Alright, back again. I hope everyone had a nice New Year and woke up with all limbs intact. Me? I'm so lame I didn't even make it to midnight. I'll try to redeem myself with the next series of posts in which we'll visit the Clearwater Mill and talk about the Horse Creek Valley region of Aiken County, South Carolina. This is gonna be a multi-post saga. There's not much written about Horse Creek Valley and the history of the textile mills, but I'll see what I can put together. Most of the infrastructure that attended the huge mills, including company towns and the mills themselves, is gone. However, we'll start with one mill that does exist, although it's been shut down for years: Clearwater Finishing, a textile mill in, fittingly enough, Clearwater, SC.
As you head generally northeast on SC 191 toward Aiken you pass all the old mill towns, including Clearwater, Bath, Langley, Warrenville, Graniteville, and Vaucluse. Most are filled with nothing but memories at this point, although the remaining little company houses, aligned in neat rows, are generally still occupied. Given the importance of Horse Creek Valley, not much easily accessible information exists. This website is an exception and, giving the requisite due to Richard Pearce and the Alicia Patterson Foundation, I'm going to steal a piece about Graniteville wholesale because I think it says as much about the milling region now as it did when written in 1975:
"For Graniteville is a town that believes in its ghosts, welcomes them as family: whether it's a great grandfather, long dead and buried, back to squeak his ancient porch rocker on a hot still summer evening, or locked doors that open in the night to a kitchen whore once long ago someone's grandmother burned to death in a fire. In the evening after dinner over coffee, the town seems to shake out its ghosts like pecans from the trees in the garden. Night dogs bark the distance between houses like old friends calling out across a field each one's too tired to cross, and old stories weave their way through the sleep of whole families, whole generations of families, until the history of an evening becomes the history of a town and of a century."
Historically, farming, especially tobacco and cotton, was the economic life-blood of the Aiken-Augusta area. Unfortunately, tobacco and cotton rapidly deplete the soil. In 1920-1921 the bollweevil decimated Georiga's cotton crop and the bottom fell out of the market, blows from which the cotton-economy never fully recovered. In short, by the time the 20th century got onto its feet, farmers were finding themselves unable to make a living and the Great Depression was already on deck. Down in the Valley, where Horse Creek was a ready source of water power, textile mills had been providing steady employment for decades. The first large mill was built in Graniteville in the mid-1840's, although small mills had been established in Vaucluse as early as the Napoleanic Wars (1803-1815), when British cloth was embargoed. By 1880 mills were in operation throughout the Valley. At first the mills processed mostly cotton, but later handled rayon, polyester, etc. You know, all your favorite fabrics. Normally sealed-up tight, some contruction out front provided us with a temporary entrance to the three-story Clearwater Mill. Although, if you look at the lower right of the sign in the first photo, you can see someone got inside before us and brought their spray paint. Just when you think you're daring, someone else makes you feel like a sissy.
Now, the farmers across the river believed that the red Georgia dirt was in their blood and that life without the wide blue vistas of sky and the scent of long-leaf pine on the air meant certain death. They scorned the textile workers, who they referred to as "lintheads" because of the bits of cotton and fabric that stuck to their hair. For their part, the textile workers thought the farmers were ridiculously behind the times, tending their fields in the brutal summer sun, nearly unable to tease a crop out of the sandy clay along the river plain. Yet life in the mills was harsh and workers fought long hours, low pay, tyrannical supervisors, obscenely dangerous working conditions, and respiratory problems. In the early years, workers literally inhaled the textiles they milled, destroying their lungs. In some towns every male, essentially all of whom worked in the mills, had a chronic cough. This photo of the third floor illustrates dangers of an entirely different kind.
In 1933 Erskine Caldwell, a native of Moreland, GA, wrote God's Little Acre, a book based entirely on the tension (psychological, emotional, and, uh, apparently sexual) between farmers and millers in the region surrounding Horse Creek Valley. In the story, a family is destroyed as some members refuse to leave the barren land and others embrace mill life. In the end, it is the mills, or, more specifically, those that own the mills, the wreak the worst destruction. Here is a sample:
"Up and down the Valley lay the company towns and the ivy-walled cotton mills and the firm-bodied girls with eyes like morning-glories and the men stood on the hot streets looking at each other while they spat their lungs into the deep yellow dust of Carolina. He knew they could never get away from the blue-lighted mills at night and the bloody-lipped men on the streets and the unrest of the company towns. Nothing could drag him away from there now."
God's Little Acre is a vivid, searing, and lurid portrait of Horse Creek Valley. It was censored by the Georgia Literary Commission, attacked by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and banned outright in Boston. So, yeah, it's a fabulous book! Normally I'd say any book that sold 14 million copies must be terrible (Hello, John Grisham!) but in this case I make an exception. Here's a forklift's-eye view of the third floor. Other than the graffiti on the sign out front, there was almost no evidence anyone had been inside the mill recently. However, weirdly, next to this forklift was a relatively new McDonald's sack and the remains of a Big Mac. There was ONE other piece of evidence, but we'll talk about that later.
As the textile industry declined in the 1970's and 1980's, the Clearwater Mill closed for the first time. It reopened later, then closed again. I'm not sure how long it has been vacant now, but from the scraps lying around it would seem the mid-1990's. Walking around on the third floor required the utmost caution. Parts of the floor were totally gone and other portions were just wood, much of which was rotted and would provide a quick way back to the second floor. We got around by walking on the steel beams the supported the floor itself, which you could see through the holes in some areas.
Following World War II the communities in the Horse Creek Valley, including Clearwater, relied completely on the mills for employment and economic stimulation. To date, no industries have moved into these towns to replace the textile mills. More to come.