Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Textile Mills Have Been Very, Very Good to Me

Debra and I were in Cabo San Lucas for a wedding a few years ago. We were out doing the tourist thing. My failure to take a cap on the trip combined with the very bright sun was wreaking havoc on my considerable forehead, the product of an ever receding hairline, which in turn is the product of rubbing my head too much when our children were teenagers. So, I ducked into a shop in search of a cap. I bought a nice golf cap that had “Cabo San Lucas” stitched on the front. As I was putting it on, I noticed the tag. I laughed. That cap and its tag have become for me a symbol of this brave new world in which we live. The cap was sold in Mexico. The tag bore a picture of an American flag. Underneath the flag were the words “Made in Vietnam.”

I thought about that cap yesterday when I read a story in my hometown newspaper, The Barnesville (GA) Herald Gazette (I actually read it on their website, www.barnesville.com), about the old William Carter Company complex in Barnesville being bought by some developers. The article said that in its heyday that textile mill had employed some 1500 people. My mother was one of them. I don’t know what she did for most of her career there, but toward the end of her life she worked in the lab. Carter’s made clothes for babies and children and so flammability and other tests were very important. My father worked in the nearby town of Thomaston for Thomaston Mills. He was working there when he entered the Navy around the time that World War II started; he served his five or so years in the military and then went back to work at Thomaston Mills. He was there one nice May afternoon in 1979 when he suffered the heart attack that would cause him to die three days later.

I was very proud of my father; he had risen to the position of Manager of the Bleach Division which was, I suppose, as high as he could go with his high school education. When he had his heart attack and was in ICU at the Upson County Hospital, a couple of young men wearing nice suits came to see him. They were visibly upset. I had never seen them before so I asked someone who they were. He said, “Oh, those are the Georgia Tech graduates who don’t know how they’re going to run that place if your daddy doesn’t make it.” He didn’t make it. By 2001 Thomaston Mills had ceased operations in Thomaston. I like to think that it was because they couldn’t run it without Daddy. But 2001 was also the year that Carter’s mill in Barnesville went out of business, except for a distribution center that still employs a couple of hundred people. It would be an even bigger stretch to think that Daddy’s demise had anything to do with that. And as valuable an employee as I’m sure my mother was, she wasn’t in management, not even the blue collar type.

The causes of the closing of those mills are of course much more complicated than the deaths of a couple of good employees, even if they were my parents. I don’t know enough about economics to say too much about it, but obviously the textile industry has moved a lot of its manufacturing operations overseas. There just aren’t that many textile mills left here in the South and I imagine that it’s that way across the country. Another large outfit, Graniteville Mills, just across the river from my home in Augusta, Georgia, closed just a few months ago, causing the loss of 1900 manufacturing jobs. And so it goes.

It’s a funny thing, but I remember being inside either of the mills in which my parents worked exactly one time. When I was a child my parents took me with them to some kind of open house at Thomaston Mills; I suppose there must have been a recent remodeling. I never set foot inside Carter’s Mill. Not once. Perhaps those good parents of mine, neither of whom went to college but both of whom caused me to believe that I had no choice but to go, also went out of their way to make sure that I felt no real attachment to the mills that had been the source of their livelihood. Maybe they wanted to make sure that I went in a different direction. Maybe they knew what was coming.

Maybe. But today I want to say that I am grateful for Carter’s Mill in Barnesville, Georgia and for Thomaston Mills in Thomaston, Georgia. When I was in school and I had to fill out some form or another and I had to write my parents’ occupation, I would ask one of them what I should write and they would tell me, “Textile.” I didn’t really know what that meant. This much I do know, though: “textile” put a roof over our heads and food on our table and clothes on our backs; “textile” sent me to college.

So here’s a word of praise for what the textile industry once was and for what it once did for so many of us. I never worked in them, but those mills were very, very good to me.

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