Installments 4, 5 & 6
Spinnin’ Good Yarn to Weave Good Cloth
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this series of columns are those of the author or persons quoted and not those of Presbyterian College or SC Humanities, which provided funds in support of the Workforce Development at Clinton and Lydia Textile Mills oral history project.
Installment 4: Clarifying Performance Expectations
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The September 1952 Clothmaker introduces Julian R. Reynolds as the new weaving overseer for Plant #2, describing him as “a veteran of the textile industry” who most recently had “worked at Mathews Mill for 25 years rising to second hand.”
Donald Kidd started work in the weaving department slasher room about a year later. He recalls, “Mr. J. R. Reynolds come here to Clinton Mill when they was havin’ so much trouble and production was down. He popped the whip . . . . You’d go in there today and . . . may be a half a dozen comin’ out where he done let ‘em go ‘cause they wouldn’t run their job.”
Mr. Kidd continues, “He’d fire somebody and then turn around and take somebody ‘n pay ‘em time-and-a-half time to run the job. . . . You run your job and you was all right far as he’s concerned. It made no difference who you was or where you come from.. . . If you didn’t run it, he’d run you off. He didn’t fire every one of ‘em. You go to ‘em, talk to ‘em, encourage ‘em. Tell ‘em what is wrong or where they’re at, and do better.”
The May 1952 Clothmaker message from the plant superintendents clarifies general expectations for employee performance: “We must work as a team and each member of the team must be happy and satisfied, having the ambition, initiative and will to make a good record for the company which is our company.” Clinton and Lydia Mills primarily relied upon mill village and local farming families to provide this type of employee.
These were people such as Audrey Romines Estes, who says, “I was raised in the mountains and I was the oldest child. See back in the mountains I had to help ‘em get the wood, get the kindlin’ and everything, plus get up and make the fires every mornin’. . . . I used to saw wood with a cross-cut saw and nobody on the other end. . . . Nothin’ in the mountains but work, work, work.” She moved to Lydia Mill around 1940 at age 14 or 15 with her mother. Ms. Estes says, “She got her job, and I kept goin’ back ‘til I learned how to spin. And they hired me as a spinner. I got to where I could run six sides, and John Cobb put me in the spooler room one day – asked me if I’d go down there and help him out. . . . So I went down there and tried it out. And stayed there 50-some years.”
And people such as Richard Finley, raised by grandparents on the outskirts of Clinton in a house without “indoor plumbing except for a faucet in the kitchen area.” He says, “My grandfather, his idea of a garden was about three acres, and that’s what I did in my off hours from school, was plow. And I used to tell people, if I ever get old enough to get me a job I ain’t doin’ this no more.” Mr. Finley turned 16 in 1956 and went to work in the Plant #2 spinning department.
Mr. Finley says, “I swept for a while and then I laid up roving for a while. Whenever you were hired into the mill to sweep or lay up roving, if you were young and had a little bit of ambition, you spend your spare time when you wasn’t running your job helping doffers to learn how to doff. And then whenever they come up short one day they’d try you out on it, and, if you continued to improve, as a job become available, you’d get it and that’s what happened with me.” Mr. Finley continues, “and then I went in the Navy and I come back out and I stayed there until the plant closed in 2001. Never did have a desire to go anywhere else.”
The mills also relied upon local Black families to provide dedicated employees such as Buck Little, who started working for Clinton Mills at age 11 according to a September 1970 Clothmaker article entitled, “Buck Little Retires After 51 Years Service.” The article states that Mr. Little “vividly recalled his early years with the company. ’I started to work on Saturday morning and worked only five hours – the usual amount worked on Saturday back then. I received $.60 pay.’ Buck began his career in the opening room. He worked there from 1919 until 1923 when he was transferred to the warehouse.” The article continues, “At his retirement, Buck had more seniority than any other Clinton employee.”
But the plant superintendents in the 1950s in fact could hire very few people such as Mr. Little for manufacturing jobs because in 1915 the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina had passed “An Act to Compel a Separation of the Races Laboring in Textile Manufactories.”
Installment 5: Presenting a New View of Teamwork and Team
The October 1955 Clothmaker proposes taking teamwork to another level in quoting a former chairman of the United States Steel Corporation board of directors “’the kind of teamwork where every man among us is allowed to give the very best he’s got to the particular job for which he’s best suited – the kind of a team where men are judged not by their race, religion, or economic standing, but simply by their batting average.’”
This kind of teamwork and team, of course, were what Black men and women sought. While 40 of the approximately 750 employees honored in 1957 for continuous service of five or more years were Black, they worked only in the village, the shop, the warehouse, or the opening room.
Some number of local people likely would have been comfortable with a racially integrated manufacturing workforce as early as 1955. Early Heaton, born in 1932, recalls, “I had a lot of good friends you know, Black and White. My Dad taught me, there was one thing he taught me when I was a young fella. He said, ‘Treat everybody alike. Don’t look down on one and don’t look up at one. He said that one up there ain’t no better than you and you ain’t no better than that one – no matter what color he is or where he come from.”
Mary Iusti Hughes, born in 1934, says that growing up, “We had Black neighbors that we played with. We loved ‘em. We didn’t see color. We just loved one another – our little part of Cross Hill.”
Bonnie Reed, born in 1938, recalls, “Our neighbors, the closest one, they were White neighbors, but we were close. We all grew up like one family. It was three about the age of me, my brother, and my sister. And then later, three more, Peggy and two more sisters. The two oldest one were boys also, so that made me grow up and do boys games and things. We would climb trees, and play in branches, whatever we could have fun doin’.”
Marcus Kinard, born 1940, worked at Dutton’s Grocery for about ten years starting in 1954. He says, “Everybody was pretty good. They didn’t talk, they didn’t use, the “n” word – not in the workplace. . . . It was a good relationship. I used to go there in the mornin’, and I wouldn’t leave ‘til over in the night, goin’ back home.” Mr. Kinard concludes, “They were more like family than anything.”
In contrast, Lumus Byrd, Jr., born in 1942, describes an incident that occurred when he was old enough to walk by himself from Clinton to his home on Byrd Drive. He decided to visit his grandmother at the Lydia Mill house where she did domestic work: “I can remember once coming from town down the railroad track and deviated just a little bit because I knew where my grandmother worked. And for some reason I went to the front door, and knocked on the front door. The person came to the door. And they knew me. They knew by that time that I was Miss Abigail Byrd’s grandson. And she told me, ‘Well son, you have to go around to the back, you can’t come to the front door.’ And sure enough I walked around to the back and just said hello to my grandmother, and then went on home.”
While such race-based discrimination is well-remembered, there was class-based discrimination in this era as well. Maria King Reid, born in 1946, grew up “on the mill.” Her mother worked for Clinton Mills and her father was a Clinton policeman. She recalls, “when we went on to high school, a lot of the town folks didn’t want their kids dating the mill folks. And they would really put up a fight against that, and they’d say, ‘No, you can’t date him,” or ‘No, you can’t date her because they live at the mill.’” She continues, “Some parents would not treat you as nice when they found out that you lived at the mill. Or, didn’t want you in their house, if you lived at the mill.”
The February 1956 Clothmaker includes a column entitled, “Living With Our Neighbors.” It states in part, “Since time began man has had a very serious problem – that of learning to live with his fellow man in harmony. . . . Although we have reached what we think to be the peak in our civilization today we still sometimes find this problem hard to solve not only in ourselves but in our nations as well. We should always realize that the Golden Rule suits us today and fits every occasion just as well as in those early days of Christianity.”
Installment 6: Feeling Like a Big Family
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you in the mill started, but only started, with running your job good – which it was understood included coming to work every day. An October 1959 Clothmaker column entitled “Essential for Success” reminds employees, “Each member of the team must do his own assignment well. But even more important, each member must learn to work well with the other team members. He must give a little, take a little.”
Most of the mill assignments were structured so that when done well the employee could take breaks longer than the ten minutes mandated by law. Gaining that time and being able to choose how to use it was an important incentive. Production workers, such as weavers, could devote extra time to catching and correcting the inevitable problems with material or machinery at an early sign of trouble – most often noticeable from the back side of a loom. As Mary Iusti Hughes explains, “I wouldn’t go and sit down and let ends run up and mat up. Huh uh. They say, ‘well you crazy to walk like that.’ I’d walk my backs, walk my back. I said, ‘I’d rather do this than to sit down and let ‘em mat up because you goin’ to lose your money like that. It’s goin’ to take you time to get it straightened out and runnin’ again.”
Such dedication not only benefitted the weaver but also contributed to community welfare in three ways. She minimized the amount of time a fixer (later called a technician) had to devote to making repairs on her looms and thus allowed him more time to repair looms for other weavers on her shift. She left the job running good for the weaver on the next shift, who then had a better opportunity to exceed the minimum expected quantity of good cloth. She also improved, if only slightly, manufacturing efficiency and thus the likelihood that sufficient future orders would be placed to keep the plant running six days per week. Career- and family-oriented employees sought the opportunity to work Saturdays for eight, or later six, hours because it increased the weekly pay by 30 or 22 percent.
Skilled spinners frequently used their extra break time to help others instead of relaxing.
Nancy Meadows Kidd says, “If the work was runnin’ good, I’d just tell the doffer, you know, ‘I’ll start that frame up for ya and put your ends up.’ And they could go on about their business. ‘Cause a lot o’ times then they could go home, if they got their doffin’ done.”
A doffer receiving such favor likely had cut his break short to help the spinner at times when her job was running bad for reasons beyond her control. Ms. Kidd explains one such cause: “They had what was called humidity things, in the mill. And it sorta sprayed out a little mist to keep it from bein’ so dry. That had a lot to do with how well your spinnin’ was runnin’ good or bad.”
The dedicated employees would keep an eye on each other’s job when necessary. As Ms. Hughes says, “Everybody, you know seemed like, was more like a big family. They’d help one another. Like if you wanted to go, they called it water houses back then, the bathroom. You had to go, you know, ‘I’ll watch your job. Go on.’ Or go to the canteen and sit down, and vice versa. It was family oriented back then.”
It seems that most of the Lydia and Clinton Mills employees were related to other employees. Ms. Hughes grew up on a farm in Cross Hill and had a sister, a brother-in-law, and a brother also working at Lydia. Mary Fortenberry Howell joined her father’s household as a young teenager after he remarried and relocated to Lydia Mill. In 1955 at age 16, she married a young man who worked at the mill. At age 27, Ms. Howell became a mill employee, too.
Joe McCall remembers of Clinton Mill, “When I turned 16, like a lot o’ young boys on the mill hill, my dad took me to the mill and applied for a job. Goin’ to school in the mornin’, I’d get up and go – be at school at 8:00, get off at 3 and be at work in the mill at 4:00 and get off at 12 at night.”
Starting at the Lydia plant in 1962 as a management trainee without prior cotton manufacturing experience, Ted Davenport observes, “I came from a different background from some, who lived on the mill hill, and their family was working there, and they had spent their lives there, and I’d spent my life on a farm. But there were farmers that were there, too. I think I learned to relate well, and just learned to appreciate the values, like there was a lot of esprit de corps. People felt real strongly about Lydi City, about Lydia Mill – it’s the best mill. When I got to Clinton, it’s the same feeling.”