By Bill Shepard
The artist’s view of the proposed cotton mill memorial as shown in last week’s News and Press caused my heart to leap for joy and awakened a lot of sleeping memories. The memorial has been the dream and desire of many for a long time. A lot of work and planning has gone into bringing this dream to where it is now and much more is required to bring it to full fruition. Memorials are nearly as old as mankind, dating back to the days of the Pharaohs in Egypt, and before. The purpose of any memorial is to honor and to keep alive the memories and the impact that one event, person or thing has made upon another. Perhaps no other institution in this writer’s mind has made a greater impact on the town of Darlington than the old giant that stood at the west end of this town for more than a half century!
The old mill, known as the Darlington Mfg. Company pumped life blood into this town and kept it alive during one of the hardest economic periods of American history! Those who labored at the old sweat shop could be seen all around the town square, darting in and out of the stores, spending their scant weekly wager. This writer has beautiful memories of following along side of his dad on many such occasions. During that period known as the “Great Depression”, it was the mill that stayed alive and offered work to those who were willing to work long hours for little pay!
It was during that period that my father moved with his wife and three young boys to the town of Darlington. The year was 1922! Dad often said that as hard as the work was, and as little the pay, it still beat being a “share-cropper” and plowing a living out of another man’s dirt! Dad had been a sharecropper all of his young life. A job at the mill meant he had a house to live in, a steady pay envelope at the end of each week, and credit at the Company Store!
I think Dad fell in love with the old mill, and that love lasted until the day he died! My mom often teased that Dad loved the old mill more than he loved her! Of course she knew better! There could be no denial that dad loved the old giant. Some of my saddest mental pictures are of my dad sitting on his front porch and his eyes turned toward the closed mill and the tall smokestack beside it. It was as though he thought that one day he would see the black smoke curling from the chimney and spreading like a blanket over the village. He had watched that happen many times before the mill closed its doors for the last time and the scene would be seen no more. I have written before that the first sounds I can remember hearing were those corning from the loud horn at the mill. At first the sound was like that of a ship lost at sea! It was so loud that it actually rattled the panes in the windows of our little house, located near the mill.
The first blast would be made at 4:30a.m. It was known as the wake-up call! I would wake up and lie in bed listening to my mom and dad talking in the kitchen. Mom was always the first to arise and start breakfast for Dad. He would need to eat before leaving for his long day at the mill.
When the last sound from the mill was made at 6:00 a.m. every worker was supposed to be on his or her job. To be late for work could cost a person their job! It happened often and there was no recourse. Fired from one’s job meant vacate the mill house immediately! So sad!
Long after my dad had left for work I would lie in bed and think of the day that I too would follow in his steps. That time would come!
My two older brothers led the way. As each became old enough they left school behind and began work at the mill. At first there were no age limits, then came the “child labor laws”. At age sixteen, I too laid aside my schoolbooks and headed for the mill to begin what I thought was my life’s work!
When the old mill closed for the last time its workers were scattered to nearby places in order to find work. A few remained and finished out their lives in Darlington. Many are gone to their eternal resting place. It remains to those that are left to build a memorial to them and to all who will follow.
This beautiful Memorial park, already underway, will speak in years ahead, and to people yet unborn, of a people and a way of life, that has come and gone forever. As once a mill village boy, and now an old man, I am prejudiced I suppose!
Those in charge of seeing this project completed need all the help they can get! Will you be a volunteer? All donations are tax deductible! For information call Peggy Sheffield at the following number. 843-618-0879.
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. He is the author of “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised”. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week. His mailing address for letters is: Bill Shepard 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, S.C. 29673.