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Industry in Indian Land

by Louise Pettus

Rural communities in the years before World War II typically had a variety of skilled artisans who supplied the local needs of the farmers.

Skilled laborers manned blacksmith shops, molasses mills, grist mills, saw mills, tanneries, cotton gins, etc. There were likely to be a few carpenters and mechanics.There were usually at least one well digger, a basket maker, a shingle maker, a brick layer, and maybe a wagon-maker. There were practical nurses and several midwifes. The list could go on.

Most of these skilled workers were self-employed. Some of them also farmed. Because money was scarce, many times they bartered their services or took part pay in money and part in goods or other services.

At Indian Land High School, located in the “panhandle” of Lancaster County, back in the mid-1970s, one of the classes took on an oral history project in which they interviewed old-timers. The results are in the Winthrop University Archives.

Among the memories of “industries” in Indian Land were such items as these:

Once there was a wagon maker in Belair named Madison Gordon. He worked with both iron and wood. He could make every tool a farmer needed. He also made wagons.The most difficult thing to make on a wagon is the wheels. The way Gordon made a wheel was to use white oak for the spokes and felloes (the curved part of the wheel) and for the hubs to use post oak with steel rings. The metal for the steel rim was heated red hot and wrapped around the wheel and then dashed with water.

There was a tanyard next to Pleasant Valley Baptist Church. The tamner would take the animal skin (from cattle, pigs, deer, etc.) and scrape it and place it in a fresh lime bath. For six days the lime water would be changed daily. Then the skin was soaked in lactic acid and glucose for six more days. Then metallic salts and oily matter was used on the leather. Oak bark would make the leather a light color. Hemlock bark would turn it reddish and chestnut bark would make the leather a nice brown.

Nearby, where Black Horse Run housing development is today, was a shingle mill run by Frank Moore. The wood shingles weren’t uniform in width but were as wide as the tree trunk after the bark came off. It was up to the roofer to cut them to size.

“Mr. Jimmy” Wilson told a student about the sugar cane mill he owned. He was a partner with Hall Pettus in a country store. The cane mill was behind the store. At first the mill was powered by mules. The cane was fed into a grinder which allowed the cane juice to go into a large pan where it was cooked. The mule walked in a circle providing the power needed to grind and stir. After a half hour the mule was switched with another. It usually took about an hour to get the syrup to the right consistency.

Mr. Jimmy received no money. Each farmer was responsible for bringing his own fuel. He collected by taking the 8th gallon of syrup. The syrup was put up in jars and sold in Wilson & Pettus store.

There was a small grist mill beside the store which ground corn for the local farmers. The corn meal, like the molasses, was “tolled.” Customers of the store bought the freshly ground meal. Cornbread and molasses were staples in their diet.

Wilson and Pettus also had a cotton gin. Mr. Jimmy said that their first gin was a one-stand gin purchased second-hand from Dave Yarborough. The next year they went to Charlotte and bought a two-stand gin with a suction pipe. It was run by steam. When that gin burned, it was replaced by a larger one run by electricity.

Wilson also had a large steam-powered saw mill. He sawed railroad crossties and bridge lumber as well as for house construction. His brother, Banks Wilson, dressed the lumber with a planer he owned. His father, Daniel Wlson, did house construction, built bridges and moved houses.

The various skills of the community were sometimes pooled. School houses were built and repaired by local people joining together. This often led to ingenious arrangements as to how to share the cost.

An example of community effort came about in 1919 when Belair Methodist Church trustees decided to build a new church. The logs were cut off the church property and processed on the site. They used 70,278 ft of lumber in the construction. Lumber left over was sold with the proceeds going to the church. Most of that money was then paid to the members who worked on the church construction. The member/workers were paid $1 a day and everybody considered that a fair arrangement.