Southern Life

The North beat the South in the Civil War but it didn’t beat the independence out of Southerners. Determined not to depend on the North for textiles, the South set about building its own textile mills. New England barons would relocate mills to the South as well, creating a textile industry that would thrive until cheap labor abroad stole the industry away.

As these old factories went up along canals and rapids, an exodus took place as Southerners abandoned the farm for the mill. For more than 100 years the workday for many Southerners began with the blast of whistles. Some whistles were so loud people joked, “They could wake the dead.”

Homes clustered around the factory and the mill village came to be, a hamlet where hard work and hope lived side by side. For many Southerners life played out in a mill village where company scrip could be spent at the company store. People in mill villages forged close bonds: they worked together, lived side by side, watched movies at the company theater, and played on mill baseball teams.

That way of life is gone. The whistles no longer blow and you don’t hear references to “lint heads” (“linthead” also), slang for cotton textile mill workers. To some, “lint head” meant poor white trash, a harsh judgment on hardworking people who faced indignities.

By the 1920s, owners’ greed and mismanagement saddled laborers with poverty-level wages and intolerable conditions. Forty years later, stone-cold executive’s desire for cheap labor was alive and well. (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) They began shipping Southerners’ jobs to other countries in the 1960s. When they did, they put more than a few nails in the coffin of the mill village and its close-knit hardworking folks.

Today, lint heads and fading memories are dying, but beautiful evidence of the mill era endures: stones and hand-made bricks. Old mills and canals give our wearisome world of strip malls and cloned franchises a much-needed touch of elegance.

The majesty emanating from stone and water is as old as Rome. If you want to find some beautiful, forgotten spots, strike out for silver shoals, milk-white rapids, and places where a gleaming curtain of water falls over a rocky ledge. There you will find beautiful remnants of the days when stone and water made things.

Water in motion gets things done, and stone endures, things our forefathers appreciated. They built mills by creeks and rivers, and they built canals to float their wares to market. Mills and canals ushered in prosperity … for a while. And then hydroelectric power, railroads, and off-shoring executives came along. Prosperity punched a ticket to a place called elsewhere and left Southern rivers and streams. The mills along their banks fell into ruins.

Many old mills burned, torched by vandals. What beautiful ruins they are. Stonemasons and craftsmen from Europe made many of these quaint structures. Here and there throughout the South remnants of old mills and canals add a picturesque touch to the land. Some took on new lives.

In Athens, there used to be a club called O’Malley’s Tavern, a complex of decks overlooking the Oconee River shoals. In the 1980s, my Georgia buddies and I spent many a post-game celebration there. The building, not the first, came into existence during 1857-1858 as the L-shaped Athens Cotton and Wool Factory. The smaller wool building paralleled the riverbank. It was there that we watched games on TV and elbowed our way through thick crowds where waterpower once made textiles. The old building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Look along the fall line where rapids foam and you’ll find other handsome canals and mills. I can’t recall rapids in Lincoln County though Anthony Shoals comes close, very close. And then there’s the Augusta Canal, a National Heritage area. That old canal remains intact, and down its length King Mill adds a European touch to the area. Augusta, by the way, was the first city in the South to have electric streetcars and city lights. Augusta wouldn’t be the same without the canal or mill.

On the last Monday in August I drove to an old mill and later a canal, some 61 miles away. Both settings possess beautiful stones; both are prepossessing enough to end up in a coffeetable book. Indeed, one, Landsford Canal, already has (Reflections Of South Carolina, Clark & Poland). The other, Glendale Ruins, may well end up in the new coffeetable book Robert Clark, the photographer, and I are doing. There’s something about stone structures that people can’t get enough of.

Up in Spartanburg County the Glendale Ruins stand by shimmering shoals. These poignant ruins’ humble beginnings go back to a 1773 iron works. In 1832, Dr. James Bivings of Lincolnton, North Carolina, purchased the old iron works and adjacent land. There, he built the area’s first large cotton mill. A village sprung up around the mills something that would repeat itself in Athens, Augusta, and Lithia Springs, outside Atlanta. At Lithia Springs, Sherman burned the New Manchester Mill. Glorious ruins remain, now part of Sweetwater Creek State Park.

Glendale Ruins, Photo by T. Poland

During the Civil War, the Glendale mill made shoe soles and cloth for the Confederacy. The mill flourished during World War II and a series of owners came and went. And then decline set in. The mill closed in 1961 and burned March 24, 2004.

Shells stand, remnants often described as Gothic. The bell tower and smokestacks loom hauntingly over people who come to the Lawson’s Fork Creek to relax and fish. Sometimes a kayaker floats through. People gravitate to the area. Thank goodness people up that way saw the value of preserving the ruins and making them a natural area.

I doubt the architects of the old mill had any thoughts that remains of their work would be preserved for posterity. They just planned a good, working mill as best they could. They did better than they thought. Old buildings possess a character modern buildings just don’t have. We need them like a red-cockaded woodpecker needs an old-growth longleaf pine forest.

As I walked the ruins I spotted a woman fishing beneath an old iron bridge. While I was photographing the bridge she waved and pulled up a string of bream for me to see.

As I walked the grounds, it occurred to me that maybe people come to ruins because they’re reminders of how nature reclaims her own. I found charred remnants of the old mill everywhere I looked but I found new growth everywhere too. Amid the grasses and trees were charcoal chips dropped by the winds that fanned the flames back in 2004.

Up on a ridge, an old shortleaf pine had recently fallen during a thunderstorm. I counted at least 150 dense rings in the fine old log. That tree was a seedling when the War Between The States began. Now it is a ruin too. As is the old mill. The ruins and their blocks of stone live another life now, reminders that sure as the sun rises, old stones, bricks, and mortar shaped to man’s ways will return to nature. It’s a matter of time.

Landsford Canal Guardlocks, Photo by T. Poland

I left Spartanburg and drove to a river all blue and rocky that once upon a time was an avenue of commerce. Now it’s back to being just a river, the Catawba. In Chester County right by the Catawba, the locks at the south end of Landsford Canal remind us that man can make beautiful structures from rocks. Irish masons crafted the canal’s guardlock, a structure that lowered boats into the canal during floods. The finely cut, precise granite stones still stand only now lush greenery grows between them where water once stood.

In the river, an old rock wall continues its prolonged tumble. Men built this diversion dam to direct water into the canal and to offer riverboat pilots a haven during floods.

People come to the canal all day, especially in May and June when the rocky shoals spider lilies burst into large white blooms. Anchored among rocks, the flowers festoon the river. You can see the earth’s true colors here in the river and its load of jammed logs: blue, brown, green, and white. The world’s largest stand of these exquisite white flowers lives here. Their needs are simple: swift, shallow water and sunlight. Therein lies a problem. Man’s penchant for damming rivers leaves them few places to grow now.

Riverboat pilots used to ply the Catawba’s waters, but no more. Now kayakers do. Two men kayaked by, deftly avoiding rocks, as I talked to a retired sheet metal worker on the riverbank. “I come here all the time just to get away,” he told me.

One if by land, two if by sea.

On land and by water, people come to see ruins and “get away.” Man the sojourner passes through marveling at old mills and canals. Now these venerable old stone structures ascend to a lofty status: monuments to workers who toiled long and hard in the days before power and pneumatic tools had come along. And yet their work not only endures, it gives us places stone cold beautiful and places to escape our monotonous, plasticized civilization.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at Email him at [email protected].