My question had been prompted by a recent episode of American Pickers. Treasure seekers and history buffs Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz had happened upon a “picking place” in the backwoods of South Carolina. There they found stashed away a collection of old coins preserved pristinely in a small glass case.
Upon inquiry as to the origin of the coins, the owner explained that they had been used to pay employees who worked in the factories and mills.
The “Pickers” were clearly captivated by the story of these minted coins of varying denominations and wanted to know more. The owner continued to explain that employees lived in houses in villages that were owned by the mills. Employees were paid with coins called “loonies” or tokens which could then be exchanged for goods in the “company stores,” which were also owned by the factories and mills. Since many of these mills and factories were in rural areas located far from banks, the tokens could also be used as credit until the employees received their paychecks.
THE OWNER of the coins continued, much to Mike and Frank’s amazement, informing them that utilities and other expenses could be paid for with these loonies as many companies and industries were also owned by the mills. Using these tokens as payment for wages, the mills and factories pretty much controlled every aspect of their employees’ lives.
My mom and dad had worked at the cotton mill in Shannon, but we had never lived in a mill village like Mike had. Though he had figured prominently in many of my stories, Mike had repeatedly asked me when I was going to write about his life growing up in Lindale. It seemed that now was the time. I knew a little bit about his early years, but our conversation with his Aunt Bobbie had definitely piqued my curiosity. Ensuing questions and answers helped to fill in some of the gaps.
“The mill built houses and then rented them to their employees,” Mike said. “When they put them up for sale, Grandfather bought the one on West First Street.” Mike, his mother and father, and four siblings lived in one side of the white two-story duplex. Mike’s grandparents lived on the other side.
“I remember as a kid of about 10 or 12 going into the mill to get my mother’s check,” Mike said, trying to correct any misconception I might have had about the way the mill paid its employees. “The guard shack was located right at the entrance to the mill. I would go to the guard shack, check in, go to the side door, go through the weave room, up to the second floor, and then to Richard Ware’s office to get Mother’s check.” Richard Ware was Mike’s great uncle and his grandmother’s (Bessie Ware Treglown) brother. He had been her boss when she worked in the mill, his Aunt Bobbie’s boss and Mike’s mother’s boss as well.
“THERE WAS a row of windows that ran along the back side of the mill,” Mike said. “I would stop to look through the windows at the dam behind the mill and the bridge that reached across the creek.” Mike’s words served as a window for me into his past as the memories were brought back to mind. “You could see fish – big fish – swimming around in there. We called it ‘dye creek,’” he recalled, “because that’s where the mill poured the water after they had rinsed the cloth.”
“There was also a pipe that ran from West First Street to Jamestown that went over the creek. The pipe was about 18 inches around,” Mike said demonstrating the diameter with his hands. “You could walk the pipe if you were careful. But sometimes we fell in,” he said, clearly amused with the memory.
“Did you come up blue?” I asked, imagining Mike emerging from the inky water looking like Papa Smurf. “We came up wet,” he replied, “and sometimes stinky.” According to Mike, the pipe was part of the waste treatment plant that was behind the mill. He was convinced that some of the waste was also dumped into the creek.
“Believe me, you didn’t want to fall in,” he said, his nose crinkling, the memory of the pungent odor as real the memory of his walk through the mill. The smile fixed on Mike’s face revealed a man in his 60s who could still see himself as a young boy cautiously making his way across that pipe like a balance beam, occasionally losing his footing and slipping or splashing into the stinky water below but enjoying every minute of it.
I HAD NEVER been inside a cotton mill but had seen pictures and could only imagine a small boy meandering through the maze of massive machinery. “Can you think of any company today that would allow a 10- or 12-year-old kid to go walking through their plant?” Mike asked.
As a matter of fact I couldn’t. But an Internet search of the history of the Pepperell Mill (formerly Massachusetts Mill) and other mills across the South revealed as late as 1913 children as young as 10, boys and girls, sometimes younger, employed in the mills as sweepers, doffers and spinners (Engler, L., Child Labor in the American South: Georgia: Massachusetts Mill, Lindale, Georgia).
According to the National Committee on Child Labor, in the early 1900s one in every four workers in textile and hosiery mills in the south was between 10 and 15 years old. As for those workers younger than ten, no one knew for sure as they were not counted (Hine, Lewis, Child Labors in the Carolinas, 1909 and Day Laborers Before Their Time , 1909). Only the passage of the Child Labor Law by the federal government in 1916 put an end to the practice of hiring children in factories and mills younger than 14 (the Keating-Owen Act). According to the NCLC, Georgia was one of the last states in the union to implement a child labor law in 1925 which prohibited the employment of children less than 14-and-a-half.
“WHEN YOU WERE walking through the mill back then, did you ever think about working there yourself?” I asked, calling to mind the successive generations of his family that had worked at that mill and curious about the musings of a little boy who walked through it during the mid to late ’50s.
“I applied when I came home from Vietnam,” he said. “Don’t you remember?” he asked rhetorically. “They told me I was over-qualified,” he replied, his response tinged with sarcasm. He paused, the memory still painful and reflective of the experience of many of the veterans returning home from that war. The sting disappeared as quickly as it had come, and Mike smiled again.
“We’ve told you things you didn’t know, haven’t we?” Mike asked, obviously enjoying this walk down his own memory lane and taking me along for the journey. “There’s a lot more I can tell you,” he offered.
I had already learned a lot, but I never did find out whether the Massachusetts/Pepperell Mills ever paid any employees in loonies. As far as his Aunt Bobbie and Mike knew, no one in their family had been paid with these tokens. What I did discover from a further Internet search about the history of tokens in South Carolina was that the usage led to widespread abuse sometimes by the mill, but more by unsavory characters who bought and sold them on the black market. Few of these collectible coins remain today as many of them were used for scrap to support the war effort. That fact alone made the American Pickers’ find of these coins all the more significant.
The Pickers’ motto is that they “make a living telling America’s story, one piece at a time.” The tokens or loonies were clearly a valuable find. But the pieces of my husband’s past that I picked up that day that helped to tell the story of his life growing up in Lindale made them all the more to me definitely priceless!
Brenda Stansell of Rome is a licensed counselor, a retired educator and a freelance writer. Readers may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.