H.002. Piedmont Industrialization: Burlington, N.C.
- Creator: Southern Oral History Program
- Collection: Southern Oral History Program Interviews
Burlington, N.C., is of particular significance for industrialization in the Piedmont because it was one of the first places where the textile industry took hold, and it eventually became the center for Burlington Industries, the largest textile corporation in the world. At first called Company Shops, Burlington originated in the 1850s as the location of the repair shops of the Goldsboro-Charlotte line of the North Carolina Railroad. The name was changed to Burlington in 1887. The first cotton mill in Alamance County, the Alamance Cotton Mill, was built on Cane Creek in 1837 by Edwin Michael Holt and William Carrigan. The mill survived the Civil War, and Holt and his sons gradually added other cotton mills to their holdings. By 1900, the Holt family controlled 24 of the 29 mills in Alamance County. Several mills were located in Burlington, and the city limits later expanded to include other mills and the villages surrounding them. After World War I, the cotton industry in Burlington experienced economic difficulties, partly due to a fall in demand for the ginghams that constituted the area's main product. In 1923, at the invitation of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, James Spencer Love, who owned a controlling interest in the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company of Gastonia, N.C., founded Burlington Industries. Initially, Love's company manufactured cotton cloth, but it was affected by the general slump in the cotton industry. Within a year, Love had switched to rayon manufacturing. During the 1920s and even during the Depression, Burlington Industries expanded, building new mills and taking over old ones. By the end of 1936, Burlington Industries owned 29 mills. In order to explore the history of the textile industry in Burlington, efforts were focused on former workers of the E. M. Holt Plaid Mill, owned by the Holt family, and on the Pioneer plant, owned by Burlington Industries. Established in 1883, the Plaid Mill was one of two cotton mills in Company Shops before the town was renamed. The mill was established by Lawrence Holt with financial backing from Banks Holt, W. H. Turrentine, and William A. Erwin. Burlington Industries acquired Plaid Mill in 1938. The Pioneer plant, the first mill owned by Burlington Industries, was built in 1923; the Piedmont Heights mill village grew up around it. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Burlington textile industry diversified into hosiery as well as rayon manufacture. As a result, the interviewers also talked with former workers from the Burlington area's many hosiery mills. Work, family, and living conditions are the topics covered most extensively in these interviews. Although the interviewers focused primarily on the Plaid and Pioneer mills, the interviews deal with the geographic and job mobility that characterized these people's lives. Movement--from farm to factory, from job to job, and from village to village--is an important feature of most of these interviews. Consequently, many Piedmont mill towns are discussed, among them Swepsonville, Leaksville, Spray, Schoolfield, Glen Raven, Glencoe, Altamahaw, Gibsonville, Durham, Bellemont, and Graham. Many of the interviewees worked part or all of their lives in Burlington's hosiery mills. Several of them engaged in home production of stockings, an important feature of the hosiery industry in the 1920s and 1930s. Ethel Hilliard discussed at length her childhood in El Dorado, a North Carolina gold mining town. One of the main themes pursued by the interviewers was the transition from family ownership (the Holt mills) to corporate management (Burlington Industries). The relationship between workers and owners is reflected in vignettes about members of the Holt family and of J. Spencer Love, and in accounts of union activity. Technology, time study, work organization, the impact of the Depression and World War II on the textile industry, occupational sex roles, child labor, and working conditions, are all topics of discussion. These interviews are also important for the information they include about everyday life. Most of the interviewees discuss family history, childhood, and education. Other topics include housing, sanitation, the advent of electricity, transportation, and diet. Some of the interviews reveal how some farm practices, such as gardening, raising livestock, and canning, were continued in the mill villages. The interview with Ben Wiles, a grocer, is informative both about the grocery business before the age of supermarkets, and about the implements of everyday living. Boarding was an important feature of mill village life, and more than half of these interviewees either boarded at some stage in their lives or had parents who ran boarding houses. Health was an important topic of discussion in almost every interview. Common illnesses, the effect of cotton dust in the mills, childbearing, the flu epidemic of 1918 , and health care (doctors, midwives, and folk remedies) are all discussed. Interviews with Carroll Lupton , a doctor who had worked in Piedmont Heights, and with Grace Moore Maynard and Mrs. Robinson former members of the Burlington Service League are particularly informative on the subject of health. Recreation is another aspect of everyday life discussed in these interviews. Many of the interviewees talked about dances, drinking customs, and entertainments such as the circus, medicine shows, and movies. Music--string bands, labor and folk songs, fiddling, and gospel--was also an important part of these workers' lives. Among sports activities, baseball stands out. Several workers including H. G. Meacham, V. Baxter Splawn, and Frank Webster played in baseball leagues and a few belonged to semi-pro teams . Religion is also covered. In some cases, the interviewers were especially interested in exploring the relationship between the churches and the mill owners. Other interviews reveal the importance of preacher George Washington Swinney and Glen Hope Baptist Church to Piedmont Heights mill village. Preacher Swinney was no longer alive at the time that these interviews were conducted, but an interview with his wife, Etta Swinney and tapes of his preaching are included. Interviews with Mildred Overman, educational director of Glen Hope Church, and Thomas Staley, a church maintenance worker, are of particular interest. Interviews with mill managers, other entrepreneurs, and middle-class women, add another dimension to this study of Burlington. Of particular significance are interviews with female entrepreneurs Bertha Cates, a coal and lumber yard operator, and her sister Verna Cates Stackhouse, manager of the King Cotton Mill. Cates was an active member of the Association of Business and Professional Women. One of the first female bank clerks in the area, Grace Moore Maynard, described the impact of World War I on the employment of women in white collar jobs. A number of other topics are touched upon more briefly. Reid Maynard discussed life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during World War II and his wartime service. The interview with Grace Moore Maynard, daughter of D. M. Moore, mayor of Burlington from 1912 to 1919, provides some information about that period of the city's history. Finally, these interviews provide some insights into the mill workers' racial attitudes, but this topic is not explored extensively.