It has been said the mill whistle was the
musical background to the lives of the folks that lived in the
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
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
To this generation the mill meant a steady job, good houses and real
A Double Blow - The Second
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
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.