The Mill Whistle and the Passing Generations

It has been said the mill whistle was the musical background to the lives of the folks that lived in the village.  The whistle was blown to wake up the workers and to signal the shift changes. That mill whistle meant different things to the different generations. 

The Newcomers - the First Generation

To the first generation that whistle meant new opportunity. My maternal grandfather went to work in Pacolet Mills in 1896 when he was only six years old. The mill itself was only 13 years old at that time.  He worked there for 59 years until his retirement in 1955. (To our knowledge, he holds the record for longevity with Pacolet Mills.) His mother died when he was three years old and he was sent to friends or relatives in Pacolet Mills to raise. In spite of today’s stigma and abhorrence of child labor, the job in the mill was a lifeboat in a stormy sea to my grandfather. 

My paternal relatives and also my wife’s paternal relatives came down from the mountains in North Carolina to work in the mills around 1900. They came a hundred miles in distance but they also came a hundred years forward in time. Life on a mountain farm and in the mountain logging business was backbreaking and dangerous. 

The first generation was still mostly in the age of the horse. It was closer in time to the Civil War than we are today to the Vietnam War. It was mainly pre car-and pre-airplane and before indoor plumbing. The first generation probably ended around 1920 at the end of World War I. 

To this generation the mill meant a steady job, good houses and real cash money. 

A Double Blow - The Second Generation

By the second generation, the mill whistle was sometimes good news and sometimes bad news. In the early 1920’s, the whistle signaled prosperity at first but turned to desperation and hard times in the Depression of the late 1920’s and the 1930’s. During this time, the mills and the people barely got by. Mills only ran 2 or 3 days a week. Young men had to leave to try to find work. They rode the rails, enlisted in the CCC camps or went to places like Columbus, Georgia to find work - and wives. 

The second generation got another terrible blow with the coming of World War II. Most folk’s lives were disrupted. Men went into the service and wound up far from home. Other men, too old to fight, went into the War Industry like the Charleston Naval Shipyard or to places like Oak Ridge, Tennessee to work on a secret place that would make the Atomic Bomb that helped end the War. 

The country and its people persevered, won the War, and led to the third generation starting about 1945. 

The High and the Low - The Third Generation

In the late 1940’s and the early 1950’s, that mill whistle sounded for 3 shifts where everyone that wanted a job could have one. It was the opposite of the Depression and might be called the Golden Age of the Upcountry Textile Mills. It could not last, by the mid 1950’s troubling signs began to appear. There began to be competition from overseas with textiles made by cheap foreign labor. The winds of change caught up with third generation in the late 1950’s up through the early 1980’s. Things happened that no one could have ever imagined. The jobs got fewer and then stopped. The Mill Whistle itself stopped. Finally the mills themselves were torn down and the hearts of the mill villages were torn out. In every little textile village that lost its mill, it was like living through a long term funeral. 

But the Story Goes On

In reality, not only cloth but a lasting legacy was made by all those hard working textile workers. They also produced the generations that came after them. Coming in the wake of that little 6 year old boy, working 12 hours a day in the mill, are his descendents. They are successful engineers, architects, teachers, dentists, nurses, college professors and on and on. The same thing happened at every mill. 
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This web site has been started as a public service to share the story of Pacolet. The web master and person to contact about putting information on the web site is me, Gerald Teaster.  Contact me at: or by telephone at (843) 873-8117.  My regular mail adress is:
1311 Jahnz Ave.
Summerville, SC 29485

See more information about my Pacolet connection at Gerald Teaster.