Asheville Junction: A Blog by David E. Whisnant

Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers

NOTE TO READERS: This is the third in a series of posts on the coming of the American Enka Corporation plant to Buncombe County’s Hominy Valley in 1928, and its presence there until recently.  Others will follow as I get them written.

I will try to make this current and each succeeding post as free-standing as possible, and also link parts of them to others of my more than 30 previous posts that provide context and additional detail on the American Enka story. The first two of them are:

A New Vision for Old Hominy Valley: The Coming of the American Enka Plant

“The Best and Most Prosperous City”: American Enka and the Imagined Transformation of Asheville

Posts in this series may be read in any order, but since they combine to form a historical, social and cultural narrative that ranges over some 70 years, they would be best read in order.

A Dream Labor Pool?

In mid-1928, a group of Asheville’s civic, banking, business and industrial leaders organized an intense campaign for the city to be chosen from a list of or so 50 others being considered by the Dutch owners and managers of the newly formed American Enka Corporation as a site for its first American plant.

To shape the process of selection, the Dutch group circulated to all of those cities a list of required conditions and guarantees.  Along with land, raw materials, water, electric power supply, rail transport, and other desiderata, the local labor supply received special attention.1

To reassure the Dutch group, Asheville’s negotiators paid careful attention to labor supply. Their responses drew substantially upon carefully targeted data, but also upon an old, hackneyed and fanciful discourse about “mountain workers.”

Industry Grows and Prospers in the Asheville District (ca. 1927)

An elaborate example of this discourse appeared (coincidentally or not?, one wonders), sometime between mid-1927 and early 1928, just before the Dutch negotiations opened.

The brochure prepared by the Industrial Bureau of the Chamber of Commerce was directed to industrial site seekers.  It bore no publication date, but some statistics and letters within it are dated as late as–but no later than–February 4, 1927.

An article in the “Rayon Section” of the September 23, 1928 issue of the Sunday Citizen (“Enka Officials Given Valuable Help By The Industrial Bureau”) made clear that the ideas, language, and beguiling explanations came substantially, if not completely, from the Bureau (“established May 1, 1927”).  It did not say whether the Bureau itself designed the brochure.

With professional graphics and a boosterish text that extolled Asheville’s “record of progress,” it inventoried local raw materials (you name it; we have it), natural resources (“a treasure house”), water supply and electric power (including Carolina Power & Light’s grid-connected Waterville plant under construction on nearby Pigeon River), climate (yearly “splendid average” of 72° F), rail transport (Charleston harbor not all that far away), taxation (lowest average state ad valorem rate in the entire country), markets, housing, recent “municipal improvements” and (for the culturally anxious) “civic refinements.”

What effect the bottom-of-the-heap tax rate might have had to do with the quality of schools and other public facilities escaped mention.

So what about labor?  When the September 23, 1928 “Rayon Section” of  the Sunday Citizen announced that Asheville had indeed been chosen as the site for the new American Enka plant, a headline proclaimed that “Many Factors Entered Into Bringing Enka Here,” including labor.  “The labor of the mountains of Western North Carolina,” the article said, “is the best in the United States . . . intelligent, steady, home-loving and pure-blooded laboring persons, and this phase of the section was one that greatly pleased the . . . Hollanders.”2

This article virtually repeated the Chamber’s Industrial Bureau brochure.  The photo on the “Asheville’s Outstanding Industrial Resource” page showed an intently engaged/competent white male lathe operator, and the caption assured readers that he was mountain-born, southern-trained, happily repatriated from a brief (not long enough to alienate or disorient him) sojourn in the North.

In a pastiche of beguiling phrases, the Industrial Bureau discretely suggested what they considered to be the underlying  essentials of “native-born” American labor:

  • They are “naturally adept and intelligent, and willing to give a full day’s work for a fair day’s wages” (They’re easy  to please about this wages and hours thing.)
  • They have been “Born in the mountains of the South,” and are therefore pure blooded” (thus White, not Black), since everyone knows almost no Blacks live there, anyway.  And for those who may have missed the nuance, the article brought biases against Black and foreign workers clearly to the surface.  “In the North,” it said without any nuance,

“the cheap labor usually consists of foreigners, most of whom are ignorant or have radical tendencies. It is difficult for manufacturers to get along with their help. In the South the negro may be used for labor. Although the negro is never radical, he may not be trained in all events as the rayon manufacturers desire their employees to eventually be.”3

  • What was not said with regard to race was more important than what was, and would not have pleased the industry hunters: Asheville and Buncombe County had both had a substantial black population since their founding years in the 18th century;  the Ku Klux Klan was quite active there and in the surrounding area; Blacks in the city were confined to menial jobs; and, as in other cities at the time, were tightly segregated. In sum, Asheville had been a substantially black city and racist city since the beginning, and that blacks (including slaves) had worked in many sectors of its economic and cultural life (tourism, of course, but also sanitariums, private homes, hotels, and many other sites where “laborers” were required.)
  • Freedom from labor problems? “Asheville’s population is ninety-nine percent native-born American, the finest class of workingmen ever produced. . . . the source of practically the entire white labor supply of the South.” That was a palpable lie, since “native-born” in this document meant White, and Asheville’s White population was not 99%, but 85%.
  • Having been “Brought up on the mountain farms where their ancestors have worked out a living since colonial times” (meager living it usually was, of course, but they were content with that, since that’s the way it’s always been), it’s in their genes and cultural system for them to be non-demanding, agreeable, imperturbable,
  • “Quick to learn” (how to run a lathe, but also how things are and will/ought to be).
  • And it’s cheap, too: The cost of labor is “3/4 of what it is in the North and East.”
  • “Labor disturbances are practically unknown . . . .  When a man is earning [an adequate] wage,” why would he be interested in such as that?  Here in the mountains, “the seeds of discontentment which radical forces might sow . . . find an exceedingly barren ground.” (Radical forces = foreigners, Black workers, union organizers, disgruntled White workers. “Barren ground” means no need to worry about strikes.)
  • And anyway, bear two key statistics in mind: “Only 1.3 percent of the population . . . is foreign-born . . . and (only, we’re glad to report)] fifteen percent is negro.”

Hiring the Workers

Shortly after the contract was signed by Asheville and Dutch officials, the word went out: American Enka’s “first unit” in western North Carolina would employ perhaps 5,000 workers (up to 6,000 or 7,000 later), probably 60% of them women. At the time, women made up only about 13% of Asheville’s manufacturing workers, and fewer than 20% in Buncombe County, so they could be expected to be eager for jobs.

Read carefully, a widely-distributed brochure predicted how jobs at Enka were likely to sort out.  Women would be hired for production–but not supervisory–jobs.  Except for “oilers” (traditionally a low-level job in the state’s many cotton mills), men would be hired mainly in the skilled trades, in “processes of manufacturing” (among which wages could vary significantly), and as “foremen and semi-divisional heads.” Race was not mentioned; time would tell about that, as well as about “Married or Single.”

Enka job ad

American Enka hiring brochure, 1929. From Mashburn, Hominy Valley: the Golden Years (2008), p. 278; images courtesy of Don Caldwell.  Click for expanded image.

Another article in the “Rayon Edition” trumpeted that female labor was important in getting the plant.4

Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, B1.

Although Champion Fiber company in nearby Canton reported that it was “a hard matter to keep their employees . . .  [since] the plant offers so little labor for women,” detailed statistics on the potential population of unemployed women in and around Asheville satisfied Dutch officials.

With regard to labor, then, it came down to the reliably (and hereditarily) compliant pool of “mountain labor,” the (comfortably) low percentage of Blacks, the over-supply of women, the absence of “radical forces,” and the small likelihood of “labor unrest.” Taken together, these factors calmed and reassured the Dutch officials who were about to spend $10,000,000 for a plant in Buncombe County that would employ 5,000 or so workers.

Whatever the local circumstances actually turned out to be, American Enka proceeded to hire workers rapidly. On March 1, 1930, before the plant had been operating for a year, the Asheville Citizen reported that more than 2,000 were on the payroll.5  I have as yet how to discover data on how many of those new employees were black, but a subsequent post will return to that issue.

Labor Day for the Laborers

Perhaps to allay reservations among its workers and to represent itself as being on the “right side” of the labor question, the Company staged an elaborate, all-day Labor Day celebration in 1930, with a special shuttle train carrying

Labor Day

Enka Voice, November 1930, p. 7. Click to enlarge.

employees and families from points west.6

Opening with a morning baseball game between Enka and Canton, the event included a mid-afternoon concert by the Kingsport TN municipal band and a “Mountain singers” contest, followed by an address by a Clemson College professor.7

Labor Day

Tug O’ War, Enka Voice, November 1930, p. 6.  Click to enlarge.

Late afternoon included a “girls’ basketball game” and men’s tug-of-war and greased pig contests for “a pot of money.”

After a barbecue supper, there was to be an exhibition square dance “by girls from the Twisting Department” and a music contest among groups from surrounding areas: the Hominy Ramblers and Buck Dancers from Candler, a string band from Soco Gap, James Fox’s band from Weaverville, and Rector’s Trio from Asheville, which included the young fiddle and mandolin virtuoso “Red” Rector.

Pender Rector

Enka Voice, November 1930, p. 20.

Not professional musicians, Rector and his “assistants”  all had their “day jobs.”  A May 10, 1930 article in the Asheville Citizen gave the two other players’ names (D. T. Blackwell and Floyd Miller), but did not link them with instruments. In the 1930 city directory, there was a Pender Rector who worked as an automobile salesman at Universal Motors in Asheville. D. T. Blackwell may have been Dervin T., who worked as a meat cutter at a market in West Asheville, and Floyd Miller may have been Floyd R., who worked as a mechanic with Rector at Universal Motors.

The trio had broadcasted over Asheville’s WWNC (opened in 1927) for two years, but were renowned far beyond the mountains as performers. On one of their tours, the Asheville Citizen reported, they had performed in Washington DC and New York City, recorded for Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden NJ, and broadcasted from WCAU and WFKD in Philadelphia.8

Enka’s huge Labor celebration closed with a group dancing contest, “moving pictures” and fireworks on the Enka Lake.

Like many other aspects of Enka’s early history, this one was predictive of a broader corporate paternalism that took many forms: encouraging workers to think of their own well-being with that of the company; blurring boundaries between work relationships and those within communities and families; blending leadership, coercion and surveillance within the workplace; ratifying gender definitions and boundaries, and deploying them to control power relationships within the workforce; and replicating traditional social observances and events in order to borrow their legitimacy for the workplace calendar.

Early (and Growing) Clouds on the Labor Horizon

And how did all of these factors and dynamics work out on the labor front? Subsequent posts will engage this question and related ones.

For the moment, despite the Chamber of Commerce’s assurances that “labor disturbances are practically unknown among native-born workers, Asheville had had such “disturbances” before (see previous post, Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic), and 1929 (the year American Enka opened) was a banner year for them in textiles.  In March there two at two German-owned rayon plants in Elizabethton TN, then in Greenville SC, and  two violent ones in North Carolina (Gastonia and Marion).

Nor did American Enka’s first workers sit idly by while all of this transpired.  By September 29, 1929, only 3 months after the plant opened, they had formed a union committee.9

Enka job application

American Enka job application, August 9, 1929, from Mae E. Cole, Nantahala, NC. Postmarked, readdressed, and presumably returned undelivered. Mashburn, Hominy Valley: The Golden Years (2008), p. 279. Original images courtesy of Don Caldwell. Click for larger image.

Meanwhile, it became clearer and clearer that Asheville’s Enka-seeking committee’s assurances to the Dutch industrialists notwithstanding, American Enka was not immune to, and could not fully insulate and protect itself against, the labor issues and dynamics manifesting widely in southern textiles.

A rare surviving Enka August 1929 employment application from a 21 year-old, single woman (the company’s most desired demograhic) from Nantahala (more than 75 miles west of Enka) shows that she wanted the job partly to replace a $10/week one she had had at Gastonia’s Loray Mill, where 4 months earlier 1,800 workers had walked off the job.

The return address and postmark on the envelope found with the application suggests that it was perhaps returned to Miss Cole because of her candor in reporting that she had worked at Loray Mills.

Nevertheless, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce’s sanguine brochure engendered and reinforced hopeful expectations among Enka’s planners and partisans.  But six weeks after  Cole submitted her application (or it was returned to her), the violent Loray strike ended with the murder of Ella May Wiggins, a union activist and single (pregnant) mother of nine.

Indeed by February 1934, the NLRB noted that several hundred members of Enka’s Local 2113 had affiliated with the AFL/CIO and filed their first labor complaint against the Company. The Board also noted that the Company had been involved in unfair labor practices at least since July 1935.10

To make matters worse, the gigantic (500,000-workers) multi-state General Textile Strike had exploded in 1934.  And there sat American Enka, out on one of the swirling arms of a labor vortex that reached down from the western North Carolina mountains, across the Southeast and beyond.

 

Enka plant ca. 1929 Masa

Almost idyllic photograph of American Enka in still agricultural (if one notes the hay bales in the foreground) Hominy Valley, about 1929 –judging from state of building, which continued to expand for decades. Photo probably by George Masa. North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Public Library, F410-N.

References

Industrial Bureau, Asheville Chamber of Commerce, Industry Grows and Prospers in the Asheville District (Asheville: Inland Press, ca. 1927); J. L. Mashburn, Hominy Valley: The Golden Years (2008), Hominy Valley Revisited (2009), and Asheville and Buncombe County (2012), all published by Colonial House; National Labor Relations Board documents on American Enka, 1940-1941.

 

Notes
  1. For details of the search and the required conditions–except for labor–see the two previous posts, linked above.[]
  2. Asheville Sunday Citizen, September 23, 1928, B7. []
  3. The “rayon manufacturers” phrase suggests that indeed, the brochure was either written explicitly with American Enka in mind, or was edited after the original writing to tailor it to their company officials as a primary audience.[]
  4. “Female Labor Big Factor in Getting Plant,” continued as “Female Labor Helped Get It,” Sunday Citizen September 23, 1928, B1 and B2.[]
  5. Figures on total employees in any given year varied widely, depending upon the source.  The highest I have seen, from 40 years later, is that Enka had grown to include 11,000 employees in nine plants at five locations in four states. Asheville Citizen, April 3, 1969, unpaged clipping, Pack Memorial Public Library.[]
  6. “Enka Plans Huge Labor Day Rally,”Asheville Citizen, August 30, 1930, p. 8. The article said there were not 2,000, but 4,000 Enka employees by then.  The first Labor Day celebration occurred in New York City in 1882, and following the Pullman strike it became a Federal holiday in 1894.[]
  7. My search for the professor’s area of professional expertise (hence academic writing), was unavailing.[]
  8. Rector continued to play and record with other musicians for years. His trio’s performances on WWNC were featured in the Asheville Citizen-Times, May 31, 1931, C7.[]
  9. Mentioned retrospectively in In the Matter of American Enka Corporation and Textile Workers Union No. 22129, American Federation of Labor  Case No. 00-C-0011600.–Decided October 2, 1940. National Labor Relations Board, 1940.[]
  10. In the Matter of American Enka Corporation and Textile Workers Union No. 22129, American Federation of Labor  Case No. 00-C-0011600.–Decided October 2, 1940. National Labor Relations Board.  Enka’s subsequent strike of 1941 will be the subject of a later post.[]

8 thoughts on “Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers

  1. Sherry P Hill

    As an Ashevillian born in 1940, this is interesting info regarding the historical beginnings of the Enka plant. I really appreciated the “tongue in cheek” parenthetical comments, some of which are so funny and some make you want to cringe or cry. In the 40’s and like so many other children, l was naively protected from racism’s reality and pain as well as gender issues, both alive and well in our NC mountains. David Whisnant’s fun to read blog stories, so concisely “penned”, flesh out the region’s origins so beautifully.

  2. David Whisnant Post author

    Glad you liked it, Sherry. On “tongue in cheek”: I guess my (dog whistle) phrase wasn’t as helpful or clear as I intended. Might change it. My intent was not humor, but to get at the actual underlying meaning of their language: “they used a more socially-acceptable phrase, but what was being signaled was . . ..” For example “Born in the mountains of the South” signals (White, not Black). And so on with the other parenthetical phrases. A meta-message for all of them was (though I didn’t say it overtly): no need for Dutch officials to worry about any labor problems (wages, union organizing, radical ideas, etc.); you won’t be bothered by any of that with these “mountain workers.” That wasn’t true even when the C of C said it in their brochure in late ’27/early ’28. An it of course proved even less true in 1929 (when Enka opened) and the early/mid-’30s (General Textile Strike of 1934, the basis for George Stoney’s excellent documentary “The Uprising of ’34”): https://digitalcollections.library.gsu.edu/digital/collection/uprising.

  3. Sherry P Hill

    David, your meaning was absolutely clear with the added advantage of just the slightest bit of levity for those of us mountain born and bred, now hopefully more fully sensitive adults with hindsight advantage. Please don’t edit this most relatable and readable thought.

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Sherry: Always glad for your reactions and comments, especially from those who are in/have lived through some of the history of the local scene. Keep them coming! David

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Thank you, Mary. I’m glad you are enjoying it. As you may already know, there are about 35 posts already out there, and I am working on the next Enka one (of maybe 7-8 more to come). I am always glad for corrections, suggestions, additions, etc.
      David

    1. David Whisnant Post author

      Thanks, Joe! There are also two earlier ones out there in the Enka series, which I’m working on the next one for at the moment. And there will be 7 or 8 (probably) more as I get time. If you have corrections, additions, suggestions, I would always be glad to have them. When I am working on (or have finished) a post, I am always aware that there is much more that could be said, but a post is not (and can’t be) book-length, so choices have to be made. The one I am working on now is about my father’s first 8 years there (1933-1941), from initial employment (in the Printing Department) to his move to Mechanical Research in 1941. Later ones will be on the strike of ’41 (including some great stuff I have recently come across on Frank Conder and the Enka police), living in the village, the Dutch contingent, women and Black (the few that there were!) employees (if you remember *anything* about that, I would be glad to know), the sale to BASF, etc. Hope all is well with you and Shannon with regard to COVID. I’ve had my 2 shots, and the rest of us have had #1. Best, David

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