It’s been a long day at work. I’m frustrated by office politics, stubborn employees, and arrogant bosses. It’s unseasonably warm for October, and the air-conditioning unit at my house is on the fritz, so I open the windows to get a little breeze. There’s a tiny oscillating fan in the hallway that I turn on to move the air around just a bit. I lay there in bed, tossing and turning, trying to force myself to sleep.
Suddenly off in the far distance, I can hear a train whistle blow. It starts our faintly, like a low moan in the wind, and ever so gradually changes pitch to higher and louder frequencies until I know it is at it’s closest point to the house. A freight train is coming down the track. A feeling of security seems to wash over me, like a warm ocean wave over a little child’s sand castle, and as I drift off to sleep . . . I remember, and I dream. I dream of the past:
Sixty one years is a long time. My Mother had a photo of my Grandfather and Grandmother which was taken when they were 61 years old. I look at it, and they look old to me. Then, I look in the mirror, and sometimes I see my Grandfather looking back out at me, just the same as he was in that picture that was taken back in 1950. The year I was born.
I was born in a little tiny brick hospital in a little teeny mill town, named Trion, Georgia. There was only one Dr. there, but I still came out ok, I reckon. I have all my fingers and toes, and I can still walk and talk to this day. I guess that Dr. Hyden did ok, even though he wasn’t surrounded by a crowd of spectators and Daddies and Grandma’s with video cameras, and everyone else in the delivery room like they have nowadays, with everyone patting each other on the back and congratulating the new Mother and the baby and the Daddy. Sheesh… It’s like a circus now. It was sort of a quiet and peaceful event back in 1950. A certain privacy prevailed then.
My Mom had been working at that little ol’ mill for a couple of years. She and my Dad were married in November of 1949 and he was still in the Navy, so I got taken away from the city of my birth to the back woods mountains of Blue Ridge, Georgia in the lower foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountain range. Grandpa lived on the very last house on Snake Nation Road, which was an unpaved dirt byway that was only wide enough for one car in some places, and had two creeks to cross through before finally winding to an end in front of his old two story wooden ramshackle house. Luckily you didn’t meet too many cars coming in the other direction, as there were only about 8 houses on the 10 mile stretch that led to the “Home place” as it was called. During the rainy springs though, the creeks would rise quickly as flash floods over spilled the banks and turned them into mini raging rivers. I can recall many times of crossing when the car seemed about to be washed away in the current. Luckily the old cars of the 50’s and early 60’s had some weight to them, and we were always able to persevere and get across.
I lived the first two years of my life in that squeaky old wooden house. The only heat was a single fireplace in the middle of the downstairs living room, and Grandma’s wooden cook stove back off in the rear kitchen. There was no indoor plumbing. (I didn’t have to worry much about that at the time though) and the walk to the outhouse was about a 25 yard trek up a slight hill back behind the house just into the edge of the nearest wooded area. There were actually Sears and Roebuck catalogs there for many years. When I got a little older, I thought it was neat to have reading material in the bathroom.
My Grandmother doted on me. I believe that she was afraid I would starve. They started feeding me Irish potatoes, baked in the coals of the fireplace when I was six months old, and by the time I was a year old I looked as though someone had stuck an air hose in my mouth and over inflated me. I am sure I enjoyed these repasts, but I cannot recall them much, to my chagrin and disappointment. I guess I could have been considered a “super baby” but, I would have hated to have been my Mother or Grandmother and had to have emptied out all those cloth diapers over that two year period.
My Dad came home from the war in 1952. He had enlisted in 1944 at the tail end of World War II, and had stayed through Korea. Many was the time in later years I heard him lament that he wished he had stayed in for another 12 years. It was my Mom’s fault though. I think I was becoming a handful at 2 years old, and she wanted and needed his help. I am not sure which was the best course that Dad could have taken, but I am stuck with the one that he took, as he came home to go back to work in the little old mill in Trion, Georgia and start a home life for him my Mom and me. He sometimes revels in telling the story about how much I cried for my Mother on the day that he arrived back from the Navy and picked me up and started to carry me out of Grandpa’s house. I started hollering like a banshee for my Mom, because this strange man had come in and picked me up and was kidnapping me.
I guess that the smells and sights and sounds of my Grandparent’s house became ingrained in my memory in those two years, because I never felt more comfortable anywhere than when I was there at that old house, curled up in a chair reading or sitting out in the front porch swing during a Summer thundershower with a blanket over my head to keep dry from the blowing rain, listening to it hit the old tin roof so hard that it sounded like someone was throwing rocks on the roof. It was a soothing and refreshing retreat, and I cried the April day in 1973, when Tornado’s tore through that area and blew the old house off of its foundations and into the annals of history. They burned it down, and replaced it with a trailer for the old folks, and though some of the smells and sounds lingered, it was never the same refuge after that, never the same degree of security and peace, serenity and comfort. I have never found another place that has provided that same degree of safety.
We took up residence in Trion, in an old Mill town “duplex” This was the type of residence which “the company” built for the mill workers back in the 1930’s or before which consisted of identical twin dwellings for two families nestled under one roof. There was a wall down the center of each of these, but the walls were paper thin, and it was always possible to hear what was going on with your in house “neighbors” As the 50’s came along, many of the duplexes were converted into single resident homes, as “the company” divested themselves of them and got out of the rental business. It was into one of these converted duplexes that we moved early in 1951. I can remember that place, and the things that went on, actually…..I remember it all very well . . . and I dream of time’s past.
All those late Autumn nights in Dixie, when the air was still as sticky and hot as warm pancake syrup. The wind would drift slowly through the window above my bed, causing the curtains to flutter like the giant butterfly’s wings they resembled, flapping out and back hypnotically. They were a yellow cotton print with dark and light orange stripes, which my Mother had bought the week before at the Redford’s five & dime store for $1.98. It seemed as if a giant monarch butterfly had landed above my head and was spinning her cocoon, in preparation for the long winter ahead. I knew a Monarch from a Checkerspot, since two of my friends, the Wade twins, were collecting specimens of different butterflies. They would hang around the grass fields with their tiny thin nets and their identification manual, discussing the different types of insects they were attempting to capture. They were eager to show off their specimens after each day’s hunt, so therefore I unwillingly became an insect expert.
Momma had been delighted to have brand new curtains to put up in my bedroom. I can still see the smile on her face as she hung them. At $1.25 an hour, it was seldom that my Dad could ever afford to get her something new. He had made a point to do it this time, and it had made her happy enough to hum.
Outside, I could hear the “clickity-clack, clickity-clack,” sound of the midnight freight train, which religiously passed by only a block away from our house, every night at exactly its scheduled time, taking bales of cotton into the loading docks at Riegel Mills in exchange for finished cloth which they hauled out to the world. Nobody could have been more precise than those Southern Railway engineers. You could set your watch by them. I know this to be a fact, because I looked at my watch by the moonlight that shined in through my window on the nights that the mournful moaning of the train whistle would wake me. When you mixed that tone with the sound of the whippoorwills singing, it was just like something out of a Hank Williams song:
“Do you hear that lonesome whippoorwill? He sounds too blue to fly?”
“That midnight train is winding low, and I’m so lonesome I could cry.”
Those were the kind of nights we had back then. I still dream about them, and the Hank William’s lines become more and more meaningful with every passing year.
Riegel Textile Corporation was where my Dad worked from dusk to dark fixing the looms that would grind out the government contract cloth that Southern Railway hauled away every morning. The first five minutes of every evening when he came home from work would be spent at the bathroom sink scrubbing the grease out from under his split and sometimes blackened fingernails. Even before everyone got a hug or a pat on the head, his hands had to be clean. He observed this ritual with the same reverence as a priest preparing to serve a sacrament, or a physician getting ready to operate. He didn’t want to contaminate anything at his home with the physical remnants of his day’s problems.
If it had been summer, Dad and I might have had time to go outside and throw around the worn out, game used baseball, which Coach Johns had given to me after the High School baseball team had thoroughly beaten it to death. This ball was so whop- sided that it would practically roll by itself on a flat surface, if you laid it down. Nevertheless, it was MY ball . . . My very own baseball. I guarded it with all the affection that my immense, slobbering, Heinz 57 dog, Whitey did the soup bones that Mom would occasionally give him. The only difference was that Whitey would bury his bones out in the yard, causing Daddy to get more than slightly irritated with him, while I would hide the horsehide in the bottom of my sock drawer so that my little brother Mikey couldn’t get hold of it. After all, Coach Johns had given it to me; dredging it up out of the bottom of his green duffel bag along with a cracked #32 bat that “Digger” Smith had whammed up against the side of the dugout when he struck out for the third straight time against the Summerville High Indians. That ball and bat were two of the few treasures I possessed.
Coach Johns had seen me out in the yard picking up rocks and swatting them with a piece of a pine limb I had salvaged from the deep woods behind our house. I guess he had either taken pity on me, or gotten scared I was going to foul one of those rocks off through his bedroom window, as I had gradually become more and more expert at crashing those imaginary homers out into the woods.
“And there goes another one out of the park for Mickey Mantle,” I could hear ‘Ol Dizzy Dean, the T.V. announcer for the Yankees say, as I arched number fifty deep out into the pines.
Number forty-nine had come perilously close to Coach John’s house, which was in my imaginary left field, but I didn’t think he’d been watching me, as I managed to employ hard body english to keep it from putting a hole in his siding.
When he had hollered, “Hey Bowers, come over here,” after Mick had swatted number fifty, I figured my ass was grass, and he was the lawn mower.
“I got something for you, kid.” He had intoned in his nasal voice.
Mind you, he couldn’t help talking that way. When God had been giving out noses, Coach Johns had thought he said: “Roses,” and had asked God for a big, red one. Therefore, combined with the fact that the Coach didn’t open his mouth very wide when he talked, the effect was one similar to talking through one of those cardboard tubes that came out of the middle of a roll of toilet paper. It also didn’t help matters that the Coach had been known to get into the sauce immediately upon arriving home in the afternoon. However, he was apparently more tolerant of little kids who slammed rocks around in their back yard, than he was of the High School morons who swung at balls out of the strike zone, of whom it had been rumored he screamed at with his mouth wide open.
“Take this ball and bat, Mr. Mantle.” He had droned. “And for God’s sake, go up in the graveyard, and knock it around before you break out a window.”
I knew nobody would ever tell Mickey Mantle to be careful not to knock out a window, but I wanted the bat and ball so badly that I kept that opinion to myself.
“Wow, thanks a lot Coach,” I sputtered as I grabbed the goodies and took off for the graveyard.
I spent the rest of the afternoon near the rear of that huge cemetery, where nobody was yet buried, hammering that horsehide mercilessly into submission. I had just broken Roger Maris’s home run record he had set that summer, when my Mother leaned out the back door and in her best shrill voice, shouted my name:
“Larryyyy . . . come home for supper,” she yelled
The reverie of that late October Saturday was spoiled. How embarrassing for the newly crowned, eleven year old home run champ, to be publicly humiliated by having his mother call him in for supper right in the middle of a World Series game.
“Coming Mom,” I answered, to keep her from having to repeat the harangue.
At least she wasn’t like Tom and Tim Dennis’s Mom, who could whistle louder than any human being, and who also had to know where they were almost every minute of their waking life. If that woman didn’t hold the world record for breaking glass with her whistle then there wasn’t a cow in Texas. She would put both of her pinkie fingers in the corners of her mouth, pull her lips back into a grotesque grin, stick her tongue up in the roof of her mouth, and let it fly! She could be heard from Tom and Tim’s house all the way over to the Elementary school playground, which was almost a mile away. She was also as tough as the Warden at Alcatraz, and did not put up with any bull from anybody, especially her own two boys. If they weren’t home five minutes after she whistled the first time for them, they could expect stern disciplinary measures when they hit the front door. If she had to whistle twice, it was an automatic whipping. Many were the days I had looked through our front picture window, and
seen Tom getting his rear end tanned, even though he was a foot taller, and had fifty pounds on his Momma. When you were out playing somewhere within range, and heard that shrill whistle, even if Tim and Tom weren’t with you, you could be sure that somewhere in town there were two guys that were getting their rear in gear. Tim being the more athletic of the two could make it home from anywhere in town within the five minute limit. Heck, he later became a star running back on our High School team, and never did think to thank his Momma even once, that I can recall. She ended up dying while Tim and Tom were still kids.
Even though Tim was extremely fast, being able to get home from ANYWHERE in town within five minutes indicates the true nature of our community. In a word, it was small.
As my Dad once told someone from out of town when giving them directions to Trion:
“Stay on highway 27 North as you go through Summerville, and after you go about five more miles, start to slow down and be real careful, cause if you blink you’ll miss it.”
As I had previously expressed, the one and only means of making a living in the tiny town of Trion, Georgia, was by working at what was originally known as The Trion Company. It was, and had been the only business in the town, since it’s founding in 1840, by three gentlemen interested in forming a weaving mill somewhere outside of the coastal area near Savannah. It was the first cotton mill in North Georgia. They considered many different locations in Georgia, but were finally swayed by the fact that there was cheap land available right next to the Chattooga river, which would be their main lifeline for the power and water needed to run their mill. The town of Trion grew up around the mill, and both were named in honor of those three men, the name being derived from the fact that there was a “trio” of them who founded the mill, and subsequently the town. I say grew up, if you can call a town of scarcely more than fifteen hundred people, “growing” into anything. The mill itself now had almost that many people working in it, but many of them made the commute from small communities in the surrounding North Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama area, the Tri-State area, so to speak. This area does have a little history.
The Cherokee Indians had once had a village on the river near the present cite of the town of Trion, which they called Island Town, and a clever and inventive chief named Broom was one of their leaders. There are still a lot of farms and fields in the area where you can pick up artifacts, such as arrowheads, and pounding and grinding stones for corn.
Sequoia, whom the white man called George Guess, and who was the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, was born just a few miles away in a little community known as Alpine. The Cherokees, led by old Chief Broom, had for the most part been very tolerant of the white men who moved through their land. However, even Chief Broom’s influence had not been able to keep them from being removed from their land by order of President Andrew Jackson in 1832. After their removal, and the infamous Trail of Tears, the bulk of the little town was erected on the site of their former village. I sometimes wonder if the ghosts of these ancient people who inhabited this area for so long don’t cause some of the mischief that goes on around the town. Seems like sometimes when I am laying in bed, I can hear their voices speaking in an unknown but pleasant language, floating in on the breeze, asking why, why, why . . . !
Most everyone in town still lives in houses built by the Trion Company in the late 1800’s to accommodate the mill workers. These diminutive frame houses were practically thrown up overnight, out of whatever materials were on hand at the time, without the use of carpenter squares or levels. Everything was built by the “eyeball” method, where the foreman would eyeball whatever was next in line to be nailed, and if it looked square to him, he would yell, “Looks good, nail it!” The reason my Mother can never get a picture to hang straight on her wall in the old mill house where they now live, is probably because the day they were building the house, the foreman had a bad hangover from the night before, or one of the carpenters had the hiccups while he was nailing.
All of the houses started out as two room “duplexes” with one family living in each side, with one large community room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Heat was provided by one fireplace in the big room which burned wood, or more likely coal, which was plentiful due to being one of the sources of fuel for the boilers at the mill.
Back in the old days the Trion Company practically owned the town, and the people, lock, stock and barrel. They issued their own money in the form of coins or coupons redeemable for merchandise at the Company owned department store which was called: “The Big Friendly Trion Department Store.” Employees could get more of this “script” than they could cash, and The Company encouraged them to take it instead of cash. After all, The Big Friendly had everything a person needed from A to Z. The store would also provide “easy credit” for those who were running a little short, eventually practically enslaving some people for life in a cycle of debt to the company. Remember Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song, “Sixteen Tons?”
“Saint Peter don’t you call me, Cause I can’t go . . .”
“I owe my soul to the Company Store . . .”
Apparently, this was more reality than fiction in some small Southern mill towns.
The Trion Company also owned beef and dairy cattle. At one time the dairy in Trion had the World Champion milk cow, named Green Meadows Melba, who could produce hundreds of gallons of milk a week! She was famous all over the world! Every dairy farmer in the country wanted one of her calves. We even have a street in our town now that’s named “Melba” drive, and I bet not one of the people living there know their street is named after a cow. Once when Melba had been put on a train to go to New York City for a contest, the OWNER of the mill had gotten on the train car and rode with her all the way to New York. The man loved that cow!
Because of cows like Melba you could be assured of waking up every morning to the sound of clanking milk bottles, and look out on your porch to find extremely fresh milk, which had just that morning been inside a cow’s udder. (Have you ever wondered what the first man to ever milk a cow must have been thinking? He had to be doing it on a dare! )
Additionally, the Trion Company had farms and orchards in the area that produced fresh fruits and vegetables, and other foods such as pork and poultry, for employees to buy. I can still picture in my mind the old apple trees up on Orchard hill, and how beautiful the pink blooms were every spring. I also remember many a night spent on the john with what we now refer to as “Montezuma’s revenge,” from having stolen and eaten too many of the green apples that grew so plentifully on these marvelous trees. Surely this was nature’s punishment for young apprentice thieves, designed to encourage them to follow a life of honesty.
There was even a funeral home in the Big Friendly to take care of the faithful employee who passed away while in service to, or after retirement from, the Trion Company. They would lay you out in the parlor, right next to the department where the cloth piece goods were sold. I am quite certain that many a housewife, unfamiliar with the layout, and looking for a yard of cotton broadcloth, or some sewing thread, would wander into the funeral parlor instead, and end up paying respects to some family that she did not even know. Seeing a corpse in a department store was a shock to some, but it was a way of life back in the old days in Trion.
Right across the street from the Big Friendly department store, the Trion Company had thoughtfully provided a spot for the Post Office, and right next to that government institution, was the Trion Barber shop. There was also a bank adjacent to these buildings. Therefore, a person could do any and all of the following things in Trion, Georgia back in the old days:
First, you could be born at the Community Hospital, which was owned and operated by the Company, which also recruited the Doctors and Nurses. In addition, the Company provided housing for the Doctors and Nurses who did not have, or could not afford their own. Several older houses in our town are still knows as the “Nurses Inn.” All your health care was guaranteed within a block of the mill.
Secondly, you could go to the Trion School; which was built by the Company, which also recruited the teachers, paid for the books, and even provided the power and heat for the schools. In the old days some students would graduate from the Trion Schools, but in the hard times of the Depression, children more likely would only go until they were considered old enough to be employed in the mill, at which point they started their working career. My Dad remembers going to work there in 1940, when he was twelve years old. You could spend your whole life working at the Company. Your career was guaranteed, within a couple of blocks from your house. The Company even had a bell to begin with, and later a very loud whistle, which sounded at twenty minutes until shift change time, and then again at exactly shift change time, in order to help get the employees to work on time. Try to get in a few extra winks, or take an afternoon nap, when a whistle loud enough to wake the dead goes off a block away from your house!
Next you might move into a Company house, get married to your High School sweetheart, and start a family. You could get all your furniture from the Big Friendly, as well as your clothes, and your food. You could mail your letters and get your mail at the Post Office right across from the mill. You could get you hair cut by one of the expert barbers, or your shoes shined, by “Pete” the shoeshine boy at the Barber shop right across from the mill. You could do your banking right next door to the Barber shop. Your personal needs were taken care of.
If you wanted entertainment, there was a theater directly across from High School, which the Company had helped the town to build. You could go there and be entertained by everyone from Tom Mix to Old Yeller. There was a YMCA attached to the theater which housed a gym, an inside heated swimming pool, and a snack bar and grill! (really it did, even back in the thirties!) Your recreation was guaranteed.
There were numerous churches of all denominations in the town, including the First Baptist Church of Trion, which Mrs. Allgood had built in memory of her husband, who was the son of one of the original trio of men who had founded the Company. He was murdered back in the late 19th century by his brother-in-law who was a Doctor in the nearby town of Rome, Georgia. There was a scandal, and a spectacular trial, but that’s another book. All of the churches were within a stone’s throw of the mill. Your salvation was assured.
In theory then, a person could be born, go to school, work, worship, play, live and die, all without ever stepping foot outside the little town of Trion, Georgia. I’m reasonably certain that some people did. Your life was mapped out for you . . . That’s the kind of town in which we lived.
Employees or their family members who didn’t behave as the company thought they should, would be given one warning, and if the problem continued they would be terminated, and could not be hired back. They were “blackballed,” a phrase which was derived from the middle ages where kings who had too many knights in their service would put a number of white balls, along with one black ball in a helmet and have their charges all draw out one of the balls. The unlucky chap who got the black ball had to leave and never come back, under pain of death.
In the old days of the mill, if your son didn’t behave in school, you got one warning, and then . . . blackballed. If your wife was spreading gossip, one warning . . . ! If you weren’t working hard enough to get the required amount of work out, one warning and then . . . you were history.
Gradually over the years, things changed. Unions started to develop in the North. These unions tried to come into the small Southern towns such as Trion, but they were met with violent and sometimes bloody opposition. The companies did not want them, and so it seems, neither did most of the people. Although the companies owned and ran almost everything in small towns such as Trion, they did so the largest percentage of the time on a benevolent basis. People had a high degree of loyalty to companies such as the Trion Company. However, the influence exerted by the formation of unions in the North, coupled with another earth shaking event, finally broke the strong grip which large companies held in small Southern textile communities. That earth shaking event was World War II.
I am certainly not going to attempt to analyze all the influences of World War II on little towns in the South. I think it is sufficient to say that it changed our way of life, as well as almost everyone else’s on this big blue marble on which we live.
Men went off to fight in the war. (So did many women, and I don’t want to neglect to mention that fact.) Women had to go work in the factories, due to the shortage of men. Moms’ suddenly found out that they could produce goods needed in our war effort, instead of remaining homemakers. They also found out they could bring home a paycheck just like Dad used to do. Remember Rosie the riveter? Things would never be the same!
The United State’s sleeping giant, awakened by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, geared up to such an extent to manufacture everything our military effort required, that it finished pulling the whole country out of the Great Depression. The Andrews sisters sang about the, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” Bob Hope went overseas to entertain the troops and became an institution. My Dad went into the Navy, bought his first car, and married my Mom in 1949.
Modern technology had its birth in the womb of World War II. Think of the list of things that we have now that we didn’t have at the beginning of the war. Television, computers, commercial jets, wireless telephones, the list is endless. There were also the obvious quantum leaps forward (or backward, depending on your outlook) in modern warfare. Where would we be without the Atomic bomb? Things definitely would never be the same!
Back at the little old Town of Trion things were changing. The Trion Company was bought by a man named Benjamin D. Riegel in the early 1900’s, and became known as Riegel Textile Corporation. The company script disappeared, and the company gradually started to sell off its houses to individuals. The dairy dried up, and the farms were abandoned, although the Company retained the land, and eventually planted pine trees on it, hoping to make some money in the future on pulpwood. Little did they know that they were creating one of the most favorite playgrounds ever concocted for neighborhood kids. Countless hours were spent playing “freedom,” a form of team hide and seek, in the pine woods behind my house. Many boring Sunday afternoons were spent climbing to the top of these wonderful pines and riding them to the ground like some kind of naturally grown bungee cord.
Even the old “Friendly” Trion Department store’s time finally came, and it was torn down on a cloudy, drizzly day in 1959, to make way for an expansion of the mill designed to house more looms. I was nine years old the day the wrecking ball descended on the store, and I remember vividly the tears in the eyes of the patriarchal, gray- headed people who stood near the Southern railway tracks and watched while the work crew did the deed. This institution which symbolized a way of life and security for them was soon just a tired pile of dusty rubble, analogous to those who were mourning it. Historians may look back on these people’s way of life, and think about it as oppressive and dictatorial. Most of the people I saw on the railroad tracks that day, however, had an entirely different name for that benevolent monarchy they saw slipping away from them, symbolized by the Big Friendly. They called them the “good old days.”
Although many of the attitudes of the people remained the same in Trion as they had in years past, things were at least physically changing.