J.L. Gaillard uses three words to explain why he lived 90 years on a mill hill. He leans back in his armchair, widens his eyes and smiles.
“I was captured,” he says.
He worked 39 of those years for Courtenay Manufacturing Co. in Newry, near Seneca, first picking up quills that fell from looms in 1936. He was 16 years old.
Gaillard made $12 a week then. When the plant closed in 1975 he had worked his way into management, but by then life at textile mills had changed forever in the South. Car manufacturing plants culled mill workers with promises of higher wages and better working conditions. Cotton fabric production moved to Asia and Mexico, where it remains.
Many mills like Courtenay shuttered. Thousands of jobs went away, leaving shattered windows and abandoned brick behemoths that had once knit communities together. Simple cotton mills have long been extinct in America, but their heartbreaking stories echo through the Upstate.
The four-story Newry Mill, where Gaillard and hundreds of others toiled, sits sunken and dilapidated at the edge of its mill village, hard to see behind overgrown trees and weeds. Faded graffiti is tattooed inside its brick walls and trash is scattered on the floor where 635 looms once stood. If the building were a person, its head would hang low.
In their heyday, mill villages like the one in Newry contained post offices, grocery stores, churches and schools.
“It was a wonderful place,” said Gaillard, who is 92. “The neighbors in 110 houses had commonality. You didn’t have a rich man here and a poor man there. You had all common attitude and philosophy.”
If a man was born into a mill family, there was an obligation to uphold.
“You’re sort of captured into an experience,” Gaillard said. “Daddy worked at the mill, granddaddy worked at the mill. That’s what you’re expected to do, go to work and help pay expenses. I did it because I didn’t know anything else to compare it with.”
When Gaillard started working at the Newry mill, it produced 36-inch cloth squares for diapers, dresses and men’s undershirts. The cloth left the mill and went to a bleachery, which applied patterns to it. Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck bought the material. Gaillard moved from emptying quills to working in the cloth department. By 1957 he had married Mae Honicutt and had two children. Elvis Presley’s album “Loving You” hit No. 1 that year, and it was almost a century after the Civil War ended. But cotton was still king.
FARMING TO FACTORY
After the Civil War, northern textile owners quickly embraced the South for its mill landscape, moving production of transparent, coarse cloth to plants powered by the region’s rivers and streams.
Railroads, cotton and a thriving population attracted mill companies to the Upstate. By 1905, one in every six white South Carolinians lived in a textile community, and there were roughly 170 mills. In 1950 there were 1.3 million mill workers in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By 1996 slightly more than half a million remained. As of September, the projected number of textile mill employees in South Carolina had fallen to 15,273.
In the eastern part of the state were mostly black sharecroppers. Mill owners reasoned that white farmers would need a new industry as farming became less productive, said Howard Bodenhorn, an economic historian at Clemson University.
The former Defore-Milliken plant on U.S. 123 piqued his interest in Upstate mills.
“You can actually see the old fountain in front of the mill and a whole mill village behind it,” he said, pointing out his office window in Sirrine Hall.
One of his students explored child labor in her term paper, and she found startling facts.
Some employees at the Pelzer Manufacturing Company began working when they were as young as 12 years old in the early 1900s, Bodenhorn said. But they were the exception; starting work at 14 or 15 was more common.
Others, like Gaillard, waited longer before they started rotating shifts.
When Newry workers ventured into Seneca, townspeople liked to call them lintheads because the cotton that flew from looms stuck to their clothes and hair.
Gaillard wore his cotton with pride.
“The president of the United States could call me a linthead,” he said. “I wouldn’t care.”
The Newry mill owned 700 or 800 acres where employees and their families worked and played. A bell in the mill tower rang at 9 p.m., when kids and adults were supposed to be indoors.
“It didn’t always work, but if you kept your mouth shut, nobody knew you were out,” Gaillard said.
Roaming the hilly woods around the plant, “We kids thought we owned the whole world,” he said. “We’d camp on it. The Boy Scouts would use it for stuff. It was a commonality that there will never be again.”
Down the road from Clemson, after a left turn at a barbecue restaurant, is the La France community. An elementary school sits across from a one-story brick building that started as the oldest mill in Anderson County. La France Industries, once known as Pendleton Manufacturing Company, persevered when other mills closed, abandoning cotton fabric production to manufacture synthetic fabrics, including car upholstery.
Donald “Jose” Hubbard witnessed the mill’s fruitful years when workers and their families populated the mill hill where he has lived since 1966. Back then, workers didn’t need cars to get to work; they walked across a swinging bridge. Hubbard was 18 when he started working in the beaming department 48 years ago. He said he was asked to retire last September.
“I wanted to stay for 50 years so I could get that extra money, but they don’t want that,” he said.
His dogs Molly and Coco lounged on the porch of his red-trimmed house one afternoon while he hit golf balls in his generous front yard. Hubbard wears a baseball cap that says “I love my job. It’s the work I hate.” He points to neighboring houses and recites who lives there. He talks about how many years they worked at the mill and who has “gone to glory.”
Families with no connection to the mill are moving into the mostly faded mill village houses with porches. Some have two front doors so a husband and wife working different shifts didn’t wake each other. Financial records from 1947 show that Pendleton Manufacturing Company sold 74 houses for $102,500 to residents. Willie Mae Dacus paid $1,400 for her house at 10 Third St.
The mill first operated as Pendleton Manufacturing Company in 1838 and later made blankets for the Confederate Army. A new 675,000-square-foot building was constructed in the late ’60s, and by 2000 about 500 workers were there. Retirees estimate that there are about half as many workers now. La France Industries President Judson Boehmer declined to be interviewed, and the company would not allow Independent Mail reporters to tour the plant.
Former workers like Gary Padgett are surprised the mill is still open. He worked at La France for 15 years as a cloth doffer before he left to work at mills in North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
“If it lasts another year, it will be lucky,” Padgett said.
Hubbard made $1.25 an hour in 1964, and he earned $8.43 an hour when he left last year, he said. He is glad he got the chance to make an honest living. “They could have fired me two or three times,” he said.
‘NOW’S THEIR HEYDAY’
The Liberty Denim plant in Pickens County was not as lucky as La France.
The plant closed last December, two weeks before Christmas. It was a casualty of the times, said Jack Woodson, director of operations at Glen Raven Custom Fabrics.
Few denim plants exist in the United States, but Liberty Denim lasted longer than most. It had operated at 101 Mills Ave. since 2002, in the old Greenwood Mills building. The closing happened four months after Lewis Edward Smith II fell into a roller machine and died.
Along with the School District of Pickens County, Liberty Denim was one of the largest employers in town.
Machinery was removed from the mill in mid-March. Liberty Mayor Mike Sheriff said he dreaded the day that happened. “That’s when I knew it was over,” he said.
Ray Farley, executive director of Alliance Pickens, said he knew nothing about the mill’s closing negotiations except what he read in the Independent Mail.
Efforts to reach Liberty Denim representatives were unsuccessful.
There are only four companies left in the United States that produce denim cloth, said Mike Hubbard, vice president of the National Council of Textile Organizations. Mount Vernon Mills has a plant in Spartanburg, and Cone Denim is headquartered in Greensboro, N.C. Denim North America is in Columbus, Ga., and Plains Cotton Cooperative Association is in Littlefield, Texas.
Glen Raven Custom Fabrics in Anderson County was once a simple mill like Liberty Denim, but it became one of the first mills to make synthetic fabrics in the 1950s. It now produces materials for awnings, pillows and indoor and outdoor furniture. Its Anderson plant employs 700 people.
Like most industries, the mill weathered layoffs at the height of the economic crisis. There were 70 in 2009, according to the South Carolina Department of Commerce. Closings will claim every mill if they don’t change with the times, Woodson said.
“It’s not just a textile story; industry evolves,” he said.
A walk through the sprawling plant reveals a clean, modern space with more machines than humans, spinning earth-tone thread. Both Woodson and Randy Blackston, vice president of manufacturing at the Anderson plant, have textiles in their blood.
Woodson’s father worked at the Haynesworth mill on McDuffie Street in Anderson. He worked shifts among the five mills that stood blocks apart in the 1940s and 1950s. Blackston’s grandfather manufactured spinning needles.
Today, the Glen Raven plant’s air is purified, and a full-time nurse practitioner and occupational health nurse tend to any injuries. No one would dream of calling workers lintheads, because remnants from fabrics are not tolerated.
Because of such improvements, Blackston is convinced workers are living in the glory days of mills.
“I don’t think that was the heyday,” he said. “I think now’s their heyday.”
POUNDINGS IN COOLEEMEE
Lynn Rumley, mayor of Cooleemee, N.C., midway between Charlotte and Greensboro, preserves the memory of mill towns that she says embodied an all-American philosophy of hard work, faith in God and raising families.
“I know it’s not the American Revolution, but it’s an important part of history,” she said.
It’s a history that is taught in Cooleemee schools, thanks to her work with the Textile Heritage Center in her town. The first class learned about mills in 1997, and now their children study the curriculum.
Second graders learn about poundings. Families who move to Cooleemee are welcomed with a pound of sugar, flour and other non-perishables.
“We try to keep these traditions alive because they worked, Rumley said. “Despite the fact that they came from different places, they knew how to knit together a real neighborhood.”
Rumley says mill education is just as important to children as the three R’s. “Their pride in this place has been renewed by our heritage work,” she said.
BEGINNING OF THE END
Long before mills experienced competition from foreign labor, they faced another challenge.
A wave of Northern union organizers were met with strict intolerance in the Upstate. The Knights of Labor arrived in 1880 to recruit members. Mill owners retaliated by firing potential organizers and preventing them from getting jobs at other mills, according to information at the Anderson County Museum.
The resistance to organized labor in South Carolina continues more than 130 years later, but was solidified during the mill era, said Howard Bodenhorn, the economic historian from Clemson University.
“The mill owners clearly did not want unionized mills, and the politicians supported the mill owners, not the mill workers certainly in the 1930s and 1940s,” he said.
Union organizers threatened unity at mill villages, Gaillard said, dividing families and friends.
“It was a time I had never seen in my life, and a time I hope never to see again,” he said.
He was in high school in the 1930s when organizers came to the Newry mill village. He lost one friend “because my people were anti-union and his people were union. He got so he wouldn’t speak to me,” Gaillard said.
A landmark union standoff in 1934 left the blood of seven dead men on Honea Path streets. The shooting happened at the Chiquola Mill, and erupted out of the national General Textile Strike of 1934.
The end of World War II marked the beginning of a shrinking workforce for mills. Men came home after seeing a world of opportunity. Auto and energy companies promised higher pay and better working conditions.
In May 1975, the Newry mill closed, Abney Mills, which owned the Newry mill, was headquartered in Greenwood, and Gaillard had suspected the company had given up on it.
“I could tell by the upkeep; there was no money being spent,” he said.
By then, much of the production had moved overseas.
“I don’t know why they didn’t protect our local industry,” Gaillard said. “For the older people who lived it and experienced it, it’s sad. And it’s sadder that the federal government allowed it to happen.”
The mills provided their workers the path to a better life. Jerry Davis was an electrical apprentice at the Utica WestPoint Stevens plant in the 1970s. He left for another job and returned in the 1980s.
“I didn’t stay away long because they called me back on account of those 100-year-old telephone poles,” he said.
The Utica mill manufactured sheets and pillowcases.
Davis, who is 56, grew up on Goddard Avenue across from the old mill YMCA, which is now a grassy lot. The cedar shake YMCA was demolished when Davis was a boy in the 1960s.
He cried when it was torn down.
“We all sat on the bank in front of the house and watched a big crane knock it into a big pile of rubble,” Davis said.
The federal government did the same thing to textile jobs, he said, leaving a void of employment for the middle class.
“I don’t know why our government doesn’t understand that you’re always going to have a group of people who need a particular job they can learn and work day in and day out,” he said.
The federal government recently took a baby step toward keeping production in the United States. In February, President Obama said he would ask Congress to reward businesses that keep jobs home by reducing the top rate of the corporate tax code to 28 percent. That’s down 7 percent, and would favor manufacturers that set their maximum effective rate at 25 percent.
Such a proposal would have been handy 10 years ago, Bodenhorn said.
“The mills it’s going to help are those right on the cusp like Liberty Denim (was),” he said. “If you’re a mill that’s just completely out of date and not competitive, I can’t imagine the tax break would be big enough to overcome that kind of problem.”
Gaillard still has a house in Newry that he cannot walk in alone. He broke his hip a year and a half ago when he fell there, and he has lived at an assisted living home in Seneca ever since.
The biographies of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and denim pioneer Claude Levi-Strauss sit on his bookshelf, and a thick dictionary is open on the desk in his room. He started writing poetry long after his mill days ended. He explores the complexity of emotion that accompanies age.
“I try to stick to the real-life problems when I write,” Gaillard said.
Mill life provides inspiration.
The image of a South Carolina mill village has frayed over the years, but former workers like him readily share their war stories.
They are places where some residents answer the door holding shotguns, but welcome strangers interested in talking about the old mills.
Times got hard and then got harder, but Gaillard would do it all over again.
“If when I die God would give me a choice of where to be born and raised up as a kid” — he pauses and points firmly in the direction of the mill — “I’d choose Newry. We were happy.”