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Mill villagers had hard life, yet had fun

POSTED: April 14, 2013 1:00 a.m.

With no television, limited transportation and very little money, children growing up in the Gainesville Mill village in the 1940s, ’50s and beyond “made do.”

They had a ballfield, gymnasium, pond and hills to ride down in their homemade wagons.

Their parents didn’t have a lot of cash to spend on them, but the mill pretty much took care of them.

The “company store,” common back then in textile villages, supplied most of a family’s essentials, paid for by “chits” torn from a booklet issued by the mill in lieu of cash. The mill worker also could draw on wages to buy from the store, the total deducted from the paycheck, sometimes leaving a worker with only a few cents on payday.

But it was a good life, says Herman Hooper, who grew up in the village. Ray Nix, another “linthead,” as he called himself, agreed, noting everybody in the village had indoor plumbing while many who didn’t live there used outhouses.

The difficult work day lasted 10 hours. Dust from the machines was so thick you couldn’t see from one side of a mill floor to the other. Many workers developed emphysema, a lung disease.

A 40-hour week might bring $48 before deductions. The “chits” workers earned would pay for food, coal, clothing or other necessities from the company store. Rent for mill houses was only $4 per month, including utilities.

Nurse Curry lived in the mill clinic, where ailing villagers felt free to go even in the middle of the night.

“We had our own school, our own teachers,” Hooper remembers. Members of a group of former Gainesville Mill residents jokingly said students had their own uniforms – a pair of overalls and a white shirt for the boys and plain cotton dresses for the girls.

“It wasn’t required; it was all we had,” Nix said.

Children spent a lot of time on the mill ballfield, either watching Industrial League games or playing themselves against teams from Gainesville or other mill villages. A locked gymnasium didn’t discourage them from playing in the winter. They would climb a big cedar tree to get into a window, or break out a pane if necessary.

But that would be the extent of the damage. Sometimes they found doors or windows unlocked, perhaps on purpose to provide a place to play.

At Thanksgiving hog-killing time, boys would make their own football or “pig skin” by salvaging the animal’s bladder, blowing it up and letting it dry. Otherwise they’d make a ball from scrap twine scavenged from the mill. Children made their own cog-wheel wagons from scrapped broken gears from mill machines.

The village provided numerous stellar athletes to Gainesville and other schools: Marvin Free, Larry Pardue, Jimmy Coyle, Dallas Gilbert, Richard Hicks, Harold Griggs, John Hulsey, Ray Cooper, Walt Cooper, to name a few. Dean Evans, an outstanding athlete himself, coached many of the boys.

Fights were common. Ray Nix said Gainesville boys would announce, “Here come the lintheads,” when they would go into town, and that would start a fight. But there were scraps among villagers, too. John Head and James Cantrell remember a bully picking on them. One day they plotted to jump him, and Head centered a rock between the bully’s eyes. He never gave them trouble again.

You didn’t fight at school without getting a spanking from the principal, Jim Twitty.

“He’d paddle your butt for the least indiscretion,” said Jerry Nix, Ray’s brother, in an obvious voice of experience.

“We were always in trouble,” Hooper and Ray Nix said. They would even fight over “snow,” the shavings from ice cut into blocks by City Ice Co. If you got a whipping at school, you’d get a worse one when you got home, Jerry Nix said.

Twitty’s daughter, Arree Milner, succeeded him when he died, and she, too, was a strict disciplinarian who served for many years.

The late Bo McGee and Bunk Sorrells started the Gainesville Mill Gang meeting at the L&K Cafeteria more than 12 years ago. They continue to meet monthly at Big Bear Café on South Main Street to reminisce about life in the village.

Gainesville Mill closed years ago, changing the village forever. Only one longtime resident, Cecil Boswell, 96, still lives in one of the homes.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770- 532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.


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