Monday, September 27, 2010

The Life and Death of a Textile Mill

"For from $2 to $5 a month, a man working in the Proximity Mill in Greensboro, N.C. can rent a house and half an acre of land. He can get free seeds from the mill for his garden and, if he is more successful than his neighbor in their use, he will receive a money prize. He can send his children to a free school or kindergarten for nine months in the year. His daughter may attend a sewing or cooking class on Saturday afternoons. Four or five times a year his wife is invited to small meetings at the house of the social secretary, which is one of the regular mill tenements kept as an object lesson to the women of the community. The mill company pays all these bills except about a third of the cost of the school, which is borne by the city of Greensboro. The company also spent about $1,000 for instruments for the Proximity Band, and each year it gives its 700 or 800 employees a picnic.

"For their work among its people, this mill received a gold medal at the St. Louis Exposition. One of the owners of the mill said that, aside from any question of philanthropy, they believed that it was the best policy from a purely business standpoint. It would free them, he said, from reliance upon a constantly shifting population of improvident and illiterate employees and enable them to promote to positions of responsibility men from their own forces. As an example of this policy, he cited the fact that the superintendents of Proximity, White Oak, and Revolution, the three mills controlled by the same management, and the general superintendent of all three, began as simple employees and were gradually promoted to their present positions.

"The Proximity has done more work among its employees than most of the other mills, but almost all of the mill men believe with the Proximity owners that the better educated the employees are, and the better they live, the more profitable workers they will become. The pressure of economic conditions is lifting the mill operatives to a higher plane of living and the employers are aiding that advance because they realize that it is for their advantage. On the farms from which these people came, there was little social intercourse and little to stir them to progress. In the mill village there is plenty of social intercourse; they are in touch with the world. Their dormant ambitions are aroused. And their own ambitions are the strongest force that can be brought to bear to make them better workers and better citizens. Such is the transformation which, with some abuses and some delays, the mills are working among the purest American stock and at the same time the people who have had the smallest opportunities of any, in the United States."

The World's Work: A History of Our Times
Walter Hines Page, 1907

I have been fascinated by the ruins of the Proximity Mill which sits only six miles from my house. Not quite the ruins of Detroit, but a visible monument to the death of the textile industry here in North Carolina. At one time, Proximity Mill and its owner, the Cone Corporation, was one of the largest suppliers of denim in the world. All that has changed and I’ll explore the growth and demise of our homegrown industry in my next few postings.


Carolina said...

hmm, sad that once such thriving and buzzing buildings are 'deceased', but looking forward to see the rest of your photos on this subject

dinahmow said...

Sometimes, I wonder about "progress."
Looking forward to the coming posts.

flwrjane said...

Wow. Way pre Obama, the original HOPE message. The educated worker.....

Karen said...

Carolina, Dinah and Jane: When the Great Recession hit Greensboro and the Piedmont Triad in 2008, we experienced a much higher unemployment rate (it hit a high of 12%) than the rest of the large cities like Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. I think it can all be traced back to the tremendous reliance we placed on the textile industry in general, even though these companies had been off-shoring throughout the past decade. There is no loyalty to the worker by these corporations anymore. Witness what Walter Hines Page wrote in 1907 about how the Cones treated their workers versus the mindset of corporate executives today.

It wasn't all sunshine and roses back then (and I'll write a little about that, too), but the Cones knew that taking care of their workers would take care of Proximity Mill and Cone Corporation. And it propelled Cone into the world's largest manufacturer of denim cloth until NAFTA in the late 1990's.

Dan said...

Have you ever seen 'North and South' about the mills in England? I think you would enjoy it.

Beence said...

I love ruins and abandoned buildings too. They carry so much baggage within their walls. They might have come to the end of their journey but doing so they become a photographer's dream.

Can you get inside the Mill?

Karen said...

Dan: Not sure that I'm familiar with 'North and South'. Was it a BBC show? Here in the States it would refer to the Civil War.

Beence: I've sent you an email about that, but the short answer is unfortunately I can't get in.