Life in a Southern Cotton Mill Town
It was powered by steam and its mournful sound could be heard for what seemed like miles in all directions. The whistle at Siluria Mills would blow loud each morning at 4:30 a.m. to wake up the employees on the first shift. It would sound a call to work at 5:45 a.m. and then blow at 6:00 a.m. sharp to start work. The whistle blew at 1:45 p.m. for the second shift's call to work and promptly at 2:00 p.m. to start the shift. The third shift was summoned at 9:45 p.m. and the 10:00 p.m. blast indicated that work should begin. That rhythmic cycle started all over the next morning. It was a Monday through Friday ritual and the sound of the whistle was the heartbeat of that little town.
The 1950's were a wonderful time to be a kid in rural Alabama. Siluria was a small cotton mill town (we called it the mill village) about 20 miles or so south of Birmingham. We were poor but so was most everyone else so we really didn't know any better. The company owned the houses and the employees rented them. The more important your job the nicer the house you could rent. Most all the executives lived in the large and well-kept homes on Main Street. Some of the folks who had the lowest paying jobs (not that any of them paid much) lived down by Buck Creek in an area called Green Top. Most of those houses still had outdoor facilities (outhouses). Looking back now I guess my family was somewhere in the middle, between "dirt" poor and just "sort of" poor. The company also provided a doctor for its employees. Appointments were not available so it was first come first serve. As a result, all the sick people would try to get there at 8:00 a.m. when the doors opened. As you might imagine, huge crowds arrived at the same time during the cold and flu season. I can still remember waiting for hours with my Mother to see the doctor.
The company also owned a small grocery store for its workers. However, most of the stores were a mile up the road in the little town of Alabaster. Alabaster is located on U. S. Highway 31 that in the 1950's was the main route from Birmingham and points north down to Montgomery and Mobile connecting travelers with the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. As a result, stores sprung up where the traffic was.
My parents worked in the mill on the first shift and many times, weather permitting, would walk to work as did many people who lived in the mill village. Even though we didn't have much in the way of material things, we had plenty to eat (Daddy always had a garden) and we had clean clothes to wear. My folks got up with the 4:30 whistle and Mother would cook breakfast every morning complete with "made from scratch" biscuits and my sister and I would get up, eat and go back to bed until it was time to get ready for school. Even after all these years breakfast is still my favorite meal.
Cast of Characters
Many people in the mill village had a nickname. We had folks like Wormy, Meatball, Eagle-eye, Puncher, Tangle-eye, Nub, Bub, WOP (and it was never an ethnic slur) Coot, Pebo and of course several Bubba's. In fact, the folks who worked in the mill were referred to as "lint heads" because of the cotton lint that collected in their hair. As I remember, no one seemed to be bothered by that term as it was in a time before we became the United States of the Offended. Today, my friends and I laugh about the fact the mill village was nothing more than a ghetto, we just didn't know what to call it way back then. It was a tough place and as a kid you had to be "street smart" to avoid trouble. My two best friends, Howard Moore and my cousin, Pete Atkisson and I, for reasons unknown could move freely around the mill village without getting picked on. To this day, we still cannot figure out why the bullies never bothered us much but I am so glad they didn't.
The mill village had a movie theater where a kid could get lost for a couple of hours on Saturday mornings watching news reels, cartoons, war movies and your favorite cowboy. The greatest thing about the theater was that its air was "conditioned" in a time when none, if any, houses had air conditioning. For those of you who don't know, summers can be brutally hot in the Deep South. We also had a recreation center that we called the "Y", complete with pool tables, ping pong tables and a swimming pool. However, the pool had too many rules so most of us kids preferred swimming in the creek or one of the many limestone rock quarries that dotted the area. The thing I remember about swimming in Buck Creek is that on certain days the mill discharged the dye it used in dying cloth directly into the creek (this was long before the EPA) and some days our "swimming hole" would be green, orange or black, just to name a few of the many colors that would flow into the creek. Light blue was our favorite as it reminded us of the ocean. Needless to say we had a variety of different hair colors during the summer months.
I still remember the supervised boxing matches for the kids. They took place under the giant Oaks and Elm trees in the park across the street from the “Y”. The neat thing about it was we got to use real boxing gloves. My friends and I got our bell's rung on many occasions in that boxing ring. A good old bloody nose was sported around like a badge of courage. My friend Howard and I still laugh about the time he got in the ring with Bobby Baldwin. Bobby was so fast that he hit Howard at least four times in the mouth before he could even get his glove up. That bout was over in a flash!
A Simpler, safer time
It was a time when kids could leave in the morning on their bikes and play all day without the fear of being abducted. As long as you were home by the time you were suppose to be everything was fine. We didn't have instant communications via cell phone, pagers and text messaging devices but our parents could generally find you if necessary.
Speaking of bikes, I remember that my friends, Howard, Pete and I, all three could ride one bicycle (at the same time). With one person peddling, one sitting sidesaddle on the bar and the third sitting on the handlebars, trying desperately to keep their toes out of the spokes. I can only image what we must have looked like peddling down that old dirt road to the creek. We rode this way when two of our three bikes were out of commission either with a flat tire or a broken chain.
In the summer people slept with their windows open and fans blowing (remember, no air conditioning) and doors were rarely locked. People would stop and give you a ride if you were walking, as everybody knew everybody else. Most of the people who lived in the mill village were hard working, God fearing folks and helpful neighbors. I remember Mr. and Mrs. Creamer lived across the street from us and they had a telephone and we didn't. Mr. Creamer told my Daddy that we were welcome to give out his phone number and if anyone called his house for one of us he would send his son Johnny over to fetch us. I can still remember that heavy old black rotary dial phone that sat on a little table in Mr. Creamer's hallway. I think we finally got our own telephone in 1962 when I was in the 10th grade. I believe that was the same year we also got a small air conditioner unit that fit in the window of our den. Even though the unit only cooled that one room, we all felt like we had finally arrived! A telephone and air conditioning ... we were in high cotton and it was a wonderful time in my life.
Changes Come to Town
Just as sure as that old mill whistle blew so did the winds of change. The company sold its houses to its employees in 1965. In fact, my parents bought the old house where my sister and I spent a good part of our childhood. The town of Siluria, which was incorporated in 1954, merged with the adjacent City of Alabaster in 1971. The town of Siluria was no more. But even today some of the old timers still refer to the community as Siluria.
The cotton mill itself, which was founded by Mr. Thomas C. Thompson in 1896 and first incorporated in 1902, closed its doors for the final time in 1979. The cotton mill still stands today, an old relic from a bygone era. The City of Alabaster owns the buildings and property and has plans to tear down most of the structure as it is in a bad state of repair. I think plans call for keeping the office building and one other building along with the water tower for maybe a museum highlighting its history.
I have lived my entire life in this area and have witnessed many changes. Alabaster is no longer a sleepy little country town but one of the fastest growing areas not only in Alabama but also in the Southeast.
The high school where I graduated in 1964 is now huge. The school was named Thompson in honor of the cotton mill's founder, who donated the land and a considerable amount of his personal money to get it started. Incidentally, both my sons also graduated from Thompson. They are grown now with families of their own.
My sister Kathy and I never had to work in the cotton mill and that made our folks very happy. As for my parents, Daddy passed away in 1972; Mother is now 88 years of age, still lives in Alabaster and is doing quite well.
As for me, I went to work with the telephone company in 1966 and attended college on the company's tuition aid program. I retired after 30 years of service with BellSouth Corporation. Today I am employed by an Alabaster based company called SEPCO. The unique thing about my job is that my cousin, Pete Atkisson, whom I mentioned earlier, has worked for SEPCO more than 40 years and his desk sits to the right of mine just as it did 55 years ago when we started first grade together.
Many of the old mill houses, including the one I grew up in, are long gone now being lost to business development and road expansion. However, enough of the old place still remains to bring back wonderful memories of my mill village childhood more than half a century ago.