The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Temptation of Factory Hill

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: November, 1989

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

In the 1920's we stayed on the move from one farm to another, seeking better farm land. More fertile, richer land was pap's dream, but when moving time came, there was more difference in the farmhouses than the land we settle on. It wasn't till after the war was over that any farmer in the Macedonia community gave the first thought to leaving the farm and getting a job in town. Then the revolution started, farm people moving to factory towns and working in the mills.

The textile mills at New Holland and the Gainesville Mill were opening up their renter-houses to outsiders. Up till now, the Pacolet Company had catered only to the people who lived in the two separate villages. Lots of people told Papa he ought to sell out and move to Factory Hill. It would mean parting with the cow and calf, Mama's wooden milking stool, the two-horse wagon, the cotton seed planter, guano distributor, plow stocks, scythe and hoes for the women folks, bought to fit the age and size of each child. It would be leaving the lesser tools like the mattock, hand saw, hammers, nails, wrenches, and a big wooden box full of tools he had been accumulating since him and Mama got married, in 1909 while William Howard Taft was President of the United States.

Yet the temptation to sell out was always before us. Papa's youngest sister and her husband moved from the farm in the 1920's, and they lived within walking distance of the mill. Uncle Albert and Aunt Lou would come to Grandpa's and Grandma's and spend the weekend. They drove down in a Model T Ford, done with the mule-and-buggy they rode around in when Uncle Albert came courting. Hardly anybody around us owned an automobile. Papa's three youngest sisters and their beaus would go to church, or for an afternoon drive, in their separate buggies, all lined up in a row. Their beaus became their husbands, and all except Aunt Lou settled on small nearby farms.

When they came down from the county seat to visit, I thought Aunt Lou looked pretty, wearing a printed cotton dress and shiny black slippers and silk stockings. She looked rosier and happier married than she had in her courtship days, before women started bobbing their hair and wearing short skirts and painting their faces, which the war brought on. The older people grumbled about the young people, going wild, but it was sort of a happy, carefree time for everybody, especially those who got out in the world and made changes in their lives, like Uncle Albert and Aunt Lou had done.

Uncle Albert told us how the mill workers tore apart a bale of cotton, like a loaf of bread, and turned the fluffy, dusty slabs of lint into coarse yarn, which would then be woven into strong, sturdy cloth. They had spinners, spoolers, creelers, weavers, warp hands, floor sweepers and machine fixers. He had a section foreman, who gave the hands work orders, and above the foreman was a line of other bosses who lived in the village, but the top bosses lived in two-story houses near the New Holland Mill, to the east of the Gainesville Mill. The emblem for both mills was a horse, showing up on letters the factory mailed out, and on bulletins nailed on light posts and the mills when they needed to make announcements, such as watching their cows in back lots at the New Holland Mill, and at Factory Hill where a renter could keep a milk cow and have a garden and chickens.

One day our neighbor brought his family by, on his way from a visit to his kinfolks at Factory Hill. His wife would laugh and say the toilet wasn't big enough to turn around in. She talked like she had forgotten all of our outhouses, built like a tall wooden box, with a board-seat that had two inverted square holes. Anybody could go inside and close the slab-door, and hide out, and leaf through the Sears Roebuck catalog, and read the Tri-weekly. The door wasn't marked Men nor was it marked Women but a closed door meant one or the other was inside, and to go back and wait till the door opened.

Our neighbors liked the wages the workers brought home every week, and the electric-lighted streets running up-hill and down-hill in front of the white duplex houses, all built exactly alike. A solid petition divided the house equally, so that each duplex had three rooms and a toilet, offset on a little back porch, and a steep stairway that led to a sleeping room on the top floor. Street peddlers stopped at the edge of the yard with ready-washed vegetables, free of wriggly green worms and ladybugs, and everywhere you wanted to go was within easy walking distance. One thing they dreaded was the dust inside the factory, but they would get used to that. They were moving because cotton prices were dropping every year and they didn't believe President Harding would - or could - do anything for the farmers.

Papa didn't think cotton would ever sell for forty cents a pound as it had when Woodrow Wilson was the President, but he thought more bales of cotton would make up for the low prices. In 1923 he sold his forty-four acre place, and we moved to Grandpa's white house and became thirds-renters. That summer my sister Mary Louise was born dead, and I had a long spell of typhoid fever. The boll weevil riddled our cotton, and we made two bales. In 1924 Papa rented a red-land farm from Braselton Brothers and became a halves-farmer. That spring a heavy hail battered our cotton, freshly chopped and shining like silver dollars. He planted his crops over, but we made such a scattering of cotton, that we hired out in our neighbors' cotton fields that Fall, picking cotton for one cent a pound. I made about fifty cents a day, money that went to buy school clothes.

Frances had been born that past August, and named for Frances Braselton, who died that summer of 1924 while a student at Braselton High School, in the town her grandfather founded in 1876. She was the daughter of Mr. Henry, the farm boss, who came lots of times to our house to see about the cotton and corn and peanut crops. His brothers Mr. Green and Mr. John ran the store and the other Braselton businesses. Mr. Henry, who liked Papa's way of farming, rented the house on the hill to Papa, and we moved that Fall to the Chestnut Mountain community, after all the crops were gathered, and Mr. Henry came with his peanut thresher, a sort of a picnic-day.

The next Spring - before the great drought of 1925 parched the land - we had vegetables in our flat, rich garden plot to spare. We gathered a wagon bed full of English peas, cabbage, squash, green onions, beans, tomatoes, lettuce and cucumbers for the market. I was to ride to town with Papa, and early the next morning we started out with our carefully-washed vegetables, headed for Factory Hill. We didn't say a word to each other on the ten-mile journey. I was too happy just to be going to town, and Papa was caught up with watching the mules step-step, clop-clop on the pavement, sounding like a hoedown dance.

We had clopped off about eight miles when Papa turned through on a narrow curving dirt road. He was taking a short cut to Aunt Lou's house. She came to the wagon and bought some vegetables. She asked around about how everybody was getting along, and was Ma all right, and was Pa all right? After we left Aunt Lou's, Papa drove a little ways and crossed the railroad, after the whistling, screaming train passed like a long curving worm. We were now in Factory Hill. Red and pink and purple and yellow flowers bloomed in every yard, nestled in the beds marked by upended bricks, leading to the separate doors of the double-houses. Girl-children played hopscotch and the boys played ante-over, using the fences instead of an old barn like we did in the country, to pitch the ball over to the players on the other side.

We emptied the wagon bed, except for some lettuce and tomatoes that had wilted in the scorching July sun. We were leaving the village now, and getting back to the railroad crossing. Papa drove by the oily pool at the backside of the long four-floor mill with dull-blue windows. The water in the pool furnished power for the engines and the tall, whirring machines. The whistle blew for dinner time, and men and women and boys and girls poured out on the grassy court, swinging tin lunch boxes.

The factory's shrill whistle was different from the train, clacking down the rails, with its fearsome short-long-short blast, and its screaming long howl, which had scared the daylights out of Mr. Henry's mules. At one o'clock the whistle would blow again for the workers to get back on their jobs, and at six o'clock it would blow again, telling them their day's work was done. They started work at seven o'clock that morning, although the whistle had blown at five-thirty to wake them up so they could get ready for work. All put together, the factory whistle blew four times every work day.

I would have roamed around the village till the night whistle blew, if Papa would have. I looked back till we were out of sight at the streets running this way and that, fixed so anybody would get to the church house and the schoolhouse in a whipstitch, by skipping between the fences, and taking back ways. It would be nothing like walking two or three miles there and back to school and church from all the farmhouses where we had ever lived. Papa sat hunched over the riding board, the leather whip in his hand, ready to use if we got trapped on the railroad tracks. His gray eyes, half-hidden by his wool felt hat, didn't show a flicker of regret that he hadn't sold out his farm tools, and moved to Factory Hill.