Mill Hills of the Foothills
Haynes Paul Bridges, a rising senior at Chase High School, won 1st place in the 1988 Western North Carolina Tomorrow essay contest with the entry printed below. He is the son of Janice Bridges Swing.
Any country void of a mountain should not be considered Western North Carolina. With Chimney Rock as its pinnacle, Rutherford then would certainly qualify.
Rutherford county, however, encompasses more than mountains. At the “lower end” or foothills, lie Henrietta, Caroleen, Avondale, and Cliffside. These towns exists because of cotton mills and not the reverse. The banks, stores, diner, and schools exists because of the mills and with a little help from destiny and fate, most residents in these towns exists because of the mills.
Rutherford is not unique in its claim to cotton mill communities. To be a true mill hill, however, it stands to reason that the village be situated in a hilly area. The communities mentioned above certainly meet this requirement.
But a mill hill is more than cotton mill in a high ground. It is a way of life that is fading though not completely gone. While the light is still flickering and before Taiwan and India steal the blood from her veins, let me tell you what a mill hill was, is, and will always be.
At the turn of the century, life was hard. It was hard to be a farmer and most were. Then came the cotton mill. Men with foresight and determination saw what they believed would be a prosperous opportunity for people of hard times and hard lives. Cotton mills were built in the rolling foothills of Western North Carolina. Many were located on the Broad river of Rutherford County. Always on the river for power. Nevertheless, the river provided more than power, it provided a source of water and recreation for villagers that would follow.
The villages were designed of clapboard frame houses that were roomy, drafty and cheap. Most other houses on farms were roomy, drafty and cheap. Farmers gave up farming and moved to the villages. Jobs were to be had in the cotton mills. Work was hard and pay was low. On the farms, work was hard and pay was low. On the farms, work was hard and profit was low. In mills, however, the crops didn’t fail and if you worked, were decent, and went to church you knew you were secure. The mill cared about a man individually. In the villages, concern for neighbors and friends was more than surface concern. On the mill hill, relationships between neighbors took on a family feeling. Everyone knew everyone else in the village. A newcomer was immediately apparent, and if decent, quickly taken into the fold. On the mill hill you never locked your doors. It was silly to do so because everybody’s skeleton was just alike. If you didn’t want anybody to come in you shut the door. An open door meat “holler and come on in!”
With the exception of the obvious kitchen and bathroom, rooms in the mill houses could be whatever a dweller wanted. Mill hill houses probably invented the great room. The great room was a combination master bedroom and family room. It contained the heater and made it a desirable place to congregate. Mill houses were low on closet space. Most people used wardrobes or nails to hang up clothes. A bigger rarity was more than one bathroom. Should be lucky to have an extra one, it was usually a later addition and to be found wedged between rooms or added to a back porch. Rooms flowed from one to another without benefit of halls. It was common to step from the kitchen to someone’s bedroom or from the living room onto the porch. Most families did manage to have a living room. These were rarely used except for funerals and circle meetings. They were even nice, by mill standards.
Mill hill villages provided for the community. A country store, doctors, schools and churches were provided or secured by the mill. People thought they had a good life and were satisfied. Life, so I’m told, was peaceful. If a rowdy family came to town, they were told to shape up or ship out. Doing a good job at the mill was not enough to qualify you for the good life on the hill.
On the hill a man’s worth was not measured by the make of his car or the size of his house. There were no cars and the houses, give or take a room, were basically the same. Some exceptions were the boss men’s houses. The only thing that qualified these houses as better was that they were bigger and draftier. Although the bossmen may have appeared to be more prosperous, they still ate livermush, pintos and cornbread—not because they couldn’t afford chicken – but because they liked it and it was good.
Things changed very little on the mill hill until World War II. World War II took a lot of good men from the mills and didn’t return all it took. Women leaned to draft, spin, and weave during WWII. Many continued to work after the war was over. WWII tried to change the mill hill villagers. Many saw Paris and wanted more than the hill had to offer. Many saw death and destruction and wanted nothing more than the security of the hill for the rest of their lives.
After WWII, the ones who had longed for security came back, married, and raised a generation of postwar “hillers.” With the exception of the automobile, indoor toilets, and TV, the third generation of mill hill dwellers grew up with basically the same security, values, and community feelings as their grandparents. The automobile contributed to this generation’s desire for more than the local store had to offer. TV showed them goods that weren’t available on the hill and the auto allowed them to go hunt for them. But on Saturday evenings when they returned from far away places like Shelby and Spartanburg, they ate livermush, pintos and corn bread—not because they didn’t know of flounder and pizza—but because they liked it and it was good.
Many third generation “hillers” went away to college and many never returned. Those who did became bossmen and teachers. The bossmen and teachers had children. Those who didn’t go to college, and who worked in the mill, had children also. Both are fourth generation “hillers.” I was born into this generation. By the time I was five most of the village houses had been torn down or sold. I never lived in a mill house, I never even lived on the village property. But I knew what it was like because my mother did, and my father did, and so did my grandparents.
They told me what it was like. They told me what it was like living close to your neighbors. They told about not judging a man by his car or house. And I eat livermush, pintos, and cornbread—not because I don’t know about lobster and tacos but because I like it and it tastes good.