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Interview conducted as part of the Crafted with Pride project, which documented residents of Gaston County's mill village communities.
Robert Harris, a white man, talks about his 47-year career as a worker at Imperial Mills. He describes having grown up in an uninsulated house with a pot-belly stove that warmed one room, and how cold they got in winter. One of his brothers contracted pneumonia, and rather than depending on the traditional remedy of onion, clove, and mustard plaster, they were able to use a doctor who went to Charlotte for a sulfa drug, which saved him. Though they were poor people, Harris says that life was happy and good. He went to work at the mill at age 11. There was no formal training, new workers simply did simple jobs like sweeping while they watched how other workers did things. Harris’ uncle let him come to work with him on Saturdays to practice working the machinery. For fun, boys played baseball, using the field at Davis Park. Other recreations were informal football and kickball games, tennis on a local court, pitching horse shoes, volleyball, and a game called pee-gee. Once he had a job babysitting for seven children for one dollar a week. He says the mill was very unhealthy – dark, dusty, and loud – and a lot of workers got brown lung. Some suffered hearing loss since they had no ear plugs, and eye problems since there were no protective glasses worn. Common accidents included the loss of fingers in the machinery. The worst thing, he remembers, was the heat. There was no ventilation, let alone air conditioning, because the mill owners feared that impurities and greasy smoke might blow in and contaminate the yarns. He estimates there were an average of 170 workers at the mill, all of them white. He expresses regret about the poor treatment of Black people, preventing them from having regular mill jobs (only menial) and forcing them to live in shacks near the mill rather than in the mill village. He recalls Klan activity in the neighborhood, focused on the Black district called Smokey Holler. Harris recalls a different type of prejudice too, that of town people who looked down on the mill workers, calling them “lint heads.” He says that no one had health insurance – if you got sick you could go to a mill doctor, but had to pay – but that the mill had accident insurance. He does express pride in having worked in the textile industry, since textiles are such a vital commodity.

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