was there to make money."
Allen said the mill accused his father, who participated in the strike, of planning to dynamite the dam that supplied the mill with electricity. "I don't even know if any of it was so or not or whether it was propaganda," he said. "Anyway, they made it so hot and heavy for him that he just left."
Allen worked at Brookford Mills in his late teens. He left the area in 1938 to work in Baltimore, served in the Navy during World War II, returned to Brookford Mills after the war and joined the union.
He said that when he worked in the mill the first time, the bosses had the attitude that, "if you don't like what we're paying you, you can move out of our company house and we'll put somebody in there that does."
Though local mill owners tried to create a family atmosphere in their plants and built a community around the enterprises with the mill village, company store and mill-subsidized schools, they tended to resist union activity.
"I've heard family members talk about it," said Melinda Herzog, director of the Catawba County Historical Association. "You did not want to go against the mill owners because if you did, you'd come home and all your stuff would be on the curb."
Sometimes the union activity led to violence.
Grady Chapman of Stony Point, in Alexander County, remembered his father, who worked in the cotton mill there, recounting the day that a worker slugged the superintendent during a strike, trying to keep him out of the mill. The superintendent proceeded to "beat the h--- out of him."
Workers never organized at the Stony Point mill, Chapman said, but because of reforms enacted during the Roosevelt administration, he said his father's hours fell from 12-hour shifts to eight hours "and he got more money."
Bud Rudisill, who lives outside Valdese, worked at the Henry River cotton mill in Burke County. Some workers tried to unionize, but the "manager wouldn't let them have it. The biggest part of the hands didn't want a union no-how," he said. "The boss man would've shut the mill down before he'd let a union come in and tell him what to do."
Rudisill, now 94, quit school at 14 to work in the mill in 12-hour shifts for about 50 cents a day. Later, he said, the mill increased the workload but not the pay.
"They speeded up the machines so they could get as much in eight hours as they did in 12." Still, he stayed and worked there 41 years.
'Took a swing at him'
Pope Shuford's father, Harley, was superintendent of Hickory Spinners in Long View when workers struck there in the late 1930s. He said his father used to talk about that day."A woman took a swing at him," said Shuford, a Hickory resident and chairman of the board of Shuford Mills. "He made some comment loud enough for everybody to hear, that her husband was lucky she can't make a better swing than that."
Strikers blocked the gate, Shuford said, keeping out employees who wanted to work, so his father called the highway patrol to clear it for them.
"There weren't many," he said. "The way I heard it, they cranked up every machine in the plant to make a lot of noise, like the plant was in full production, signaling to people outside that we can run this plant without you if we have to.
"We would like to think we were doing a pretty good job in the plant and folks were reasonably satisfied until people came from the outside and stirred things up, and then things quieted down when they left."
Owners called the shots
In most mills in and around Catawba County, workers deferred to owners, said GARY FREEZE, a history professor at Catawba College who wrote two volumes of Catawba County history.
"People were traditional in their attitudes," he said, "but the owner knew them well enough that they took care of them at least minimally."
Lynn Rumley, a former textile worker and union organizer who directs the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee, has a very different perspective on the employee-owner relationship.
Mill jobs and mill village life tended to be a step up for people who previously lived on farms, Rumley said, and often mill managers were part of the extended family.
"My conclusion is that people had worked out a fairly decent deal and didn't feel like they needed trade unions," she said. "It becomes clear that people had their own means of solidarity that was the neighborhood, the village. If people had wanted a union, they would've gotten one."
Still, she said, some seized upon the union because they were ready for change and took advantage of a tool to effect it.
"These neighborhoods were filled with pretty feisty people. Only history books make them seem like they were docile."
Many Southerners still oppose unions, she said, partly because of their independent spirit, partly because some mill owners would bring up Gastonia when union organizers came around, even as recently as the 1970s.
But anyone reading "The Bridge," she said, should also read a book such as "Yesterday's Child" by Dorothy Sigmon Holbrook, for balance. The first-person account of growing up in a Newton mill village shows that although the Depression was tough, life in the village could make an ideal childhood.
Said Holbrook of her parents, both mill workers: "They were so happy to have a job, I think they would've put up with most anything because they had three children to take care of."