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Hundreds of former mill workers attend reunion at Intimidators game

By Hugh Fisher
For the Salisbury Post
KANNAPOLIS ó They are retirees and still-working adults. They are mothers, fathers, grandparents and working moms and dads.
Some are young; the rest are young-at-heart. And some still call themselves “lintheads.”
They are still a family, even if like all families they’ve scattered a bit with time.
They’re the former employees of what ended up as Pillowtex, by way of Fieldcrest-Cannon ó but the only name they use is the original, Cannon Mills.
Hundreds of those former textile workers took advantage of free tickets to Saturday’s Kannapolis Intimidators game at Fieldcrest-Cannon Stadium, still named for their former employer.
They started lining up outside about 45 minutes before the siren announced the opening of the stadium gates, and they filled the stands to greet one another and cheer on the home team against the Hagerstown Suns.
Intimidators Vice-President Tim Mueller estimated attendance at just over 4,000.
Five years after the textile mill that built Kannapolis shut down for the last time, the event was the first attempt at a company-wide reunion.
The City of Kannapolis provided free tickets to former textile workers and their families, while the Intimidators gave out hand-painted replicas of the Cannon Mills headquarters for the first 1,000 fans.
“The former Fieldcrest-Cannon workers are still really the foundation of our community,” said Kannapolis City Manager Mike Legg.
“I think it’s good to pause and honor the contributions they have made to our community through the years.”
Former mill workers mingled during the hour before the game, sharing hugs and memories of their former workplace and the “good ol’ days” of Kannapolis.
Thelma Honneycutt, who worked for Cannon Mills for 51-and-a-half years, got the honor of throwing out the first pitch.
Honneycutt, a fixture at Intimidators games, spent decades working in the No. 6 weave room at Plant 1.
“I think this reunion is just the best thing that could happen,” she said. “There were a bunch of good people working at Cannon Mills. It was just a big family. Everyone looked after everybody there.”
Mueller said he and the team wanted to find a way to honor textile workers, and came up with the idea of miniature mill replicas to preserve memories of the now-demolished plant.
“We wanted to create something special,” Mueller said. “All that’s left, really, are photos.”
Those photos were the centerpiece of the pregame festivities. The Kannapolis History Associates, a local nonprofit group, had more than 100 photographs ó along with weaving equipment and examples of textiles ó on display behind home plate.
“The turnout for this has been phenomenal,” said Phil Goodman, president of Kannapolis History Associates.
Goodman watched as hundreds filed by to look at commemorative towels and photographs from a century of life inside the mill and out in the community.
“One man walked by with his grandkids,” Goodman said, “and I heard him say, ‘Come here, I want to show you your great-grandfather.'”
Kannapolis historian Norris Dearmon, who collaborated with Mueller in the design of the Cannon Mills replica, circulated through the crowd answering questions and telling stories of Kannapolis’ past.
In honor of Memorial Day, Dearmon had prepared a display of military veterans from Kannapolis, with pictures of those from Kannapolis who lost their lives while serving their country.
Not far away, Linda Bittle was admiring her model of the former Cannon Mills, complete with smokestacks, water tower and the famous neon sign that stood behind the lake.
“Right there is the supply room,” she said, pointing to a small spot on the model.
Her brother-in-law, Lloyd Bittle, looked for the No. 6 Weave Room, where he worked: “I lived in there!” he joked.
Lloyd, along with Linda and her husband Junior, all worked at the main Cannon Mills facility.
Linda worked for plant security in the main office, while Junior was a weaver at plant No. 1.
“My whole family was a Cannon Mills family,” Linda said. “My dad, my two brothers and my daughter all worked there.”
It was impossible to imagine Kannapolis without the mill, she said.
“Junior kept going, ‘It’s not going to close,'” Linda said. “When it came on the news, he said, ‘I just can’t believe it.'”
Together, the Bittles walked through the rows of photographs looking for old coworkers and friends.
“I think it’s great that the city of Kannapolis is giving something back,” Lloyd said. “It’s showing that they honor the people who spent their lives supporting the town in the mill.”
Junior Bittles said the idea of a reunion for mill workers was a good one because it had been difficult to keep in touch with coworkers.
Over the years, some departments from within the mill held their own reunions, but there was never an attempt at a company-wide event.
“I try to keep up with as many as I can, but a lot of them have died out,” Junior said of his former coworkers.
But while the workers from Cannon Mills’ golden age reminisced, newcomers and young people got a chance to see the people who made local history.
Caren Ellisor, who went to work for the company’s research and development department in 1987 and stayed until the plant’s closure in 2003, brought her husband James and children Jamie, 13, and Jason, 8, through the rows of pictures and memorabilia.
“They remember where I worked, but I want them to see it,” Caren said of her children.
The Ellisors live in Concord, but in their travels through Kannapolis they’ve witnessed the demolition of the mill and the transformation of the downtown area.
“It’s nice, it’s beautiful, but it’s sad to think of what was there,” Caren said. “It’s just nice that the mill is not forgotten.
Based on the success of Saturday’s gathering, not only will Kannapolis not forget but it’s likely that this will become an annual event.
Mike Legg said that there has already been talk of holding another reunion: “I think there’s a really good chance we’d enhance the event and do more,” Legg said.
“Our heritage is in these people, and I think it’s important to honor them.”
Contact Hugh Fisher at 704-797-4245 or hfisher@salisburypost.com.
 
 

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