Loading the player...
Interview conducted as part of the Crafted with Pride project, which documented residents of Gaston County's mill village communities. Lester McGinnis was born on a farm near Boger City in 1914. He discusses his life as a mill worker at High Shoals, which he first came to in 1929 when he was 15. He lived on his family’s farm where his father raised cotton and also some wheat and corn, but since cotton was selling for only $25 per 500-lb. bale (sold to the man who ginned the cotton) it made more economic sense for Lester to “go to public work,” as he consistently calls cotton mill work (though he continued to live at home and pay his mother for board). He says Jimmy Kiser gave him his first job at High Shoals. “Learning wages” was five cents an hour to learn how to weave. Once an employee could so a set of 34 he was given the regular pay of $6 - $7 a week (1929). The workday went from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm, with an hour off for midday dinner and half days on Saturday, until Roosevelt established the 40 hour week. Working shorter days meant that McGinnis could still help his father on the farm (where he continued to live until early in his married) in the late afternoons and evenings. McGinnis describes how dangerous the machinery was, especially the shearing machine and the folder in the cloth room (“you could lose a hand, a finger, a whole arm”). McGinnis worked as a weaver, though, in a safer and cleaner room. While cotton was still being picked by hand the dust and dirt were not too much of a problem, but machine picking led to dirtier cotton being brought in which generated a lot of dust and led to cases of brown lung. The most popular social activity at the mills was baseball games, and workers would pile into the cars of any who had a car to attend the games with rival mill teams. They also had occasional ice-cream suppers, and picnics and wienie roasts in the park. The first round of about 75 mill houses was built by owner D. A. Thompkin around 1900. The mill expanded in 1927 and more houses were built. More mill expansion, and more house building, occurred in 1946 and 1950. During the Depression a lot of people were able to go work for the WPA, building the water works in Gastonia. The High Shoals mill, then owned by Manville Janckes, shut down for two years in 1929 and 1930 because of the strike at Loray. Picket lines prevented anyone from coming on the mill property, and the National Guard was called out (though he says no one was injured at High Shoals). During this time and when the mill shut down again in 1934 for economic reasons McGinnis was fortunate enough to have his father’s farm to live and work on. Mr. Alfred Moore of Jackson Mill bought the mill in 1934 and it reopened in 1935, much expanded. McGinnis preferred mill work to farm work because of the good fellowship and weekly pay. He says race relations at the mill were not a problem, everyone was friendly with everyone else, but Black employees only did outdoor and clean-up work. He shares one anecdote of a Black bus driver’s being hired to carry white High Shoals workers to a baseball game at Loray, but being thrown out of the ball park when he tried to watch. Other memories he shares include: going to school and church at Iron Station in the Salem community; having only two telephones in the mill village (at the mill office and the depot agent’s) though his parents’ farm was on a party line; Mr. Gaither Frey, High Shoals’s popular and kind constable, newspaper vendor, and judge, who also had a drug store, a bookstore, and a dry cleaning establishment; the good relations mill workers had with the overseers and the general manager; different mill families hosting parties, with games, every Saturday night; and the doctors Dr. John Gamble and later Dr. Gregg, who visited the village two or three times a week. When he married he and his wife Ruth (whom he met at the mill) lived on the farm for three years to look after his by-then widowed mother, then moved to the mill village. McGinnis talks at some length about Mr. Alfred Moore, the mill owner from 1934 on, and about how highly respected he was by all – but paints a picture of an aloof, autocratic man who lived elsewhere and visited the mill regularly in a chauffeured car, doing a silent inspection of the mill and the village and never speaking to anyone who lived there. He wore a black suit and white shirt and a Stetson hat, McGinnis says, and “[we] respected him ‘cause he didn’t talk to nobody. Just handed orders down to his general manager.”