How will history remember the ‘lintheads’?

Bill Shepard

Some might recognize the word lintheads, while others may not and that is understandable.
The word is not common any longer. The lintheads were a special breed of people who played their part on the American stages all over — first in the New England states, having come across the ocean, and then to the Southern states at the beginning of the last century.
For most of the 19th century, they went about their calling and then moved on to another part of our world. They were the members of the textile industry, but the name more fitting and better understood by them was that they were the cotton mill workers. They kept the industry alive for a large part of the 1900s.
It would be hard to travel far in any direction, before seeing evidence of the lintheads having been here in South Carolina.
About all that is left of the industry here are the dilapidated old buildings (cotton mills), since most of them have been torn down and hauled away. A few smokestacks can be seen here and there, and are reminders of a time, a people and a way of life that once was!
The title given to those employees in the mill (early times) was fitting, as they could be seen leaving the mill at the end of the long workday with their heads white as snow!
The cotton lint filled the air overhead in the various departments of the mills. In the early years of the industry, air-conditioned buildings were unheard of. The workers’ clothes would be wet with sweat; the lint would stick to their bodies and their heads would be white with the lint — thus, the title lintheads!
My dad was a linthead, having begun his work at the mill in Darlington early in 1922. As a little boy, I would often sit on the railroad track that passed along in front of the small millhouse where we lived and watch to see my dad returning home from work. There would be long lines of returning workers. No one had cars in those years. Mill work was hard, no jovial laughter, their bodies bent, hurriedly walking and anxious to get home, tired and hungry.
When my dad was near enough, I would run to meet him. He would sometimes take me up, pull me close to his tired body and I would feel the wetness of his shirt. On reaching the back porch of our little house, Dad would sit on the steps, pull off his shoes and pour the sweat water from them. There was nothing easy about the work in the cotton mills of those early times.
The mills of the South attracted their labor from the farms. The large plantation owners had workers called sharecroppers. It was that group that left the farms to find work at the mills. At least, a job at the mill offered a steady weekly payday, a house to live in for little cost and credit at the large Company Store. What more could they ask?
Before the “child labor” law was passed, children could work at the mills at an early age. The rule for hiring children seemed to be, “If they are big enough and can do the work required, they can have a job.”
I have heard and read stories of children being hired for work when they were 8, 9 or 10 years old. My brother was hired at 14. It seemed that Dad had set the age at when you finish 7th grade at school.
By the time that I finished 7th grade, the Labor Law had gone into effect and the age was set at 16. The very day that I became 16, I turned in my books at school and went in search for a job at the mill.
The year was 1938. One day I was a student and the next day I was a linthead.
The world has changed many times over since that day. The days of the lintheads have long passed.
Remnants of their being here can still be seen, but only a few are left to tell their story. Will the historians remember and be kind? That is yet to be seen.
Meanwhile, this one old linthead will go on remembering and through his mind’s eyes, go on seeing the long lines of lintheads with their bodies wet with sweat, their heads white with lint, moving to and from the mill where his dad worked first, his two brothers next and then he joined the group called lintheads.
I wonder what history will have to say.
Bill Shepard’s fourth book and his first children’s book has been published. Shepard and his family worked with an illustrator from Charleston to turn his mostly true story that he wrote nearly 50 years ago into a chapter book for kids. The book, “Fugi’s Great Adventure,” is $14.99 and is available from Amazon. You can order autographed copies from Shepard for $14.99 postpaid. Send orders to Bill Shepard, 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, SC 29673.

Author: Rachel Howell

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