Why not have a reunion?’
By Bill Shepard
Several years ago, just how many, I am not sure, an idea surfaced.
It seems that a funeral was being held and some old friends had met and were talking about past times and events. That is one of the positive things that comes out of funerals; relatives and old friends often see each other for the first time in years.
The question was asked, “Why do we wait for times like this before getting together and reliving old memories?
Another question followed. “Why not have a reunion of the old cotton mill employees?”
The idea and suggestion fell on fertile soil and began to take root. Even at that time, the old mill had been closed for years and many of those who had given their best years to it had already gone on to their eternal resting place.
Of course, some, who had been younger when the mill closed, had moved away in search of employment. Some found work right here at home. It would be a challenge to start the ball rolling, but that few accepted the challenge and the first reunion was held in June 1988.
It might be said here that the closing of the old mill seemed such an untimely event. Not only untimely, but one that seemed so radical! Why? Why? Why? The old mill had served as life’s blood to many. It was not only life to the villagers but to the town of Darlington itself.
The hurts, disappointments and frustrations were there to be endured and many would last, and some, even to this day, linger on. The old mill had given birth to the only way of life that some had ever known and now that way of life was ending. The big question in the minds of some was, “What will I do!”
This village, supported by the big mill, was the only life that many had known. I speak for myself; one of the first sounds that I can remember hearing was the booming blast from the mill whistle. Indeed, it sounded more like a fog horn than a whistle. It would rattle the window panes in the small mill houses that made up the village. At its sound, I would awaken and hear my dad’s feet hit the floor.
It was the summons that all the village folk knew so well. It was the call to report for another day’s work at the noisy old Giant. Even at the young age, I would listen to the footsteps of those passing the house on their way to the work place. I would project myself into some future years, when I would be among that number. And it happened, just as I had envisioned in my young mind.
There were just too many memories of that time to allow them to just fade away. They had lain dormant already for much too long, and indeed, some were lost forever.
I hesitate to call names of those who were instrumental in arranging that first reunion, but it seems that folk like Otis Hancock, Raymond Strickland, and his late wife, Pearl, might have been the first to work at bringing this idea into reality.
All had been former employees of the old mill. They knew the challenge of hard work, so they began. I am certain that others joined the team, too many to name here, and the date was set. Invitations were sent out and no one could know the response that would be given, but they were about to see the results of their dreams and labors.
Yes, they came! They came from places as far away as Washington state, California, Kentucky, Florida, as well as other nearby states. They also came from right here in Darlington, where so many had remained, refusing to be uprooted from the place they loved so much.
Yes, they came! They came bringing their memories with them. They came to see and to be seen. Many were seeing each other for the first time since childhood days. They shook hands, hugged, and kissed, while tears mingled with laughter. It was indeed a beautiful moment to live and behold; memories flowed freely throughout the auditorium where the meeting was held. Memories of marble shooting, kite sailing, cotton picking, school, and yes, skinny dipping at the ol’ wash-hole. For me, it was a most memorable event. I scanned the crowd searching for faces out of a time long past. I saw faces of children that now appeared on old and bent bodies. A “howdy” and “do you remember me?” was all that it took to start a conversation.
Since that time years ago, the reunion has been held annually. Some have been faithful to attend each year, others for reasons of their own have been hindered. Some will never attend again.
So much is owed to those few who gave so much of themselves to making this event a reality each year. They deserve a salute from all of us for a job well done.
(An effort to build a memorial to the men and women who spent their lives working at the old mill is now in progress. Contributions may be sent to: Peggy Sheffield, 108 Columbian St., Darlington SC 29532.)