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Work Lessons from the Past- The Baltimore Museum of Industry

Last month I had the opportunity to visit The Baltimore Museum of Industry and while they didn’t have a dedicated exhibit to textiles, the place gave me a lot to think about.

Most of the exhibits are separated into different work environments that depict some of the once thriving industries that built the city of Baltimore. You can walk through a small commercial bakery, or a steam powered machine shop, an oyster cannery or print shop. You can handle some of the safer tools in the machine shop, open drawers in the printing office and finger the wooden letterpress blocks, or rummage through a bin of piece work in a garment loft. Surrounding all of these re-created work spaces are photographs of the actual sites themselves and pictures of the people who worked there. 

The museum gave me a deeper understanding of the various skills and processes that each type of work required. It also helped me appreciate the value of each type of work that was done there. That often invisible labor of the past that built whole industries, cities and towns across the United States.

One of the most moving
exhibits was a collection of photographs and artifacts that memorialized the life of one worker in the machine industry. In a small case, mounted on the wall, I saw his work ID badge, his union dues book, the personal tools that he used as a machinist, and pictures of him at work and at home. He worked 40-odd years for one company and his story reminded me so much of the stories I have heard from so many Beacon workers. That fierce loyalty to a company that had given them a steady job, and the understandable pride in mastering a craft and making something that made the world function a little better. His life was his work and there was a quiet joy and undeniable pride in that.

On their website, the Museum of Industry bills itself as a “connection factory”, helping people make the connections between the work of the past and the present that we find ourselves in. That continues to be my hope for Blanket Town. A way of sharing the stories surrounding the Beacon Blanket Mill, that connect the story of Swannanoa to that of the rest of the world, especially those small rural towns across the US, looking for a path forward from their past.

Glencoe Mills

I can’t resist a good mill village and someone told me about Glencoe Mills, so I had to check it out. Glencoe Mills opened in 1882,  three miles north of Burlington, NC, producing plaid flannels until the fifties. 

Typical of small southern mill towns, Glencoe Mills was a self contained mill village with company provided mill housing, a barber shop, and company store. It was however a much smaller operation than the Beacon mill, with 200 workers at it’s peak. After the mill closed, all of the buildings, including the houses, were abandoned.

The site was listed as a historic district in 1979 and all of the buildings were bought by Preservation NC in 1997. The mill houses were later sold to private owners who restored them and the company store was turned into the Textile Heritage Museum. The brick mill buildings are currently being developed into a mixed used site. 

Can You Play That Thing?

Photo courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum


April 1st was Gob Martin’s birthday. Gob, whose birth name was Wade E. Martin, was a master woodcarver who worked at Beacon Manufacturing and played for the mill’s championship baseball team, The Beacon Blanketeers. One of five boys born to fiddler Marcus Martin and his wife, four of the boys and their father moved to Swannanoa from Gastonia in 1929, after Marcus got a job at the mill. How he got that job is a story in itself. According to Gob, his father hopped a freight train from Gastonia in the midst of the Great Depression because he heard that they were hiring at Beacon. Gastonia in the late 1920’s had been an epicenter of labor unrest culminating in the murder of Police Chief Orville Aderholt and mill worker/ union organizer Ella Mae Wiggins.

Gob told me that when his father arrived in Swannanoa he stood with his fiddle tucked under his arm in a long line of men hoping to get hired at the mill. George Young, the hiring manager, asked Marcus if he could play. Marcus sawed off a tune and was hired right on the spot. The idea was that it would be good for morale to have someone living in the village who could play a mean fiddle. And that is how he got his job.

That's kind of a common theme I've heard about Beacon in the early days- that their hiring practices had as much to do with what you could offer the community as any work experience you might have. Everyone said that  if you were a good baseball player they would find you a job doing something. In fact all of the Martin brothers worked at Beacon at some time or another and played on the mill’s baseball team.  Later, Gob was in charge of Beacon’s children's recreation program which included Little League and basketball teams, and a putt putt golf course - all open to anyone who lived in the mill village. 

Other hiring practices I’ve heard about included a policy to ensure that at least one family member was working if people were laid off,  including during periods of the Great Depression. Unlike today’s more automated mills, textile work in the twentieth century required many hands. There was an incentive to train and hire lots of people- including whole families. Today’s mills require considerably less people to create the same amount of product. It’s probably safe to say as well, that the days of relying on your baseball or musical skills to get you a job, are also a thing of the past.