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The White Furniture Company of Mebane: The Final Months (review)

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 1, Number 2, Winter 1995
pp. 245-248 | 10.1353/scu.1995.0086

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviews Our regular review section features some of the best new books, films, and sound recordings in southern studies. From time to time you'll also find reviews of important new museum exhibits and public-history sites, and retrospectives on classic works that continue to shape our understanding of the region and its people. Our aim is to explore the rich diversity of southern life and the methods and approaches of those who study it. Please write us to share your suggestions or to add your name to our reviewer file. The White Furniture Company of Mebane: The Final Months. Photographs by Bill Bamberger. Exhibition in downtown Mebane, North Carolina, in the spring of 1994. Book forthcoming. Reviewed by Peter Filene, professor ofhistory at the University ofNorth Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent work is a novel, Home and Away. When the White Furniture Company of Mebane, North Carolina, was shut down in 1993, it fell victim to what social scientists call deindustrialization. To the 203 employees and their three thousand fellow townspeople, however, the event felt like a death in the family . "I coulda just cried," said James Blalock, who had worked at the plant thirty-eight years, "but I knowed it wouldn't do no good." For most of its 112 years, Will and David White and their descendants had managed the factory while generations of men and women, and their children and grandchildren, had crafted bed frames, dressers, and other products. Then in 1985, Hickory Furniture—a division of a Chicago corporation—bought the plant and seven years later announced the closing. The recession and lagging demand for quality furniture forced the decision, they said. Like so many other manufacturing companies during the eighties and nineties, White Furniture was about to disappear. But Bill Bamberger, a documentary photographer and recent Mebane resident, wanted to create a kind of afterlife. During the five months that the machines were dismantled , templates destroyed, and workers laid off, Bamberger shot 350 rolls of film, black and white as well as color. He recorded everything and everyone. He even prowled the plant at night, with his wife helping him set up the four-by-five camera and lighting. Along the way he became friendly with the workers, earning their trust—no small feat in a community wary of outsiders. And in the spring of 1994, he staged an exhibit of one hundred prints in, appropriately enough, an abandoned downtown department store. 246Southern Cultures Just as appropriately, in the front window hung a large photo, dusky beige and green, of four-poster bed frames standing in line, untended, the handiwork of unseen producers. This was as much a community memorial as an art show. The Mebane Fire Department loaned its shop-vac to clean the dirt-encrusted floors. Mebane Lumber donated plywood and paint for the walls on which the photos would hang. An electrical company put up track lighting. The North Carolina Humanities Council provided the major funding . The Mebane Arts Council, the Documentary Studies Working Group of the University of North Carolina's Institute for Research in Social Science, the UNC Southern Oral History Program, and the Duke Center for Documentary Studies were sponsors. Warren's Drug Store offered free ice cream cones. It was a cool February morning, more suited to coffee than ice cream, when I joined several hundred people in the resurrected space for the opening. The crowd included sponsors , reporters, and FOBs (Friends of Bill), but most of all, the furniture workers, a few of whom made heartfelt statements. "When they tore the plant apart and sold off the machines," said Robert Riley, a thirty-one-year employee, "it was like tearing us apart and selling us off piece by piece." Fletcher Holmes, after thirty years at White, said, "We built a house and tore it down." They were "like a family," he said, using a refrain echoed by other workers. On the fabric-covered walls, like snapshots from an album, hung the photographs of that house and family. One man nudged his wife and pointed toward a picture: "There I am." In fact, there he was. But we don't say that, because a photograph...