Cotton Mill Blues

Cotton Mill Family / photo by Lewis Hine

I’m a-gonna starve, ev’rybody will.
You can’t make a livin’ at a cotton mill.
When you go to work you work like the devil,
At the end of the week you’re not on the level.
Payday comes, you pay your rent,
When you get through you’ve not got a cent
To buy fat-back meat, pinto beans,
Now and then you get turnip greens.
No use to colic, we’re all that way,
Can’t get the money to move away.
I’m a-gonna starve, and everybody will,
‘Cause you can’t make a living at a cotton mill  / Woody Guthrie

Friday, June 2, 1900 / Franklinton Town, North Carolina

Dee Lassiter: “This week has been unGodly hot – 93 degrees and not a breath of wind to be found nor a tree to sit under. These little girls are going to have a long day in this heat, and so am I, but the mill will be like an oven in hell today. How will we ever get through another summer here?”
These could easily have been the thoughts going through my great-great-grandmother’s mind on that sweltering Friday when the census taker arrived at her house in the mill village of Franklinton Town. Dee’s husband, Gray, son Thomas, daughter Sue, and son-in-law Spencer were working at the Sterling Cotton Mill, while she stayed at the house tending to the housework and her three little granddaughters: Jessie, 5, Ella, 3, and Addie, 10 months old. The work day at the mill started at 7:00 in the morning and ended at 7:00 at night, five and a half or six days each week, every week.

That year, Gray worked in the cotton mill as a creeler, Sue as a spooler, and Spencer as a warper. Thomas, like many other young boys, was a doffer. A creeler wound thread onto the bobbins in the winding room. In the spinning room, a creeler also replaced the feed to the spindles when the thread ran out. Sue’s job as a spooler was to run the machines that combined the thread from ten to fifteen different bobbins. As a warper, Spencer also worked in the winding room. The warper took cones of thread by the hundreds and organized them to make the warp ready for weaving. The beam was like a huge bobbin. The doffers worked in the spinning room. As bobbins on the spinning frames filled with thread, doffers replaced them with empty ones.

The weekly pay for creelers was $4.00, spoolers, $4.00, warpers, $7.50, and doffers, $2.50, a total of $17.90 for the family of 8. The house was owned by the mill, so rent was priced at about $.10 a week per room and taken out of the weekly paycheck. On average, their monthly income would be $70.00 and the year’s income would be about $840.00. In 1900 the spending power of $1.00 was equal to about $65.00 in today’s money. A warper’s $7.50 would equal $487.50 per week today – not a bad wage, but keep in mind that these work weeks were 72 hours in grueling conditions. The yearly spending power for this family would be $54,600.00 in today’s dollars, with the benefit of no income tax or other payroll deductions. It was enough to get them out of the mill and back “home” before the census taker came by again. In 1910, Spencer owned his farm. Gray was working as a merchant at a grocery and had rented a home for himself and Dee. In 1900, the Sterling Mill building was only five years old, so the mill village was fairly new. I hope that my family left “public work” before the conditions became as squalid as they were known to be later.

In 1900, one dollar could buy one acre of land or a year’s subscription to the Franklin Times newspaper. A Pepsi Cola soft drink was a nickel, and the price for a load of 1,000 bricks was $7.00 if you picked them up at the train station. The summer session at the University of North Carolina was $20 with a $5 registration fee. At Egerton’s Department Store, shoes for little children cost $.50. In the North Carolina mill villages, there were grocery stores and mercantile stores for provisions, along with schools, sports, and churches, but everything from the price of flour to what the preacher said on Sunday was controlled by the mill owners. Keeping the workers dependent and relatively content assured the economic success of the mill. Although the mill owners put forth the image of providing a good community life for the workers, over time it became obvious that the conditions were regimented and deplorable. Though families would spend a large part of their income on food, it would not be enough to ensure a proper diet. People were getting sick from the lack of vitamins and proper nutrition as well as from exhaustion and the filth from inadequate sanitation. My family, with four working adults and three little girls, was probably more well off than many others. Their neighbors had eight children, with six of them working in the mill. In all, there were about 130 mill workers in Franklinton Town the summer of 1900, many of them children.

I always thought that my grandmother, Addie, spent her childhood on the farm in Epsom, North Carolina. Although her family was back on the farm by 1910, she was apparently born in the mill village. Her father, Spencer Lassiter, was orphaned before he was six years old and came to live with his uncle in Franklin County, so it isn’t surprising that the new cotton mill in Franklinton would seem like a good place – and maybe the only place – to earn an adequate living for his rapidly growing family.

There are a lot of reasons that a Franklin County farm family could end up working in a cotton mill in those years. The rural economy after reconstruction had changed dramatically. North Carolina was rushing into the age of commercial agriculture, with small farmers being pushed into growing the cash crops of cotton and tobacco in order to pay the ever increasing taxes on their land. More and more, it was becoming difficult to earn an adequate living on the land, and many people suffered trying to balance the uncertainties of crop failures, changing markets, weather, pests, the death of a spouse, and the usual large family. Often it was an unfortunate but basic truth that maturing children had the chance for a brighter future in the mills, which offered a regular pay check, a place to live, and steady employment. Surely nothing could have prepared them for the transition from the farm, even though whole families worked from dawn until dusk on the land as well. In the mills, workers endured difficult working conditions with the ever-present risk of becoming injured or killed from getting caught in the fast moving machines. The noise, heat, and relentless, choking dust combined with utter exhaustion must have been overwhelming and dispiriting. The photos from that era are sepia toned, and I imagine the memories of those times were equally brown, especially for the children.

It is my guess that my grandmother’s family felt they had to work at the mill, at least for a while. I imagine the decision was made more with acceptance and resignation that any kind of excitement for the future. Projecting my own reactions to stories about the mills in those days, I can’t get past what the cacophony must have been like / noise / dirt / soot / cotton fiber / utter fatigue, combined with the absence of home – the quiet of the countryside / animals / a garden / a flower / a tree / a fragrant breeze through the open window.  They worked, and this option worked for them, and for them it must have been wonderful to earn what they needed –  and then to leave.  I am happy for my grandmother’s sake that her whole childhood was not spent in that noise and dust, and I am thankful that my great-great-grandmother did not spend her last days there. Working in the mill provided a living, but was it a life?