James Sanders started
his conglomerate of cotton mills in the midst of difficult times for the textile
industry. There was a nation-wide epidemic of mill closings in 1910 which
included five Mississippi mills: one each at Batesville and Port Gibson, two at
Columbus, and the mammoth Mississippi Mills at Wesson. It was a disastrous
year, and while the state would later build three new cotton mills, the number
of mills in Mississippi would steadily decline over the next fifty years.
The next year, 1911, Sanders purchased the twelve-year-old Kosciusko mill and
immediately initiated an expansion program. The expanded mill was very
successful, enabling Sanders not only to pay for the
expansion of that mill but to purchase several others.
Rather than building new factories, Sanders concentrated on the purchase of existing mills; more often than not, mills that were in serious financial trouble or, as in the case of the Magnolia mill, actually closed. With the purchase of the Magnolia mill in 1932, Sanders completed his accumulation of Mississippi cotton mills. By that time, he had a conglomerate, operating under the name of Sanders Industries, and already playing a dominate role in Mississippi cotton manufacturing and would continue to do so until a few months before the death of Robert Sanders in Kosciusko on September 25, 1954.
James Sanders, as a result of his efforts in the textile industry from 1911 to his death in 1937, has been credited with having "laid the foundation for the development of the textile industry in Mississippi in the twentieth century." His son Robert shared in that endeavor; he was a very active participant from 1920 to 1953 and deserves credit for playing an important role in laying that foundation. But, as will be seen later, he may have also contributed to the death of the Sanders conglomerate in 1953 and thus most of the Mississippi cotton textile industry.
Management of the several Sanders mills was coordinated from the corporate office in Jackson, and thus the operation of the various mills and the condition of their villages were very similar. The pay scale, workload, village housing, and living conditions varied little from one mill to the next. Most Sanders workers were aware of the various mills at Kosciusko, Magnolia, Meridian, Natchez, Starkville, West Point, Winona, and Yazoo City as many often moved from one mill (especially if closed or destroyed by fire) to another and, in the process, expected to find employment and old acquaintances at the new mill. In my youth, I personally experienced several relocations of this type as my family moved during the depression and early war years from Tupelo to Winona, to Magnolia, to Kosciusko, to Meridian, and then back to Magnolia. And always, old friends and acquaintances were found at the new mill village to make the relocation easier. In my review of the Sanders mills, I will start with Sanders's first mill acquisition.
Kosciusko, a small town in central Mississippi, entered the twentieth century looking toward the future. On August 26, 1899, the small town, later known locally as the Beehive of the Hills, organized and approved a capital investment of $167,000 for the construction of its first large industry. It was the town’s first major move toward industrialization. Two years later in August 1901, the Kosciusko Cotton Mill was completed and began operations with C. L. Anderson, president; W. B. Potts, vice-president; and Walter Burgress, secretary; A. E. Kelly, W. L. Anderson, N. O. Thompson, Walter Burgress, C. C. Kelly, John Fletcher, W. B. Potts, J. A. Gilliland, and F. Z. Jackson, board of directors.
The mill was initially powered by a single steam engine and employed approximately one hundred workers to operate 5,000 spindles. The machinery, including spinning frames, came from a mill at Charlotte, North Carolina, which was purchased in tact from the owner, S. W. Cranner, and moved to Kosciusko.
The mill was an instant success, and in 1907, it added a second steam engine, installed 320 looms, increased the number of spindles to 12,600, and workers to some one hundred and seventy-five in the production of white goods.
In 1911, James Sanders purchased the Kosciusko mill and entered the cotton manufacturing business. He immediately initiated still another expansion program; and under his program, the number of workers more than doubled to some three hundred and fifty, spindles increased to 30,572, and looms to 1,131. The production changed from white goods only to a variety of fabrics, including chambry, gingham, bed ticking, and pillow ticking.
The Kosciusko mill, renamed Aponaug Manufacturing Company, continued to be a booming success; it enabled Sanders to expand rapidly and acquire mills at Starkville, Natchez, Winona, Yazoo City, and Mobile. Other purchases would follow, but, to reiterate, this was the genesis of the Sanders conglomerate of cotton mills. The mill was to remain Sander's largest mill and Kosciusko's largest industry for the next forty-two years. By the late 1930s, it operated day and night, employing some four hundred workers with an estimated payroll of $175,000 annually.
With the wide variety of fabrics, Sears Roebuck & Company soon became its largest customer, and in the mid-thirties, the mill often had up to six months in back orders for Sears. In addition, the mill served customers in most of the major cities in the United States and several international markets. With Preston Newell as superintendent, the immense prosperity that began in the late thirties continued through the war years.
Most of the mill workers lived in an adjoining village, consisting of about eighty-five small frame houses. Being isolated from the town, the village had few amenities such as city water, inside plumbing, paved streets, or sidewalks; except for electricity which became available in the early thirties, other services and utilities such as the telephone, natural gas, and mail delivery did not come until the late forties. Each house, as usual, had sufficient land for a vegetable garden, a pig, a few chickens, and access to a community pasture for milk cows. The mill provided an elementary school through the eight grade, a church, a community playground and three large ponds. John Felder's grocery store, a barber shop, and Bud Felder's small hamburger shop completed the village and assisted in keeping the mill people within the village limits.
Several mill families lived in Crowley's flats consisting of twenty-two small frame houses near the business section of town and Peeler's flats with about thirty-two similar houses midway between the town and village. Living in either flats had the disadvantage of being a substantial distance from the mill, and most workers in the twenties and thirties had little choice but to walk to and from work. Crowley's was about a mile and a half from the mill and Peeler's less than a mile and, in either case, a considerable distance to walk when added to a ten-hour workday.
Later, as the labor market became more competitive at the beginning of World War II, Sanders provided bus transportation. But living in the flats had some advantages. The houses had a few more amenities than the village houses, but the span advantage was the close proximity of both flats to the town school. Unlike the children in the village, children in the flats at-tended the town grade school and that, as will be seen later, was a tremendous benefit.
Like most other Mississippi cotton mill towns, many of the Kosciusko mill villagers felt that most of the town people preferred that they stay out of town, except on payday. And like most other Southern mill towns, social intercourse between town people and mill people was limited. Whatever the reason, it was not unusual. Most historians agree that an attitude of superiority by town people toward cotton mill people was common, and the attitude generally applied, as noted by Jennings Rhyn in Some Southern Mill Workers and Their Villages, to textile workers throughout the nation, North and South. In fact, it is interesting to note that textile workers throughout the nation were generally referred to as “hands” or “operatives” as if they were something less than human.
If these attitudes prevailed at Kosciusko as most villagers believed, ironically the village elementary school may have contributed to or actually promoted them by segregating and isolating village children. Before !940, most Mississippi children, like most American children everywhere, did not attend school beyond the eight grade, and thus the separate schools restricted the opportunities for village and town children to interact and establish relationships with each other. This pattern changed, beginning in the early forties, when more and more Mississippi children began to attend high school and college. Children from the town, the village, and the country came together for education and, in the process, established lasting relationships. The relationships became even closer when, almost simultaneously, the young men began to march off together to World War II and a few years later to the Korean Conflict.
Children attending the village school experienced classical segregation and discrimination, but the potential damage was offset by teachers quietly promoting the develop-ment of self esteem and stressing the importance of preparing for the future. Miss Alva Thomas, principal and strong promoter of the mill and its school, taught the seventh and eight grades; her two sisters, Anna and Lois, along with Christine Paine taught two grades each and completed the faculty. Each school day started in a way now considered unlawful; the student body assembled in the school's auditorium for the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, a short biblical reading, and a prayer. The span event of the year was the annual play, with eight grade actors playing to a full house of villagers. I attended and completed the eight grade class and have fond memories of the school and Miss Alva. I recall it as a memorable and beneficial experience, highlighted by a leading role in the annual play.
The school with its community playground and three large ponds nearby provided the village with a very active recreation center. The ponds provided water for the mill's five steam engines, and for the villagers, swimming, boating, and fishing. The best fishing, however, was at Fletcher's bridge, about five miles south of the village, where my friend, Joe Mathews, and I would frequently go on a Saturday morning with his father and usually one other adult male in a horse-drawn wagon, camp and fish overnight, and return Sunday afternoon. Other social activities centered around the church and John Felder's Grocery where, across the street and under the shade of two large Oaks, the men played checkers and dominoes.
For fifty-two years to the month, the Kosciusko mill was the town's largest industry and its economic base. Then in Au-gust 1953, Robert Sanders in ill health closed the mill, along with his other mills, and after his death in 1954, the mill and village houses were sold. Ironically, Sanders suffered a heart attack while attending a conference with local business leaders about the possible reopening of the Aponaug Mill and died a few days later on September 25, 1954.
Rather abruptly, the mill was gone, never to reopen; the old brick mill building still stands, its most recent occupant at the time of this writing was a small electric lamp company. There are almost no signs of the small village that was once adjacent to the mill--the eighty-five small houses, the church, and the school with its community playground. John Felder's grocery store and a few of the former village houses near it still survive.
In 1899 West Point, a small town of 3,200 on the Illinois Central Railroad in northeastern Mississippi, organized and approved a capital investment of $107,000 to build a small yarn mill. Two years later the West Point Cotton Mill was completed and began operations with J. M. Hardison, as president; J. A. Crawford, secretary and treasurer; Eugene Cross, superintendent; J. R. French, carding-spinning overseer; and P.M. Coates, engineer.
The small mill was initially powered by a Corlis steam engine to operate 5,152 spindles in the production of thread only. At the time it was West Point's largest industry, employing seventy workers, mostly women and young girls, to produce fine yarns for weaving plants in the northeastern states--primarily New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island. Producing thread only, it was a small plant in comparison with Aponaug Mill No. 1 at Kosciusko which produced both thread and a variety of cloth.
After being virtually destroyed by a severe storm in April 1913, the mill was sold to J. R. French, one of its founding officials, who rebuilt and reorganized under the name Cardinal Spinning Mills. Its name was later changed to Perdue Spinning Company, and finally in the early twenties, James Sanders purchased the mill and reorganized it under the name Aponaug Manufacturing Company, Mill No. 2. He brought in A. C. Sanders from Maine to be superintendent and embarked on a substantial expansion program.
The program tripled the number of employees to two hundred and twenty-five and increased the spindles to 8,056 to produce 70,000 pounds of yarn per week. Rather than selling the yarn to mills in the northeastern states, Sanders shipped most of the yarn to his other mills to be woven into cloth and to his newly acquired chenille plants at Durant, Summit, Kosciusko, and Winona to be used in the making of robes and bedspreads.
In the late thirties, the mill was a pioneer in the spin-ning of rayon--a synthetic fiber--and during the World War II years it operated day and night to produce a two-ply No. 2 yarn for use by the military. After operating as a thread mill for almost half of a century, a weaving room with two hundred and fourteen looms was finally added in January 1948, and for the first time, the West Point mill began to manufacture cloth .
The West Point mill district was isolated from the town, and like the isolated mill districts at Kosciusko, Magnolia, Winona, and Yazoo City, the village and living conditions were very similar--no city water, inside plumbing, paved streets or sidewalks; and except for electricity in the mid-thirties, no other services such as telephone, natural gas, or mail delivery until the late forties.
Robert Sanders closed the mill in August 1953, along with his other mills, and after his death in 1954, the machinery was sold and removed. West Point's oldest and largest industry, the town's primary economic base for more than half a century, was suddenly gone, never to be reopened.
In my research of the mill and village in 1995, I visited West Point and found the mill's brick building in use as a warehouse and several of the small village houses surviving in a community known as the Cotton Mill Village District. Beulah Simmons, a secretary at the mill in the late twenties and early thirties, fondly reminisced with me about her experiences at the mill and credited James Sanders for saving “the mill and the town of West Point” with his purchase and expansion pro-gram. Her thoughts then shifted to the Magnolia mill, where she transferred to in 1932, and she added, “he also saved that mill and town.”
In 1901 Starkville, a town of 3,000 on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad (M&ORR) in northern Mississippi, organized and authorized a capital investment of $125,000 to build a cotton mill. The Starkville mill, named John M. Stone Cotton Mill in honor of a former governor, began operations with W. W. Scales, as president; S. Tied, vice-president; and W. W. Scales, Jr., secretary-treasury. The mill, the first large industry in the small town, was located on the M&O, midway between the town's business district and Mississippi A. & M. College (now Mississippi State University). It was actually the town's second cotton mill, for earlier that year the college, as discussed earlier, had opened a small electrically-powered textile mill with 824 spindles and 25 looms for educational purposes. The John M. Stone Mill was powered by steam, and by 1913, employed seventy-five workers to operated 5,376 spindles and 150 looms in the production of sheeting.
James Sanders purchased the mill in 1916, renamed it the J. W. Sanders Cotton Mill, and changed the operation to the production of chambray in a variety of colors. By 1929, after an expansion program that increased the number of workers to 350, spindles to 20,000, looms to 470, the mill's annual pro duction of "Starkville Chambray," as it became known, reached one and a half million yards; it was produced in fourteen col-ors and shipped around the world for the making of dresses and shirts.
The cotton mill and its village--along with a cottonseed oil mill established in 1900, a cooperative creamery in 1910, and Borden Milk Creamery in 1926--occupied an area that became known as the "Cotton District." In the early 1900s, the district included a few large frame houses built by the college, several small frame houses provided for the mill workers, a church, a wagon shop, a blacksmith shop, a barber shop, a meat market, and a grocery. From 1925 to the early 1940s, Sanders provided a grade school at Mill and Gillespie Streets. In 1929, a Catholic Church was built on Maxwell, between Lummus and Hogan Streets; services were conducted by a priest who traveled from Columbus each weekend and slept on a cot in the church. Beginning in 1933, the Blue Goose Restaurant, a favorite hangout for college students during the 1930s and 1940s, completed the district.
The Cotton District was a thriving industrial complex-- comparable to the industrial complexes at Tupelo and Meridian-- and from the beginning, the mill houses inter-meshed with those used by the college and the other industries to form a bustling middle class community. By the early thirties, paved streets and sidewalks ran through the community; and most of the houses had electricity, city water, and inside plumbing. Pearl Goff, a native and former worker at several Sanders mills, said that it was an upscale community compared to Sanders mill villages at Winona, Kosciusko, Magnolia, West Point, and Yazoo City. I agree with her assessment; I visited the community as a young boy several times in the late thirties and early forties and recall that it was comparable to the industrial complexes at Tupelo and Meridian, and that the three were thriving middle class communities compared to the isolated mill villages at Kosciusko, Magnolia, and Winona.
In 1954, Sanders Industries sold the Starkville mill and village houses; the new owners struggled to keep it open a few more years, and finally in 1962, it was closed. Three years later Mississippi State University purchased the old brick mill building and made it a part of its physical plant; unlike most former Mississippi cotton mill towns, Starkville was obviously appreciative of the role the cotton mill played in its history. In 1975 the mill building was included in the National Registry of Historical places, and today, the Cotton District is alive and a popular area to live especially for the college crowd. The closing of the Starkville mill left the Stonewall Cotton Mill as the state's sole surviving mill.
In 1901 Winona, a small town on the Illinois Central Railroad just east of the Mississippi Delta, was lured by its proximity to the state's famous cotton-growing region and the new tax law to enter the cotton manufacturing business. It organized and authorized a capital investment of $132,000 to build the Winona Cotton Mill. The town's first large industry began operations with J. H. Frazier, president, and G.R. Kelso, secretary. It was powered by steam engines and initially employed one hundred and twenty-five workers to operate 8,736 spindles and 220 looms in the production of unfinished drilling and sheeting.
In 1924, James Sanders purchased the mill and reorganized it under the name Winona Cotton Mill Products. Unlike the case at his other mills, he did not increase the number of spindles and looms to increase production at the new mill. There was no need to add machinery because the mill, like many mills across the country at the time, was not operating near capacity. Sanders simply increased the number of work hours per week and the number of workers and, in the process, increased the production of cloth from 10,000 yards to 16,500 yards daily--a sixty-five percent increase. By 1938, the mill operated two shifts and employed two hundred and twenty-five workers.
The workers lived in an adjoining village, located about a mile south of town, consisting of some seventy-five small frame houses. Like other Sanders villages in small towns, the Winona village had very few amenities except for electricity beginning in the mid-thirties, in fact fewer than most--no city water, no sewage system, no paved streets, and no sidewalks. Like most, it had a Baptist church; but unlike the Sanders villages at Kosciusko, Magnolia, and Starkville, it had no village school. Gordan's and Cross's grocery stores, across the street from each other, and J. W. Herring's Garage completed the village and acted as its social center, particularly for the young men who played checkers and dominoes or just hung out in front of the establishments (using apple boxes for chairs and tables) and baseball in an adjacent open field. Like Kosciusko, the mill pond was a favorite recreation center for both boys and girls, used for swimming and fishing and boating.
Several mill families lived in an area known as shanty town; it consisted of twenty two-room and three-room, unpainted shacks midway between the town and the mill. Shanty town was originally a black community, but during the Depression years white mill families began to live in the community while waiting for village housing to become available. The blacks and whites lived together in harmony, but the white mill family always waited anxiously and hopefully for a house to become available in the village. After the Tupelo mill strike in 1937, my family moved to and lived in the community almost three months while waiting for a village house. My playmates were black children, and fortunately neither they nor I were aware of any color barriers.
On January 8, 1940, after surviving the Depression, tragedy struck the town and village when the mill was destroyed by fire. As an eleven year old, I watched the extensive conflagration in amazement as my father and other young men darted in and out of the cloth room, retrieving bolts of cloth and taking them to their homes. The mill was completely destroyed, leaving a subsequent period of unemployment, and most of the cloth salvaged was later used as barter for food and other necessities.
Two years earlier in 1937, the Sanders mill at Yazoo City was destroyed by fire, and many workers, connecting the two events, suspected that the fires were intentionally started. Rumors ran rampant that the mill superintendent, C. D. (Red) Kent, who had also been superintendent at the Yazoo City mill when it burned, was connected with the burnings. They were apparently unfounded because no serious investigation or formal charges of arson were ever initiated. Kent transferred to Meridian, where he became superintendent of the Sanders Meridian Cotton Mill and later (in 1944) made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of that city.
Sanders announced that the Winona mill would not be rebuilt, and except for the few who returned to tenant farming, displaced workers gathered their belongings and moved on to other mills, primarily to Sanders mills at Magnolia, Meridian, Kosciusko, and West Point. It was the second displacement within two years for several families who had migrated to Winona from Tupelo after its 1937 strike: the Ernest Strickland, Edward Strickland, John Collier, Clark Cook, Clarence Davis, Henry Dickinson, E. D. Fox, Choace Fox, Thomas Jones, Earl Hunsinger, William J. Shaw, and the Sheridan families.
The Ernest Strickland family was one of several families to relocate to Magnolia, and being a member, I have vivid memories of the move. My nine year old sister, Inez, and I rode with our father on the truck's flatbed with the furniture. Most of the nearly two-hundred-mile trip, over two-lane highways, was at night. Passing through Jackson, my sister and I found an opening in the tarpaulin and stared in wonderment at the glistening lights and snowflakes as a rare Mississippi snow provided a fairyland picture, never to be forgotten by either of us.
Magnolia, a small town of 2,000, was the second town to build a cotton mill in the piney woods region of southern Mississippi. In 1903, L. L. Lampton promoted the organization and establishment of the Magnolia Textile Company. The mill, with a capital investment of $200,000, began operations that year with L. L. Lampton, as president; Thad B. Lampton, secretary- treasurer; E. A. Hall, manager; J. J. Govis, carding and spinning overseer; and J. H. Stiefel, weaving overseer. It was powered by steam and initially operated 4,000 spindles and 160 looms to produce a variety of fabrics, including stripes, tapestries, and shirtings.
After several successful years, the mill began to experience financial difficulty in 1916, and at the April meeting of that year, the directors decided that it was in the best interest of all parties concerned to sell it. Charles K. Taylor, who had just completed the successful re-organization of a cotton mill at Selma, Alabama, was brought in to reorganize the mill, prepare it for sale, and find a buyer.
Taylor accomplished his assignment, and in 1918, the Magnolia Textile Company was sold to Loeber Landau for $200,000. Landau, associated with the Orleans Cotton Mills in New Orleans at the time, relocated to Magnolia and assumed the presidency of the mill. One of his first acts was to hire C. K. Taylor to remain as general superintendent and then instructed him "to make every effort to get as many looms as possible changed over to the '4 yard goods' just as quickly as possible." Taylor was ideally suited to manage the financially distressed mill. He was an engineer graduate of Mississippi A. & M., taught at its textile department, and, as general superintendent, had turned around a financially distressed mill at Selma, Alabama, and at the time, was making progress with the Magnolia mill.
The Magnolia mill with Landau, as president, and C. K. Taylor, as general superintendent, was reorganized under the name Magnolia Cotton Mills and became a part of a New Orleans textile company which also included the Orleans Cotton Mills and Moorhead (Mississippi) Cotton Mills. It was very successful from the outset, and according to Taylor, "the mill made enough money to build an additional mill," an apparent reference to the Berthadale mill the Landau brothers later constructed in nearby McComb. Some of the profit, however, was used to augment the Magnolia mill village with the construction of several small frame houses, increasing the number of village houses to one hundred and five. Guy Chadwick and Will Berry participated in building several houses under the expansion program.
The success of the reorganized Magnolia mill was short- lived. Landau initially had great pride in the mill and village but lost much of it, beginning in the early 1920s, when workers began to talk seriously about unionism. Fearing the threat of unionism, he turned his attention in 1924 to the construction of a new mill, the Berthadale Cotton Mill, in nearby McComb. Two years later, the Magnolia mill was closed for the first time, and C. K. Taylor set out to find a buyer. Finally in 1928, it was sold at an auction to Emil Kitzinger, a California textile company, for $125,000.
The mill was reorganized and resumed operations under the name Roundtree Cotton Mills, and for the second time, Taylor was persuaded to remain as its general superintendent. The re-organized mill suffered financial difficulties from the beginning and was not able to get off the ground; after struggling for several months in an effort to stay alive, it finally closed for the second time in 1930. Indeed, the 1920s had been difficult years for the Magnolia mill and its villagers, but, ironically, the Depression years after 1932 would proved to be a booming period in comparison.
C. K. Taylor again came forward to provide valuable assistance; for the third time in fourteen years, he found a buyer for the Magnolia mill. The mill, however, remained idle nearly three years until he, in March 1932, persuaded Sanders Indus- tries to purchase the mill in a foreclosure sale. It was a bargain. The mill sold for $25,405--down considerably from the $125,000 selling price four years earlier--with Taylor receiving a fee of $1,000 for his efforts.
Sanders immediately initiated a six-month program to rehabilitate the mill and village houses. New machinery was in-stalled, the number of spindles was increased to 13,596, and the looms to 366. After being closed so long, the mill's re-opening on September 16, 1932, was a day of celebration for the village and town of Magnolia. The mill and its reopening will be discussed at length in the next chapter.
The City of Meridian, the self-proclaimed Metropolis of the Old Southwest, had a long history of cotton manufacturing; its first mill the Pioneer Cotton Mill was established in 1863 and destroyed by General Sherman in 1864; it was rebuilt in 1867 under the name East Mississippi Cotton Mill and then re-organized again in 1871 by its new owner T. J. Solomon.
In 1896, the city built still another major mill. The Meridian Cotton Mill, with a capital investment of $200,000, began operations that year with L. Rothenberg, as president; James C. Reid, general manager; M. J. McMorries, treasurer; E. A. French, superintendent; B. O. Grayson, spinning overseer; R. L. Stevens, carding overseer; J. M. Gunter, spooling overseer; J. M. Davis, weaving overseer; and Guy McCleland, master mechanic. It was powered by five boilers and employed 450 workers to operate 11,500 spindles and 400 looms in the production of madras, shirtings, and suitings.
Sanders purchased the mill in the late twenties. Like Starkville and Tupelo, the mill was located in the midst of an industrial complex based on the growing of cotton: two of the other significant plants in the complex were the Alden Spinning Mill, established in 1909, with 250 workers to operate 5,000 spindles and the Maywebb Hosiery Mill with 150 workers.
Also like Starkville and Tupelo, workers at the various factories lived together in a thriving middle class community. Unlike the shoddy houses and conditions at Sanders mill villages at Kosciusko, Magnolia, West Point, Winona, and Yazoo City, the Meridian mill workers enjoyed well maintained houses provided with electricity, city water, and inside plumbing. Paved sidewalks and streets ran throughout the industrial com- munity with its several small businesses, several churches, and a nearby public grade school. My family lived in the Meridian village a few months in 1944, and I remember it as a thriving middle class community comparable to those at Starkville and Tupelo. I was fifteen years of age at the time, and I vividly recall the great improvement in village housing and living conditions at Meridian when compared with those at Kosciusko, Magnolia, and Winona.
After nearly fifty years in operation, the mill was closed in 1945, never to reopen.
Yazoo City, a small town at the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta, was the second Mississippi town to build a cot- ton mill in the cotton fields. In 1905, the town established the Yazoo Yarn Mill and began operations with T. L. Wainwright, as president; W. H. Kline, vice-president and treasurer; and J. L. Eddleman, superintendent. Initially, the mill was powered by steam and employed some eighty-five workers to operate 6,656 spindles in the production of thread only.
Sanders later purchased the mill and, under the name Yazoo City Cotton Mill Products, increased the spindles to 8,192, the looms to 220, and the workers to some two hundred to produce sheeting. While one of Sanders smallest mills, it was by far the small town's largest industry.
In 1937, the Yazoo City mill was destroyed by fire, and except for the few who returned to tenant farming, most of the workers moved on to other Sanders mill towns, primarily to West Point, Kosciusko, Magnolia, and Winona. Two years later, as discussed earlier, the mill at Winona was destroyed by fire and many workers, connecting the two events, felt that the fires were intentionally started. But again, no serious investigation or formal charges of arson were ever initiated.
The Natchez Cotton Mill, originally established in 1874, was reopened in 1902 with a capital investment of $350,000. It began operations with R. F. Learned, as president; G.W. Koontz, G. J. Schwartz, secretary; treasurer; C.F. Faulkner, superintendent; John Anderson, carding overseer; J. E. Pressley, spinning overseer, Daniel Pool, weaving overseer; and A. B. Buford, master mechanic. The seven-boiler mill employed 475 workers to operate 22,438 spindles and 632 looms in the production of drills, sheeting, and shirtings.
A sister mill, the Rosalie Cotton Mill, opened in 1884 and employed 275 workers to operate 10,000 spindles and 300 looms in the production of drills and sheetings. In the early 1920s, James Sanders acquired the two mills and combined their operations; C.K. Taylor, in his analysis of Mississippi Mills in 1926, reported that the combined mills employed 500 workers to operate 22,722 spindles and 636 looms--one of the state's largest cotton mills. Sanders operated the mills only a few years before closing them at the beginning of the Great Depression in 1934.
The nine cotton textile mills just discussed, along with four cotton chenille mills engaged in the manufacture of robes and bedspreads at Durant, Kosciusko, Summit, and Winona, made up Sanders Industries. It had indeed grown into a conglomerate of thirteen mills and oddly during the hard times of the twenties and thirties in a poverty striken state. (Table 2).
Table 2. SANDERS MILLS IN 1932
Aponaug Mill No. 1 Kosciusko 32,000
Magnolia Textiles Magnolia 13,600
Meridian Cotton Mills Meridian 12,500
Natchez Cotton Mills Natchez 12,000
Rosalie Cotton Mills Natchez 10,000
J. W. Sanders Mill Starkville 20,000
Aponaug Mill No. 2 West Point 8,056
Winona Cotton Mill Winona 8,736
Yazoo City Cotton Mill Yazoo City 8,192
Durant Chenille Durant ----
Kosciusko Chenille Plant Kosciusko ----
Summit Chenille Plant Summit ----
Winona Chenille Plant Winona ----
While four of the Sanders mills--Natchez, Rosalie, Winona and Yazoo City--would not survive the Depression years, the conglomerate was nevertheless positioned to dominate the Mississippi textile industry in the 1930s and 1940s. It had survived the turbulent years of the 1920s and was prepared to face the abysmal Depression, which, for the textile industry, actually began in the early 1920s. Initially, it would be aided by the lack of adequate protective labor laws, child labor laws, minimum wage laws, hours of work laws, the absence of
effective labor organizations, and a never ending line of workers willing to accept low wages, long hours, and poor housing.
Sanders Industries would also benefit from strong community support. All of the Sanders mills, except the Meridian and Natchez mills, were located in very small towns with an average population of about 2,500 such as Kosciusko, Magnolia, Starkville, West Point, Winona, and Yazoo City. Most of the various small mill towns depended on the mills for an economic base and, for that matter, survival. By controlling the economic base, Sanders Industries, like other Southern mill owners, could benefit from the lack of adequate protective labor laws and effective labor organizations and, in the process, expect the support of the local business and pro-fessional com- munities. The situation, as we shall see, would substantially affect Sanders mill workers during the thirties and forties.
The next three and final chapters will examine working and living conditions at Sanders mills during the depression and war years--the thirties and forties. But first for a better perspective of the role of the Sanders mills, let us pause to briefly look at the major problems confronting the Ameri-can textile industry in general during those years.
Throughout the 1930s, the American textile industry was confronted with insurmountable problems; it suffered, North and South, for several reasons, including a depressed economy, labor unrest, over-production, and fierce competition. Most of the difficulties were clearly self-imposed by the industry, but the Sanders mills, along with many Southern mills, would compound them. They dealt with the difficulties, partially at least, by paying low wages for long workdays, providing poor housing, and increasing the workload under the stretch-out system which was widely used by many Southern mill owners to lower labor costs.
The starvation wages, long hours, and harsh treatment of employees in the Southern textile industry clashed, head on, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt's inaugural in 1933 of a "New Deal," promising that nobody is going to starve in this country and that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. The New Deal labor policies that followed were to be vigorously opposed by Southern mill owners, perhaps by Sanders more than most, especially those designed to set fair wage and hour standards and to eliminate abusive labor practices, including the stretch-out system, in the textile industry.
Like many Southern mill owners, Sanders was inflexible and unyielding in his refusal to bargain with labor representatives regarding wages, hours, workload, or housing conditions. More will be said about his opposition to labor and treatment of mill workers later, but suffice it to note here that workers at two Sanders mills--Magnolia and Kosciusko--reacted to the harsh treatment and participated in the 1934 nation-wide strike to organize the cotton textile industry. Tempers flared at the two mills and National Guard troops had to be dispatched to quash the threat of violence. The strike and its impact on Mississippi industry, the textile industry in particular, will be discussed in a later chapter devoted to the nation-wide strike.
Let’s now turn our attention to the working and living conditions at Sanders mills and villages; most of the focus will be on the mill and village at Magnolia. It was one of only four Sanders mills--the other three being those at Kosciusko, Starkville, and West Point to survive the depression years, the nation-wide textile strike of 1934, and the war years before finally closing its doors a few months before the death of Robert Sanders in Kosci-usko on September 25, 1954. Our review will start with the reopening of the Magnolia mill on September 16, 1932.
Magnolia Mill Reopens
Christmas 1932 brought
happiness and renewed hope to the town of Magnolia, especially to the mill
village. In November, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected President of
the United States with promises of a "New Deal" to lead the nation out of the
Depression. The popular song at the time "Happy Days Are Here Again" was
certainly appropriate for Magnolia and its mill village, for James Sanders had
purchased and re-opened the Mag- nolia Cotton Mill. After being idle for
almost three years, it reopened on September 16 with Robert Sanders, as
general man- ager, Fred (Bud) Smith, mill superintendent; and Beulah Mae (Bird)
Simmons, plant secretary. The Magnolia Gazette, 13 September 1932,
Since it was purchased by Mr. Sanders last April the mill has been thoroughly repaired and a great deal of new machinery has been installed. It is one of a chain of cotton mills owned in the South by Sanders. But the mill whistle, according to the McComb Journal, failed to blow the first morning because of the years of non-use.
The mill had closed almost three years earlier. Most families at the time had no place to go and many stayed in the village because housing was free or, at least as one resident said, little effort was made to collect rent. He added that the hard times forced some of the villagers to cannibalize empty houses for firewood. Some of the family heads who remained included Alvin Brown, Willie Brown, C. W. Case, Wilfred Case, John Case, Prentiss Case, Sebe Case, Charles Davis, Joe Foreman, Rodney Foreman, James Davis, Robert Goff, Fred Hardin, Barney Hughes, Clyde Lea, Mabel McCaskill, Willie Parker, Ben Haney, Luther Parker, Lawrence Richmond, Luther Richmond, Dan Smith, Willie Pezant, and Jim Rushing.
Out of desperation, a few families moved to the village for the free housing, including Drew Rushing who, with his wife Susie and their two children, moved to the village from nearby McComb in 1930. After loosing his grocer business at the beginning of the Depression, Grover Cleveland Phurrough, along with his wife Lena and son William Earl (Bill), moved to the village from Syclacauga, Alabama in 1931.
Early in 1932, as rumors that the mill might reopen began to circulate, others began to arrive: Margaret Rushing from McComb with her children, Joe, Lester, Alma, Albert, and Tom; Nathan and Dora Skipper with their son, Roy, from Mobile; the Leon Ellzey family from Laurel; the Thomas Pugh family from Louisville; the Thomas Sherman family from Meridian; the Otha Anderson Sr. and Lea Anderson families from Kosciusko; Ethel Louise McArm from Meridian; the Charles Van Buskirk family from Hermanville; the Pat Fuller family from McComb; and the G. T. Dickinson family. There were others.
There was little employment of any kind during the period the mill was closed from 1930 to 1932, and gardening, fishing, and hunting became primary sources of food for many. The Depression was gaining momentum and affecting everyone--industry workers, service workers, farmers, and merchants--throughout the country. Financial conditions were chaotic, as the economic sys-tem came to a standstill and could not function with the banks of most states closed. In April of 1932, the collapse reached a high point in Mississippi when one-fourth of the state's industries and farms were sold for taxes in a sin-gle day. Describing conditions in Mississippi, Mildred Andrews, in her book The Men and The Mills, notes:
In 1930-1931 the Depression was gaining momentum and, no matter what goods any mill produced, there was almost no market, no matter the type of promotion. Many mills were idle; most were operating on less than half time. Wages were down to ten to fifteen cents an hour. Field workers and tenant farmers lived on soul food and wild game. One Mississippi Delta lady who lived in a mansion, but in those hard times made sausage out of wild rabbit said, 'If the wolf knocks at my door I'll make sausage of him.'
The high point of the collapse came to Magnolia in 1930 when the cotton mill closed, affecting all who had depended on it for an economic base and survival--the village people, the town people, and the area farmers were all adversely affected.
Just as the situation seemed hopeless, James Sanders arrived. He purchased the mill in March 1932, and after making repairs and replacing equipment, reopened it six months later. On September 13, the Magnolia Gazette proudly announced that “the span plant has undergone a thorough overhauling, all machinery has been put in first class order, and that it will open next Monday morning.”
Expectations were high as hundreds of people from the village, town, and nearby farms gathered near the mill gate to apply for jobs. Many of the local applicants were hired, and in addition, experienced mill workers were brought in from West Point, Yazoo City, and other Sanders mills. Some of the latter included Fred (Bud) Smith, brought in from the Yazoo City mill to be plant superintendent, along with William (Bill) Sullivan, Glenn Lamkin, Selma Lamkin, Thomas Fancher, Jesse Bates, Frank Dykes, Bryant Alford, and Lucian Robinson. Beulah Mae Bird, as mentioned earlier, transferred from the West Point mill to be plant secretary; Fanny Mae, Dorothy, and Ella Pugh came in from Louisville; Chillis Crawford and Norman Crawford from Tyler- town.
Everet Lishman, one of the few mill workers with a suitable truck, was busy for weeks moving the several families from Yazoo City. Moving from Yazoo City to Magnolia, a distance of approximately a hundred and forty miles over two-lane highways, in the early thirties, was an ordeal to say the least. Typically, the furniture and other personal belongings were loaded during daylight hours to the flatbed of a small truck and covered with tarpaulin for protection against bad weather. Much of the driving was at night with the wife and smallest children in the cab with the driver, while the husband and older children rode on the flatbed with the furniture. Along the way they would pause to eat, usually luncheon meat sandwiches or fried chicken which had been prepared before departure.
For the many mill workers who frequently moved, during the twenties and thirties, from one mill village to another or between the farm and mill village, the ordeal was a very common experience and accepted as a reflection of the times. The writer recalls that moving from one mill town to another was certainly a common experience for his parents and many of their friends, especially those displaced by the Tupelo strike, the Yazoo City fire, the Winona fire, the mill closings, and the mill layoffs. Several families, in fact, seemed to follow each other from mill to mill struggling to survive from the tragedies and the hard times of the Depression years.
The Magnolia mill in 1932 occupied a large and impressive brick building about a mile south of town and was surrounded by a village of about one hundred small, mostly four-room, frame houses. Like the Sanders villages at Kosciusko, West Point, Winona, and Yazoo City, the Magnolia village had a monotonous, rundown look, almost no aesthetic features, and no modern conveniences such as electricity, telephone, inside plumbing, and paved streets. The houses were very similar in style, most with four rooms but a few with three, and on lots large enough for a vegetable garden, a few chickens, and a pig. Most were in desperate need of paint; and many were in deplorable repair because of being unoccupied for long periods of time. For those willing to provide the labor to make their houses more livable, Sanders supplied doors, windows, nails, and paint.
A little later, a small Nazarene church, a four year grade school, Bob Currin's grocery store, the span Apple Cafe, and a barber shop completed the village.
On September 16, 1932, the mill reopened in the face of a depression rapidly spreading across the country. While the pay was low, starting as low as eight cents per hour or ninety-six cents per twelve-hour day, the housing shoddy and in need of repair, the Sanders Cotton Mill provided the town of Magnolia a much needed economic base which, as it turned out, sustained the community through-out the Great Depression. It was time- ly, for it is very unlikely Magnolia could have survived the world-wide economic collapse as a viable community without the mill.
The mill was the town's primary employer and its source of life-blood throughout the Depression. But as was the case in communities across the country in the early thirties, life in the Magnolia village was also harsh and oppressive. A typical day started when the whistle blew at 5:00 in the morning to awaken the workers, at 5:30 to indicate it was time to leave home, and again at 6:00 to start the day's work. Twelve hours later, it blew again to signal the 6:00 quitting time. In- deed, life was regulated by the sun and the mill whistle rather than a clock.
More often than not, the wife worked along with her husband in the mill, and their children generally entered the mill at age fourteen. (After 1935, the starting age for children was sixteen.) The working wife, in addition to the twelve-hour workday, was generally required to do the housework such as cooking, washing, and ironing. Some were assisted by their young daughters who, in many instances, assumed most of the housekeeping chores and baby sitting responsibilities.
Most mill families were required to attend a host of other chores. Early in the morning the cow had to be milked, taken to the village pasture, and in the evening, brought from the pasture and milked again. Chickens and hogs had to be fed, firewood chopped. In the growing season, most families, with the members often working together, cared for a vegetable garden and picked blackberries on the banks of the nearby Minnehaha River or wherever a "blackberry patch" could be found. After harvesting, the typical wife spent hours canning vegetables and berries.
In early autumn the husband, assisted by family members or a few neighbors, slaughtered the hog, salted and stored the meat in his small family dwelling. (A few families, very few, were fortunate enough to have a smoke house.) Everything had to be done the same day, making it a long day; but, at the same time, the hog-killing day was always a happy and festive occasion. It was never complete until the fat had been trimmed from the meat and cooked in a large wash pot, rendering the lard and leaving crisp cracklings, and a "mess of fresh pork" had been distributed to a few neighbors, particularly those who had assisted in the hog killing or had contributed to its growth by providing table scraps for feed during the previous few months. After the work was done, it was time for hot biscuits and fresh ham.
Ernest Strickland Jr. recalls that, as a young boy, he welcomed hog-killing day because it relieved him, temporarily at least, of the daily task of collecting table scraps from several neighbors. He boasts, however, that the task made him expert at riding a bicycle with a bucket of scraps hanging from each side. Adding, with a smile, that he knew the eating habits of the several families on his route and could determine on a given day, with a high degree of accuracy, what each had for supper.
The mill's reopening brought hope of good times for the village and the town. Fred Hardin contended that "reopening the mill diverted the Depression from Magnolia." He pointed out that "the mill employed more than two hundred workers, and thus times in Magnolia during the 1930s were good in comparison with other parts of the state or, for that matter, the nation." Reminiscing back to 1921 when he began working in the mill at age fourteen, Hardin recalled the great times in the early 1920s when, in addition to employment, the company provided an annual July 4th barbecue, an all day family affair with plenty to eat and highlighted by a brass band concert. He said: I remember things that happened but may not know the exact year. People talk about Jews, but I tell you Mr. Landau was a Jew and a good man. He owned the mill when I started working [about 1921]. He started the barbecues for us. We didn't pay anything. He would barbecue ten or more cows and let us take home any meat left over. A brass band, with Mr. Landau and about fifteen other members dressed in dark blue uniforms, entertained us.
The Magnolia Textile Band, as it became known, was very popular, performing at parades, fairs, and other community functions throughout southwest Mississippi and southeast Louisiana in the early 1920s. According to Frank Jones, a former band member, the most memorable performance was the occasion it acted as a lead band in the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Other members included A. K. Landau, the mill owner, and village residents Bud Felder, C. R. Smith, Ralph Grafton, Frank Greenlee, Otto Redding, Willie Parker, Al Whetson, Jessie Whittington, J.M. Felder, Jimmy Vinson, Olin Smith, Otto Smith, Fred Pine, Troy Craft, and others. Mr. Landau not only played in the band but paid all expenses, includ-ing the cost of uniforms, music lessons, and travel. But the days of the colorful band, the pride of Magnolia, and the annual barbecues were short lived; they came to an abrupt end when Landau lost interest in the Magnolia Textile Mill and closed it in 1926.
In 1931, shortly before the mill was reopened, two Church of the Nazarene evangelists, Miss Dell Smith and Miss Jonnie Dance, moved to the village. They held church services under a tent, and reportedly prayed with the village congregation for the reopening of the mill. After it reopened in September 1932, Sanders donated use of a vacant lot, along with a small building located in the rerouting path of U.S. Highway 51 and nearly two blocks from the lot, for a permanent church and the first four grades of an elementary school.
The two women and a group of young boys rolled the building on logs nearly two blocks to its new location on the corner of Price and First Streets. The church, later known as the Nazarene Church, and the four-year grade school were housed in the building. From this meager start the two women went on to establish a religious and social base in the community. In fact, most of the social activities centered around the little church, particularly those involving the women and young people.
Like most Southern mill villages, Magnolia also had a Pentecostal religious group. It was a small group, known as the Church of God of Prophecy, consisting mostly of women who held services in each other's home. In the early 1940s, after months of fund raising activities, the few members began construction of a church building. With volunteer labor, they almost completed the building before it was destroyed by a fierce storm. With no money to rebuild, the members accepted it as an omen that it was God's will that they continue to meet in their homes.
Members of the group were known for their Pentecostal beliefs such as shouting, speaking in unknown tongues, and fiery opposition to worldly sins which at the time included wearing jewelry, using makeup, and going to the picture show. They were ridiculed for their beliefs by some, but their high moral standards commanded respect and had a positive influence on the community. The writer's mother was a member of the group, and like many others, she spent countless hours on various projects to raise funds to build the church. While disappointed that the storm thwarted their efforts, her faith never faltered. To her, it was simply God's will.
Two years after the mill reopened, Magnolia and its mill village seemed to be on the road to recovery and good times. But unfortunately, harsh working conditions became the standard and the mill began to have its share of the labor unrest that dominated the textile industry throughout the 1930s. In September 1934, the labor unrest in the industry resulted in a nation-wide textile strike described by historian James Hodges as "the largest strike in Amer-ican history up to that time." The strike came to the Magnolia mill; it came exactly two years after the mill had reopened and brought tragedy to the village without any redeeming benefits.
It was a devastating nation-wide strike requiring the intervention of the federal government. Let’s take a closer look at the strike, its aftermath, and its adverse impact on the state as a whole and in particular Magnolia and other Mississippi cotton mills and villages, as an unbridled anti-labor attitude swept across the state.
Chapter XI & Biblio
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