The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1942-44: From the Silk Mill to a War Job

By Grace Cash © 1990

Issue: January, 1990

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

At the beginning of World War II, when I heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, I never once connected "those Japs" to my Japanese boss at the silk mill. He wouldn't have sneaked up and stabbed anybody in the back without some sort of warning, like calling the silk mill girls into his office at midnight and handing them a long fine-print form to sign, agreeing to work for $1.00 a day, or $6.00 a week for six days. He wouldn't have ever stabbed the silk mill girls, but then we had that tie with Japan - we could handle silk. In a way, we were in the same category as the silkworm when you figured he couldn't have built the silk mill without either of us.

I worked on at the silk mill till early spring 1942. Lillian and I had been laid off temporarily, for lack of silk cocoons, and instead of returning there to work when we were called back, we got jobs at the Pacolet Manufacturing Company, now converted to the production of strategic war supplies. New Holland was located two miles east of the town square, and it had its own little government - several churches, a recreation hall, a post office, stores and an elementary school. And this was where I went to work shortly after President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and on Germany, and the Axis powers December 8, 1941.

Lillian got a job in the weave shop, and Mr. Peterson, a tall gray-haired fatherly man, hired me for the spooler room, stating that being tall would stand me in good stead for any job they had there. The foreman made a spooler of me - or tried to. My hands, so nimble working with silk, balked at the bobbins of coarse cotton yard we ran on our machine, jointly operated by two people. After a worrisome interval, they changed me over to creeling, originally a "man's job," they told me, regretting that I couldn't handle the lady's job in the spooler section. They explained that the village young men were at war, and they had to place women where ever they fitted a job. And I did fit that creeling job! It was a far cry from spinning and spooling.

The creel was a tall black metal machine, which had an outside and an inside. The revolving sides resembled a gigantic beehive. When it was turned inside, my creeling partner and I had one side each. We filled our respective "beehive" with cheese, named so because it was shaped like a hoop of cheese, but about the size of an over-sized frying pan. We had to raise ourselves full height to fill in the top creel, then bend to our oxford-tops to fill in the bottom creel, and on down the side till all the columns were filled, ready for the warper-tender to turn, when she had run off the cheese on the outside creel.

We sat on long boxes of "cheese" and talked, while waiting for the creel to be turned, and at break time, we sat there drinking 5 cent Coca-Colas from the dope wagon, a little store on wheels brought into the mill for the workers' convenience. Again at lunch we bought drinks from the dope wagon, and sat on the box and ate our sack lunches. [Editor's Note: Soft drinks in the early days contained a Cola nut derivative which today would be considered a drug. For this reason, colas were nicknamed "dopes."] The work-process was about the same all over the five-floor mill with its blue-painted windows, facing the highway that divided the mill from the village.

After Lillian left New Holland to work in the stores with Frances, I missed going to work with her on the night shift. I asked to be changed from the night shift so I could be at home with my sisters at night and they did. Three nights a week we went to the movies, choosing one of the three theaters, and gauging our choice on who was starring in the picture, such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan, Bette Davis, to name a few. We knew them all, just as we had known Fibber McGee and Molly back in the 1930's on the farm when our chief entertainment was the radio. On rainy, cold nights we stayed at home and sat by the coal grate, eating popcorn and laughing a great deal, in spite of the war and everything everywhere upended.

Ruth had gotten married in 1941, before the War. Now her husband was in the Military Police, and she lived in their duplex in the New Holland village with their baby boy. When I got off the commuter bus at the mill every morning, I would run up the hill to see if they had made it safely through the night. Then I would run back down hill, insert a nickel in the newspaper receptacle, get my daily "Atlanta Constitution," pass the doorman, a retired city policeman in his navy blue uniform, and return his smiling "Good morning," and climb the deep, dark stair steps to the spooler room. I pulled a net over my hair, shoulder-bob, curled, put a stick of gum in my mouth to keep lint and dust from my throat, and then my day's work began.

Most of the girls had married before the war began, but some got married during the war years. One of the various partners I worked with, a young girl, had married the son of a mill foreman, and when he went overseas, she lived with his parents, who also worked in the mill. Her father-in-law, a foreman, would bring letters to her from the post office, and she read them, smiling, sometimes laughing, and her eyes shining bright about whatever her husband had written to her. When the war ended, he came home, and later on they had twin babies. Not everybody's war marriage turned out as happily. There was grief around us constantly when we heard that someone we knew had received a Yellow Telegram - a killed-in-action message from the war front.

We were often reminded that the more we produced, the more canvas tents the U.S. military service could build, and we were instructed on the various uses being made of our products. Our foreman told us it was one of the ways we could help win the war. The Nazis in Germany were ruthless, war-trained soldiers, Hitler was a formidable enemy, and the combined Axis powers were bent on conquering the world. In the Pacific, the Japanese faction was equally resolved to bring America to her knees. Spinners, creelers, warp tenders, weavers, machine fixers, sweepers, maintenance crew, and foremen and directors worked as a unit to turn out quality war products.

Then came the day when the Navy informed the Pacolet Manufacturing Company regarding their war-production award. If we produced a specified quantity of war material in a stated time, we would receive the Navy's award for excellence, known as the Navy-E. Each worker would be given a red-white-and blue striped pin, mounted on silver, for dedication to our country. We fell right in with the idea. Gray-haired mothers of military men, the middle-aged and the young people all worked zealously to win that award. Later on they had a special recognition service, with a military band and prominent speakers on the stand, at the New Holland football stadium, and they presented the award in a touching ceremony. Each worker came away wearing a colorful Navy-E pin. I thought all the sweat and chewing gum - some workers used tobacco and snuff instead of Wrigley's to keep the lint and dust from their throats - had been worth getting that pin, which represented our joint efforts - and that of the U.S. Navy - to put the Nazis and the Japs in their place.

All over America the people found ways to serve their country at war. Farms continued, manned mainly by elderly men and boys too young to be drafted. Aaron was fifteen in 1943 when Irma and I took him with us to visit Carl in Tampa, Florida, near the camp where he was in training to become an airplane mechanic. We knew that he would soon be shipped overseas, and we went down there to bid him a sorrowful goodbye, none knowing who would get back home again. The Greyhound bus was crowded, some passengers standing in the aisle, others sitting on suitcases. South Georgia was showing its summer-side. There was the smell of local country women, going to town for Saturday shopping, and dressed in their Sunday best. Their ebony faces shone with beads of sweat, but they didn't show the slightest sign of knowing anybody else was on the bus, and they were not saying a word to anybody. Their magnolia-odor mingled with the vanilla-scented store perfume of housewives and sisters going to visit their "soldier kinfolks."

Everybody was wearing their Sunday best, like they were all going to a country revival. Papa bought a pair of black pants and a blue-striped long-sleeve cotton shirt for Aaron, identical to what he wore for Sunday in the summertime. On the bus, Aaron looked so settled-old that the soldiers riddled him about being a draft dodger. Then when we arrived at the Tampa bus station, Carl bent over double laughing, and he said to Aaron, "I know who bought your new clothes." We saw right off that he had no intention of engaging in an emotional goodbye. He was acting like foreign war duty was no more worrisome than plowing Old Red on the hill from when he was a growing boy. Our brothers had a room at the hotel quite a way from ours, and when they met us in the lounge, ready to go out to eat and explore Tampa, a novelty to dry land Georgia people, they were laughing and joking as they had done back on the farm.

All during the war I was obsessed with "getting the war over with." Every time I heard of a soldier's death, I felt myself aging and dying myself by slow degrees. In my spare moments I would stand at a little desk and read the daily newspaper. I read Eleanor Roosevelt's "My Day," and I searched for every report I could find of the war's progress overseas. One such report told how the Russians in Stalingrad were beating back the Nazi aggressors, and somebody predicted that Russia's winters would be Germany's downfall, just as it had been Napoleon's when he set out to conquer the world.

I left the mill in early 1944, but it was brought on by an undreamed of circumstance.

I caught the bus to work as usual one morning, my face swelled to twice its usual angular size, but I thought it was from a tooth abscess. But on the commuter bus, they told me I had the mumps. I got off at the town square, and caught the street bus back to my aunt's house. Then I got word to the farmhouse somehow - we didn't have a telephone then - and Irma drove up in Carl's old black ford, left to her when he went into service. I went home, suffering now from something my list of home remedies would do nothing to help me get back on the job overnight. I sat on the wood box there on the back porch, and it was a while before I could go on into the house, I was so let down at having the mumps.

It was two weeks before I recovered, and by that time I had decided not to go back to my job. I applied for store jobs and finding no vacancies, I enrolled in Perry Business School. They held my creeling job at the mill a month beyond my recuperation, and sent all kinds of word that I could come back. I felt downright terrible not to go back, people were not always that nice to me, and besides I had quit my war job before the fighting ceased. Mama wrote Carl in England I wasn't satisfied about quitting my job, and he wrote back on one of those tiny V-Mail folding letters, and told her to tell me it was all right to quit my job. He said tell me the war might go on a long time. (World War II ended the next April 1945, about a year after he sent the V-Mail letter.)

I saw by now that nobody was going to understand how I felt about the war. Yet there I was, suddenly up and leaving after all the patriotic pride I had in being a part of New Holland's war-converted textile plant. I didn't know then that Perry Business School would lead me into a new phase of work that was altogether different from working on the farm and in the silk mill - and above all, different from my war-job in New Holland.