Sunday, January 30, 2005

Outtakes II

Okay, I'm still clearing the decks here at the City of Dust, so it's gonna be another outtakes post. Next time I'll have a few new rolls of film and a few new places to go. But this time I thought I'd say a little bit about what caused me to take hundreds and hundreds of photos of the crumbling corners and forgotten back alleys of the Augusta area in the first place. This is a picture of what was one of my favorite buildings in downtown Augusta. It was kitty-corner to the Meathouse, on desolate Walker St. As you can see, this is a document of the beginning of the end, but I've got some earlier photos that make it look downright cute. Unfortunately, they aren't digitized, so I can't post 'em. One morning I was roaming around and saw smoke coming from the abandoned lot across from this building. There's a lot of debris and wood over there, so I thought there might be a fire. When I went to check it out I realized it was just somone cooking their breakfast. We nodded good morning to each other and I was on my way again.

I moved to Athens, GA, home of the University of Georgia, from the Upper Midwest in the fall of 2001, and immediately found myself at odds with the town. It seemed to be a toy town, where kids just out of high school believed they'd been sent to paradise because they could get drunk and throw up in the streets and their parents might not know about it. Despite its reputation as a "MUSIC TOWN" I quickly gave up on going out. Even Iggy Pop, who can do no wrong live, seemed to get lost in the muddy sound and roller rink ambience of Athen's premiere venue. I saw only one truly great gig. Carla Bozulich of the Geraldine Fibbers performed a beautiful rendition of Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger album to 15 people in the middle of the night at the Caledonia Lounge. She sang the final song sans microphone while sitting on the bar at the back of the room. But that was the exception that proved the rule. Mostly I was having a really bad time. This is the main entrance to the mission. The sign above the door says, "Jesus Christ Saves," which you can see in the original post.

I started going on long bike rides in any direction AWAY from downtown. Athens is also a pretty bad place to ride your bike if you don't want to get hit by a car. Or ride over broken bottles. No one uses the sidewalks outside of downtown and so I'd ride on those only to have other bikers yell at me to get off the sidewalk and ride in the street like them. Yeah, right. I quickly came across a massive housing development that was just getting underway. There was dirt piled-up all over the place and plenty of little trails to explore. Good mountain-biking terrain. Plus, construction seemed to be moving at a snail's pace. Just beyond the last bulldozer path, in a remnant of forest, was an old farmhouse and barn, probably from the turn of the 20th century. On every ride I'd stop, go inside, and take a break from the sun, which had suddenly become my enemy. I drank a lot of water and ate a lot of power bars in there. The house had a nice patio, a crumbling chimney, and a rickety ladder led to a loft, where I imagine the kids might've slept. Sometimes turkey vultures would startle me by clattering around on the tin roof. This is another, and less stable, entrance to the mission.

In the summer of 2002 I had to go to Augusta to do some research. No one I talked to liked Augusta. I'd heard it called a "dump" and "Disgusta." But once I moved there I liked it immediately. The Savannah River and the Augusta Canal were good for canoeing, walking, and biking and the town seemed to have more, well, SOUL, than Athens. Hello, James Brown. People worked and did the things people do. Life was not about bar-hopping and football. It was about bar-hopping and golf. That's a joke. Sort of. Anyway, sure, it has its bad points. The downtown is a bombed-out wreck for the most part. Of course, that sorta suited me, and so I went exploring right off. In fairness, downtown is being revitalized even as I type this, and with some success. I don't know what the hell this is a picture of. I like to think it's the screen from a long gone drive-in movie theater. It's probably an old billboard. It's off Sandbar Ferry, just down from the Goodale Inn.

At the end of the summer of 2002 I had to head back to Athens. I didn't want to go and waited until the very last minute to make my way up GA 78. As soon as I arrived I went for a ride out to the housing development. They'd picked up speed in the months I'd been gone and there were probably a couple hundred new homes, some with people already moved in. I rode out to the farmhouse and found that it'd been torn down and ground into mulch with the rest of the woods. I kicked myself for not at least getting some photos of it. I'd never owned a camera in my life and could count the actual pictures I'd taken on one hand. But, still, I figured I coulda bought a disposable and gotten some documentation. I was bummed. That broken old house had felt like a refuge of sorts, quiet and seemingly far away from the problems that plagued me. It was an omen, the beginning of a bleak year. This is some odd graffiti from outside the Rooming House. Heed it at your own risk.

And so it was that when I moved back to Augusta for a long stretch in the spring of 2003 I bought a few disposable cameras and took some pictures of some of the old buildings I liked best around town. As I mentioned back in the Meathouse, I've been exploring old buildings since I was a kid. But I'd never taken photos of them. The pictures looked good to me, so I took more. I quickly realized that there were limitations to disposable cameras; poor flashes, and, worst, the viewfinder doesn't always correspond to what's gonna be in the picture. For Christmas 2003 my brother bought me the first camera I'd ever owned, although he couldn't understand why I wanted a film camera. I like not always knowing quite what I'll be getting and I also like the fact that each photo counts; I can't just take 30 shots of the same thing until I get one I like. My way of looking at things started to change as every half-destroyed building and rotting barn became even more aesthetically interesting. I naively thought I was doing something unique. Initially, I felt like I'd been scooped when I saw DETROITBLOG, ABANDONED PLACES, MODERN RUINS, STAHLART, and others. But I quickly took comfort in knowing there were plenty of other weirdos out there. On January 25, 2004, a major ice storm hit Augusta. My roommate and I, both being from the Midwest, considered going to work anyway. Then I saw a statement issued by the National Weather Service: "Leaving your home may result in death." I immediately left my home and took this the driveway. Another severe ice storm hit Georgia this week. Enjoy, you guys.

Here's one of my favorite quotes from Ulysses, by James Joyce: "Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in the brightness which brightness could not comprehend." I think the best photos of decay are like that; a darkness shining in the brightness. Ah geez, maybe I'm being pretentious. They're just photos of things that are falling down. Quoting Joyce is fun because you can make him say anything you like, whether your purposes require poetry, vulgarity, or out-and-out nonsense. Here's a storage tank by an old industrial area just beyond the Savannah River, near the new I-520 bridge. There was a nice abandoned warehouse nearby, but I didn't have my camera the one time we spontaneously decided to explore it. This was an earlier shot with a disposable.

We're gonna finish up with a picture of the haunted pillar from the lower market. I didn't include the photo when I originally discussed the cursed pillar in The Sunny Side of the Street because it didn't seem interesing. The pillar should have a skull on top, I thought, or maybe some bat wings. But there isn't even any blood dripping down it. Then I realized that it was pretty evil of the pillar to be so unassuming, luring victims toward it with no warning. So here it is, right off Broad St. Beware. Hey, I know it takes me awhile to get a new post up. They often take more than one sitting and I have to rifle around my room looking for odd bits of paper and then scour the internet for more info. Finally, I have to collate it all into something half-comprehensible. I hope ya'll will buy the "quality vs. quantity" argument. Okay, no more outtakes next time. I swear.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Hard Times Blues (Outtakes)

As threatened last time, I'm gonna do a post of outtakes. This way I can put up some photos that didn't make it initially, revisit some posts you may have missed the first time, and wax on about some completely random topics. In fact, if you've been searching for a soundtrack for City of Dust (I know, just bear with me here), this post will provide some suggestions. I mentioned Blind Willie McTell briefly while we were hanging out in the Phinizy Swamp, but I think I'll say a little more about the most famous bluesman of the Augusta area. He's even got his own festival. I've got a feeling I'll stray a little outside of Georgia by the end, but what the heck. The photo is from the intersection of Greene St. and East Boundary Rd. A different look at the dead gas station.

Now, when I'm talking about the blues, I'm not talking about what those goateed guys are playing down at the corner bar on Saturday night (Blues Hammer, anyone?). I'm talking about acoustic music from the Mississippi Delta, music that seems to have risen up out of the mud of the parched floodplain. There's not many of those bluesmen left, but the ones that are around all seem to be on Fat Possum Records. The most famous of these players from the Augusta area was indeed Blind Willie McTell, born in 1898 nine miles south of Thomson, GA, which is about half an hour outside Augusta on I-20 W. This is another shot from Greene St. and East Boundary. A more properly forlorn look at Greene's Night Club and Diner.

In 1907, Willie moved with his mother to Statesboro, but she died three years later and he went back to Thomson. McTell began playing on a six string, but later switched to a twelve, which he used for most of his recordings. His parents were both reportedly good players, so it's likely he learned from them. Remember, music was one of the only ways a blind youngster like Willie would ever make any money.

Even though he moved to Atlanta in late 1927, Willie travelled frequently between Statesboro and Thomson throughout his life, playing every small town in between, often staying for a week or two in each. He recorded in New York and Chicago, but also Augusta. Eventually he started to attain some degree of fame and people in the rural areas considered Willie a star. Blind Willie would play anywhere: tobacco warehouses, livery stables, hot dogs stands. I once went to the Morton Theater in Athens just because Blind Willie McTell played there. Actually, the play was pretty good that night. The picture above is of... Well, I don't know what it is. It has bars on the windows, so let's say it was a jail. It's off Highway 125, just outside Beech Island, at the corner of Silver Bluff Rd., I believe. Anyone have any info?

Blind Willie had a bit of a ragtime influence in his playing, which made some tunes a little, um, jaunty, but he could moan and cry with the best of 'em. He wrote some classic Georgia anthems, such as "Atlanta Strut," "Georgia Rag," and "Savannah Mama." "Lord Send Me An Angel" contains the line, "All these Georgia women won't let mister Mac-Tell rest." Random aside: It was soul singer James Carr who threatened a lady friend in song with deportation to the Peach State, singing, "I'm gonna send you right back to Georgia." Carr is from Memphis and is second in my book only to Otis Redding for pleadin' and sobbin' soul music, although a history of severe mental problems derailed his career long ago. Anyway, around WWII the demand for blues singers and their records declined dramatically. McTell was generally found singing on Atlanta street corners throughout the 1940's. This photo is from inside the "Beech Island Jail." Post-jailbreak, apparently.

By the 1950's Willie had fallen on hard times. He was broke, his health was worsening, and he was becoming prone to falls, a condition exacerbated by a fondness for corn whiskey (in the early 1920's he'd operated his own moonshine still). He was now singing songs at night for amorous couples parked behind the Blue Lantern Club in Atlanta and living in a small place off an alley. In 1956, a record store owner in ATL tried to coax Willie into recording a few numbers at his store. Willie refused, mostly, bitter and upset about the way he'd been treated by record companies. But, one evening, the shop owner plied McTell with some corn whiskey and got him to record twelve tracks and some tales. Three years later, on August 19, 1959, Blind Willie McTell was dead, buried as Eddie McTier, a combination of old family names that would've made it hard to track down his grave on your own. Shortly after, the record store owner went into his attic, throwing out badly damaged reel-to-reel tapes. Only one tape, at the bottom of a pile of trash, was intact: McTell's last session. It's good. His voice is a bit think and slurred from the whiskey, but he still had it. Bob Dylan knows. Here's a couch in the garage of the abandoned house overlooking Getzen's Pond.

Now, I really love bottleneck slide playing. A lot. These guys were tough and slides were made by smashing a bottle, then melting the jagged edges of the neck over a fire until it comfortably fit the ring or pinky finger. Slide playing wasn't really a regional phenomenon; players popped up here and there, sometimes in clusters. Augusta was the early home of slide player Eugene "Buddy" Moss, who recorded such songs as "Hard Road Blues," and "Hard Times Blues." In Atlanta by 1928, Moss teamed up with Blind Willie McTell and other Atlanta guitarists, including Curly Weaver and Barbecue Bob. Things were looking good for Moss when he murdered his wife and went to prison for five years. Time passed Buddy by and the recordings following his release didn't sell. During the folk revival, when players such as Leadbelly and Bukka White attained some fame and (a little) fortune, Buddy was so paranoid and suspicious that he refused to speak with most interviewers. Blind Willie McTell, of course, never had such a chance. The view from the front of the bus at the Aiken-Augusta junkyard.

For my money, the finest slide player wasn't from the South proper, but Temple, Texas. Blind Willie Johnson, who recorded in Dallas, New Orleans, and Atlanta, was blinded as a child when his stepmother threw lye in his face. She was upset about a beating his father had given her for cheating on him. In an unfathomable bit of musical serendipity, in Marlin, Texas, during the 1920's, Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson played against each other on opposing street corners. Those two corners, then, would've been the absolute center of the blues at the time. Johnson's recordings were exclusively spirituals, and with the quavering, stinging slide they are some of the most haunting songs I've ever heard. His recording of "Dark Was the Night...Cold Was the Ground," featuring no words, only Willie's soft humming of the melody, is one of the most evocative songs in the history of American music. Incidentally, Willie's version of this song formed the basis of the soundtrack for what I consider one of the best movies ever made, Wim Wender's Paris, Texas. It's easy to see why Ry Cooder based an entire soundtrack around the song. Hell, you could base your life around the song. Unfortunately, the Depression cut Willie's recording career short. In the 1940's, the house Willie shared with his wife burned down. With nowhere else to go, the couple slept on their old mattresses, still wet from the firehoses, covering themselves with newspaper. Willie contracted pneumonia as a result and, being broke and blind, no hospital would see him. Thus the world's greatest slide guitar player died, leaving thirty songs, one photo, and the charred bridge of his guitar, burned in the fire, as the only evidence. Last stop, the end of the line.

But, all told, I think the greatest of the Delta/Country blues musicians remains Robert Johnson. It's a cliche, really, and I wish I could point to someone more obscure, maybe Memphis Minnie or Blind Blake, but I have to agree with decrepit English rock stars and middle-aged men who wear berets. Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, music provided the only way Johnson saw out of sharecropping and, after his first wife died during childbirth at the age of 16, he never stopped moving, hopping trains or hitching rides at whim to anywhere, anytime of the day or night. Johnson's unreal playing and lyrics seemed to appear fully-formed, leading to speculation that he'd sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. Indeed, it does sometimes sound like two or three guitarists are playing. And he was protective of his technique, leaving a room in mid-song if he thought someone was studying his moves. He also developed a taste for whiskey and women. Upon arrival in a town, Johnson would look for the homeliest woman around, knowing that if he treated her nice she'd give him food, shelter, liquor, and a few other things as well. But it was his womanizing that was his undoing, and one night, in the fall of 1938, Johnson began eyeing a woman at a juke joint gig. He was playing with Sonny Boy Williamson, who warned him that things were getting heavy, going so far as to knock an open bottle of whiskey someone had given Johnson out of his hand. Johnson was furious at this waste of good alcohol, and when the next bottle came by, he drank. Within three days he was dead, poisoned by the husband of the woman he was flirting with. He was 27 years old. The picture is of a single cypress tree, taken while knee deep in water below the Savannah River rapids.

Robert Johnson recorded only 41 songs, just 29 different titles. Otherwise, there are two photos and a death certificate. Hearing him moan, "I've got to keep movin', I've got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail, blues falling down like hail," as he creeps into "Hellhound on My Trail," there seems no doubt that the man was haunted. Or, perhaps, in his own words, "drunk and driven." How about this, from "Me and the Devil Blues": "Early this mornin', when you knocked upon my door, early this mornin', ooh, when you knocked upon my door, and I said, 'Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go.'" I ask you, who wrote songs like that in 1937? Don't believe in ghosts? You should. Every time I'm stopped for a train, and it's late at night, I'll see the flashing red lights of the crossing guard, turn to watch the lights of the train fade into the distance, and hum, "Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind. All my love's in vain." Melodramatic? Well, nothing's made sense since Brad and Jen broke up, has it? So, sleep it off in a comfy chair behind an old Chinese restaurant near Washington Rd. Oh yeah, virtually every artist I've mentioned can be found on re-releases through Columbia Records Roots n' Blues series. They've done some nice packages and, sure, I admit to borrowing from the occasional liner note for this post. There's audio snippets for each track from just about every release, so you can hear a few seconds of Robert Johnson and Blind Willie (both of 'em) doing their thing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Working on the Railway

I was at a Smithsonian exhibit the other day called, "The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden." While walking through the exhibit I decided to turn this blog from a photo history of the old South to an outlet for disseminating my political views. No, no, I'm just kidding! Sorry. Really, while at the exhibit I came across a timeline of major events in the history of the United States. In the early 1800's, one occurrence in particular caught my eye. The note said, "Charleston-Hamburg Railroad constructed," and right then I realized I'd forgotten to mention anything of substance about this unusual (and very historic) railroad. We'll remedy that with this post. This picture MIGHT show a piece of the Charleston-Hamburg track, which is mostly gone from the immediate area (though it exists in places). The shot is of the tracks JUST on the other side of the Savannah River from Augusta, curving off into the distance through what used to be the bustling town of Hamburg, SC.

We already know about the short rise and long fall of Hamburg, and we know about the bad things that happened there. We know that Hamburg's founder, Henry Shultz, eventually tried to kill himself. We know that the Hamburg Riot played a key role in the election of Governor Wade Hampton III, the "Saviour of South Carolina," who'd been called "a veritable god of war" by a fellow Confederate soldier, and whose campaign against the policies of Reconstruction had been met with "something akin to religious ecstasy," according to historian Walter Edgar. We also know that the little that remains of Hamburg is also pretty spooky. But, the Hamburg-Charleston Railroad was undeniably a good thing for the whole country. Although, characteristically, the railroad sealed the eventual doom of Hamburg and at least one person was killed by it in spectacular fashion. This is not a picture of the Hamburg-Charleston line. In fact, it's the trestle below the aqueduct by the Augusta Canal. Sneaky of me, I know.

In the 1820's, during what might have been the first economic recession in US history, the politicians of Charleston, SC, were trying to find a way to get more trade into and out of their city. Charleston, of course, is close to the sea, and in those days was isolated by countless swamps, rivers, pine forests, and muddy wagon trails. It was said to be easier to get to Philadelphia from Charleston than it was to get to the towns of northwest South Carolina. The businessmen of Charleston wanted easy access to Augusta, in particular, where the Savannah River was a major conduit of trade. So, in 1827, it was decided that a railroad would be built between Charleston and Hamburg, a boldly brazen and brash move. This railroad would be the first steam-powered railway in the country. At 136 miles long, it would also be the longest railway in the world. The photo is of an abandoned bridge off the Aiken-Augusta Highway in the area of old Hamburg. Just beyond the bottom left of the frame is the spot where a kidnapped man was burned to death in his car. Pleasant.

By the time the line reached Hamburg on October 3, 1833, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which was also attempting to get a steam-powered train up and running, had only completed 13 miles of track. But not everyone was excited about the railroad coming to town. One prominent landowner in Barnwell, SC, refused to allow the train to pass through his town at all as he had adopted the strange notion that the machine would kill his slaves. What, were they gonna wander onto the track and get mowed down by a REALLY slow moving train? Even Henry Shultz, Hamburg's founder, wasn't sold on the idea. While he donated some land for the purpose, he believed the railroad would never supplant river transport, a tragic error. Certainly the Charleston-Hamburg line had problems to contend with initially. At first, the use of horses was considered and even wind-power proposed to move the trains. Eventually, once steam-power was settled on, a special locomotive had to be built while track was laid over miles of soggy, inhospitable land, an unprecedented feat in itself. Christened with the fairly wimpy moniker, The Best Friend of Charleston, the engine weighed 3 tons and generated less horsepower than a modern riding lawn mower. This is a shot from the ghoulish mission, located in old Hamburg.

After an early trial run, an observer had this to say about the Best Friend of Charleston: "(The engine) flew on the wings of wind at the speed of 15 to 25 miles per hour, annihilating time and space...leaving all the world behind...and landed us all safe at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared." Uh, okay then. However, the train proved to be unstable at "high" speed and a 10 mph speed limit was imposed for the sake of safety. And, as it happened, it WAS prudent to be scared. The Best Friend of Charleston exploded not long after, killing the fireman, scalding the engineer, and sending locomotive shrapnel all over the countryside. The train had yet to get 10 miles outside of Charleston. But there was no turning back. The usable bits of the blown-up choo-choo were collected and a second locomotive built, the aptly-titled Phoenix. Once the line was complete, the Charleston-Hamburg Railroad was the first line to offer scheduled passenger service. It was also the first line to carry the US Mail. And Branchville, SC, became the first railroad junction in the world. That's a lotta firsts. This is a beached boat on old Hamburg land, just along the Savannah River, fast being covered by an upscale housing development.

Originally, the Charleston-Hamburg Railroad was supposed to go all the way to Memphis, TN. However, it never really made it past Hamburg. In fact, it was difficult to get the line extended to nearby Columbia, SC. When a line was finally constructed to Columbia from Greenville, it meant trouble for Hamburg. When a depot was finally built in Augusta in 1852, it meant the end of Hamburg's importance as a railroad town altogether. It also meant the beginning of a long slide into obscurity. Incidentally, the route to Memphis was not completed until 1858. This is a random shot of the Phoenix Oil Company, probably not named after the locomotive, but a nice example of the Art-Deco influence that's still to be found around Augusta, tucked into forgotten corners.

In the 1980's, folks put together a little celebration of the Charleston-Hamburg Railroad, even going so far as to give people rides on a replica of the Best Friend of Charleston. But, after a century-and-a-half of continous service, this publicity push was the end of the line, so to speak, for the original railway. By the mid-1980's, a large section of track from Branchville, in the middle of the state, to Aiken was abandoned. The line from Augusta to Graniteville does still operate (on which a train just derailed), with disastrous results), and the first photo of this post is of part of that stretch (I think!). The picture shown has nothing to do with trains. It's an outtake from the Rooming House. When I first stuck my head around the door I saw something black and furry scamper across the mattress and off into the darkness. Aw, cute, a rat. Note whiskey bottle under bed.

I got my info for this post from a variety of sources. One of the best was a now-gone site on abandoned railroads. A second was a page off the Henry Shultz and Hamburg, SC website. The photo here is another from the Rooming House. That's real train-hopping hobo graffiti on the wall of a third floor bedroom. Whenever I'd get stuck at the tracks down on Laney-Walker I'd assuage my annoyance by looking for the hobo graffiti on the sides of boxcars. Here are some great photos, none of which are by me.

The accompanying picture is another in the series of disturbing photos of women's dress shoes. These were at the bottom of the stairs shown in the second shot of the Rooming House post and are just as we found them. I don't know what the deal is but, please, be careful out there. That goes for EVERYONE. Next I think I might do an outtakes post. I know, I know, you're thinking, "Oh no, he's out of ideas." But 'tis not so. Well, even if I was, do you think I'd tell you? Anyway, I've got a few odd photos from here and there that I'd like to post so I can get them out of the way. It'll also give me a chance to reprise a few posts you may not have seen and say a few more things about them. Thanks to the people that wrote in with kinds words for City of Dust. We'll keep on as we've been doing then. Until next time, stay well.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Leaving the Valley

First, if you're reading this and CAN'T SEE THE PHOTOS (and actually want to) please let me know. I've been considering reducing the number of posts on the front page since there's so many pictures up and I realize it might be loading slow. I've been pretty happy with my hosting service, but if you have a slow connection you might experience problems. If you have a dial-up it could be hopeless. Anyone can leave an anonymous comment, so feel free. If I don't hear anything, I'll assume 1.) Everything's fine; 2.) My reader's are patient (or shy); 3.) Most people hit "NEXT BLOG" before they even got through the first sentence. Anyway, this is a shot of the entrance to what remains of the Bath Mill. At least I think it is. I seem to recall this being the next mill down Highway 421, which is the old stretch running through the Valley. And that would make this Bath. Unfortunately, I'm too far away to check on that right now.

Whew, the last couple posts have been kinda intense. Initially, the purpose of this blog was just to post some photos since I'd been sending them out by e-mail to friends for some time. This way they could CHOOSE to look at them, if they liked. I thought I'd add some context to make things more interesting. It was never my intention to make each post a school lesson. On the other hand, there's much more murder, suicide, and general depravity than I recall being taught in school. So, I guess I'll keep on this way. But this post will be a little low key. I swear we're getting the hell out of the Valley, I just had a couple other shots to put up. This is the water tower of the former Bath (I think) Mill. Virtually nothing is left of this mill except a pile of bricks and some flooring. It wasn't even worth hopping the fence for a closer look.

A little further down Highway 421 and we come to this abandoned treat shack. You know your town is in trouble when people aren't even buying ice cream. Fifty feet away was a monument of some kind, with flags and plaques and a paved walkway, but no one to be seen. Following the highway through the Valley you pass abandoned buildings, crumbling homes, and businesses hanging on by a thread. Rural economies have always been tenuous, and the situation seems to be worsening across the country. Just drive through the small towns of YOUR state.

As we were driving along Highway 421, my companion told me of a strange restaurant set back in the woods off a dirt road. We decided to check it out. We turned off the main road and into the woods. After a distance we came to this little shack, beyond which was a fenced-in compound of sorts, with a circular drive. A few cars were parked outside a dilapidated building, the stars 'n bars flying. You don't think we actually went in, do you? Although, I am reminded of another restaurant in Jackson, SC, which recently closed. The floor of this establishment was pitted concrete, except where it had collapsed and was roped off with flagging. Old rusted bicycles and fans were strewn about and in one corner of a long bar, which was covered with boxes and essentially unusable, was a dusty, yellowed NASCAR shrine. You could see daylight through the warped doorframe. I ate there quite a few times. The macaroni and cheese was quite good, as were the butter beans.

In between Highway 421 and the Aiken-Augusta Highway is an entire block of abandoned homes, as well as a bar and restaurant. Actually, the restaurant recently collapsed. Unfortunately, I visited this area early in my explorations and didn't get my photos digitized. So, unless I scan them at some point I won't be able to post any, which is too bad since there's lots of material. I have a nice shot of a blue and white room in a house, with a recliner in the middle of the floor, and vaguely menacing (and very mispelled) Spanish graffiti sprayed on the wall in dripping red paint. But I can't post it! The only digitized shot I have of this block is this photo of a piano and TV from the living room of a small house. People are always leaving their pianos behind. They're very common in old buildings. Even DETROITBLOG recently posted a picture of one. See how the piano and TV are starting to tilt toward each other? Imagine what that means for the structural integrity of the floor. But, you know, safety last, I guess. The browning in this shot is due to it being taken with a disposable camera. Disposable cameras have very poor flashes. Lately I've been posting photos of questionable quality and technique when I think they might be otherwise interesting. Maybe I should stop that. If you'd like to see a better shot of what the old mill towns looked like, there's a good shot two-thirds of the way down this page.

Yeah, yeah, one last photo from the Clearwater Mill. I just wanted to show everyone the staircase we had to climb up to get to the third floor. We gingerly crept from step to step, carefully hopping over the spots where the floorboards were missing. Ah, hell, I'm kidding. Even we're not that dumb. This is a stairway we came across at the far end of the mill while trying to find our way down from the third floor. After some careful consideration and thoughtful discussion, we decided it wasn't going to work and had to make our way back through the entire mill to the stairway we used to come up. Most inconvenient.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Clearwater Mill Redux

Alright, everyone's probably getting tired of the Clearwater Mill and I know that my historical info isn't even from the Clearwater, but the nearby Graniteville Mill. But bear with me for one last post. I guarantee it'll get creepy, if nothing else. Speaking of Graniteville, there was a train wreck there last week that spilled chlorine, caused the evacuation of 5,400, sickened 250, and has killed nine so far. One of the worst industrial accidents in the US in recent years. Six of the dead were killed by chlorine vapor in the Avondale textile mill, one of the last functional mills in Horse Creek Valley, and other mill workers remain unaccounted for. Some residents had to go to decontamination facilities. The railroad, Norfolk Southern, has compensated residents with $100 Wal Mart gift cards. Life can still be tough in the Valley.

William Gregg, born in Columbia, SC in 1836, was the man who saw the value of milling textiles in Horse Creek Valley, built the Graniteville Mill, and, by extension, fathered textile mills from Aiken, SC to the Georgia state line. At first, Gregg was very much in favor of slave-labor. Gregg himself on the two reasons for using slaves in the mills: "First, you are not under the necessity of educating them, and have, therefore, their uninterrupted services from the age of eight years. The second is that when you have your mill filled with expert hands, you are not subjected to the change which is constantly taking place with whites. We possess the cheapest, steadiest, and most easily controlled labor to be found in the United States. All concur that there is no difference as to the capability; the only question is whether hired labor is not cheaper than slave labor." As usual, all the quotes and attendant info is from Richard Pierce and the Alicia Patterson Foundation, whom I thank for being so unknowingly generous.

But did you catch that last line about whether hired labor is cheaper than slave labor? Yup, Gregg was starting to think that maybe he could hire poor whites for even less than what it cost to keep slaves. "Shall we pass unnoticed the thousands of poor, ignorant, degraded white people among us, who in this land of plenty live in comparative nakedness and starvation? It is only necessary to build a manufacturing village of shanties in a healthy location in any part of the State to have crowds of these poor people around you, seeking employment at half the compensation given to operatives at the North."

But the captains of industry were also afraid of the poor white population. James Taylor, involved in the founding of the Graniteville Mill, said this: "So long as these poor but industrious people could see no mode of living except by a degrading operation of work with the negro upon the plantation, they were content to endure life in its most discouraging forms, satisfied that they were above the slave, though faring often worse than he. (But now) the great mass of our poor white population begin to understand that they have rights and that they too are entitled to some of the sympathy which falls upon the suffering. It is this great upbearing of our masses that we are to fear, so far as our institutions are concerned. Crowd from these employments the fast increasing white population of the South, and fill our factories and workshops with our slaves, and we shall have in our midst those whose very existence is in hostile array to our institutions." So, by giving poor whites hard, dangerous mill work at low pay you not only pacify them, but increase your profit. Nice.

However, some of the sins of the father, whether real or imagined, may have been visited on the son. In 1876, at a stockholders' meeting, someone shot James Gregg, William's heir. A young man, Bob McEvoy, who had only one leg and worked as an office boy in the mill before disappearing two years prior, was the shooter. No one ever knew why McEvoy shot Gregg--McEvoy didn't say before the noose was tied around his neck. It might say something about the culture of the mill towns to note that, while citizens professed to be fiercely loyal to the mills, Bob McEvoy became a folk hero. The citizens thought Bob was smart and said his mind was "a powerful one." In fact, his father was so afraid doctors would dig the corpse up to dissect the brain that he buried his son in the corner of his yard where he could watch over the grave. At one point in the 1970's Cormac McCarthy and Richard Pearce were working on a fictionalized screenplay about McEvoy and the shooting of Gregg. I don't believe it was ever finished. But, geez, I really wish it had been.

Speaking of swinging from a rope, here's the second piece of evidence that someone else had been in the mill. Remember back in the Davidson School post (see: School's Out...Forever!) I mentioned that it wasn't homeless people that scared me. Nope, it's people that hang rabbits from nooses. I guarantee you this wasn't done by a homeless person who'd been enjoying the many comforts an abandoned textile mill provides. But it could've easily been done by a serial killer in training. It's possible it was just some school kids, which wouldn't make it any better, really, but that's a pretty elaborate noose and you'll note the rope is tied up very high, out of the frame. We were glad not to run into the fella that did this, that's for sure.

In 1829, the voting rights of poor Irish peasants were rescinded. Here's what Richard Pearce said: "No longer politically useful and unable to pay rent, the cottier peasant and his family were driven from what little holdings they had and literally placed on the ship that was to carry them on one of the most extraordinary migrations in history. To understand the scale of this social upheaval, for example, during just three years from 1849-51 over a million persons were evicted by Irish landlords. To these vast numbers of newly dispossessed families, the destination mattered little. For Irish immigration during these terrible decades was an exodus, a flight. Oscar Handlin, the noted historian of Boston's immigrant population, quotes The Cork Examiner: 'The immigrants of this year are not like those of former ones; they are now actually running away from fever and disease and hunger, with money scarcely sufficient to pay passage for and find food for the voyage.'" This explains all the Irish graves in Magnolia cemetery (see: Ghoul's Night Out). Bob McEvoy's father was also one of these immigrants. Cloutezze Friday Johnson, the granddaughter of another Irish immigrant, had this to say about her father: "In fact, though, I think if he had ever had the opportunity I think he would have liked to do something else than work in the cotton mill. But that was all he knew to do because had never known anything else."

Putting so many poor people in one place worried the mill owners. James Taylor, an associate of William Gregg's, wrote: "Because an effort has been made to collect the poor and unemployed white population into our new factories, fears have arisen that some evil would grow out of the introduction of such establishments among us." When the mills couldn't hire any more of the incoming poor, the owners lamented the continued arrival of the destitute. William Gregg told his stockholder's: "There is a pressure on us all the time for places. We are annoyed all the time with wagon loads of people sent here by neighborhood contributions to get clear of them. In many instances they have been abandoned in inclement weather in our streets, destitute of food and clothing, and we have been obliged to administer to their wants and to send them back to the neighborhood from which they came, with our own teams. Sometimes they come by railroad, a poor woman with four or five helpless children, sent here and the passage paid by charitable people, under the presumption that Graniteville is a sort of charity hospital."

But, even if the mills could be a mixed-blessing, they nonetheless were a source of hope for those who worked and lived in the mill towns. From slavery, to the exploitation of poor whites, and eventually to the providing of a reasonably comfortable income to the middle-class, the mills had followed the course of southern history. Ms. Ollie Whittle: "Everything’s on equal now. Just what they pay the white man or the white woman, they pay to the Negro. Everybody got forty-eight to fifty-two frames now. I don't care if you look like snow or look like black ink. Flesh is flesh, and blood is blood. You go out there and cut a man look like soot and cut one look like snow and put that blood together, you don't know which is the white blood and which is the black, do you? And on top of that, if you don't hire me here, you hire me over yonder. If I don’t work over there, I can come right here and work. And I tell them over there, 'To hell with you man. This ain't no slaveytime. Slave time never will be back here.'" Nor will the time of the great textile mills of Horse Creek Valley.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The Mill Pt. II

I was reading the Onion the other day and there was a quote from a guy named Robert Warshow regarding film noir. He said that film noir allows an audience to "say 'no' the the culture's pervasive 'yes.'" I liked that so much I thought I might make it my New Year's resolution. Say "no" to Britney Spears and Ben Affleck. Say "no" to a recycled identity based on the things you buy. Say "no" to boring old men who can only justify their outmoded beliefs and actions through outrageous lies. And, good grief, let's start looking for something else in 2005. On the other hand, sometimes it's good to say "yes" when someone (or something) says "no." And so it is that we're back at the Clearwater Mill in the Horse Creek Valley, SC.

It's hard to believe there was ever a time when people felt a certain loyalty to the companies they worked for. No doubt, companies have no one but themselves to blame for that state of affairs. But those that worked the textile mills in the Valley were fiercely loyal. L. C. "Chick" Thomas, personnel director of the Graniteville Mill (or, the "Big G," just down the road from Clearwater), about 1975: "What's happened to the feelings of our people toward the flag of this country? Toward their government? They've changed. What do you think Watergate did to this country? But I'll tell you this, you find any man around here who's worked for Graniteville Company ten years or more and ask him, if he had the same job somewhere else, would he go to it? He will tell you no, nine times out of ten." All quotes in this post are from this website, the only real first-person record of mill life I could find, with credit to Richard Pearce and the Alicia Patterson Foundation. This is a photo of what remains of the first floor bathroom at the Clearwater.

In fact, the longest record of continuous service by an industrial worker was set at the Graniteville Mill. James Wesley Rearden began work with the Graniteville Company in 1872 at age eleven and continued on until his death in 1959, 87 years later. That record may still stand to this day. Ansel Thompson was also dedicated to his job: "In the fall of 1941 I went on seven days a week and worked seven days a week until I retired in 1970. I never did get a vacation in 28 years. Never a whole week at a time. During vacation time when everybody else was taking theirs, they needed me on my job. And I did stick with them, and I can say it paid off. But it was awful hard. If I'd have had my way, there was several times that I would have been on a vacation with my family because my wife was off work. But I had to work on...I can still remember just as clear as day what that first pay check was. $2.52 a week."

The huge machines used to work the textiles remain in the mill, dusty and forgotten, a scene unfathomable a generation before. Ollie Whittle, an African-American women who started in the Graniteville Mill at age 17: "I was the first colored woman they hired in that mill. I went to the mill in 1917 when they wasn't no men. Uncle Sam had the men. You know what I did once? One time I didn't have a job, so when Monday morning come I just walked right up into that mill with my mop and pail and started scrubbing out the alleys you know between the machines. I worked Monday all day, then Tuesday, Wednesday. On Thursday the Second Boss come on, and he thought the First Boss had hired me. And the First Boss thought the Second Boss had hired me, And there I was just working away. I was smart then. I wouldn't say nothing to nobody. Thursday morning, 'Ollie, how long you been here?’ ‘Oh man, don't you come asking me. I been here ever since Monday morning. And don't you get my time wrong neither cause I’ll tear up this mill. I been here ever since Monday morning.' And I had been there since Monday morning, but nobody didn't hire me. I just went up there and went to work."

Work at the mill was tough, no matter what your job, and the pay low at what was the only real game in town. In addition, accounting practices could get creative. Ms. Whittle: "I used to work ten hours a day, five days and a half a week, go to work Monday morning and knock off Saturday dinner and get my envelope. Wouldn't be but six dollars and five cents. And you know a lot of times the boss didn't send in no social security for you. Well, he’d tell you he was taking it out, but you didn’t know. Then when you get out of a job and want to draw your compensation, you don't have it. You know, they got me charged up with three different numbers, and all the good numbers where I made the most time they say belong to someone else. I just don't know."

Miss Whittle goes on to tell about how, when buying canned tobacco at the local white-owned grocery, blacks had to be refer to it as "Mister Prince Albert." She found calling a can "mister" insulting and refused to do it. She also directed some of that indignant anger toward the mills: "You know they wouldn't want a fool like me in those mills nowadays anyway. 'Cause I tell you what's right and what's wrong and stick to it. I don't care nothing about your Gatling guns, machine guns, your National Guard, or nothing else. But I ain't got time to stir up nothing now. All I want is a living. I ain't looking for the killing 'cause God gonna do that."

The Clearwater Mill is massive, and on the upper floor little bridges led from one area to another. These are wooden bridges and we crossed them very gingerly indeed, so as not to need that first aid box tacked to the wall. Reverend Cecil Bearden, who at one time ran the orientation program for the Graniteville Mill, said something to his new employees that is pertinent to urban exploration, as well as life in general, really: "You're gonna make some decisions out there, some good ones, some bad ones. Those good ones gonna put jingle in your pocket, those bad ones gonna put tears in your eyes."

This door on the third floor opened out to provide a nice view across Horse Creek Valley, the mills mostly gone quiet now. Miss Whittle, one last time: "Wash, iron, tend to the baby, and rake the yard. If they didn’t have no baby, you carried dinner to the mill. We were their servants. They were poor folks. You can be sure the big shots’ wives didn't work in no mill, like the Supers' wives. But these little poor factory people that worked in the mill, they had to work. They had to get somebody to stay there with those children and work for them. Somebody had to do it. These people wasn’t paying nothing because they wasn't making nothing." And I'm not quite done with the Clearwater Mill yet. Next time we'll close the door, head back inside, and roam around a little more.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Horse Creek Valley, South Carolina

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 boll weevil decimated Georgia'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 construction 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.

In one section of the mill thousands of pieces of ancient computer equipment were strewn all around, some of it brand new. If you're looking for giant floppy discs, punch-card readers, and obsolete monitors, the plastic casing yellowed and coated in dust, well, it's out there. Elsewhere, old adding machines, rubber stamps, and discarded reams of fabric were lying on desks and stacked on shelves.
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.