Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville

Gastonia NC: Main Street looking west, 1912. Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.

Gastonia NC: Main Street looking west, 1912. Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.

The nearly two dozen posts I have published so far have focused on the Whisnant family, the first of whom entered the North Carolina Piedmont in the 1750s.  My Whisnant grandparents, Asbury and Ella, moved up the mountain to the so-called Land of the Sky from Rutherford, McDowell and Burke counties between 1900 and 1907.  My grandfather Whisnant started working with the Asheville street railway system in 1900 and continued into the early 1950s.

My most recent four posts dealt with the Asbury and Ella’s life in Asheville between 1907 and 1918–their small rented house on an in-town South French Broad Avenue estate, and some of the challenges that faced them there in the ‘teens (a streetcar strike, the devastating flood of 1916, and the influenza epidemic of 1918).  These narratives were set within the social, economic, and cultural frames of early twentieth-century Asheville.  My hope all along has been that these contextual frames and the family narratives would illuminate each other.

We now turn to the maternal grandparents, Pierce and Pearl Rudisill, and their life in the piedmont textile center of Gastonia after 1910: their work in the mills, their informal (and slightly mysterious) adoption of a daughter in 1916, Pierce’s draft/induction into World War I less than a year later, and after that several years of unstable employment for Pierce as a construction laborer until they moved to Asheville in 1922.

By then they had spent more than a decade moving from job to job and place to place–as were so many working class families–in pursuit of a perennially elusive stability and modest comfort.  Meanwhile, they followed  the patterns and practices that reflect both denial and hope: visiting families, cultivating friends, going to church, birthday parties and Christmas, and trying again and again to have a child.

The Textile Belt and Gastonia

Schenck-Warlick Cotton Mill, 1814-1816. NCpedia.

Schenck-Warlick Cotton Mill, 1814-1816. NCpedia.

Although records are scant, it is clear that Pierce and Pearl Rudisill both worked in Gastonia cotton mills off and on from perhaps 1911, and he did construction work part of the time, apparently following jobs here and there in the western Piedmont.

As Brent Glass notes in his synoptic history of North Carolina’s textile industry, the state’s first textile mill, Schenck-Warlick, opened west of Lincolnton about 1814.  It vanished in a flood in 1816, but was replaced by the Lincolnton Cotton Factory (1819-1863). Early North Carolina “spinning mills” produced yarn only, but woven goods began to appear during (and for) the Civil War.

Gaston County, formed from old Lincoln County in 1846, lies on the South Carolina

Gaston County NC. NCpedia

Gaston County NC. NCpedia

border west of Charlotte.  Gastonia (the county seat since 1911)  the western end of  a long string of textile mill towns following the “Piedmont crescent,”  aligned along the endlessly troubled mid-nineteenth century North Carolina Railroad.

Piedmont crescent, Natural Resources Inventory, North Carolina State University, via NCpedia.

Piedmont crescent, Natural Resources Inventory, North Carolina State University, via NCpedia.

Gastonia and surrounding mill towns lie to the west of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County as shown on the above map.

Gastonia got its first mill in the late 1840s, but grew slowly as a textile center.  As Glass points out, it and other textile towns were actually formed “as a confederation of mill villages connected by railroad and a downtown commercial district.” After Atlanta’s International Cotton Exposition in 1881,

International Cotton Exposition, Atlanta GA, 1881. Atlanta History Center Archives.

International Cotton Exposition, Atlanta GA, 1881. Atlanta History Center Archives.

“mill fever” spread rapidly in the southeast, producing a widespread cotton mill boom between 1885 and 1915.

Seaboard Airline Railroad, NW spur near Gastonia (1896). Map of the Seaboard Airline and Its Principal Connections. Library of Congress.

Seaboard Airline Railroad, NW spur near Gastonia (1896). Click on image to see full Map of the Seaboard Airline and Its Principal Connections. Library of Congress.

Around Gastonia, that fever was fueled partly by the expansion of the Seaboard Airline Railroad in the 1880s, which ran a spur from Charlotte past Mt. Holly (site of one of the county’s earliest mills) and northwest to Rutherfordton.

In 1897, the Gastonia Gazette published a table of twenty-one mills in Gastonia and surrounding towns:

Gastonia Gazette, May 27, 1897, p. 2.

Gastonia Gazette, May 27, 1897, p. 2.

The oldest of these mills were Stowesville (Belmont, 1874) and Mt. Holly (1876).  By 1890, thirteen had opened. Four (Trenton, Gastonia, Modena, and Avon) began operations in Gastonia between 1893 and 1897.

Together the county’s mills  were processing (annually, it appears) 44,250 bales of cotton.  To do so, 3,400 employees tended 103,826 spindles and 2,415 looms.  Total payroll was $563,120 (which if one excludes managerial personnel, averages about $165/year per employee, although women and children were paid less than men). The 1911 city directory (published the year the city became the county seat) listed eighteen cotton mills in Gastonia alone; a decade later there were thirty-nine.

A graphic map shows the full array of North Carolina mills  in 1896:

Textile Mills in North Carolina, 1896. State Board of Agriculture, North Carolina and Its Resources, 1896.

Textile Mills in North Carolina, 1896. State Board of Agriculture, North Carolina and Its Resources, 1896. Click image for larger version.

Those mills eventually brought tens of thousands of jobs, but not many of them were good jobs.  Hours were long, work was repetitive and dangerous, wages were low (and variable week to week), and the air was laden with cotton dust.

Doffers and sweepers, 1908. Lewis Hine. New York Times

Doffers and sweepers, 1908. Lewis Hine. New York Times

Like a Family, an oral history of southern cotton mills, presents illuminating average weekly wage figures from 1904.  For a 60-hour week, children who worked as doffers  exchanging full spools for empty ones) earned about $2.40 (4 cents/hour).  More experienced and skilled (adult) weaving room workers might earn $7.50 (12.5 cents/hour).  For multiple images, see LEARN NC’s Child Labor in North Carolina.

Mill workers tried in many ways to avoid, mitigate, and overcome the hardships and perils of the work they were doing: moving from job to job, forming mutually supportive (sometimes family-like) networks, working intermittently, holding onto elements of their previously (or still partially) rural lives such as gardening or farming, slowdowns or work stoppages, and  (after the turn of the century) sometimes involvement in union organizing–anything that offered even modest corrective or meliorative possibilities.  The earliest labor strikes did not come until after World War I; they peaked in the 1929-1934 period.

University of North Carolina Press (2008)

University of North Carolina Press (2008)

A particularly attractive and durable mitigation strategy was the a number of musicians who worked in the mills composed and recorded songs about mill life, and many mill workers listened to those songs both in local performances and on phonograph records. Historian Patrick Huber’s award-winning Linthead Stomp expertly examines the lives and work of many industry-linked musicians from the Carolina piedmont.

The most famous of the Gastonia mill worker-musicians was Dave McCarn, who in 1926 wrote Cotton Mill Colic (lyrics; full recording).  Huber’s Gastonia Gallop: Cotton Mill Songs & Hillbilly Blues reissue for Old Hat Records

Patrick Huber (ed.), Gastonia Gallop (Old Hat Records CD1007

Patrick Huber (ed.), Gastonia Gallop (Old Hat Records CD1007.  Click image for web location.

presents a digitally remastered selection of the recorded music of Gastonia-linked groups.

This historically and culturally revealing repertoire has now for nearly a century been covered by many musicians.  Among them were the Blue Sky Boys, Bill (1917-2008) and Earl (1919-1998) Bolick, who grew up in a cotton mill family in Hickory NC and began performing on Asheville’s WWNC in 1935, while they were still teenagers.  Their version of “Cotton Mill Colic” (my favorite of them all) is here.

Pierce and Pearl Rudisill In (and Out of) Gastonia, ca. 1911-1922

William Pierce Rudisill and Virginia Pearl Fox Rudisill, ca. 1916

William Pierce Rudisill and Virginia Pearl Fox Rudisill, ca. 1916

Pierce and Pearl Rudisill’s birth in the late 1880s coincided with the cotton mill boom in Gaston County.

William Pierce Rudisill was born “up about Rutherfordton” in 1885, my mother recalled. His father John Ivery Rudesill (b. 1859; spellings varied) was a farmer, as John’s father Soloman (b. ca. 1827) had been before him. Since in the 1900 census Pierce’s older brothers are listed as doing “farm work,” that seems probable for Pierce as well.  My mother recalled that “they all worked on the farm, and did odd jobs around.”

Facts about Pierce are scarce until he turns up in the 1913-14 Gastonia city directory, living (single, apparently) at 226 E. Long Avenue with his unmarried siblings Essie and Lelia, and their parents John and Mattie.  Pierce was working as a laborer; father John was a clerk.

Pierce is also listed in this same directory as living (probably boarding with Mrs. Sara Singleton) at 313 N. Rhyne Street with his (new, it seems likely) wife Pearl and working at Modena Cotton Mills (opened 1893).  In the Gastonia Gazette‘s 1897 list, it was a moderate-sized mill with about 4,000 spindles, 200 looms, and 125 employees.

Gastonia location of the Modena Cotton Mills as "disappeared object."

Gastonia location of the Modena Cotton Mills as “disappeared object” and nearby E. Long Avenue, E. Airline Avenue, and Rhyne Street, where Pierce, Pearl, and Rudisill relatives lived when they worked at this and other Gastonia mills.

Pearl had been born in Maiden, about twenty-five miles north of Gastonia, in 1888, where her Alabama-born father Eugene David Fox was a deputy sheriff.  My mother recalled that the family seemed “a little better off” than the Rudisills: “They were more tradespeople, and several uncles were doctors.”  Maiden was also a textile town, but whether early in

Carolina Cotton Mills, Maiden NC, Mill News, October 14, 1920, p. 21. This mill was built about 1916.  Mill News, a weekly, began publication in Charlotte in 1899.

her life Pearl may have worked in one of them, I do not know.  She was twenty-three years old when she married and moved to Gastonia.

The 1918-19 Gastonia city directory lists no Rudisills (by any spelling) at all, and although a few members of the extended Rudisill family appear in the 1921-22 volume (the next one available), Pierce himself was not listed.

The 1920 census is more helpful.  It shows Pierce and Pearl [Rudisele] renting a house at 616 East Franklin Avenue in Gastonia’s 7th ward mill district.  Pierce was working at a

Pierce, Pearl, Mary Neal and Maggie Dixon, 1920 Federal Census

Pierce, Pearl, Mary Neal and Maggie Dixon, 1920 Federal Census. Click for larger image.

cotton mill (unnamed, but probably Modena) as an “oiler and bander.”  Pearl is also listed, as are their nearly “3 9/12” year-old daughter Mary Neal, and Maggie Dixon, their twenty-four year-old black cook. How is this to be explained, given the directory gap?

But cross-referencing  census sheets with city directories can carry us only so far.  For some details about part of this period, we turn to two other sources: a fragmentary baby book Pearl kept for her daughter, and two interviews I did with the daughter (my mother) nearly seventy years later.

Accounting for the Gap Years: An “Informally” Adopted Daughter

When I interviewed my mother Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant thirty years ago, she told me the few memories she had of Pierce and Pearl’s –and her own–Gastonia years.  How her parents had met she did not know, but had heard that maybe one of Pierce’s sisters had introduced them.  The couple wanted children, but Pearl’s several pregnancies had ended in miscarriages.

Pearl Rudisill with Mary Neal Rudisill at about five months.

Pearl Rudisill with Mary Neal Rudisill, perhaps late December 1916.

After five years of marriage, they adopted Mary Neal in September 1916.  The adoption was “informal.”  So far as anyone knows, no official document exists except her Christmas Day 1916 baptismal record from Main Street (later First United) Methodist Church.

The identity of her birth parents was the subject of some (only slightly informed, perhaps) speculation.

About the adoption my interviews yielded little, and that mostly in the form of a none too stable family narrative, bits of which I heard over the years.

As my mother told it, it was that a young Gastonia doctor, Lytle Neale Patrick (almost always given as L. N.)

 found out about somebody having a baby girl, and got them to adopt me, or take me.  They went over to Hopewell, Virginia [NE of Petersburg], and Dr. Patrick brought me to Hopewell.  I was supposedly born in Richmond, and the girl [birth mother] was supposed to come and stay with them and look after me for a few weeks, but she wouldn’t come because that’s where she was from.

At this point, the story became a bit more colorful.  A brief exchange from the interview:

DW: Who found out she was from Hopewell?

MNW: Well, Dr. Patrick made the arrangements, and I don’t know why he didn’t know [the birth mother] was from there to start with.

DW: Seems like when you talked to me about that earlier, you had some suspicions that maybe you were his child?

MNW: Well, my mother always thought so [enough, at least, to choose the doctor’s middle name as her daughter’s].  She said I looked just like him.  And in another year or so he married a nurse from Hopewell, Virginia.  So that’s what made her think that, anyway.

DW: And he was the family doctor?

MNW: Um hum. He was a young man then, really young.  And he took care of me as long as I stayed in Gastonia.

A tantalizing story, to be sure.  Questions flood forth: Is the story too unlikely to be worth pursuing?  (Not necessarily.)  Could any records now be found, if they ever existed?  (Unlikely.)  Was there even a Dr. Patrick in Gastonia?  (Yes, definitely: easy to document.) Could a likely birth mother be identified?  (Very unlikely.)  Was there more to the story than my mother knew or remembered?  (Undoubtedly.)  What realities might lie behind the “informal adoption” phrase?

For the time being, these questions necessarily remain for the most part open.  I turn to what can be more confidently learned about the family’s life between the adoption and their move to Asheville six years later.

Mary Neal’s own memories of those years were neither numerous nor detailed.  She recalled living with her adoptive parents “in a little house on Franklin [Avenue]” in Gastonia, but no memories of the house itself remained.  They visited Pierce’s parents “out in the country” a few times, but her only memory of that was of being frightened during a ride in a horse-drawn farm wagon.

Pierce “did odd jobs in the building trade,” was all she recalled, perhaps in addition to mill work. To my query about whether her mother ever worked, she said only that

she worked some when they lived there.  That was the only time I ever knew her to work.  She worked a little bit in one of the mills.  For at least part of the time, a black woman . . . looked after me some.  Her name was Mary Maggie Laura Sophie Janie Lee Dixon.  And I remember going to this little grocery store down there, and buying candy. Having a nickel; that was a big amount of money to have.

Page 1. Click for a larger image.

Page 1. Click for a larger image.


Book passed to me at my mother’s death in April 1999.

Guided by my mother’s fragmentary recollections, I turned to a document that came to me twenty years ago: a baby book kept by Pearl when Mary Neal came to be with them in 1916.

The pages of this 100 year-old re-purposed ledger are  falling out, and entries are sporadic and fragmentary, but a mine of data available nowhere else lies within its pages.  It offers both mundane details (e.g., who gave the baby a new doll or bonnet) and others that force one to think again, to alter directions or explore other contexts.

This is Pearl’s first entry in the book, headed RECORD, and dated October 21, 1916:

Mary Neal Rudisill.  From 3 weeks old.  Was born Sept. 28th at Richmond Va.  Spent Friday night Oct. 20 at Clegg Hotel in Greensboro N.C.  Went to Wilkesboro, N.C. Sat. Oct. 21st.

Taking the September 28 birth date as true, the baby would have been three weeks old on  October 2o.  It seems likely, then, that Pierce and Pearl traveled by train to Greensboro (from somewhere unspecified), stayed overnight at the Clegg Hotel (close to the railroad station, inexpensive rooms, and with its own lunch room), accepted the baby from someone who brought her there, and re-boarded the train the next day.

Gastonia passenger station, 1908. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.

Gastonia passenger station, 1908. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.  Click for larger image.

There are no further entries for two months, but on December 19th we find “First visit to Gastonia.  Arrived Sunday night on [train] No. 35 at 11:30 p.m.”

The month-long visit (probably from Wilkesboro, where they seem to have been living at least temporarily) with the Rudisill and Jenkins families also included Mary Neal’s Christmas day baptism at Main Street Methodist Church.

By January 22 they were back in Wilkesboro, where the work seems to have run out at about the end of March.  For the next two or three months, they made the Gastonia-Rutherfordton-Lincolnton family rounds again; there was no mention of work.  But then in mid-July they turned up-surprisingly–in Hopewell VA.

Recalling that Hopewell had figured in my mother’s adoption story, I first thought this trip must have had something to do with the adoption.  But it didn’t.

“He Was Drafted to the Army”: A Year of Camp Following

“Fourth tooth came in September 8th, 1917” Pearl wrote in a typically baby-bookish entry about her nearly year-old daughter.  And the next line was unexceptional: “Daddie [as she always called Pierce] came to see us 3rd of Sept. and went back to Petersburg the 5th.”

Petersburg? Why Petersburg?  Some never-mentioned relatives lived there?  And Pierce went alone? Why? Had he found some work there, and thought it best to leave his wife and baby daughter in Gastonia?  The next line explained, and altered both frame and focus.

Click for larger and sharper image.

Click for larger and sharper image.

So, not family and not work, but–starkly–“drafted to the army.” I had never heard any mention  of Pierce being in the Army during World War I.  Had I been aware of any such thing, a cryptic note two pages earlier might have been comprehensible: “We came to Hopewell VA. 14th July 1917.”  Again, why Hopewell?  Where was it?  If Pierce had returned to Petersburg, why a few days later was he in Hopewell?  And did either place have to do with the war?


Camp (later Fort) Lee, between Hopewell and Petersburg VA. Click for larger view.

The Petersburg-Hopewell relationship was easy, as was (once I looked at a map) the relationship of the two to the war.  They lie south of Richmond, about ten miles apart.  Within two weeks after the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 4, a state mobilization camp was under construction.  In mid-July it was named Camp Lee, and 14,000 inductees had been shipped in for training. Eventually there would be more than 60,000.

Camp Lee, Virginia, ca. 1917

Camp Lee, Virginia, ca. 1917

The next corroborating evidence I looked for was Pierce’s draft registration card, which I found online rather quickly:

William P. Rudisill, registered at Gastonia, June 5, 1917.

William P. Rudisill, registered at Gastonia, June 5, 1917. As early as February 20, the Gastonia Gazette published lists of men “called for examination.”

So what can we learn from this single routine document?  (1) At the time he had to register

North Carolina Postcards Collection, UNC Chapel Hill.

Approaching North Wilkesboro on the Boone Trail. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.

for the draft (June 5, 1917), Pierce was living in Gastonia, but doing construction work in Wilkesboro NC for Richardson Engineering Construction Company.

Main Street, North Wilkesboro, ca. 1915-1920. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.

Main Street, North Wilkesboro, ca. 1915-1920. Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards, UNC Chapel Hill.

(2) In its February 20th list of men called to be examined, the Gastonia Gazette had included the location of “the local exemption board for the county of Gaston.” When he went to register on June 5, Pierce claimed exemption from the draft because  he had a “wife and child dependent for financial support.”  His claim was denied.

It appears that Pierce may have been drafted some weeks before Pearl mentioned it in early September –probably as early as her “We came to Hopewell” entry on July 14.

Although no entry says so, it appears that from the time of Pierce’s induction and move to Camp Lee, they were trying to keep the family close together.  That must have been difficult, both logistically and economically.  Inductees were paid only about $21/month, and the couple could hardly have had any savings.  Travel would necessarily have been by train.

The mission of Camp Lee was to train the 80th Division, preparing them for deployment in France.  Meshing details from Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Virginia, one learns that the 80th went overseas in June 1918, where it fought in the First Battle of the Somme, Meuse-Argonne, and the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and suffered more than 6,000 casualties.

Pierce, it appears (because of family dependents?), was not deployed.  By August 11 (after the 80th had deployed), the family–including the ten month-old baby–were living on Sycamore Street in Petersburg, and planned to move two blocks east to 35 North Market Street.  But then they abruptly got orders (presumably from the Army) “to get out the 13th.”  “We will leave here,” Pearl wrote,  “Sat. the 18th of August for Rutherfordton N.C.,” where Pierce’s parents lived.

For nearly two months Pearl and the baby remained in Rutherfordton, making one three-day “flying trip” to Virginia to see Pierce.  From then until Christmas it is not clear where they were, but likely shuffling from Rutherfordton (Pierce’s parents) to Lincolnton (Pearl’s) to Gastonia (Pierce’s siblings and their families).

In late January they went again “to see Daddie” in Washington, Ga., where he had been transferred on January 19th.  Sporadic baby book entries indicate that they stayed there until early June–first in a boarding house and then in a rented room in a private home.

At least this is the best I can conclude so far from the scant evidence.  However: I have been able to locate no military camp or installation in Wilkes County GA (where Washington was).  Georgia military installations (five camps) were located fifty or more miles from Washington.  The closest was Camp Hancock, to the southeast, near Augusta. Why Pearl were staying in Washington is not clear to me, unless the wartime demand for housing made it impossible to find any that was closer to any camp.

One possibility, a Wilkes County librarian told me, was that they were staying in Washington county.  One problem with that is that the 1910 census lists Mr. and Mrs. T[homas] M. Lunceford (mentioned in the baby book in May 1918, while Pearl says she is in Washington) in Wilkes County, “164th (Town) District . . . Washington city (part of).”

Pierce’s war service record might clear up this conundrum, but I was unable to find it online.  A formal inquiry with the National Personnel Records Center also turned up nothing, leaving numerous questions unanswered: Where did he actually serve?  Stationed mainly where?  What training did he receive?  Why did he (apparently) not go overseas? Lacking answers, the option here is to move forward without them.

After the War: “We will start to housekeeping again.”

Pierce was finally discharged and sent home August 27, 1918.  The plan was to “start to housekeeping again” in a rented house or apartment on Modena Street (named for the mill).  There is no evidence that they owned an automobile, but the Charlotte-Gastonia interurban street railway (for which I have encountered no map) had opened in 1912, and the Piedmont and Northern Railway had a station or depot at 517 Modena, apparently intended to serve mill workers in Gastonia and outward toward Belmont.  The P&N operated a street railway in Gastonia from 1912 to 1948.  Numerous P & N conductors and motormen (common designations for street railway workers) were listed in the 1918-1919 city directory.

Gastonia Gazette, September 2, 1918, p. 4.

Gastonia Gazette, September 2, 1918, p. 4.

Baby book entries are infrequent after Pierce’s return, but Pearl helpfully recorded  that she  “had pictures made on August 22nd, to be shown at the Ideal Theater on September 2.”  The Ideal kept its promise, but no sample pictures were published.

Pierce and Pearl are not listed in the two (1918 and 1921) city directories available for this period.    One or both may have gotten work at the Modena Mill after Pierce returned.  Just before Pierce arrived home, Pearl noted (as if it were a significant developmental event), two year-old Mary Neal was “in [her] first cotton mill,”   An entry of December 9 noted that they had put their daughter in the nursery “at the Modena [mill],” implying that at least one parent was employed there.  She also noted that they had survived the devastating 1918 influenza epidemic.

Gastonia City Directory, 1918-1919, p. 9.

Gastonia City Directory, 1918-1919, p. 9.  Click for readable image.

What were Pierce and Pearl’s prospects for establishing a stable life in Gastonia?  The city was approaching the boom decade of the 1920s with pride and confidence.  According to the 1918-1919 directory, this “one-generation town” of 15,000 “looks to the future with most bright prospects.”

The city and county should have offered such prospects to a working man with manual skills, recently discharged from Army service: seventy-six mills and “other industrial enterprises,” paved and lighted streets, sidewalks, “excellent living conditions” in the mill villages, “first class health conditions” and “creditable churches.”

Six brief entries in the baby book leap quickly over the year 1919.  Except for whooping cough,  events were routine: church services, cutting teeth, third birthday, spending Mary Neal’s fourth Christmas with the Rudisill grandparents in Charlotte.  So far, so good.  But for Pierce and Pearl and their daughter, many of the hoped for benefits soon proved elusive.

In March 1920 came a cryptic “We moved to Charlotte.  Brought Maggie [the cook] with us.”  And then, just as cryptically: “Just stayed in Charlotte 2 weeks and went back to Gastonia.”  Perhaps some expected weeks or months of construction work hadn’t materialized?

For the next three and a half months, nothing, until (again without explanation) “Before going to Winston Salem, we spent some time at Winnsboro [Mills?], S. C. with Mrs. Wylie and Mrs. Baker.  Then on to Danville, Va. We are staying with Mrs. Jim Terrill, 530 Monroe Street.”

I have discovered no clues as to who any of these people were, but it seems likely that Pierce was moving from place to place for short-term construction jobs or jobs in the mills.  Danville lay on the Dan River, water power from whose falls attracted much industrial development.  Its Riverside Cotton Mills (1882; later Dan River Mills) became the largest textile plant in the South.  And Monroe Street, where Mrs. Terrill’s house stood, ran directly toward the river industrial sector.

In any case, the employment uncertainty begins to clear up with Pearl’s Christmas Eve, 1920 entry: “Daddie working on new Flint Mill.”  Puzzled about the “new Flint Mill,” I pursued the reference. 

A routine Flint Mills AND Gastonia search turned up a 1919 biographical volume on North Carolina with an entry on the mill’s builder, John E. McAllister.  Born in 1865 on a farm in Dallas, a few miles NW of Gastonia, McAllister moved into town with his parents about 1874.

Lumberton Cotton Mills, ca. 1905-1925. Possibly built by McAllister. East Carolina University.

Lumberton Cotton Mills, ca. 1905-1925. Possibly built by McAllister. East Carolina University.

He began to work early in life as a bricklayer, gradually taking on the role of contractor.

Gastonia city directory, 1910-1911, p. 72

Gastonia city directory, 1910-1911, p. 72

Working out of his Gastonia headquarters, McAllister built (besides Flint) a number of cotton mills in Lumberton, Gastonia, and elsewhere (Clara, Dunn, Armstrong, Seminole)  .

So how did Pierce manage to get his job helping to build the new Flint Mill?  Surprisingly, it turns out that McAllister had a direct Rudisill connection through his mother, Catherine Rudisill McAllister. But there was a proximity connection, as well as the possible genealogical one.  From 1910, McAllister shared a 114 E. Main Street business address with both Modena Mills (where both Pierce and Pearl worked intermittently) and (slightly later) John S. Jenkins, who owned a sheet metal company that served the textile industry.  Jenkins’s home address, 613 W. Airline Avenue was also that of his son J. Campbell Jenkins, who was married to Essie Rudisill, Pierce’s sister.

Whether these business/”by marriage” connections had anything to do with Pierce getting hired by McAllister to help build the Flint Mill, or with how long it lasted, I have no idea.  In any case, since no further family moves are referred to in the baby book during the next eighteen months, the job appears to have been relatively long-term.

That must have been a welcome relief.  Borrowing terminology from a later time, one might observe that for most of a decade following their marriage in 1911, the Rudisills lived a precarious existence as economic migrants.  Now and then they worked in the mills.  At other times they chased temporary jobs for Pierce around piedmont and western North Carolina, central South Carolina, and central Virginia.  The process was complicated even further by his year of World War I service, which required Pearl and the baby to move among both North Carolina relatives and wherever Pierce was in Virginia and Georgia.

The  TimeMapper here (will open in new window) conveys (to the extent that information is available) a sense of the family’s travels, 1885-1922: birthplaces and dates, where they lived and when they lived there, where and when Pierce worked or sought work, where he was during his WWI service, and when they moved to Asheville.

Following Pierce’s work at Flint Mill (which may have continued as late as December 1921, when they were still in Gastonia), the baby book goes silent (except for the five year-old’s  chicken pox) until mid-May 1922.

Then a major change:  Pearl says “Spent 6th birthday in Asheville N.C.  Started to school Oct. 3, 1922 in Asheville.  You go to S[unday] School at Bethel M[ethodist] E[piscopal] Church.”  Bethel M. E. Church was downtown, near Asheland Avenue, but the family  were “light-housekeeping,” Pearl said, on Victoria Road with a gracious and generous couple who “take us [for] nice rides and mountain trips.  We went Sunday Oct. 8th to Bat Cave near Chimney Rock.”

Their hope was, it appears, that things would be better in Asheville for a construction laborer.  And they should have been, for Asheville was booming, and new buildings were going up rapidly: Grove Park Inn; large private dwellings; expensive subdivisions such as Biltmore Forest, Beaver Lake, Kenilworth and others; some sixty-five downtown business buildings; and new county and municipal buildings and public spaces.

Central Bank and Trust Company, 1920s.  D. H. Ramsey Library, UNC Asheville.

Indeed, just as the Rudisills began their “light-housekeeping,” Central Bank and Trust was toting up the dramatic statistics for a mid-1923 publication on the county’s dramatic rise. Timber, mineable minerals, and water power were abundant.

Since 1875, Asheville had promoted itself as the “Land of the Sky” tourist mecca, and tourists were streaming in on the railroad and over the new highways.

Assessed value of property had increased by 600% since 1910.  Agriculture (tobacco, apples, poultry, dairy, cheese production) and industry were growing rapidly (furniture, textiles, steel and cement factories, talc and mica, printing).  And, just by the by (one might say), the bankers reminded prospective entrepreneurs, that there was “an abundance of good, cheap labor” and that the racial ratios were

well above the state average in the white majority over negroes [84 to 16 percent]. . . .  This is probably due to the fact that it is a mountain county and that there are no large farms or plantations which employ a great number of negro laborers. Did it not include a city like Asheville, with its negro population, Buncombe’s percentage of blacks would be almost negligible.

The bankers, one guesses, would have found it impolitic to mention that Asheville had had a long history with the Ku Klux Klan, which was holding its first national convention in the city in 1923.

Some indicators were troubling, the bankers admitted: low birth rate, high divorce rate, homicides higher than the state average (itself the highest in the nation), and fewer than 50% of people attending church (“much room for improvement”).  But overall, as the Land of the Sky’s second half-century arrived, all of the curves seemed to be turning upward.

The Rudisills had reason to feel hopeful, then.  My mother Mary Neal recalled many years later that her father

went up there to work on the Asheville Normal School. They were building a new building, and he went up there to work on that, and [Mother] liked it so much up there she didn’t ever want to leave, so they stayed in Asheville the rest of their lives. He worked on that Asheville Normal School, and then he got . . . I think he did some work maybe out at Grove Park Inn.

But the curves turned out to be deceiving, and Pierce hardly ever had steady work again–especially after the great Asheville crash of 1929-1930.

Such stability and predictability as the Rudisills ever achieved, however, lay not in Asheville proper, but in West Asheville.  As a matter of fact, both they and the Whisnant family moved to West Asheville during the year 1922-23.  To provide a bit of context for their moves, my next post will focus briefly on West Asheville from the 1880s through its annexation by Asheville in 1917, and its burgeoning and hopeful development as a suburb in the 1920s.


Robert C. Allen, “They Are Not Strangers to Us”: Lewis Hine’s Gaston County Photographs, 1908 (2008); Allyson C. Criner, “Gaston County” and Daniel W. Barefoot, “Schenck-Warlick Mill” (NCpedia, 2006); Central Bank and Trust Co., Buncombe County: Economic and Social (1923); Federal Census of 1920, Ward 7, Gastonia NC; Brent D. Glass, The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History (1992); Jacquelyn D. Hall, et al., Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (1987); Patrick Huber, Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South (2008);  James Leloudis and Kathryn Walbert, “How textile mills worked” (from chapter 3 of Like a Family), LearnNC; North Carolina Business History, Lincolnton Cotton Factory; South Main Cycles [Gastonia], “Piedmont and Northern Railway Depot“; Papers Read at the of Grand Dragons Kinights of the Ku Klux Klan at Their First Annual Meeting Held at Asheville North Carolina, July 1923 (1923); John A. Salmond, Gastonia 1929: The Story of the Loray Mill Strike (1995); UNC Digital Innovation Lab, Loray Mill Project; Darin J. Waters, Life Beneath The Veneer: The Black Community in Asheville, North Carolina from 1793 to 1900 (Ph.D. diss., UNCA 2011); David E. Whisnant, Recorded interviews with Mary Neal Rudisill Whisnant (July 12, 1986 and November 28, 1987); Bradford A. Wineman, “Fort Lee” (2008) in Encyclopedia Virginia; Kevin J. Young, “White Hooded Mountains: The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s” (Appalachian Studies Association, 2015).

8 thoughts on “Cotton Mill Colic vs. the Land of the Sky: From Gastonia to Asheville

  1. Vann Helms

    Thank you, David, and I am so glad that you have made this connection. I look forward to reading your many posts, and learning more about this wonderful place that we call home. By the way, if you haven’t yet seen the new film, GENIUS, about Thomas Wolfe, don’t bother, unless you enjoy old cars and steam trains. Such a shame. Vann Helms

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Thanks for this, Vann, and I’m glad you intend to keep up with other posts (there are already about 24 of them out there, but more will be coming in the months ahead). I have not seen Genius, but I have read a great deal of TW, and I tend to be very critical of sloppily-done documentaries. BTW: f you would like to be aware of new posts as they come out, go to any post and put your email address in the SUBSCRIBE box at upper right. You will get an email to respond to to confirm, and you’re on! BTW: your email will never be used for any other purpose than to keep you subscribed.

  2. Blue Dozen

    very, very cool. my grandfather was a cotton mill worker (mostly in salisbury, as i recall – after ww2.) such an interesting history. he had some stories. really looking forward to following your blog – very cool info and perspective.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Thanks so much for this. I’m glad you are enjoying the blog and making some connections. BTW: If you would like to be aware of new posts as they come out, go to any post and put your email address in the SUBSCRIBE box at upper right. You will get an email to respond to to confirm, and you’re on! Your email will never be used for any other purpose than to keep you subscribed. There are already 24 or so posts out there, but I am always working on a new one, so they will keep coming.

  3. Pingback: The Down Side of the Land of the Sky: The Rudisills in Asheville and West Asheville, 1922-1951 | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. WhisnantAsheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

  4. Nancy Caton

    Thanks – 2 2g grandfathers (John Littleberry Grice, Henry Eli Howard) and their families worked in the mills in the late 19th/early 20th C.

  5. Pingback: Maybe Down the Road Somewhere: A Working-Class Valedictorian in Depression-era Asheville | Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. WhisnantAsheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

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