Tell me a story you know by heart.
All anybody could talk about that summer was the rain. Tomatoes split, pole beans molded, muskmelons turned to rot. Roadbeds gullied and the jockey lot washed out. Boughs exploded off oak trees. Mountainsides slid downslope in a crush of mud. The sign at the Baptist church said WHOEVER IS PRAYING FOR RAIN/PLEASE STOP.
And the song I couldn’t shake was “When the Levee Breaks.” Memphis Minnie Douglas and her husband, Kansas Joe, wrote it about the devastating 1927 flood that killed nearly three hundred people and wiped out tens of thousands of acres of the Mississippi delta. Refugees from inundated towns waited in tent cities above another, bigger levee while they figured out their next move. Thousands of them left the delta forever, setting off for cities like Chicago in what became known as the Great Migration.
The version of the song that most people know is Led Zeppelin’s, and the classic rock stations around here play it plenty. John Bonham’s drum line — fleshy, thumping, heavy as a millstone — sounds like dread made physical, and yet somehow it’s tempting. It catches your ear and you sidle over, lean against it. Down on the river’s edge, weeds grow in the clay. Surely there’s no harm in letting your toes play in the water, in the bodied current, thick with silt.
Little tunnel, dark as a culvert. I crawled inside on hands and knees until I reached the middle of the smokestack and could stand, cool walls around me, circle of sky high above. Steel rungs mortared into the brick ran to the top; it would have been somebody’s job to climb the ladder, now and then, and check on things. I knew I shouldn’t be there.
It was a muggy July morning twenty-three years after the mill closed for good. Thickets of blackberry canes fortified the fence and scribbles of green creeper fluttered against the walls; the overall effect was that of a castle left to wrack and ruin while its inhabitants slept off a potent curse. I jumped the fence with my husband, David, and my friend Brad. I’ve known Brad since we were kids, a time when hundreds of people — our classmates’ parents — made their living here. But over time cheaper imports flooded the market and this mill went the way of most upstate factories. A scab-dark work glove, swollen with rubber warts, lay bloated in the weeds.
A hundred and fifty feet tall, made from clay very like the stuff beneath our feet, the stack was visible for miles, and like all of these old stacks it had little trees growing from its top.
Standing inside, I was at the center of something, and felt it. Behind me, the cleaning tunnel; in front, a dark mouth leading to the boiler. Something in me said leave. It’s dangerous to treat with the past, and you can’t stay as long as you’d like. The place smelled deliciously of cool earth but there was no ash left in the pit, only brick powder, crushed-flat beer cans and a dirty sign reading KEEP OUT.
Why do the mills pull me? I never worked in one, didn’t grow up on the mill hill. I moved here with my family when I was small, and left at eighteen for college in another state. I didn’t expect to move back; there weren’t jobs. Over the next dozen or so years, I lived and worked in six other states. When I finally landed, I ended up just down the road from where I’d started. It seemed there was something important to understand about that, about here.
Boosters used to call this part of South Carolina the “Textile Capital of the World,” and it wasn’t idle talk. You could sleep all night on our sheets and in the morning wash your face with our ring-spun cotton. Drink your coffee at a table spread with Dacron, slice sausage loose from local stockinette, press a shirt pieced here with an iron insulated by woven cotton electrical cording. These mills made twill and sateen, T-shirts and cardigans and lace and fiberfill. They made the diaphanous curtains with which Christo fenced the hills of northern California; they made spacesuits and parachutes for the Apollo astronauts. Braid, yarn, griege cloth, carpet. Webbing, florist wire, fiberglass. To keep a child’s idle hands from the devil’s business, you could buy a bag stuffed with the loops of many-colored stocking remnants. We had a hand loom on which you stretched the loops over little teeth (warp) and a steel hook with which you could pull a second loop over and under (weft) and make a pot holder.
But by the time I started high school just down the hill, the mill had shut down and somehow I missed it. Brad and I were in the marching band together, and when we played our home games, our music would have bounced off these very walls. Yet in my memories of those Friday nights, where the mill ought to be there’s blank space.
If you could get a better perspective, say by climbing the rungs hidden inside the smokestack, here’s what you would see: the roof’s wide expanse, dimpled with stale rain; crackerbox houses in neat rows; the funeral home; the Hotel Easley (now condemned); the railroad tracks gleaming in the morning sun. If you stood at the top of that stack, high above the ground, leaves would brush your face from the little sumac trees that grow in the rim’s worn-down clay. Of the sumac, my field guide says, “a dear child has many names”: sumach, summaque, shumac, shoe-make. The stack was once the life of the mill, breathing out black smoke. Cold now as a copperhead’s mouth. What does it mean to lose who you are?
In the fall, sumac blazes red and orange; you can use its wood to make picture frames, napkin rings, or darners, or you can boil its leaves to make black ink, with which you can write all this down to help you remember.
Listening to Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe singing, your ears play tricks on you. For a blues song “When the Levee Breaks” is almost upbeat. But Memphis Minnie knew hardship. What hadn’t she seen? Playing Beale Street corners for dimes by day, entertaining hungry men for rent money by night. In her teens she toured with a circus — ribby tiger, milky-eyed monkey, a steer whose horns she padded with rags. We all know sawdust but she knew chalk, splintered tent peg, a dancer pressing spangles in riverbank mud.
Did she see her childhood farmhouse lapped with waves? Did she see the river sixty miles wide and black with the topsoil of Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma? Did she see fence posts and sodden quilts float past; did she see a hair bonnet, drowned children? The levees broke in 145 places. Water filled cellar, kitchen, haymow; water thirty feet deep overtopped headstones, apple orchards, clotheslines, maple trees, chimneys. All the fenced and tended places wrecked.
A hundred years ago, many of the workers in these mills were the first in their families to leave the nearby mountains for town. Agents attracted them with rental houses owned by the factory. Simple places by today’s standards, but most eventually had electricity and running water, and little yards in back where folks kept patches of corn, peas, and greens to supplement what they bought at the company store. And many of their thrifty mountain ways they kept, not from sentiment but necessity. Make no mistake: the start of this was the end of something else.
But the accounts I’ve read speak of a sense of shared life that marked those years. People didn’t have much to spare, but none of their neighbors did either. The whistle regulated daily life, from the 8:00 a.m. start of first shift, to the 4:00 p.m. that marked the beginning of second, then third at midnight. Wednesday was prayer meeting and Sunday was preaching; the mill built the church and paid the preacher. If you had athletic talent, you played on the mill baseball or basketball teams. When people say they miss the mills, part of what they mean is they miss community. Easter-egg hunts, fishing contests, nicknames: Pokey, Mongoose, Ding Dong, Humpy. Jet Oil, Obb, Chili Bean, Gumlog. We wish we knew the stories behind the names; we want to belong to a story ourselves.
On Led Zeppelin IV, Page, Jones, Bonham, and Plant share the songwriting credit with Memphis Minnie. And Jimmy Page produced it in 1971, but for all the special effects in the song — playing the harmonica echo slightly before the actual melody, slowing down the replay for a “sludgy” effect, panning the instrumentals around Plant’s howl so everything swirls around him — the most powerful trick might also be the most simple. They set up Bonham’s drums at the bottom of a staircase. The drums sound prehistoric but the kit was fresh from the factory. It’s not just the heads (plastic) and the sticks (hickory) you hear, it’s the building, the tall, narrow space that you could, by some lights, think of as a tower.
The microphone is your ear, listening from high above to the roar and pound from below. Of “Levee,” Jimmy Page said, “It suck(s) you into the source.” Said John Bonham, “I yell out when I’m playing. I yell like a bear to give it a boost.” In the pauses between notes, the beat presses itself against your body like water. You can’t touch bottom but you know if you could, deadfall branches would snag your ankles. Said Bonham, “I like it to be like a thunderstorm.”
That rainy summer turned into a glorious fall, and because this is a small town, I discovered that the current mill owners — whose property I had, yes, trespassed upon — were good friends with my supervisor at work. Unaware of my sin, they invited me to tour the mill, which they planned to turn into apartments and had gotten listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The mill owner took a key from its hiding place and unlocked the front door. When we stepped over the threshold, the temperature dropped and we blinked in the sudden darkness; the windows were bricked up, the doors covered with plywood. The looms had been auctioned off long before, but when I played my flashlight across the floor I saw the square bolt heads that had anchored them. The boards underneath were lighter than the aisles, which had been darkened by the tread of countless feet. As the owner explained how the apartments would be arranged, I thought instead of how crowded it must have been, girls pushing carts down the narrow alleys and replacing full bobbins with empties, the machines’ thunder and clack. High above us were the pipes that had sprayed mist to keep the cotton mellow, and dead lightbulbs draped with old lint.
In the office, a giveaway calendar clung to the wall: a full year with no pages torn out, January 1990. I had almost expected to find that — but not the skein of plastic garland from the last Christmas party, nor the memo on the lunchroom floor detailing the exit interview procedure: FOR THOSE EMPLOYEES WHOSE JOBS WILL END TODAY.
The newel post on the staircase was raised in the middle like a blister, its paint polished away by thousands of palms. We headed upstairs, where a training room held an old Draper loom. I shone my flashlight over it; the beam lit up a circle of threads, both filling and warp. It had been someone’s job to wind the thread in taut parallel lines around the teeth of the beam. “I loved drawing-in,” one skilled pattern-maker said in an interview I read. “I enjoyed it more than anything I’ve done … Honest to goodness, I’d rather draw in than eat when I was hungry,” she said. “The only thing I ever done in my life that I really loved.”
I’d seen an old photograph of a loom fixer seated in front of a frame like this. In his right hand he held a crescent wrench, and his left hand bore no wedding band, maybe because of the tight spaces in which he had to work. A ring could get caught in the machinery and he’d lose the finger. She must have known he didn’t love her the less.
I imagine the lights flickering and the workers diving under the machines; when the power surges, the looms get out of whack, and the arm throws the heavy shuttle hard across the weave room. I see the man fix the loom and the weavers get back to work, cotton sheeting with a figured pattern of striped blue and red around the edge. The shuttles fly back and forth and the cloth grows and grows and when the roll is full the doffer razors it free, runs it downstairs to ship.
And the sheets stretch tight over beds sick or marital or childbirth. Cut in pieces they shroud okra and tomatoes from the garden and hold the pump water where the housewife shakes them dry; stitched in a line they make curtains and bloomers and pillowcases; quilted in layers they diaper infants; torn in strips they bandage the hurting. The banner on the truck that rolled down Main Street in the 1919 Armistice Parade read “WE MADE BANDAGE CLOTH FOR THE BOYS WHO BROKE THE HINDENBURG LINE.” Rafters and floors of yellow pine, red brick walls, iron machines enameled green. Shuttles dark and quills pale poplar. Cotton so white after bleaching, and fat coils of roving going narrow as they seine through the needle’s eye. One worker said of the old days, “You sucked the thread into the eye of the shuttle with your mouth.” Workaday kiss.
We walked the floor together, moving slowly through the darkness like people floating in deep water. My flashlight picked up dim forms and shapes — broken pallets, a barrel of bobbins. Like the divers at the bottom of nearby Lake Jocassee who swim past the porch of the old summer lodge, two hundred feet down, or the cemetery, its gravestones pale teeth looming in the murk. When we turned to leave, we passed an open door scrawled with spray paint. TURN BACK, it said. YOU’RE NEXT.
The trouble with creating a song that depends so heavily on production is that it’s almost impossible to recreate live. After a few attempts in early tours, Zeppelin abandoned the effort. So the version of “Levee” I listen to must always be a relic, seven minutes and eight seconds snatched from the past.
I had a hard time getting a big picture of what the mills had been like. I scoured archives, read oral histories, left messages for folks who didn’t call back. It seemed like people wanted to forget what had been.
But one day I met a woman who’d worked in the mills her whole life — started out sweeping floors, moved up to the opening room, and made it all the way to weaving instructor by the time the mill shut down. Third shift. Getting ready for her work day, she told me, she’d drape her tie threads around her neck like a scarf, for easy access when fixing broken warp. “You got your scissors,” she said. “All my blue jeans had a little hole where the scissors cut. Reed hook in your back pocket, rubber bands. No belt buckle, nothing to get hung up in the threads … Masking-tape strips on your pant leg, to hold the thread until you tie it.” If you cut your fingertips, paint them with clear nail polish, lest the threads slice them clean open.
She’d spent her childhood on the mill hill in a haze of need, moving with her mother and siblings again and again just ahead of rent day. No tidy garden in the back — no time to tend it. One afternoon when she was four years old a man holding a badge promised her all the dimes she could imagine if she would just follow him a piece down the railroad tracks. Even that young she knew enough to run like hell, and got away.
We talked about what years of mill work would do a body. Her back still troubled her, and her shoulders were out of joint from wrangling machinery. Growing up, she’d known healers, and it would be a help to find some now. “God gave people the gift,” she said. “Guess what? To take care of the people on the mill hill. But you had to believe or it wouldn’t work. They’d ask, do you believe?” Once, when she was burned, someone talked the fire out of her.
It’s been ten years since her mill closed. Of the noise and the pace, she said “All I could ever do was dream of getting out. That to me was hell. And when you get home — you can’t go to sleep, you’re too exhausted.” But then again, she said, “I think it made people better. Respect, honesty. It bought the clothes. It built the houses.”
Before I left, she showed me a picture of herself with the rest of her crew. She’d posed with her co-workers on the mill’s front steps, as generations of workers had done before. Her group would be the last. She pointed out each person by name, punctuating the list with “you understand” — a habit of her speech. When I asked if she was sorry the mills closed, what she said surprised me. “Yes,” she said. “I wouldn’t hurt like I do now if I hadn’t stopped.”
Say the names.
Platt Saco Lowell made textile machinery and replacement parts. In 1979, it employed 1527 workers; it was razed three years ago to make way for a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. American Spinning made synthetic fabrics. In 1979, it employed 479 workers; today it’s used for storage, a TWEAKER EXTREME ENERGY bottle flattened on the cracked parking lot. Poe Mill burned to the ground, and now skateboarders slide and jump off the wrecked foundations. Union Bleachery dyed cotton and synthetics. It employed 487 workers; it burned in 2003 and is listed as a Superfund site because of chromium contamination. Woodside Mill, once the largest textile mill under one roof in the world, made polyester/rayon and polyester/cotton fabrics and employed 1150 workers. Today it’s abandoned, its bricked-up windows covered with vinyl to make it look like they still have glass. Fooled me. “Hey,” yelled the kids getting off the school bus as I stood there on the curb, staring at the quiet building. “Hey.”
Builders used to site mills along riverbanks to harness the waterpower. That was in the early days; capital follows cheap labor. The mills here replaced the ones in New England. So it’s only logical that a century later these mills were supplanted in their turn by those in Mexico and Central America. Same song, different verse.
In 1903, when the nearby Pacolet River flooded, six mill buildings were heavily damaged or swept away. Collapsed timbers and empty space where the spinning rooms had been. Tongues of muddy water and slick boil over stone. The waters rose so fast that a shopkeeper who slept in the raw had just enough time to escape from his bed above the store and clamber naked onto the roof; a neighbor lady gave him her apron to “restore his dignity.”
One man ferried people to safety on a raft made of cotton bales, one soul at a time; he saved 99, but when he went back to make it a hundred, the current pulled him under. Whole families drowned. When the Pacolet subsided, one body was given away by an errant knee protruding from the clay, others by streams of flies. Many were never found.
Memphis Minnie would have grieved; would have understood. Her given name was Lizzie Douglas, but her family called her Kid. After Langston Hughes heard her play a show one New Year’s Eve, he compared the sound of her electric guitar to “a musical version of electric welders plus a rolling mill.” After she died, her grave went unmarked for better than twenty years until Bonnie Raitt bought a stone.
When my friend from the weave room was a girl, she’d spend her bottle-deposit nickels on banana popsicles and jukebox songs. “Wooly Bully” was her grandma’s favorite, “Mustang Sally” her mama’s. Even had that one played at her funeral. Preacher didn’t understand, but it wasn’t for him to say. Ain’t it a comfort to hear a familiar song again? Somehow it helps to sing along.
And I think now that the genius of “When the Levee Breaks” — no matter who’s singing it — is how it retells an old story. Not just this flood, but the Flood, whose waters swell to envelop everything: tents and robes or trucks and kitchen towels, sheep, parents, hair combs, dipper gourds, billfolds, panicked children; the daily routine you once kept to, dreamlike now in retrospect. Ink, rain, leaves. Even drought, the dry bone hid at the bottom of things. Memphis Minnie escaped somehow, in a boat I believe she built herself and daubed with pitch. Floated to safe harbor and knew that it could have been, could always be, worse.
When I left home I didn’t want to go, but told myself if I came back it would be because I chose to, not because I had to. In every other town I’ve lived I’ve reckoned distance by how many miles’ drive it was back to here.
I see a boy weep as he wraps his dead dog in a terrycloth towel. I see a daughter fold a washcloth with ice and apply it to her mother’s forehead to break the fever. I see a woman unroll a stocking over one foot, then the other, and secure them at the top with stays. I see knitted socks balled on the floor beside a bed. I see a woman pull a day dress over her head, clip on her earrings, and set about her marketing. I see a woman fill a pillowcase with cotton batting and stitch shut the end. At the hospital a man lays his head down and will not raise it again in this life, but has this comfort at the end.
I see a man doff the last bolt and box it for shipping. After his shift is over he comes back and strips the remnant to take to his wife. The concrete holding the fence posts cures in a few days, longer if it rains. I see the maintenance crew staple the chain link into place, stretch barbed wire over the top. I see the man take the slack out of the chain, tuck in the ends, and snap on a lock.
Icy Norman spent her whole life working at a Southern textile mill. I read her story. After she retired, she said, “When I come out of that mill, I know that I done the very best I could. Somewhere along the way I felt a peaceable mind.”
When the mills closed, one owner had the machines cut into pieces so that nobody could steal his technology from the scrapyard. Workers had to take photographs of the torches cutting the frames apart. Another owner sold the machines to salvage dealers who picked them clean for parts.
I like thinking about the salvage warehouses, dim hangars lined with shelves and bins full of cotter pins and drivetrains, motors and rotors and spinners and travelers, little staples you clip onto bobbins of ring-spun cotton. Smell of old grease and electricity and tang of rust. Hard lumps of steel waiting their turn.
I know the dyes colored the river blue on Tuesdays and red on Wednesdays. That the waterfall downtown sudsed and bubbled; that the riverbed silt is still poisoned. That as a monograph published in 1933 put it, “There has never, in the history of the industry, been a protracted period when workers could not be replaced fairly readily with people anxious to get jobs.” That the mill hired young — and plenty of kids, even kids I knew, quit school for that reason. But I also know it was about more than the cloth. Yes, it could kill you. Fires, accidents — I read about women scalped by speeder frames, a man caught in a belt that bashed his brains out on the ceiling. Lint filled lungs, clatter dulled ears; hands splayed, backs broke. Work takes your life, one shift at a time, and what choice do we have? Honest wages for honest labor, but you might as well acknowledge the cost. Restore its dignity.
A former supervisor at Riverdale Mills in Spartanburg County told about the day he had to tell his workers that the mill was going to close. “I started calling their names,” he said, “saying you been here this many years, you been here this many years, and you know we did a good job. ‘You’ve done it. You have bought us this much more time we would not have had. You’ve got sixty days, and we’re gonna do this sixty days just like we’ve done it for the last hundred years. We’re not gonna do it one bit different, and when we go out of here we’re going to hold our heads high.’”
I see you, man who painted the sign that reads NO ADMITTANCE. Brushstrokes still clear after all this time, laid on steel you’d coated with primer to stay the rust. Nailed to bricks made of clay that some other man had poured into forms, sent through a kiln, and let cure in the sun. Sun that even now licks the rainwater off the gleaming weeds. You could make something here, a life that would last.
No wonder I felt a shiver, standing in the stack, inside a thing that telescopes from past into future. You could stand on the top rung both in the clouds and hemmed in by red clay. This could be the seat of life, or a hole gaping open to an underground cave. A man who watched Union Bleachery burn told me the dyes painted the smoke clouds brilliant blue, green, pink. Dark rainbow, sign that appeared only to him, and just that once.
Afterward, I felt sorry about trespassing. It wasn’t the current mill owners I hoped to sneak past, but the doffers, canteen mistresses, cleanup woman sweeping with two brooms. Crawling inside the stack had been like entering a mausoleum, a narrow room with an oculus cut in the ceiling. Proof positive of how dead the mill is; were the boiler lit, you’d never dare.
I think the workers would forgive me. They locked the gates against themselves, too, knowing they’d become outsiders in what used to be their place. If nobody sings a song for long enough it dies. We throw it away like a faded blouse.
The Flood of 1927 was the worst river flood in the history of the United States, and we remember it now primarily because Memphis Minnie wrote her song. This is the verse given to us to sing. Turn back, said the graffiti on the door. You’re next. So I’m taking this story and saying it’s mine, ours. I’m clinging to the wreckage with Shem, Ham, and Noah’s wife — her name lost to time, but if you claim the story, she’s mother to us all.
You could say the song retells an even older story, of moving away from a loved place to seek bread by the sweat of one’s brow. (I didn’t think I’d ever come back; there weren’t jobs.) Zeppelin’s drumbeat sounds like hitching footsteps, the trudging tread of those turned out of a first home.
I followed work all over the country and what is my aim now but to try and make sense of things and to help others in their attempts. Here with the fallen world’s cadged gleams of beauty: dark reef of cloud behind Echols Oil, mimosa trees blooming in sprays of floozy pink, hawk beating hard in a rising wind. Overhearing a man say I feel so good, I’d give twenty dollars for a headache.
You understand, my friend from the weave room kept saying. You understand. She keeps a big garden now — watermelon hills in old tractor tires, tomatoes in cages, staked beans, roses. She said she’d give me a seedling, but when I tried to thank her, she stopped me short. “Don’t thank someone for plants! They won’t grow!” she said. “Now cut flowers, sure. You can thank someone for those because they’re already dead.”
Years later, Jimmy Page stood in the staircase at Headley Grange and rested his hand on the newel post. “I was quite overwhelmed when I went in,” he admitted in an interview. Of course Headley Grange had been at one time both an orphanage and a workhouse. Think of the scores of others who went forth from there to their jobs, sliding their palms down that polished rail as they left. Something of that smooth surface comes through in the recording of the song, in the drumbeat’s massive echo. All those workers shaping the space that in turn shaped them. Come along then, they murmur, next shift’s starting, not that you can hear them over the rising pound of the flood.
And when Robert Plant sings the song’s last lines, they sound like the cry of a drowning man. “Going, I’m going to Chicago,” he wails, the distortion making his words slip and snag. Even though I know its an effect Page engineered, listening makes me uneasy. “Going to Chicago,” Plant sings. “Sorry, but I can’t take you. Going down, going down now.” The guitar and drums wheel around his voice, the center of a whirlpool, a gyre, an overwhelmed sluice. That voice is all there is to hold onto — Going down, going down now — but by the song’s end, the undertow pulls the singer down into muddy, opaque silence.
Rust can bind wounds, Pliny wrote, and maybe he was right. Rusty nail heads stain the mill floor; rusty paperclips hold forgotten bills of lading, formulas for dye lots. Mix a draught of well water and bitter powder; drink it down and feel it anchor you here. To these bricks in a heap, bricks in a pile. You have to believe or it won’t work, said my friend from the weave room. Bricks without holes and chalky to the touch. Bricks edgeworn from weather. Bricks burnt orange but for the side that had faced the weave room: pale green. Stacks of bricks in the busted parking lot, forgotten so long that little weeds rooted there. Clay shearing off in red leaves.
Consider the brick’s beginnings. Clay dug from a flat place and poured into forms, slid into an oven and burned hard, a decade of summers in a single slow trip through the fire. Cool them slow lest they split: channel bricks, air bricks, plinth and coping. Squints, jambs, bull-noses; rough stocks, grizzles, and my favorites, shuffs and shakes. Bricks are dirt, our dirt, turned to stone strong enough to withstand any weather. “A thoroughly good brick,” I read in the excellent Modern Brickmaking (1911), “should give out a clear ringing sound when struck either with a stone, another brick, or a piece of metal.” Yet for all their strength bricks are friendly; we’re clay too, and I feel the kinship when I run my fingers across the pitted face.
The empty lots and burned foundations, the cars streaming past, the sparrows flying through the superstore’s Home and Garden center carry no memory of the factories that used to stand here. But if you pay attention, the brick smokestacks will remind you, built a century ago by steeplejacks who were themselves far from home, floating high above the ground as they worked.
It grieved me to learn that for so long, Memphis Minnie’s grave had no stone. But every time I sing her lyrics, I call her back, and every time I see the stacks I remember. Not Memphis Minnie alone, but Si Kahn, who wrote “Aragon Mill” about a mill in Georgia: “There’s no smoke at all coming out of the stack,” the song goes,
“For the mill has shut down and it ain’t coming back/ There’s no children at all in the narrow empty streets/ Now the looms have all gone, it’s so quiet I can’t sleep.”
I think of the old photographs: the loom fixer, the boys on the baseball team, the tired children (boys in caps and suspenders, girls with thin, clasped hands) of the Spinning Department, 1901, who leaned against the same brick wall that I would, more than a century later. I think of the laughing women standing under the mill’s oak tree in 1931, and what it might have been like for the sole black man in that group of two dozen.
Like a grave marker, the smokestack is a monument. When you drive past one, you have a choice. You can overlook it, as I used to, or you can think about the masons who built it. About the families who lived in the long shadow it cast. About the suffocating feeling of standing inside it, or the fact that an escape ladder was always right there in front of you.
Before the final levee breaks, the speaker leaves. But it was given me to go back after the waters receded and walk the ruins. I knew what it meant to miss home but it was a new thing to return to a changed place and be pulled under by memories, not bad ones: watching a boy in a white and green uniform play shortstop on the mill field; hunting treasure at the junkyard with my father; a slow hike up Georges Creek on a hot afternoon, orange silt blooming in the water around my feet. When the train barreled over the trestle the creosote-soaked girders shook.
Somehow, even when I stand alone, mill stairwells always feel crowded to me. These were the channels that bore the heaviest traffic, men and women hurrying, always, from the raw cotton of the basement opening room to first floor’s Carding and Spinning, weave rooms on second and third, Quality Control on the top. People called these “vertical mills” and it was literally true; what started as fiber on the ground floor turned into finished cloth by the rafters.
And even in the mills that have had all the spirit dry-walled out of them in the renovation process, the stairwells still hold a charge with their smooth banisters and waffle tread steps. If developers want to keep a building on the Registry of Historic Places, they must leave the stairwells intact. Here you sense the rush and hustle; wherever you’re headed, you’re not yet there. The stairs at Headley Grange worked so well for Zeppelin’s purposes because they were “dead space.” But I wouldn’t call them that. This feels like the most alive space in the whole building, electric with bodies. Here you can run up to the sky or descend into the mud. This is the ladder in the smokestack made public, accessible to scores instead of the lone boy shinnying up the bars. This is the stand of poplars, peeled and painted, that bears the mill’s weight. This is the tent camp set up in view of the levee, populated with people wearing the only clothes they managed to save, people throwing dice to pass the time, people — one woman in particular — taking notes with a pencil.
You don’t realize how many bricks it takes to build a textile mill until they’re heaped in windrows stretching two city blocks. Brad called last week to say they were tearing down Alice Mill. (Product: synthetic print cloth, employees: 354). He’d heard the walls fall, weird thunder on a bluebird day. By the time we got there, a rubble field of tar paper, cast iron pipes, tatters of fiberglass, and splintered lumber spread from the sidewalk to the railroad siding. Teenagers sat on their front porch watching us, and every few minutes a man eased past in a shiny black pickup. We figured he was a supervisor. NO TRESPASSING, said a sign. THIS BUILDING CONTAINS LEAD. The smell of dug dirt hung around the neatly stacked bricks, shrink-wrapped and ready to be sold as reclaimed.
A man in a Bobcat bashed beams against the ground, breaking off old cement. Down the way, someone running a giant clawed machine dropped tangles of rebar into an open railcar. There were tongue and groove boards four inches thick in careful piles—the subfloor, heart pine, good for three millings in fancy lake houses. And the scrap metal was bound across the ocean to the smelters in China.
Where had the stack stood? We couldn’t say, nor find any sense of scale. The only everyday things I could latch onto were a busted office chair and a plastic Gatorade bottle. “I wish we could have found something like a bobbin,” Brad said, “or a cotton bale tag, something textile-related.” But we were too late — all of that would have been buried by the wrecking ball.
I found a handle from a coffee cup and dropped it in my pocket. Pigeons wheeled around the north wall. Behind us, kids muttered on the front porch. Rusty nails stuck up from popped-out planks, and bricks from the inside walls, painted Sanitary Green long ago, glowed in the mellow light. What would become of the huge poplar beams that had borne the weight of everything? It was past five on a Friday, and the man in the Bobcat took a last turn around the lot. I turned to David and Brad and said, “Does this not feel like the end times to you?” A train slid by, headed into downtown and going slow. “The end of something.”
Brad said, “It’s always the end of something.”
Call me Fence-Jumper, Sneaky Snake, Dr. Scrutiny. David is Cake. Brad is The Instigator. Afterward we sat at a table in a Chinese restaurant and I took notes on the back of a paper placemat printed with the zodiac, clothes from three different countries covering my body. The placemat said I’m Dragon but I know from other investigations that I’m Wood Rabbit, ambitious, collector, lover of peace. These mills — built from our clay, trussed and floored with our trees, still shedding our rain — spun our cotton bolls into cloth that would wrap you in life and shroud you in death. That’s done now. All I have left is a coffee-cup handle still seamed from the glass factory’s mold and a story about the time we stood inside the smokestack, just after picking enough wild blackberries for a cobbler. They thrive along roadsides and waste places. This time of year, if you know where to look, you’ll find them everywhere.
It is written, the Lord can raise up these stones to give praise. So these tree boles too, clay poured into forms, iron cut into nails, now rusted? In my mind’s eye I see the mills packed with all the people who worked there over the decades. Windows open wide and yellow Carolina morning sun pouring in. A boy walks down the aisle with the dope cart, its can of iced tea so big that when he stirs in the sugar, he has to use a boat oar. When the whistle blows and his work day ends, he’s free.
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