Just a little pinch at Chatham

By Stephen Harris Back In The Hometown

October 14, 2013

The late Tom Davis was one of the Chatham mill hands whom the guys liked to pick with. That’s pick with, not pick on. There’s a big difference.

Davis lived down the road from me here in the hometown. I went to school with his daughter. And I did not know that such a distinguished neighbor could be such a cut-up.

When I worked at the mill during summers during my college years a long time ago, the guys there had this silly little game. They’d sneak up from behind and pinch co-workers (male only) on the back of the thigh. If so pinched, you then were obligated to yell out and act as if you had ants in your pants.

Tom was one of the best at it. When pinched, he’d let out an exaggerated yell and sometimes would do a little shuffle, a little dance. At times he’d wave his arms like a marching-band drum major. And all the old guys would yuck it up.

It was kind of cute. Old men horsing around like schoolboys was not the kind of thing I had expected from the Greatest Generation when I first entered the mill.

So when the news came last month that Tom had passed away, it brought back memories of him, the guys, the pinching game and the old mill.

You can’t overstate the onetime importance of the old Chatham mill in Elkin and the surrounding area. With more than 3,000 hands employed during the mill’s peak years, the lifeblood of Elkin and its surroundings flowed in and out of the mill.

Most everybody here either worked at the mill or knew somebody who did. It put food on our tables and roofs over heads, either via a direct paycheck (as in my family’s case) or indirectly via all the business generated by all those mill paychecks.

Our big bridge was named Chatham and our hospital still is. The Chatham business helped put me through school Down East. I’ll forever be in its debt.

Dad worked at the mill for 41 years, starting at age 19. I asked him one time if he had ever considered doing anything else, and he looked at me like I had uttered heresy.

He liked the mill. I could see it in his face when I would stop by to check on him in the spinning room. Most of the hands liked it there.

They even picked with each other, I found out.

I came across a report last summer in the newspaper in Kannapolis, home of the old Cannon Mills. Cannon was bigger than the old Chatham mill by about a quarter, and in its heyday Cannon was even more prominent in Kannapolis than Chatham was here.

I read every word of that report. Though Cannon was not our mill, the story of Cannon and Kannapolis is pretty much our story as well.

The newspaper dramatically described the closing of Cannon as the day “everything changed in Kannapolis.”

“Generations of people counted on it for steady work and job security,” according to the newspaper’s retrospective that commemorated the 10th anniversary of Cannon’s closing.

The old Chatham mill here never closed, thank goodness, but has continued under a succession of new owners with an altered product and at a much reduced capacity, now about 10 percent of Chatham’s peak.

The changes in the Elkin mill reflect the changes in the Southern textile industry overall, and it’s not a happy tale.

So it’s left to us to remember the old Chatham mill and the people who worked there and who made it the fine institution that we who remember admire.

Volumes have been written about the old Southern textile mill culture, about how the hands saw their co-workers as extended family and the mill as a home away from home.

During my brief time at the old Chatham mill, I got a glimpse of the fraternity. I remember warmly a camaraderie and spirit that I found all too rarely in my subsequent jobs.

I liked a description by a fellow child of mill hands, Lisa Wall. Commenting last month in the Morganton newspaper, where by the way I once worked, on the recent bankruptcy of a furniture plant there, Wall remembered the good ol’ days this way:

“The skilled trades they (mill hands) learned at those plants embodied so much more than the term manufacturing could ever indicate. They weren’t just mechanics, seamstresses, assemblers or upholsterers, but instead they were artists who worked with a sense of craftsmanship and pride. Those are two qualities of American-made furniture and textiles that truly never could have be(en) reproduced in a foreign plant in which workers often are subjected to borderline slave wages and deplorable work environments.”

And we in Elkin say amen.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.