The enormous red brick building stands on the eastern side of the town overlooking the muddy river. The one time employment hub of neighboring Hawkinsville now stands empty with a large sign placed beside it telling part of the story. The sign says FOR RENT. The empty building serves as a grim reminder for over three hundred people who labored there for so many years …. life can indeed be fickle.
My first memories of that building came during World War II when it had the name of Superba Mills. It looked different then, because it was smaller, it had windows, and there was always wisps of cotton floating in the air or clinging to nearby bushes and trees, having escaped the confines of the building by clinging to the hair and clothes of those people who made their living working in the building. The windows served as a place of relief during a brief lunch break. Sitting in the framework of the window seeking a cool breeze or merely watching people driving or walking across the old curved bridge, employees were seen to wave quickly and dart back inside so as not to come under condemnation of a foreman.
During those early years of my life, the cotton mill played a large roll. Both my father and my mother worked in the mill for many years. As has been chronicled in the "From the Cotton Patch" column before, my father started working in a mill at the age of nine by sweeping, and my mother worked for many years until bad health forced her to stay out of the mill. While she was working, I have vivid memories of my three brothers and I finding thirty-five cents each on the kitchen counter every morning. With that change I could run from the campus to the Green Grill in the center of town, where I could purchase two hamburgers and a coke with ten cents left for either doughnuts or cinnamon rolls to eat on the way back to school. In those days before the school had a lunchroom, students were let out one hour for lunch. Many children would go home to eat, but for the children of mill village workers, there was no reason to go home.
During the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school, I applied for summer employment at the mill which had changed ownership, and was known as Opelika Manufacturing Company. The year was 1955 and my hourly wage was seventy-five cents an hour for a forty hour work week. The man whom I was assigned to train with was a long time mill worker. His job was something called "doffing" which meant removing full spools of thread from a large frame machine, replacing the spool with an empty one without breaking stride or breaking the thin cotton thread, all the time pushing the large hopper down the wooden aisle with his knee. He was truly an artist or expert in his field, but the hard work took it’s toll on the little man as he developed a crooked walk from the many laborious years in the cotton mill. After that summer, I was more determined than ever to seek my fortune elsewhere other than working in the cotton mill.
South of the empty building which was last known as Pillowtex, a company which had to declare bankruptcy, lies the remains of the mill village which was home to me for so many years of my life. The house which I was born in no longer is there, the house on the village which my parents purchased in the fifties is no longer there, and many of the houses stand in a dilapidated state which makes me very sad. The ghostly memories of my past seem almost surreal as I look around the village where I was born, and where I spent the formative years of my life.