chapter  8
17 Pages

A working town empowered: retelling textile history at Cooleemee, North Carolina: Tamasin Wedgwood


Piedmont North Carolina is a still largely rural region dotted with numerous textile mills and associated mill villages. Today few mills are operational, and during the 1980s-90s, many mill villages were abandoned or demolished. Today, increasing numbers of mill villages are experiencing rebirth as both living communities and newly valued historic assets. Beginning in 1989, Cooleemee, North Carolina, was in the vanguard of this movement. The town rallied behind preservation projects and history teaching, reinvigorating community and reinventing identity. This mill town’s dedication to history work formed a case study for original research (Wedgwood 2007) into how museums might rebuild community esteem after widespread industrial job losses. Cooleemee’s significance lies in the way this effort is entirely community-led. Since there was no textile story, or at least no worker-oriented textile story

being told in museums or taught in schools, Cooleemeeans found themselves performing research and archaeology; teaching school history lessons; and writing articles for distribution to other textile towns. Learning that this was ‘their story’ to tell, filled townspeople with a new confidence in themselves and their future. They also discovered that first-hand experience could fill gaps in academic understanding, for while academic history forms tidy chapters lodged under defining headings life-experience is more complex. The role of history in local and personal identity involves such subjective

influences as memory, song and story. These tell us how people see themselves. They describe history experienced ‘on the ground’ rather than what Dicks described as the simplified, homogeneous ‘view of our town from the hill’ (1999: 352). ‘Hilltop’ observers gain objectivity with distance, but some complex information is unique to the ‘view from the valley’. Faue (2002)

found that having ‘reached the limits’ of theoretical understandings of class, academics need insight into ‘subjective dimensions’ that only working people themselves are equipped to explain. Taksa (2002) identified four of these dimensions. These are ‘the private underpinnings of working class life’ in family and community; the ‘contingent nature of opportunities’; the ‘malleability’ and complexity of class identity, and the way workers use their labour heritage to ‘engage with the past and draw meaning from it’. A fifth subjective dimension is motivation, for ‘Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did’ (attributed to Portelli, quoted in Stille 2001). As Faue observed: ‘Because labor historians have so often assumed that the

workers are already at the factory gate … we don’t often consider how they got there’ (2002: 13). Such assumptions motivated research at Cooleemee where there was a ‘huge piece missing’ concerning the migration of rural people into millwork. Without understanding this, Cooleemeeans felt their story was incomplete, ‘Our only other alternative … the notion that simply crossing into a mill town and taking a mill job removed all consciousness of the past and of who they were’ (Rumley, J. 2001: 2-3). For the Carolinas, the period immediately after the American Civil War

saw the rapid rise of sharecropping, a high birth rate and, with the advent of the railways, a move from a subsistence to a cash economy. Small farmers who had previously been self-sufficient moved towards dependence on a single cash crop – tobacco or cotton. Unfortunately, while merchants and manufacturers benefited, ‘the results for farmers were not so clear’ (Tullos 1989: 139). In fact, the result for many was a mass migration into factory work. Plummeting cotton prices and the control of tobacco by monopolies forced many off the land at a time when capital was accumulating in the hands of a small merchant class. These merchants were poised for investment in industry in a region devastated by war, yet blessed with cheap land, plenteous waterpower and increasingly large numbers of impoverished wageseekers. Lured by waged work in a cash-dry economy, 150-200,000 Piedmont North Carolinians moved from farm to mill village between 1885 and 1905 (see Rumley, J. 2001: 63, 68). Although mill designs were borrowed from the Northern industry, this was an investment by Southern entrepreneurs in a Southern industry. Prime investors were the Duke family who built three fortunes after the Civil War: first in tobacco; then hydroelectric power and finally textile production. In tandem with ideas of business and ‘progress’, came a genuine belief that

industrialisation could result in moral and social improvements. The building of the mill at Cooleemee by Duke subsidiary, Erwin Mills, was described by the manager thus:

That section of the state was a wild one – without schools and without religious influence … I personally, had the village built, and it was

through me that the company has spent thousands of dollars in the promotion of education, moral uplift, and religion.