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A Natural-Born Linthead

From: Southern Cultures
Volume 18, Number 4, Winter 2012
pp. 96-106 | 10.1353/scu.2012.0045

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"My parents' story was not uncommon. It was repeated by countless other young people in the first half of the last century. They had their pictures made in front of the mills to commemorate their arrival in a strange land and a new beginning—in my parents' case a beginning that would lead to four generations of my family working in the West Point Manufacturing textile plants." JL Strickland's mother at the Fairfax Mill, c. 1940, courtesy of the author.

In my mother's picture box was an old black and white photograph of her and my daddy as a smiling, young Alabama working-class couple, wearing their Sunday best. They were standing across from the village kindergarten, at the south end of Fairfax Mill where they both worked, along with thousands of other employees. The cotton mill, a blue-paned, three-story, red-brick monolith, rose grand and mighty in the background, and they seemed small and shy before it; and incredibly young and happy.

I am sure many Chattahoochee Valley families have a similar photograph in their family albums; my parents' story was not uncommon. It was repeated by countless other young people in the first half of the last century. They had their pictures made in front of the mills to commemorate their arrival in a strange land and a new beginning—in my parents' case a beginning that would lead to four generations of my family working in the West Point Manufacturing textile plants.

Like many Valleyans, my parents grew up in rural Randolph County, Alabama, and joined a steady migration of friends and relatives to what everybody simply knew as "the Valley," which lay hard against the Georgia line in eastern Alabama, seeking jobs and a better life, and they found it. They left backwoods farms, that were basically unchanged since the 1800s, for a mill house with electric lights, running water, coal fireplaces, and an inside toilet—they never had it so good. They might as well have been on another planet.

Riverdale and Langdale were the company's first mills, starting production in 1866, powered by water wheels turned by the Chattahoochee River. The founders of what was to become West Point Manufacturing were area planters, merchants, and former Confederate soldiers who started two cotton mills with money scavenged from the smoke and rubble of the Civil War. One of the mightiest textile manufacturing enterprises in the history of the world began as much with desperation as with hope; as it turned out, Providence smiled on their bold venture. By the early 1900s, West Point Manufacturing owned five Alabama mill villages in the Chattahoochee Valley. Each of the villages was built around its own mill, starting with Lanett at the northern end, and then, in descending order, Shawmut, Langdale, Fairfax, and Riverdale. The mills were electrified and no longer depended on waterwheels for power.

The boundaries between each village were amorphous, with one blending into the other, but each mill village possessed a strong self-identity that fueled fierce rivalries, mainly concerning their respective athletic teams. Their baseball teams, particularly, were revered and supported with a near religious fervor. (In later years, Valley and Lanett High Schools would produce a steady supply of football players for the college and professional ranks.) Of such intensity were the animosities that a wedding between residents of different villages was seen as a mixed marriage.

Each West Point Manufacturing Company mill village was a self-contained universe of employee housing, churches, schools, grocery and drug stores, cafés, barber shops, beauty parlors, shoe repair shops, filling stations, dry cleaners, doctors, including chiropractors, and picture shows. A person could live without ever setting foot off the mill village, if so inclined. (Indeed, it was rumored that the only way some mill village folk could find West Point, Georgia, the mill company headquarters a few miles away across the state line, was to follow the Chattahoochee Valley Railroad tracks out of town.) The only item not easily obtainable was alcohol. Because of the teetotalers who ran the Valley, strong spirits were prohibited. But they were available, if you knew the right person—and most...



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