Unraveling In Time

WHAT’S LEFT OF A TOWN AND AN INDUSTRY THAT CLOTHED AMERICA FOR DECADES

STORY BY CAITLIN BALL & DESIGN BY CAITLIN PRENOVOST

Tucked away in the hills of Piedmont, North Carolina is a tiny town called Mayodan. On the surface, Mayodan is a classic textile mill village: brick, one-street downtown surrounded by rows of quaint houses with a handful of churches and parks on the perimeter. Its roads run NorthSouth, East-West, and if you can count to 13 and know the presidents, you can get around. The centerpiece of the town, of course, is the mill itself. Or, in Mayodan’s case, where the mill once was.

As you enter town on the main highway, a massive pile of rubble looms on the right, directly next to the Mayo River and the railroad tracks. Mounds of brick, rotting wood, old desks and twisted metal line the 15- acre plot, and a barbed wire fence with “Private: No Trespassing” signs wraps around it. To a visitor, the site is an eyesore. To most residents, it’s a knife in their backs.

There are various names for this place — “the hole in the ground,” “the pile” — but fact is most everyone in town has a piece of their past tied to this textile graveyard. This is where the old mill once stood, and it is where a tragic collision of foreign markets, new trade laws and modernized technology unexpectedly hit.

A Slow Erosion

Incorporated in 1899, Mayodan “exists because of the mill,” explains its mayor, Jeff Bullins. A group of businessmen set up Mayo Mills in 1896 on the edge of the Mayo River, and within 20 years almost a thousand people had settled there. Built next to the railroad tracks, the mill had cotton shipped directly into it, where the white fluff was spun, woven, cut into patterns and sewn together into underwear, socks and shirts.

By World War I, Mayo Mills had become Washington Mills and was the country’s largest producer of Union Suits (soldiers’ underwear). By the 1950s, it employed approximately 1,500 people in a 3,000-person town.

And the mill provided more than just jobs for Mayodan residents.

“They furnished water, they furnished a place for water treatment, they furnished doctors, they furnished dentists,” Bullins says. “They considered it part of their responsibility as mill owners and mill managers to provide those kinds of things to the people in the town.”

But by the 1970s the mill began stepping down from its paternal role. It sold much of the real estate it had accumulated in town—almost every house had been built and owned by the mill — and it withdrew its hand from water treatment, electricity and health care.

In 1982, Tultex Corporation, based in Martinsville, Virginia, bought Washington Mills. Over the next two decades, Tultex’s workforce was whittled down to a few hundred people. In 1999, Tultex went bankrupt, and the mill that had founded the town more than a hundred years earlier closed its doors for good.

Most Southern mill towns have similar story lines — their mills thrived in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s but struggled to survive, or closed down entirely, by the time the Millennium hit.

Where was the fallout, and what caused it? Any textile expert will tell you that the decline in the number of U.S. mills cannot be explained by one or two factors alone, but instead by a barrage of events over the past half-century that battered towns like Mayodan.

Over-protection or Underproduction?

In the past 50 years, U.S. textile producers faced a challenging situation: greater foreign competition and less trade protection. Because many textile firms were created to produce in bulk, they folded under the compounding pressure, explains Patrick Conway, chairman of the economics department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“If you can’t have the flexibility, you have to be able to compete on low costs,” Conway says. “There were a lot of firms that did adjust in terms of using more and more labor-saving technology. And those are the ones we still see operating today. But they adjusted by firing workers.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 680,000 Americans worked in textile operations in 1993; in 2013, only 14,440 workers remained. Before it shut down in 1999, Tultex’s workforce waned in size from 900 to 200 employees. Slowly but surely, the mill was downsized.

“As one fad would die or one clothing trend would kind of taper off, [producers] would try to come up with something that would catch on, but they weren’t always successful,” Bullins says. “And as those clothing trends changed and the lines didn’t

It was the center of not only the way everybody earned their living, but it was the center of the social life for the little town also.

– Jane Williams

sell as well, they would stop producing them, and the people who had made them would get laid off. By the time the bankruptcy came, there weren’t that many people there.”

Although Mayodan’s mill couldn’t perfect it, Conway believes that production flexibility is integral for U.S. textile firms that want to continue to compete globally.

“The current niche that works is a niche in which the local producer says, ‘You tell me what you want me to produce, and I can change my production line quickly and at low cost.’”

But in the mills scattered around North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, the machines produce only a handful of products in limited styles. Conway says that during the quota elimination period, many mill managers simply embraced what they felt was inevitable: “The phasing out of quotas went on over a 10-year period, so any producer could look at it and say, ‘You know within 10 years I’m going to have to adjust.’ But you really didn’t see that much adjustment going on. What you saw was people saying, ‘Well, I can still sell this now so I might as well keep selling it,’ until it was just too late.”

One by one, mills closed down or cut their labor forces significantly. And now in Mayodan, there is only a pile of rubble left of what was once the heartbeat of town.

A Town Adjusting

When Jane Williams moved to Mayodan in the mid-1950s, it was a school kid’s paradise.

“This was a typical summer day for me: When I was young, I’d get up, ride with my dad to the mill, catch that bus to the lake, stay at the lake all day long, get a ride on the bus back, get out of the bus, and catch a ride with my dad home. And then walk to the ball field where there were softball games all night long.”

The mill built the lake, provided the bus and even outfitted a semi-professional baseball team. Williams doesn’t live in Mayodan anymore, but says she visits occasionally.

“There is no lake where people go swimming anymore. There’s no ball field where everybody gathered. The downtown area now is mostly used clothing stores… What I knew as Mayodan is gone, completely.”

It seems that when the mill closed, part of the town dimmed as well.

“It was the center of not only the way everybody earned their living, but it was the center of the social life for the little town also,” Williams says.

Mayodan residents are still warm and closeknit, valuing hard work and deep community.

“There’s still very much a mill town feel to the town of Mayodan,” Bullins says. “There’s a sense of family throughout the whole community. We all feel very close because that was such a unifying experience.”

The town’s economy has endured the mill’s closing, and a few companies have opened plants and headquarters there in recent years.

“We’re fortunate that even though our local economy is based on textiles and manufacturing — so many places have lost all of their manufacturing — we haven’t lost all of it,” Bullins says. “But we are looking to diversify too.”

The town has amped up its tourist attractions — the land around the old lake is now a state park with hiking trails and a picnic area — and it’s hoping to develop a community of local artisans. But the educational gap between the county and the nation remains the area’s largest problem. A lifetime of textile work left many citizens with the same problem as their mills: little flexibility. Some have enrolled in community colleges or transitioned to other manufacturing work, but many remain jobless.

“I would like to see a higher value placed on education,” Bullins says. “If you want more opportunity, you do have to go somewhere else.”

Two years ago the pile of rubble emerged. Before it was torn down, different groups attempted to refurbish the mill compound, but the space was too large and the projects too costly. Eventually an individual bought it to scavenge for building materials; unfortunately, he did not bother to clean up the site once he finished.

“It’s been really painful for the people who still live in Mayodan,” Williams says. “It’s just a pile of brick and mortar laying there… It was the centerpiece of the town, and now it’s just a pile of rubble.”

The town can’t clean up the mess or the consequences of the mill’s bankruptcy completely, as much as it might like to. For now, Mayodan is depending on other manufacturing companies to fill the role the mill has left. But high unemployment, economic instability and broken community ties still lie in the rubble, for who knows how much longer.