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Textile heritage: The real value of community

By Lynn Rumley
For the Salisbury Post
During the coming days, communities across the South will celebrate Textile Heritage Week, this year exploring how our mill hill ancestors survived the Great Depression.
For obvious reasons, many references have lately been made to the Great Depression because it remains the nation’s yardstick for deprivation and mass insecurity. It conjures up images of soup lines, bread lines, employment lines.
Chronicles usually begin with the October 1929 stock market crash. The South’s mill hills were not only far from that Wall Street epicenter ó they were, in so many ways, a world apart. Isolation can be awful ó but it can sometimes be an asset.
When the crash came, textiles were already in a depressed state. There was “short time” and less pay to stretch further. Mill companies stockpiled product and tried to spread work around to every family. There were hardships but many fewer than those felt by farmers, many of whom lost their homesteads forever. It was worse in big cities.
The South’s cotton mill people made it through the Great Depression with dignity. Not completely reliant on their pay, they still grew gardens and raised animals for butter, milk and meat. These country people had plenty of skills; they lived in communities stamped by their own values where neighbors helped neighbors. There were no soup lines and few went hungry; cheap rent and no evictions.
Older cotton mill people say they lived like “one big family” and add, “We were poor but didn’t know it.”
War World II ended the Great Depression and fueled not only recovery for the nation’s people and productive forces but ushered in a golden age for this country. Textile companies shed their mill houses to became modern corporations with personnel offices. Production was governed by the science of efficiency. Gone were the gardens and animals as textile workers began living paycheck to paycheck. Thriving textile communities faded, as did their political clout.
Then came a federal government policy shift ó protection of domestic industry was out; incentives and mechanisms for a fast-paced globalization, like the World Trade Organization, were in. Hundreds of mills closed well before the recent economic crisis hit, and most of the 100,000-plus workforce was dispersed in less than two decades.
Surely, there is something to be learned. Is it wise public policy for a country to be unable to clothe itself? Is it healthy to relinquish a culture that produced real communities ó not just “virtual” ones on the Internet? What should a real “recovery” mean?
Textile Heritage Week is a time to ask such questions. “Value-added” is something a sound economy does by producing things ó not simply the name of a tax levied in foreign countries.
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Lynn Rumley is director of the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee. For more information about Textile Heritage Week (Oct. 3-11), visit the Web site www.textileheritage.org.

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