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BLANKET TOWN: THE RISE AND FALL OF AN AMERICAN MILL TOWN



FIRE SEASON

If you live in Western North Carolina you are probably aware of of the wildfires that have burned though the mountains this fall. There are fires all across the southeast, the closest being the Party Rock Fire which has burned over seven thousand acres. What has made everything much worse is an intense drought with very little rainfall in months. It is fall and the leaves are dead on most trees, falling to the ground. Great conditions for a conflagration.

Not unlike the conditions of say...a textile mill. The threat of fire was a constant hazard in textile mills. You can imagine all the ingredients-  the machinery and air thick with cotton dust, lint and other fiber,  machine oil soaked into wooden floors, explosive chemicals used as dyes and sometimes finishing agents. Before electricity, workers might rely on lanterns and candlelight for lighting. Later many mills ran on the power of coal steam boilers, introducing yet another fire hazard to the mix.

Beacon fire department with hose in New Bedford, MA. 

In pre-industrial America, when most people lived on rural farms, there was less likelihood that a fire on your neighbor's farm would spread to your home. There were miles between you. So fire departments and fire fighting equipment was deemed as expensive and unnecessary. But as villages grew into cities often built around an industry, the fire hazard grew. In a textile mill village, all the houses and shops that supported the workers would be within walking proximity. A fire in any one building could easily spread to the next, potentially wiping out whole neighborhoods. After devastating fires in mills and mill villages in the 19th century, residents and mill owners began to take fire safety into their own hands. In communitites all across the east, volunteer fire departments sprang up. In Swannanoa, Beacon Manufacturing organized the Beacon Fire Brigade  to protect the mill and the houses nearby. In 1959, after several decades,  the Swannanoa Fire Department  was chartered as a separate entity.


Beacon's fire department in Swannanoa. 


According to an interview with Swannanoa Fire Department Chief Anthony Penland "Beacon manufacturing  had a substantial fire protection system. They had five hundred thousands gallons of water sitting in water tanks. They had lakes that were under the plant that supplied their sprinkler system." Penland's father was in charge of maintaining Beacon's fire protection system. After the mill closed, however, the sprinkler system was shut down and was not operational when the mill was set on fire.


May this tribute to Beacon's fire department remind us of all the firefighters who are out there today, protecting these mountains. 








The Fire 


Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Citizen Times

We can't let September slip away without mentioning the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Beacon Blanket Mill and changed the landscape of Swannanoa forever. In the early hours of Sept 3rd, 2003 an arsonist set fire to the vacant building that had housed the Beacon Manufacturing Company.

The fire raged for three days, burning through what local songwriter Bert Brown called "the rafters of strong native oak" and "sturdy wood floors" that were transported from the old mill in New Bedford. Hundreds of firefighters and other emergency personnel worked to contain the blaze and protect the mill houses and other structures nearby. People reported finding debris and ash as far away as Montreat. Months after the fire former employees and Swannanoa residents made the pilgrimage to Whitson Avenue to stare at the ruins. Often they took a brick home with them. 

Swannanoa Valley Fire Department Chief Anthony Penland said that when he was working the fire and saw the four story brick wall collapse, he knew "it was the end of an era." 

Beacon shut it's doors in March 2002, after a new company, comprised of local managers and investors, bought the ailing mill from textile giant Pillowtex, which had declared bankruptcy. Even though the mill was closed, as long as the building remained, Swannanoa residents could hope that some other  industry- textile or not- would take Beacon's place, and provide good, steady jobs to those who lived nearby. But once the building was gone, that dream was dashed.

You can see more photos of the fire and archived news articles about Beacon on the Swannanoa Fire Department's website. 


Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Citizen Times



Beacon's Beginnings


I am on my way to attend the Center for Independent Documentary/Kopkind Filmmaker Retreat for one week in Guildford Vermont, to work on Blanket Town.  

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum

Since I am going to be in New England, I've decided to visit New Bedford and Lowell MA, researching the early days of the textile industry. While the focus of Blanket Town is on the Beacon mill that operated in Swannanoa, NC, Beacon Manufacturing Company started in New Bedford Massachusetts.

New Bedford provides a fascinating case study of America’s cycle of industrialization and it's decline, first establishing itself as the whaling capital of the world in the 1700’s. Whaling flourished in New Bedford, making it one of the richest cities in the United States. According to the American Whaling Museum by 1857 New Bedford was home to 329 whaling vessels, valued at more than $12 million dollars, which employed more than 10,000 men. A short 15 years later, as the whaling industry declined, New Bedford emerged as a center for textile manufacturing.

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum

By "1907 New Bedford was home to 25 textile manufacturing companies operating two million spindles in 50 separate mill buildings, with 14 additional mills under construction." - American Whaling Museum

Beacon Manufacturing emerged during this time of growth, starting operations in 1905. But the industrial boom of New Bedford was relatively short lived, as textile manufacturing shifted to the south. Beacon built their second mill in Swannanoa in 1925, shuttering it's New Bedford operation in 1933.



Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum