Living on the West End
By Bill Shepard
This article and the articles to follow will be my attempt to share my memories of a way of life that has come and gone. It was a unique way of living in a world far different from that of the present time or from that which will ever be again.
Please bear in mind, as you read, everything that is written is that which I experienced, I saw or I heard. Should there be those who lived through the same period as I and whose experiences were different, please feel free to compare, question or disagree, even contact.
Come, reminisce with me, share your own thoughts of a time, a people and a place — the time and the people are gone; the place, though changed, remains. Let’s get started!
Living on the West End: 1920s-’30s-’40s
My World: 1922-28
When I was a boy on the Mill Village in Darlington, my world was divided into three parts. Namely, they were “Uptown,” out in the country and the “Factory Hill,” which was also called the Mill Hill or the Cotton Mill Village.
Seldom did I get farther than the Mill Village. I was a happy child, living in the only world that I had ever known. We had no contact with any world outside of the village and as for me, I did not know there was another world.
Dad arose and left for work at the huge cotton mill, long before I awoke. He wouldn’t be back until much later. His work day was from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. My two older brothers would be up and off to the big red schoolhouse that was situated in another world, the one often referred to as Uptown! That left Mama and me in my little world.
Dad had moved his family to Darlington from a place in the country and found a job at the big mill. In 1922, the textile industry was moving southward by leaps and bounds. Cotton mills, as they were referred to, were springing up wherever suitable space could be found. Remnants of those places can be seen all over South Carolina and elsewhere today.
Dad moved his family into a small three-room house on a part of the village called “The Island.” There were three houses on “The Island,” so called because it was bordered on both sides by two narrow ditches of water. After a short time in that location, Dad was allowed to move to another place, nearer to the mill. That house was to be my world for the next 10 years of my life. The little house is still standing near the railroad track, close to the marshy swamp which was created by the little creek that cuts through the scattered Mill Village, as it makes its way to rendezvous with another stream, Black Creek, farther on.
The little three-room house was the Shepards’ world. Being the last house on the short street that had no name, we were happy. An open field behind us and a large space beside us, Dad had room enough for a large garden space which he enjoyed planting each spring. Dad had always been a farmer and loved tilling the soil.
A larger house would have been welcomed, but there seemed to be an unwritten law at the mill that a four-room house was available only when there was more than one person employed at the mill. Since Mama was a stay-at-home Mom, we did not qualify for a larger house. That would come later when my oldest brother would leave school and begin work at the mill. That was years away!
Some of my first memories were those of being awakened in the early morning hours by the sound coming from the loud blast of the horn at the big mill. The sound was so loud, and it would actually rattle the window panes in our small house. The first sound was made at 4:30 a.m., referred to as the wake-up call. It would continue to blow at intervals of 15 minutes, until the lights would flash on at 6 a.m. That meant to go-to-work. A person not on the job when the light flashed best have a good excuse or they would be fired!
There were no cars in my world. We traveled by foot, everywhere we went. Of course, my world had very limited borders — rows of small houses and rows of outside toilets, as far as one could see. At first, we had no electricity in our house — we needed none.
My earliest memories before school-age were those of going with Mama to the Company Store. The large store, owned and operated by the same folks who owned the mill, was located a ways from our house.
Most of the folks employed at the mill went there for their needs. The large store was a big part of their lives. As long as one worked at the mill, they had credit at the store. The amount owed at the store was deducted from one’s pay envelope each week. An employee’s first week of earning was held back, a guarantee that one would not move away owing money to the Company Store.
I liked those mornings each week when Mama and I made our trip to the Company Store.
After Dad left for his day at the mill and my two brothers were off to school, Mama would say,
“Eat your breakfast, Bill, and we’ll go to the store.” Breakfast consisted of fried biscuits and sweet black coffee. I can recall Mama saying, “That’s enough sugar in that coffee; it’s a wonder you don’t turn to sugar!”
We were off to the store — that was as far as my world reached, when I was a little boy. Mama walked slowly and I followed behind, stopping now and then to pick up a small rock and throw it at something.
We would cross over the wide bridge that spanned Swift Creek and the huge mill would come into full view. The noise from inside the old giant would seem deafening and the folks standing at the window overhead would look frightening to me. I would look upwards to see if my Dad was at a window. Sometimes, I would see him, and we would wave.
Past the mill, the Company Store would be in view. Inside the store, Mama would hand her grocery list to one of the clerks. The items on the list would be delivered to our house later that day or the day that followed. A black man named Fred would deliver the groceries to houses over the village. He drove a big red horse hitched to a pretty wagon, painted green with red wheels. I liked Fred! When Fred came with our groceries, I would ask for the grocery box and sometimes he would give it to me, but not if it was a wooden box.
Before leaving the store, Mama would often visit the cloth department to look at new samples of cloth. Mama sewed most all of our clothing, except the overalls (before denim was known). We seldom left the store without our favorite clerk giving me a small sack of candy. He would say, “Bill, you can share the candy with your brothers.” Sometimes I did!
It would be noon or later before we would arrive back home. The large pot of lima beans would have been left to simmer on the stove, as long as the fire burned in the large wood-burning stove. My brothers would soon be in from school, Dad would be home after 6 and another day would end.
By lamplight, we would prepare for bed. Tomorrow would dawn and another day would begin. That was my world. At age 6, my world would grow larger! Next time …