Living on the West End: The Old Mill
Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a Bill Shepard column that was published last year.
By Bill Shepard
I remember the old mill!
How could I forget? For as long as I have a mind to remember, I will remember the Old Giant and the part it played in my life.
I remember the sound, early in the morning, coming from the old mill. It was like a fog-horn on a ship, lost at sea!
It was so loud that it rattled the window panes in our small house. It was the first wakeup call for the workers on the village — better not be late; it could cost you your job. The sound, first made at 4:30 a.m., would continue at 15-minute intervals until 6 a.m.
At that moment, the lights would flash all over the mill; it was time to go to work. The day’s work was from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. (this was before the 40-hour work week).
When I was old enough to remember, I would lie in bed and listen to the voices coming from the kitchen in our small three-room house on the village. They were the voices of my mom and dad. Mom would be the first to awaken and go to the kitchen and start a fire inside the large wood-burning stove.
Breakfast would be ready shortly, and Dad would join Mom in the kitchen. I listened to their voices, but they were not clear enough to understand what was being said. As I grew older, I would often wonder what they found to talk about each morning. Another blast from the whistle at the mill meant a warning – “Better hurry up!”
The sounds from the kitchen would cease and I would hear the door in the kitchen slam shut, and I knew Dad was on his way to the big mill to begin his long day’s work! I remember lying in bed and hearing more voices outside, as the workers would pass by our house on their way to work.
As I grew older, the sound from the old mill became more meaningful and I would lie in bed and think, “Someday, I will join the long lines that march to and from the old mill.” That time finally came, but it was long years off.
Dad loved the old mill. Mom would often tease Dad and accuse him of loving the old mill more than he loved her. Dad had spent his early life as a poor sharecropper. That meant working on another man’s farmland, year after year and without a hope of ever owning his own farm.
A steady job at the mill, a house to live in and a weekly income was much better than that! Dad came to the mill for work in 1922. He came to stay and stay he did! He watched his three boys follow in his footsteps, as each reached the age of employment.
When the old mill closed its doors for the last time, there was never one sadder than my dad. Dad had been faithful to the old mill through bad times before now. He could remember the time much earlier when the workers had left their jobs, under protest to their work conditions. They had hopes of bringing about a change.
They failed and after a few days, they returned to their jobs. They were promised at the time that if they ever did that again, the mill would be closed forever! This writer was a small boy at the time, but he remembers this well!
Years later, when the employees at the mill voted to join a union, the owners (true to their promise made years before) closed the doors for the last time.
Unbelief prevailed! One of the saddest pictures in my memories is that of Dad sitting on the front porch swing, gazing at the tall smoke stack that rose taller than the mill itself. Black smoke curling from the chimney meant that the mill was open for work.
Dad had sat and watched it happen many times, over the long years, since his employment at the old mill began. It would happen no more. The truth slowly became reality; his working days at the mill were over.
Too old now to seek employment elsewhere, Dad retired, but he still sat in his swing on the porch, his eyes set toward the mill and remembered. Others (younger than Dad) moved away from the village, while some stayed but drove long distances to and from work wherever they found it.
At the west end of Pearl Street, one of the main entrances to Darlington, there is a work in progress! Within sight of where the old mill once stood, a memorial is being built in honor to the many men, women and young boys and girls who were faithful to their work at the old mill, for as long as it remained. Most are now gone; soon there will be none left to tell the story of the mill and its workers.
The work of building the memorial has been a long time in coming, but the end is now in sight. With the help from those interested in having a part in seeing this work completed, the project will be finished.
When all voices of those who remember the mill have ceased and in ages to come, when the question is asked, “What does this monument mean?” the memorial will answer – “it is the reminder of a Time, a Place and a People that once was but is no more.”
For those interested in helping bring this work to completion, please get in touch with Peggy Sheffield at (843) 393-2776.