Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World is based upon some 200 oral history interviews, conducted by UNC faculty and graduate students in the 1980s, of men and women whose lives were shaped by their experience working in cotton mills in the first half of the 20th century and, for most of them, the experience of living in mill-owned housing surrounding them. We will revisit this important work of social and cultural history, asking how it might be augmented through the use of different source material, particularly sources now available or easily accessible for the first time through digital means. We will focus our work on “reconstructing” one of the largest mill villages in the South, the Loray/Firestone Mill in Gastonia, NC, in the early 1920s, using the 1920 US Census enumerations for the community and the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps that document all built structures around the mill in 1922.
Guidelines for this project can be found here.
The Loray Mill and its surrounding mill village were built in the first years of the 20th century. One of the largest and most costly textile facilities established in the South, the Loray Mill helped to make Gaston County an international center of textile manufacturing. An increase in demand for textile products during World War I propelled a further expansion of textile industry in Gaston County in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Gaston County had more cotton mills than any other county in the US, and most of the county’s 50,000 inhabitants earned their living from textile.
This period also marked a significant milestone for the Loray Mill and for the families who worked there and lived in the village. In 1919, the mill was sold to the Jenckes Spinning Company, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, making it the largest mill in the county to be controlled from outside the region. Jenckes enlarged the mill (adding a 150,000 square foot west wing), converted the mill’s production from cotton cloth to tire fabric, expanded the work force from 850 to 1400, and added 150 new houses to the mill village. These new houses adapted the bungalow style, replacing the older Southern vernacular style that characterized the houses built in the early 1900s. Two brick dormitories (one for men; the other for women) and a cafeteria were built just north of the mill. Jenckes also added a number of “welfare” amenities: a community center, playground, and swimming pool, among them. Welfare workers were brought down from New England to develop health and educational programs for families living in the mill village. The village grew to more than four hundred houses and more than 3000 residents.
When census enumerators went door-to-door through the Loray Mill Village in the spring of 1920, they may well have talked with second-generation community residents and workers in the mill, whose families had been drawn from farms in the surrounding area to the new mill in the first years of its operation. Enumerators would have recorded information from families that had left hardscrabble lives in the mountains—some from hundreds of miles away in Tennessee–in the previous decade, lured by the prospect of decent housing and steady work in the “big city” of Gastonia. Other families would have been more recent arrivals from the country, or families who had moved from another local mill village to take advantage of the Loray’s rapid expansion. The census takers documented single adults living together in boarding houses and in the dormitories, which had just been built. As they pushed on into the southern fringes of the Loray mill village, enumerators would have met some of the African Americans who labored as sweepers, drivers, and loading dock workers in the mill, thus preserving the record of the often ignored black presence in textile mills and mill communities.
Every household census entry is a story waiting to be told. Every census enumeration page provides a social and demographic group portrait of families and individuals living on the same or adjacent streets. The Sanborn Map Company produced a highly detailed color map of the Loray Mill Village in the spring of 1922, showing every building—residential, industrial, and commercial—in the area, its size, footprint, building material, and use. By mapping the census data for each household onto this historic map, we can reconstruct the Loray Mill Village as it was in the early 1920s.
“Reconstructing the Loray Mill Village” will be built on the Digital Innovation Lab’s DH Press platform and will take advantage of the lab’s previous digital mapping project work for the Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte, 1911), Preservation Durham (Recovering Hayti), and the North Carolina Museum of History (Lebanese Migration to North Carolina—spring 2014). Each Loray village household enumerated in the 1920 census will be represented by a geo-coded (latitude/longitude) marker displayed on the 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, which has itself been georeferenced as a map layer over contemporary Google Maps or Open Layer maps. Clicking each marker will open an information box with basic information about each household, from which the user can then access the census enumeration page on which the household appears.
The project can be deployed on a touch-screen device (table-top or wall-mounted tablet), via computer on a wall-mounted LED display, on mobile devices (I-Pad and other tablets), and online via laptops and desktops. The project will be designed to be dynamic and both expandable and extensible. Additional content (photos, newspaper articles, etc.) could be added for any household. Case study narratives can be developed and added as “blog posts” to the project. User feedback and comment can be reflected. Future iterations could incorporate information from the 1910, 1930, and 1940 censuses, as well as annual city directory listings from the period.
Our work will contribute to a larger project being undertaken by the Digital Innovation Lab in collaboration with UNC Libraries, the NC Digital Heritage Center, and RENCI to create a Loray Digital Archive: a multimedia collection of materials reflecting the history of the mill and its community over the past 115 years. The digital archive will be the centerpiece of the history center being incorporated into the renovated mill. The renovation will transform the site into 300 loft-style apartments, offices, retail shops, and restaurants.
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