One Last Time Through the Mill
By Reno Bailey
Last December the old mill at Cliffside was shut down after over a hundred years of operation. The machines were stopped, and all but a handful of employees left for good. With the building’s future in such a state of uncertainty, we felt a need to say goodbye to the historic old mill, while it was still accessible. Cone Mills was in bankruptcy and the disposition of its assets would be decided in just a few weeks.
Only the finishing plant had been in operation in recent years. Most of the manufacturing plant (the old part of he mill) has long stood idle, serving mainly as a warehouse for materials needed by the denim and Jacquard plants north of town.
On January 28, Buzz Biggerstaff, Sam Davis, Charles “Red” Humphries, Frank Holtzclaw, Roland Wallace, Betty Bailey and I joined up to tour the old mill, to try to piece together our memories of how it used to be.
Of all in the group, I had been away the longest, not having stepped foot in the place since late 1958, in terry cloth days. Over the years, occasionally driving by at a distance, I held onto the idea that it was the same old place, that nothing had changed. How wrong I was.
Since the ’60s a couple of major changes were made to the buildings both physically and operationally. First, the plant was modified for climate control. This involved bricking or boarding up many of the windows, or painting the panes to keep out the sun’s rays, and running miles of ductwork to heat and cool hundreds of thousands of square feet of space. All this involved a great amount of structural reconfiguration. Joe Miller, who joined the management staff in 1963 and was general manager of the mill in the 1970’s and later, describes those trying times.
I’d guess we began the A/C installation in the late 70’s and maybe finished in the early 90’s. Structurally, we had to make sure the roof and other places we placed the huge condensers and other equipment called for could stand the added weight. At times we would pour huge concrete structures on the ground outside to hold these pieces of machinery. Windows and other openings in the walls would have to be replaced and insulated to prevent wasting the cool air coming into the various departments. As one can imagine, a loom motor produces a great deal of heat as do other pieces of machinery and this had to be overcome before cooling was possible. Operationally, these systems were very expensive to operate and maintain. It was not economically feasible to cool some areas such as boiler rooms and finishing areas which had huge dryers drying fabrics before cutting and sewing.
Previously, to keep cool, workers could only throw open the big triple-sash windows, and also rely on the cool mist spewed out by the vast humidifier system. Extremely high humidity kept threads from breaking, looms and spinning frames running smoothly, and productivity high. (It also kept the workers perpetually damp, making them virtual magnets for all the lint in the air.)
The other major upheaval, which occurred over a span of many years, was the conversion from terry cloth to denim production. The entire mill had to be refitted with new machinery and new processes for denim, while terry cloth operations continued. The finalization of this conversion, which spelled doom for the older part of the mill, was the construction of an entirely new denim factory about two miles north of Cliffside. Miller remembers it well.
The process was very gradual and the disruption was severe. First and foremost, we had to continue producing towels, wash cloths, beach towels, etc. It would have been nice to just stop everything and rebuild the plant ‘full scale,’ as you say, but the cost would have been enormously higher. Making towels and making denim are about as different as anyone can imagine. Both are somewhat complex procedures but making denim is ten times more complex. Training people and supervision and management was a nightmare because of the difference.
Back to the tour. Once inside, it’s hard to tell where you are. Was this the weave room, or the spinning room? Where are we? Everything looks alike. Somehow the floors aren’t as we remembered them—the old oiled wood flooring is gone. In fact, in some areas, they’re bright and shiny. Again, Joe Miller:
Floors throughout the plant were refinished/refurbished on an ‘as needed’ basis. In the spinning area because the steel ‘travelers’ that spun around the ring itself wore out so quickly and when they were to be replaced they were broken off the ring with a malleable hammer and fell onto the floor, we tried our best to sweep them up and dispose of them. many thousands of travelers fell to the floor and were ground into the wood causing undue wear. When the frames were oiled, there was always some oil spilled or splattered on the floor. This, over time, weakened the floors also. We would buy real ‘rock’ maple from the New England states and bring in thousands of square feet by rail and have outside contractors install new floors.
Jim Haynes adds this about the floors:
I can remember when a man with title of Scrubber would scour those [old oily] floors on a daily basis. If not, they would get so slick you could not walk on them without slipping. I’m told that by refinishing the floors they could save a lot of money, for they could vacuum instead of scour them, and that having air conditioning reduced the need for so much moisture from the humidifiers. The floors did not get slick like they had in the past.
In all the “main” rooms, the long expanses which once contained looms and frames, there is now no equipment, only row upon row of boxes and pallets containing yarn waiting to be used by the Jacquard looms in the new plant. It’s quiet as a tomb. No one is here, save for an occasional team of workers driving down the “alleys” on an electric cart, fetching specific batches of yarn needed at the other mill. On one floor, on a table near the elevator, sits a couple of desktop computers, probably containing the locations of the hundreds of types of yarn. Ironically, the screen saver on one of the PCs displays these words in a horizontal crawl: “Count your Blessings.” Indeed.
The old creaky elevators with wooden floors and hand-operated slatted gates are long gone, replaced with heavy all-steel conveyances with electric vault-like doors.
Some specialized areas are identifiable. The machine shop has only recently been vacated. The drills and lathes are still here; a newspaper of a recent date lay in the office. The “power house” area was recently in use, with a huge dynamo sitting like Buddha in a special side room. The boiler room would be hard to mistake, a spooky 3-story cavern with ancient stone walls, jam-packed with pipes, pumps, vents, ducts, generators, etc. You could imagine the monster from Alien swinging down out of the tangle of strange equipment. Near the two gas-fired boilers was a chair and small table on which lay a logbook. Its last entry was only a few weeks ago. On that last day the boiler tender, whoever he was, just laid down his pen and went home.
Not too many years ago these were coal-fired boilers and the tenders had to manually shovel coal into their maws. Where there are boilers, there is steam, and just outside the boiler room’s exterior door, in sight of the Methodist Church, men once came to kill and dress their hogs, using the mill’s steam to scald the hogs’ hides before scraping off the bristles. They would dump all the unwanted parts into the river.
There was one space identified as the “Welding Room,” a small 2-room suite with stone walls and steel floors where arc-welding could safely be done without burning down the mill. Near what we guessed to be the old dye house area, was a large unlighted room containing only support posts and numerous horizontal rectangular stone slabs of various dimensions. It felt like a storehouse for mummies. Brrrr, let’s move on.
We saw walls and floors and old equipment that surely had not been touched in 50 or 75 years, covered with peeling paint, dirt, ropey cobwebs and rust, having suffered the ravages of time and neglect.
The finishing plant is different story. It is an impressive factory with all the modern equipment needed for processing, finishing and shipping denim and Jacquard cloth. Unlike years ago when the output of the mill was individually hemmed and labeled towels and washcloths, today’s plant produced huge rolls of fabric that were shrink-wrapped by automated machines, loaded onto semi-trailers and hauled away to Cone’s customers. Buzz Biggerstaff, once in charge of this plant, talks of cloth rolls so big they contained the product of five bales of cotton. Did you know that all the denim used to make Levi’s popular “501” jeans was manufactured here? Buzz and Mickey Hewitt, Finishing Mechanic, actually developed the process that made the unique “501” shrink-to-fit fabric possible. Clean, efficient, up-to-date—yet the plant’s usefulness is apparently over, brought to an ignoble end by the new world economy.
Perhaps the saddest stop on our tour was the dam site. Standing near it, the dam seems much smaller than it appears from afar, and so does the mill pond. Over the years, bamboo and saplings have slowly edged their way out from the river bank, gradually decreasing the width of the river. The dam itself, built in 1900, looks old and tired. You wonder, how much longer can it hold on? And for what? That day, the trunk of an old dead tree perhaps 20 feet long was lodged across the its top, hanging down the waterfall all the way to the river bed. It likely will stay there until someone, somehow, pulls it off. What their incentive would be, I can’t imagine.
As you pass along the highway, along what used to be River Street, and catch a glimpse of the mill, you may have romantic notions of it being turned into…what? Up close, you’d see that it is a patched-up, bastardized old hulk of a thing, with few of the features left that once made it the pride of the area, not the least of which are the generations of loyal, dedicated people who have worked there. If someone “restored” it, what could they restore it to? Its former self? For what? If they converted it into something else, like a shopping mall or condominiums, they would obliterate what little of its soul still exists. And go broke in about six months.
Most likely someone will buy it for the sole purpose of selling off all the old timbers, bricks, stone and metals they can salvage. And trust me, the site would be an eyesore for years to come. I vote for this: stack the whole shebang—mill, dam, everything—onto the deck of a Viking ship, set it ablaze, and push it slowly out to sea.