Leadership Cabarrus creating documentary about life at Cannon Mills
By Sarah Campbell
KANNAPOLIS — Four generations of the Allen family worked at the former Cannon Mills before the textile plant shut down in 2003.
Phil Allen started working there on June 2, 1959, two days after graduating from A.L. Brown High School.
He followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, Elmer Allen, and father, Bruce Allen, both of whom worked at Cannon Mills for more than a century combined.
Allen tried his hand at various departments before becoming the head loom fixer, a job he said would be described as assistant foreman today.
Had the plant, which was later bought out by Fieldcrest Cannon before being sold to Pillowtex, not shut down, Allen would still be working there. And so would many others, he said.
“I had a good job,” he said. “There were so many folks who didn’t have anything but Cannon Mills; it’s all they knew.”
Allen talked about his 44-year career at Cannon Mills at A.L. Brown High School on Friday.
But Allen wasn’t speaking to a history class. He was being filmed for a collaborative project being hosted by Leadership Cabarrus, a nine-month program of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce that brings together business and community leaders.
Allen is one of 25 former mill workers being filmed for a documentary about the impact of the textile industry on the region.
“Each leadership class is challenged to create a project that is required for their graduation,” said Deborah Carter, vice president of public policy for the chamber.
Carter said the idea for the documentary came about during one of the days Leadership Cabarrus participants spent studying the history of the county.
“It’s seen as a bridge between the past and the present,” she said. “We feel like this is a project that is representative of the unification and the camaraderie in the community, and it’s honoring an industry that was very crucial to the region for many, many years.”
The class was originally going to hire a professional to shoot and edit the documentary, but one of the participants, Dr. Pam Cain, the superintendent of the Kannapolis City school system, had another idea.
“She had an ‘aha’ moment and said, ‘Why don’t we use the students at A.L. Brown; they do this as part of their class,’ ” Carter said. “And here we are.”
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When Allen began working at Cannon Mills, he started off in the same weaving room where his grandfather started.
“It wasn’t just a place to work. It was like family,” he said. “There were so many families who moved here, and most of them went to work at the mill.”
Allen said working at the mill allowed many people lifestyles they likely wouldn’t have had because of the cheap rent at mill houses that were often within walking distance to the plant.
“I sure made a good living there,” he said.
The whistle signaling shift changes sounded several times daily up until the mill closed, Allen said. That sound became part of the community.
“(People) got used to it, just like the train,” Allen said with a chuckle.
Allen said he wasn’t as shocked as many when the announcement came that Pillowtex was closing its doors, but he was just as heartbroken.
“I wasn’t upset, because everything I owed, I got it all paid off before we got shut down,” he said. “And I was more fortunate than most because I was 62 years old at the time.
“You hate it more for people that work for you. They had bills to pay, children to put through school. …I felt for them.”
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Allen said he agreed to participate in the documentary because he wanted to make sure the stories from the mills aren’t forgotten.
“There is so much history that has not been brought out over the years because there wasn’t anything like this to put it on the record,” he said. “It’s an important part of the history of the community.”
Michael Eury, executive director of the Historic Cabarrus Association, agrees.
“For many decades, the textile mills were the lifeblood of this community, not just for Kannapolis but for Concord and the entire county,” he said. “As a historian, I know that when the mills were in their heyday, communities built up around them, so you would have a grocery store, barber shop, beauty shop and gas stations that were built close to the mill.”
Eury is doing all of the interviews for the documentary project, asking questions from the side of the stage to create a conversational atmosphere that he hopes will make the former mill workers more comfortable and willing to talk.
“There is a great amount of pride attached to (the mills) that you just don’t see in the work force any longer,” he said. “So I think it’s critical that we preserve these stories, particularly while we still have the folks here to share them with us.”
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Johnathan Greene, A.L. Brown’s digital media teacher, said he was thrilled when Leadership Cabarrus approached him about getting students involved in the making of the documentary.
“We’ve worked on several side projects before, but nothing this big,” he said. “I was really excited about the project because this is a real-world application of what they’re learning.”
Greene said students from his Digital Media II and WNDR News classes were in charge of everything from the set design to running all the audio and video equipment.
“They’ve even done a lot of directing,” he said.
After filming wraps up, the students will also be editing the footage down into the finished documentary, which will debut at 7 p.m. at the Gem Theatre on May 17.
Greene said the project has been more than a technical learning experience for his students.
“A lot of our students now aren’t originally from Kannapolis, so it’s very important … that they understand the history and where Kannapolis came from,” he said.
Junior Holly Maness said her grandmother worked at the mill.
“She used to tell me a lot of stories about it, but I’ve learned so much more about how it was working there listening to these interviews,” she said.
Maness said the project has also helped hone her videography skills.
“I’m definitely starting to learn how to use more of the equipment,” she said.
Junior Tyler Palmer, who ran the camera Friday, said many of his family members worked at the mill, but they rarely speak of the experience.
“I’ve learned a lot of things from the stories they’ve been telling since my family never talks about it,” he said. “I think it’s important for students to know what it was like to work at the mills.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.