News Stories & Columns
Century-old Cone plant closes today
Cliffside Mill Remembered
Century-old Cone plant closes today
by Michael Gavin
Daily Courier Staff Writer, December 7, 2003
CLIFFSIDE — In the late 1890s, Raleigh Rutherford Haynes began to look for a site to build a new textile mill.
Having already built the Florence Mill in Forest City, Haynes set his sight on an area just east of Henrietta where he had built two mills with partners, S.B. Tanner, Sr., and J.S. Spencer.
The area—accessible by a rough road leading out of Henrietta—was near a horseshoe bend in the Second Broad River where Haynes believed the power of the passing water could be captured to bring his new mill to life. Haynes realized the nearby S.A.L. Railway could bring equipment to outfit a mill and ship its goods away once built.
In October of 1899, the foundation of the mill was started. Haynes named it Cliffside for the hilly dropoffs into the river at the bend.
After three years of firing bricks on the site and hauling looms, boilers and other equipment from the railroad via mule-drawn wagons, the Cliffside Mill opened in 1902.
Today, the doors of the century-old mill close. Many of the plant’s 120 workers finished and inspected denim in the plant on their final shift Thursday.
With the Cone Mills Corporation in bankruptcy and its future uncertain pending a buyout by financier Wilbur Ross, the company’s denim operation was restructured earlier this fall resulting in the loss of about 550 jobs in three Rutherford County plants and the closure of the old Cliffside Mill.
By 1908, the Cliffside Mill was the largest gingham mill in the south. Haynes built a mill village near the site which grew into the town of Cliffside. In 1906, concerned about hauling the fine cloth cross country in wagons, he built a railroad to connect with the main line.
Haynes died in 1917, but not before leaving a legacy for Rutherford County and many of its communities through the textile mills he built.
Hayne’s son, Charles, expanded his father’s legacy, building the Cliffside School in 1922 as a gift to the community to educate the children of the Cliffside Mill employees.
In 1927, Charles sold his controlling shares in the Cliffside Mill to Proximity Manufacturing Company, owned by two of the senior Haynes’ original partners, Moses and Ceasar Cone.
“Within a short time, the company’s managers had scrapped the Cliffside plant’s 1,500 box looms and equipped the building with machines for manufacturing Turkish towels and other terry cloth products,” states a Cone Mills history published on the company’s centennial in 1991. “At first all the towels were white with striped borders in pale, old-fashioned colors. But, sensing a trend, Cone soon began making solid-color, reversible towels and developed a revolutionary new style in the process.”
By the late 1940s, the Cone Mills Corporation was formed from the merger of Proximity and the Revolution Cotton Mills, and the company gained complete ownership of the Cliffside Mill.
The Cliffside Mill produced millions of yards of terry cloth until 1975 when the Cliffside Weave Plant was built on the town’s western border. The Cliffside Mill was then converted to a yarn spinning and finishing facility to support the denim operation at the new plant.
Haynes’ vision of the power of the Second Broad still reaps benefits. In the early days, water wheels in the dam drove the looms. The mechanical system was later converted to an electric generation system which still lights the plant and powers compressors to drive machine controls and pneumatics.
Haynes’ dream also played out beyond the walls of the mill in the symbiotic relationship with the community which arose from the mill yet supported its existence.
“Not only is the moral tone of the village clean and sure, but its whole aspect is inviting and attractive,” states an unnamed contributor to the Rutherford County Heritage, Vol. I. “Streets are laid out with such taste and the pretty cottages flanking them are as neat as a pin. Flowers, too, grow in profusion. Mr. Haynes has annually offered substantial prizes of $1 to $15 for the best kept premises and flower gardens.”
Many workers in the Cliffside Mill have worked at Cone for decades. Many have parents and grandparents who worked in the mills that “clothed the world.”
Most have fond memories of Cliffside’s heritage and its relationship with the mill the town grew up around.
Herman Jones worked in the Cliffside Mill for 51 years—more than half of its 101-year lifespan.
“It was April 1952 when I went to work at Cliffside, said Jones on Friday, the day after his last day on the job. “I was 20 years old. There was a fellow out sick in the dye house and they needed someone temporarily.”
As his 50th year on the job approached, Jones mentioned to Terry Hines, vice president of Cone’s Rutherford County denim plants, that he had never been hired permanently.
“Terry had a real nice certificate made up that said I was a permanent employee and gave it to me on my 50th anniversary there,” Jones said with a laugh. “It was a heck of a probationary period.”
Jones recalled the days living in the mill village.
“The company took your house rent right out of your paycheck:’ said Jones. “It was 25 cents per bedroom, so you could get a four-bedroom house for a dollar every paycheck. They kept a real nice town and I guess the mill village is my fondest memory—good neighbors, the kids all played together. No one watched television much, but spent evenings visiting with neighbors and talking and playing music. It was the garden spot of the world in my book.
“We might not have had everything we wanted, but we had everything we needed.”
Jones said his co-workers made life on the job a pleasant experience. His wife, Lillie, retired from Cone in 1996 after 36-and a-half years. She worked with her husband in the Cliffside Mill until 1983 when she went to the new weave plant.
“You couldn’t handpick a better group,” said Jones. “A lady who worked there for years, Rose Ray, once said, `We worked together, fussed together, lived together and prayed together.’ I guess that makes us a family.”
Jones’ tone turned serious when he talked about the mill’s final days.
“It’s just sad – it really is,” he said. “I’m old enough to know it’s time to retire. My job doesn’t concern me as much as the younger folks who have families, houses and cars to pay for. They’ll have to start over, and with the job situation here some of them might not be able to do it in Rutherford County. I don’t know, it’s just bothered me.”
Mickey Hewitt who worked in the mill for 42 years will lose his current job with the company, but will take another in the dye house at the weave plant.
“It’ll be a pay cut, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” said Hewitt last Wednesday at a barbecue lunch for workers on their final shift. “There’s nothing in this county left. You’ve got to find work where you can.”
Like Jones, Hewitt said his co-workers were among his fondest memories.
“The people really made this place,” he said. “You spend a lot of time with them and they’re like a family.”
Selma Jackson who worked at Cliffside for 33 years echoed the remarks of family.
“They were always willing to lend a helping hand,” she said. “I can’t say a thing bad about this place except I hate to see it go. It’s sad to see the jobs go, but we’ll find something. It might not be what we want, but it’ll be something.”
Human Resources manager Mark Franklin stood by as Jackson spoke.
“Selma’s been one of my moms here,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for Selma and Mae, I don’t know if I would have made it this far.”
Often layoffs only affect hourly workers, but this one has taken its toll on salaried management positions as well.
“I’m kind of at a crossroads,” said David Eaker, production manager for the denim plants, who will leave the company by year’s end. “I’ve enjoyed manufacturing management. I hoped I would spend my entire career in it. But with the state of manufacturing, I don’t know.”
Eaker came to work for Cone in 1981.
“I grew up in Forest City and wanted to stick around,” he said. “I had just gotten a business degree and, back then, textiles was about the best thing going. There was a lot to be said about the quality of the workplace and the quality of life here. The people were great to work with and I had a 10-mile commute where I didn’t have to go through one stop light.”
Teresa McDaniel, an 11-year employee, said her family has worked at the mill since it opened.
“It’s hard to see the oldest plant close,” said McDaniel who plans on going back to school to become a teacher.
McDaniel’s husband, Jeff, will also lose his job along with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Jeff plans on becoming an electrician.
In addition to providing thousands of jobs in Rutherford County for the past hundred years, Cone has been a strong supporter of community causes.
Even on the final day of work, McDaniel scurried around the mill signing up vohnteers to help ring bells for the Salvation Army this week. `
“We always want to do what we can to help,” she said. “It’s what we’ve always done. This place has a real heart.”
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier. Copyright owned by The Daily Courier.