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Monday, December 29, 2008

Clinchfield Mill in Marion, McDowell County, NC

Marion, NC, 1903
From History

Marion, the County Seat of McDowell County, was planned and built on land selected by the first McDowell County Commissioners. People wanted the County Seat to be built near the Carson House at Buck Creek several miles from its present location. In fact, court was held there for several years, but Sam Carson himself did not want the town there because he thought it would disrupt plantation life. Ultimately, he and his family donated 50 acres for the County Seat. Then 13 additional acres were bought at $5.00 per acre. Marion was located at a crossroads in a rather central part of the county. The date was March 14, 1844. It was not until 1845, however, that the official name Marion was sanctioned as County Seat by the state legislature. This was in spite of the fact that Marion had been used unofficially for several years. The name Marion came from Francis Marion, the South Carolina Revolutionary War hero, known as “Swamp Fox”. At the time of its founding, Marion was the “end of the line” west, and the old stage coach road west wound around from the end of Main Street through and by the pastures of Pleasant Gardens. Then it followed the hills to the wide ford of the Catawba River. Here buggies, horses, wagons, carriages, and stagecoaches could ford the river when the water was “not up”. The road then made its way to Buck Creek, the Carson House, and on westward. The devastating fire of November 25, 1894 started on Sunday morning in an old building known as the “Ark” which was located behind the Courthouse. The fire spread to Main Street and roared down the street across the railroad bridge and beyond. Next, it jumped across the street and went back up Main Street to Court Street. The few brick buildings were also gutted, as there was no public water supply. Cinders and burning timbers were blown all the way to Mt.Ida, but some houses miraculously escaped with the help of bucket brigades. The re-built houses and businesses were much sturdier and much better built. It was in 1903 that a group of local men, interested in education, got together and started the first public school, which was called The Marion Academy. This was located on Academy Street next to the old Presbyterian Church. Miss Maggie Hudgins was employed as the first teacher. Besides the Presbyterian Church (1847), there were nearby the Baptist Church (1862), the Methodist Church (1908), and the Episcopal Church (1883) was on South Main Street. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1867. Farming then was a main source of income besides the business places in town and the professions. On weekends, farmers would drive into town to sell whatever they had and to replenish their needed supplies, but especially to hear the news. With the establishment of the industrial plants: Marion Manufacturing Company (1909), Clinchfield Mill (1914), and Cross Mill (1916) and Drexel Furniture (1903) with it's Marion plant (1918) there was bound to be change. Industry made it necessary to have electricity, telephones, and running water. There came the old Marion Light and Power Company, started by J.H. Morgan and R.H. Bennett, the Marion Telephone Company, started by Paul Smith with central in an upstairs room on Main Street, and the Marion Water Works.
Marion, Main St, 1920's
From History

Benjamin Stolbert, "Madness In Marion", Nation, October 23, 1929, p. 463, The mill village surrounding the Marion Manufacturing and Clinchfield Mills were described by another source as being "among the worst examples of company towns in the South."

Twelve hour shifts, wages of $8-10/week, stretch out, unsanitary work conditions, rules like not paying a new worker for the first 30 days of work

The Voice of Southern Labor: Radio, Music and Textile Strikes, 1929-1934, by Vincent J. Roscigno & William F. Danaher
Sinclair Lewis spent a summer in Marion, NC and wrote about the awful situations the workers faced. Dilapidated housing, poor nutrition, the cycles of debt to the company that never ended, sicknesses like Tuberculosis and Pellagra were rampant. It kept getting worse. Finally 3 men went to Elizabethton, TN during that strike to try and find someone who would help them organize a union. Alfred Hoffman came back with them and started organizing. By mid-June they had enough workers signed on to begin to hold open meetings. Three quarters of the East Marion Mill signed up (as compared to 20% of Clinchfield Mill) so most of the resources were directed there. But the 2 mills shared meetings and rallies throughout. The AFL of the UTW provided little help other than the organizer, Alfred Hoffman. The strikers initially did parades between the two villages and picketted. Clinchfield Superintendent Bart didn't taunt or fire his union employees at first but by July he laid them off and locked the plant. Baldwin, at East Marion Mill, fired them from the start. When Bart tried to re-open in August, they picketted again. The National Guard was called in. The picketers would try to keep the workers (who crossed the picket lines to work) from sleeping so they would throw dynamite in their yards, drive through the village shouting and singing. The strike was officially over on Sept. 11 when a "gentleman's agreement" was reached. But immediately Presidents Hart (Clinchfield Mill) and Hunt (East Marion Mill) disregarded the terms by blacklisting employees who participated in the union and the strike. More than 100 strikers were refused employment and evictions from mill homes followed.

"Monday, Sep. 09, 1929-North Carolina's labor troubles were by no means confined to the Communist-led strike at Gastonia and its aftermath, the Charlotte murder trial (see above). At the Blue Ridge foothill town of Marion, another textile strike, directed by the conservative United Textile Workers of America, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor, "went rough" last week, led to the summoning of National Guardsmen.
"Two months ago workers were organized by A. F. of L. agents in the cotton mill of Marion Manufacturing Co., owned by Spinster Sallie Baldwin of Baltimore. When the union hands struck, the mill closed down. Unionization spread to the mills of the Clinchfield Co. which also shut down temporarily. When Clinchfield tried to reopen, strikers massed before the gates, manhandled the superintendent. Guardsmen were sent in to restore order. Mill owners commenced to eject union strikers from company houses.
"Last week when a non-union worker attempted to move into one of these shanties, strikers blocked his way. County Sheriff Oscar Adkins and his deputies rushed the strikers. Stones flew. Pates were cracked. Noses bled. Sheriff Adkins swore out 148 warrants for 'riot, insurrection and rebellion against the constituted authority of the State of North Carolina.' After 74 strikers and their leaders had been arrested, the county jail was filled. More troopers came to town. Minor dynamitings occurred in the mills. A Labor Day parade was banned by the county commissioners and the mill owners moved to evict 230 families of strikers from company homes. "
Declared President B. M. Hart of the Clinchfield Mill: "I will meet only with my own employees. I cannot see that there is any difference between this so-called conservative union and the Communist union at Gastonia. They act alike."

History of the Labor Movement In The United States, The T.U.E.L. (Trade Union Educational League), Volume X, 1925-1929
There was no formal agreement, but rather a handshake agreement. The mill reduced hours as promised but blacklisted a hundred workers for union activities and even evicted families from their mill homes that were known to sympathise. The mill management would not discuss their actions so a night shift spontaneously walked out on Oct 2, 1929. The County Sheriff, Oscar Adkins, and 11 deputies showed up and threw tear gas at the strikers. One 68 year old lame man began struggling with the sheriff and they began beating and clubbing him while the deputies fired into the crowd of retreating strikers. They killed 6 by shooting them in the back and 25 were seriously injured. This is called the Marion Massacre. B. M. Hart, President of Clinchfield Mill, praised the Sheriff and Deputies. There were 26 arrests with 4 convictions but all the deputies were acquitted quickly of 2nd degree murder. Union activity ceased and the governor refused to do a special investigation into the deaths.

13 APR 2005 by Perry Dean Young
"The Marion Massacre By Mike Lawing Wasteland Press, 119 pp., $12
'Twas in Marion, North Carolina,
In a little mountain town;
Six workers of the textile
In cold blood were shot down.'
--From 'The Marion Massacre' by Woody Guthrie

"In the early dawn of Oct. 2, 1929, the McDowell County sheriff and several deputies faced a group of workers outside the fence in front of the Marion Manufacturing Company, whose 600 employees had been on strike for four months.
"Sheriff Oscar Adkins would later swear in court that the strikers opened fire first, although no weapons were ever found on any of the strikers. And, more important, none of the deputies was shot. When the dust settled, however, six strikers had been killed and 24 were wounded. Charges were brought against the sheriff, the mill superintendent, two mill foremen and 14 deputies. A preliminary hearing exonerated the sheriff, the mill employees and six deputies. Eight deputies were brought to trial on second degree murder charges, but a jury in nearby Yancey County quickly acquitted them. The deputies were the beneficiaries of a "Dream Team" of lawyers that included a future governor and U.S. senator as well as a future chief justice of the state Supreme Court. All of the strikers were fired from their jobs and evicted from their company-owned homes.
"It was an historic moment in the history of labor in America. Sinclair Lewis came down and wrote six articles for the Scripps-Howard newspapers, later published as a union pamphlet entitled Cheap and Contented Labor, the phrase used to lure factories to the South. Socialist leader Norman Thomas contributed to the strike fund. Woody Guthrie wrote two (still unpublished) songs about the martyrs in the "Marion Massacre," as the Raleigh News & Observer headlined its report from the scene.
"Mike Lawing grew up in Winston-Salem, but frequently visited relatives in Marion. He drove past the mill dozens of times, but had never once heard anybody mention what happened there. He was well into middle age when his father pointed to the site one day and started to tell him about it. The elder Lawing had three uncles working in the Marion and Clinchfield mills--two supported the strike, one was "loyal" to the company. Lawing's mother was related to a deputy accused of shooting at strikers as well as the attorney who represented the Union. "It was as if both sides were ashamed of what had happened, and nobody wanted to talk about it," Lawing says now. Only in recent years have we begun to see local historians or historians of any kind paying attention to the dramatic story of the efforts to organize labor unions in the textile mills in our state.
"Fascinated by the story, Lawing began collecting information about the strike and its bloody aftermath. He interviewed everybody he could find and collected news reports of strikes in Marion. His research resulted in a series of articles published in the McDowell News, and he has now published the story in The Marion Massacre.
"Lawing is modest about his efforts, explaining, "I am not a writer--I prefer to be thought of as a storyteller." The truth is, Lawing lays out the story in far more sensible and readable prose than the great muckraker Sinclair Lewis did.
"Lawing traces the precise cause of the walkout at Marion to an overload of work that Lewis apparently did not know about. This extra work was on top of the 12-hour day that the men, women and children were expected to work every week for $13, minus the cost of housing and whatever they'd charged at the company store. All they were striking for was a reduction in the work load from 12 to 10 hours with the same pay. Lawing also explains how each of the major strikes in 1929--in Marion, in Elizabethton, Tenn., and in Gastonia--was unique and unrelated to the others. Tragically, the fiercely independent workers shared their bosses' fears of any kind of union that smacked of Bolshevism and Communism. And the bosses gleefully preyed on the workers' racism. Blacks could only get the most menial jobs in the mills. Joining a union, they said, "would mean your wives and daughters would be working right alongside a Negro." And the workers would continue to operate against their own best interests--until their jobs were outsourced to Communist China.
"With admirable persistence, Lawing has succeeded in getting this story home to the folks in Marion and McDowell County whether they want to talk about it or not. After Lawing's articles were published in the newspaper, he was able to connect with many families who had ties to the incident, and their information helped him correct several mistakes. He has scheduled readings in Marion and the book is for sale in three locations there. If his book does not make it on any kind of statewide or national stage, at least he will have helped to erase the long conspiracy of silence and confronted the folks back home with the facts about this tragic event in local history."

Bailey Bright "B.B." Reese (DOB: 1/26/1878 in Joe, Madison County, NC, DOD: 12/10/1949 in Marion, McDowell County, NC) married Lillian "Lily" or "Lilly" Vianna Conner (DOB: 1/9/1887 in Marshall, Madison County, NC; DOD: 1/15/1984 in Marion, McDowell County, NC). The Reeses came down from the mountains to Marion, NC and went to work in the Clinchfield Mill. They lived in the mill village. Bailey Bright was the night watchman at the mill. They lived at 58 Virginia Road (or the house behind that one). B.B. was a member of Clinchfield Baptist Church in Marion. Lily told how she remembered him sitting in his rocking chair reading his Bible or his Biblical Recorder. How he would fall asleep until the Bible fell and woke him up, then he would pick it back up and try to read some more. Bailey Bright and Lily were living with Rass and Gertrude Young at 50 (or 52) Virginia Rd when Bailey Bright died. Their son, my Grandfather, was William Wilford Reese. He also worked at the Clinchfield Mill where he met his future wife, my Grandmother, Geneva "Ginnie" Margaret Lamb. They got married on Dec 30, 1933.

Here is B.B. and Lily on the porch of their mill house in Marion, NC.

B.B. Reese's payroll card.

Clinchfield Mill 2006


Unknown said...

Interesting post. I worked at East Marion on weekends and during the summers my last couple of years in high school. My brother worked at Clinchfield his senior year in high school. Our dad was a foreman at East Marion for about 20 years after WW2 and my maternal grandfather worked as a foreman at East Marion for over 40 years.

I grew up hearing about the shooting. My parents were very anti-union and two (or more) of the deputies involved in the shooting were my grandfather's brothers. My family still holds that the strikers were folks who didn't want to work, etc. My guess is that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Another book you might want to read is Like a Family about cotton mills not just East Marion and not just the strike.

I got out of Marion after Vietnam and got a PhD. I am glad to have not worked in a factory. Hard and boring work.

Carolyn Isom Childers said...

I grew up in Clinchfield.We lived on Circle Street and Rass & Gertrude Young were our next door neighbors at that time.That was called the "Old Hill" We moved to the "New Hill" in 1959 on Hill St.I lived there until I married in 1968.I found this very interesting.I now live in Nebo but have very fond memories of Clinchfield.

Sharon said...

Carolyn, thank you for your comments. I didn't know Rass & Trudy because we lived in SC, except that they were family. Grandmother Reese would come stay with my Granddaddy (her son, Wilford Reese) so I got to know her more. She babysat us when she was here. I have a lot of memories of her. -Sharon

Anonymous said...

Wow, such an interesting history at Clinchfield Mfg Co. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I was in Marion, NC yesterday and rode past the Marion Mfg. Co. It is a sad site, closed down, abandoned. I was wondering what was made there and now I know plus the history of the strikes etc. I grew up in Ohio where unions were a way of life and I believe responsible for the fact that our country had a middle class. As we see now the gap between rich and everyone else is huge, (back to the Robber Baron days of the 1920s), this shows that the owners never would have given higher wages to workers and to keep their wealth they are willing to go anywhere in the world where workers will work for less money. I guess Capitalism trumps Nationalism. Our nation would be so much stronger if the wealth were shared more as more people would be able to purchase more goods and create more jobs. Anyway my 2¢ and thanks for writing this history.

Margot said...

My Grandmother, Ellen Morris Withrow worked at that Mill in Clinchfield and lived on School Street, I am unsure of the dates. I wish when she had talked about historical events that had happended in her life, I would have had the inclination to have written them down. I regret that so now that I am an adult and have lost so much history with my family death's.

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