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The people of the mills

Posted: October 5, 2017 4:32 p.m.
Updated: October 6, 2017 1:00 a.m.

In his book “The Most They Ever Had,” the Southern writer and Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg writes, “As a boy, I was a little afraid of the people of the mills. They had the look of a people who had not lived as much as endured it, as if they had walked out of a fire.”

The historical accounts of Camden customarily focus on the accomplishments of aristocratic entrepreneurs and warriors. That said, there was another Camden.

The Kendall Mill Historic District, which the Kershaw County Historical Society celebrates on Sunday, Oct. 22, reminds us of the importance of the textile industry to South Carolina and the people who stamped this state with their endurance and their hearts.

The Industrial Revolution, a turning point in human history, marked the development of machine tools and the rise of the factory system. Textiles were its dominant industry, influencing almost every aspect of daily life. Personal income and population demonstrated unprecedented growth.

The concept of a New South, developed after the Civil War, aimed at making the region less dependent on agriculture. The main component: the textile mill. Across the South, cotton mills were constructed at explosive rates. By 1910, there were 167 cotton mills in South Carolina, a number second only to Massachusetts. Most workers came from tenant farms where the soil had given out. In order to feed and clothe their families, they walked with unblinking courage into a new and often punishing world.

By 1920, an estimated one-sixth of South Carolina’s white population lived in mill villages. Employees labored from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and for nine hours on Saturday for wages that were, on average, 60 percent lower than those earned by mill hands in other parts of the country. According to Rick Bragg, even into the 1930s, workers made as little as $7 for a 55-hour week; children, a fifth of that. The workers enjoyed no lunch hour; they ate at their machines. We have no records of mangled hands and lost fingers. Racial integration would not take place until well after WWII.

Joan and Glen Inabinet’s comprehensive “A History of Kershaw County, South Carolina,” a must-read (available at Books on Broad and Historic Camden), argues for a progressive interpretation of our local mills, which included the Hermitage Mill and the Wateree Mill (later the Kendall Mill) where, by 1920, administrators had installed running water, followed by electricity, both in advance of the city of Camden, a separate municipality until 1948. The Inabinets reference mill administrators sponsoring baseball teams, community gardens and, more importantly, health insurance. Illiterate workers could acquire literary skills; the mill sponsored swimming and lifeguard competitions, and a brass band with music instructors. Employees commonly agreed that factory work, however boring, was less taxing than farm work with its grueling hours and sometimes devastating results.

By providing housing that was often better than what the workers had left behind in the countryside, owners convinced both workers and the public that the company was taking care of its own. However, some observers argued that schools were poorly run and often overcrowded or under-attended; housing was sometimes sub-standard; and the company store maintained price controls, often assisting employee descent into debt. 

Broadus Mitchell, in his 1930 book, “The Industrial Revolution in the South,” argued to the contrary that workers generally accepted the services of the mill in exchange for their silence about unsafe working environments and unsanitary living conditions. 

Help came during the Great Depression. In 1933, the first woman Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, using the Social Security Act, established unemployment benefits, pensions for elderly Americans and welfare for the poorest. She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and helped craft laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour workweek. She expanded factory investigations, and championed unemployment insurance laws.

Then, a downturn: As textile and apparel trade liberalized during the last few decades, import competition reduced the U.S. workforce from 2.4 million in 1973 to 650,000 in 2005. Further decline in textile jobs followed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the textile and apparel industries will have the most rapidly declining employment rates of all industries.

We know the challenge. Whatever the resolution, the mill workers of Camden remain a people of heroic survival and endurance. We are honored to remember them.

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