Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of An American Mill Town
A documentary film about the rise and fall of the Beacon Blanket Mill in Swannanoa, North Carolina, its influence on the people who worked there and its national and global context.
Beacon Manufacturing Company began production in New Bedford Massachusetts in 1905. By 1919 they were the largest manufacturer of blankets under one roof in the world. They opened a second plant in Swannanoa, North Carolina in 1925, eventually moving all operations to North Carolina and leaving New England entirely.
The Teens, Twenties and Thirties were times of tremendous labor unrest throughout the United States. Although Beacon Manufacturing was never unionized it did experience two "wildcat" strikes, a work stoppage taken by employees without any union affiliation or approval. The first took place in the 1930s, the other in the 1970's. Both of these strikes were quickly resolved and were not marked by the deep turmoil and violence that characterized so many of the labor disputes of the times.
In his book The Textile Heritage of Gaston County author Robert Ragan states that smaller locally owned mills had a reputation for treating their workers more fairly than the larger mills which were often run by absentee owners from the North. Many of those family run mills were able to successfully negotiate with their own employees about labor disputes.
The strike at the Loray Mill in Gastonia in 1929 was one of many similar strikes southern textile workers staged to protest the stretch out, unsafe conditions, long hours and reduced wages. Workers walked out of mills in South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina, including Marion, North Carolina, only 27 miles from Beacon Manufacturing in Swannanoa. Like Gastonia, the 1929 strike in Marion ended in violence, with the deaths of six strikers, and became known as the Marion Massacre.
It is important to understand the context in which Beacon opened its doors in Swannanoa and the fierce anti-union stance taken by many mill owners. The violence that accompanied efforts to unionize the textile industry also explains why as late as 2003, only 3.1 % of North Carolina workers belonged to a union, the lowest representation in the United States.
Serpent Child is a 501c3 non-profit organization.
If you would like to make a tax deductible donation to help fund the creation of Blanket Town, please make the check payable to :
Serpent Child Productions
215 Wilson Ave.
(828) 686-3922 or (828)280-6235
GASTONIA and the LORAY MILL
Built in 1900 the Loray Mill (later called the Firestone Mill) was the largest mill under one roof in the South. With a capacity of over 50,000 spindles and 1,600 looms, the 5 story brick building helped to establish Gaston County North Carolina as the center for the Southern textile industry.
Originally named after its two chief investors, JF Love and George Gray, it was dubbed the "million dollar mill" by the local newspaper in Charlotte. But despite its staggering capacity the mill soon fell into serious financial trouble. Under-capitalized and dependent upon China to buy its manufactured cotton sheeting, the Loray Mill changed ownership until it gained stability under the Manville- Jenckes Manufacturing Company of Pawtucket Rhode Island.
In 1921 the mill complex expanded, adding more housing, dormitories for single workers, a cafeteria and an additional manufacturing wing, six stories high. By 1927 the mill operated over 129,000 spindles, 434 looms and employed an estimated 3,500 workers. Thousands more lived in the mill village nearby.
1927 was also the year when owners at Loray and other mills throughout the south instituted the "stretch out" a production technique where fewer workers tended more machines.
At the Loray Mill, the workforce was reduced from 3500 to 2200 workers and wages were cut by 20%. Workers on the day shift would labor 6 days a week, 11 hours a day. Those on the night shift worked a 12 hour day, 5 days a week. Most earned well under $20 for a week's wages, far less then their counterparts in New England.
Workers objected strenuously to the stretch out. In one public protest in Gastonia, eight men carried a coffin with another man laying in it. Periodically the "dead" man would pop up and ask "How many men are carrying this coffin?" When told there were eight, he replied, "Lay off two. Six can do the work."
Watch historian Dr. Tom Hanchett talk about the stretch out and unions.
After a series of smaller strikes 1800 workers from the Loray Mill staged a walkout on April 1st, 1929. They demanded a minimum wage, a 40 hour work week, the end of the stretch out, equal pay for equal work for women and youth, and the right to unionize. The strike was organized and aided by the National Textile Worker's Union which was affiliated with the Communist Party.
The strike lasted for several months amid mounting tension between mill owners, striking workers, the National Guard and vigilante groups formed to protect the mill owner's interests. Union headquarters were destroyed. Striking workers were evicted from mill housing and lived in tent villages.
In June, Gastonia's police chief O.F. Aderholt was shot and killed during an altercation with striking workers. In September, Ella Mae Wiggins, a textile worker, strike leader and songwriter, was shot and killed on her way to a union event. The violence in Gastonia made national headlines and the strike ended unsuccessfully.
Watch video of Lucy Penegar talk about how the strike affected the people of Gastonia.
In 1935 Firestone Tire and Rubber company bought the mill to continue manufacturing cotton cording for tires.The plant became known as the Firestone Mill and operated in Gastonia until 1992, when the company built a more modern plant near Kings Mountain, NC.
Currently, there are plans to renovate the mill as a mixed use commercial and residential property. Atlanta based Camden Development Partners are scheduled to begin rennovation in 2013. The building which furnished a livelihood to so many Gaston County residents will hum with life again.