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



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.

 

Beacon Linens. New Life for a Beloved Brand?

Check out this article about Beacon Linens in last month's edition of Capital at Play. Some familiar faces and names build on the Beacon legacy. You can read the full article, written by Jennifer Fitzgerald, by following the link below.

Photo by Capital At Play

Relighting a Local Beacon

Written by Jennifer Fitzgerald


Beacon Linens is on the cusp of something big—and looks to bring new jobs to Swannanoa in the future. (As a bonus, read an abbreviated history of Beacon Blankets following the main text.)


The roots of manufacturing run deep through Western North Carolina—perhaps nowhere as deep as the Swannanoa Valley, where Beacon Manufacturing Company, founded by textile industry visionary Charles D. Owen II, was the lifeblood of the community. The decline of the textile industry brought the end of the Beacon plant in Swannanoa, but now, rising from those ashes, is Beacon Linens, a company that is delivering new and exciting products. 
 See Full Article

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.