The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

From the Farm to the Silk Mill

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: December, 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 1937 my sister Lillian and I got a job at a silk mill, brought down from the north. The flat topped red brick building sprung up on Oak Street, and its wide houses in the valley. The mill was located close in to the town square, so that girls boarding on Oak Street walked to work.

Lillian and I were homesick from the first day we got our jobs - not yet weaned from the crowded noisy hearth on the farm - but the town itself spoke of its "country" beginning. The Federal building and the courthouse jutted above lesser buildings, all shadowed by the scalloped Blue Ridge Mountains, rising above the wooded little hills and valleys, and the tree-lined streets.

Perched on a corner across from the mill, there was an old white frame store where we bought snacks and ate our sack lunches when we could find a vacant stool at the counter, or at the tables placed haphazardly in an outer room. On warm, sunny days we sat on the grass back of the Employees' Entrance and ate our lunches there. We passed up Coca-Colas, Nehis, orange and Nugrape drinks for the tall, bay-windowed RC Colas we could buy at the same price for a nickel.

The owner of the silk mill was a squat, immaculately dressed man. He wore thick bifocals and I thought - when he stood at the end of my 12-thread machine and watched all the treads breaking down - that he was looking at me with four eyes. If the machine was whirring, he stood there and showed his big square teeth and his bushy eyebrows seemed to do a little dance. When he was pleased, he made me think of the Japanese umbrella girls on my wall picture. Lillian and I worked in the 5-B Spinning Department, the final process until the finished yarn was shipped out to hosiery mills. First some men employees dyed the silk cocoons in large vats and when they had dried, they turned the raw silk over to the Winding Department. Here the operators put the skeins on frames and ran the yarn off of their machines for the Coning Department, which in turn sent the finished bobbins to the spinners.

The special 12-thread machines almost reached to the ceiling, but smaller machines were used for the lesser threads. Under the feeble ceiling lights, the machines' shadows formed what looked like a misty blue fog. The girls who worked on 12-thread had to be tall, able to reach above their heads and tie the broken threads. We were required to wear white nurses' uniforms on the job. We would carry our soiled uniforms home in our suitcase, and pick up the stiffly starched uniforms pressed by heavy flat irons heated at the hearth, or on the wood stove - ready for wearing the next week. This was our routine, except the busy work season on the farm when Mama and Irma were needed for other work. At such times we carried our uniforms to a woman on Oak Street, and in this way she earned ten cents per uniform to help support her family.

Lillian and I worked at night, from midnight till 8:00 o'clock the next morning. Then we checked our Time Cards out in the wall-box at the rear exit, and along with other operators, we got into taxicabs that transported us to and from work on a weekly paid schedule. Most of the drivers were single young men, and sometimes a silk mill girl and a taxi driver fell in love and got married.

My first little brown pay envelope contained $2.37. I was first to make production in the mill, and they rewarded me with an extra dollar the next pay day. In 1936, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, but he didn't pass a minimum wage bill that affected us till after I went to work at the silk mill. The Japanese owner had the day shift workers, and those on the midnight shift, to come during their work hours to his office and sign a long small-print form guaranteeing by law we would be paid no less than $1.00 for an eight-hour-day. In our case, if we worked the full six nights, we would earn $6.00.

From the beginning, our Japanese boss was dismayed that he had to settle for callous-handed, big gawky farm girls to operate his dark noisy machines. There was one American girl who looked like the Japanese umbrella-girls on my picture, and he pointed her out as our example. He told us to watch how quick she got around her machines, light on her feet, hands nimble when she tied the intricate silk knots. It was no fault of hers that she got this distinction, but some of the girls laughed at her and called her "the little Japanese silk mill girl."

Holding down a silk mill job was struggle enough, but we also had housing problems. I would do anything to keep Lillian in town with me - I couldn't have stood "town" without her, and every time she didn't like a boarding house because of insufficient food, or so much noise she couldn't sleep in the day time, I would apply for another boarding house. Finally we started "rooming" called by farm women "light housekeeping." Our landlady downstairs cooked a hoecake of cornbread each day from meal we supplied. We kept on hand cans of pork and beans, and she sold us milk produced by the cow she had in the pasture back of the white two-story house on Broad Street.

She would send her eleven year old son upstairs about 9:00 o'clock at night with the bread and milk and he would announce himself all the way up, calling out, "Coming up! Supper time! Get up and open the door." After we ate supper, we dressed for work and lay back on the bed and waited for our taxi. One night we overslept and the girls' laughter and the driver honking his horn woke us up and we bounded two steps at a time downstairs.

Our third cousin and his wife rented the big upstairs apartment across the hall from us. She was expecting her first child. The landlady and Lillian and I gave her a bassinet, which she trimmed with pink ribbons and soft inside quilting. Then when the baby was born, it was stillborn. We went to see her at the clinic in Hoschton, and she was smiling bravely, watching across the room her doll-like baby in the bassinet, knowing she couldn't attend the funeral and not wanting to miss a minute looking at her little daughter.

One day Lillian and I went down a side street, just off the square, and we stopped and looked in the window at Bryon Mitchell's Meat Market. We couldn't have done anything that would intensify our homesickness more than standing there, looking at the red blood-streaked ribs and backbones, a big vat of country-ground sausage, fat belly, sides, and freshly-plucked poultry, and long bins of fish. That was when Lillian had the idea of taking Mama a "mess" of sausage the next Saturday. Sometimes we carried home clothing for the younger children who were still in school, or cloth for sewing into dresses for all of us.

Early Saturday morning we went to the meat market and had the man in the long white blood-stained apron weigh out six pounds of sausage. He shoveled the sausage from the vat, measuring off the dips carefully, watching the scales, and then he bound the sausage into a white roll of thick paper. We walked to the Greyhound bus station and boarded the bus running southward on the Winder Highway past our farmhouse. Everything went fine - for a while - us in our Sunday Cuban-heel shoes and our best Sunday clothes. Our suitcase bulged with grease and sweat smeared uniforms to be exchanged for crisp laundered ones which we would carry back on Sunday night, ready to go on our midnight shift. Two miles this side of our farmhouse, resting on the rented 360 acre farm we left for the tense, nerve-wracking work we found in town, the bus overturned on the embankment. There was some excitement, but everybody got out without a scratch.

The dime-store suitcase hadn't sprung its flimsy latch, and the sausage had all the time been clutched in my hands. Lillian and I decided to walk on home, and not wait for the bus to be repaired. When we came in sight of our house, lugging the suitcase of soiled laundry and the heavy roll of sausage, hindered by our tight-fitting Sunday shoes, Mama met us, half-running, and insisted on carrying the sausage the rest of the way. She couldn't wait to get to the kitchen and start frying fat sausages and baking big fluffy biscuits for supper.

Mama's rich cooking on the wood stove permeated the whole house with a smell that was "home." I remembered how we enlarged our lunches with huge RC Cola drinks. Even so, nothing there compared with her farm-style appetizing food. I knew though that I would always be thankful for RC Colas. If we hadn't had that big bubbling drink to pep ourselves up till the work-day's end, our four-eyed, square toothed boss would have complained more than he did about his gawky farm girls, as different as daylight and dark from the silk mill girls back in Japan.