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Gold Avenue

ISSUE:  Spring 1938

“We calls it mikal,” said the dirty old man, grinning and pleased to be asked an old question. “It’s same as ison glass.” But the late sun makes it gold. For miles about King’s Mountain, where the Carolinas meet and where there was a battle with the British, the sun strikes the earth and sets it to gleaming as if the whole land were afire. The mica is broken into too many infinitesimal pieces to make it worth the labor of mining, but that very shattering has cast it across whole fields like sparkling powder spread above the formal decorations on a Christmas tree. Certainly it is a nice coincidence that this gold-shining land is in the middle of that Gold Avenue which runs, bounding riches roughly, from Danville in Virginia to Atlanta in Georgia. Briefer and richer it extends from Greensboro in North Carolina to Greenville in South Carolina, one almost uninterrupted succession of mills and mill villages and mill people, great and small, along the Southern Railroad and along the towered procession of James B. Duke’s power lines, which he delivered before he died to the new, shrewd mortmain of benefaction.

Here I saw full grown what the rest of the South, with the exception of a few poets and philosophers, old ladies and old gentlemen, wished to be. When I rode on Gold Avenue, it had been not much more than a half-century since the elder Cannon of the towel family came into Concord in the back of a wagon with his bare feet trailing in the dust. It was not until the ‘nineties that Caesar Cone began planting trees in the villages around the denim mills which Duke had helped him and his brothers build. But Gold Avenue had so grown that it had begun to eye distrustfully the deeper South, grabbing hungrily for a share of its development, while it still looked back fearfully at the senility of New England mill villages as at a fate not far from its own. Between the two it was touchy and afraid. And there were two other fears more immediately terrifying: Jap and union.

In such an uncertain world, Jews in Greensboro seemed to trust in the more fundamentalistic brands of Christian de-nominationalism: Holiness folk and Y. M. C. A. youth, they hoped, might reject both liquor stores and unionism. Charlotte, which had grown metropolitan quickly as the capital of the spinning kingdom without ever outgrowing its ancient Presbyterianism, clung to faith in the predestination of what its manufacturers and bankers wished to be. But Greenville showed signs of a transfer of faith to the New Sociology and had employed my classmate at Chapel Hill, Dr. Marcus Cicero Stevens Noble, one of the most persuasive abbes of the new religion, to co-ordinate under dependable Ben Geer its social activities and, with the aid of the General Education Board, with contributions from manufacturers, buttressed with the soundness of Furman University, to create a new industrial Athens in an undisturbed industrial South. But in all three towns, and in Thomasville, Gastonia, Spartanburg, Kannapolis, Concord, and the other almost private towns along Gold Avenue, industrialists felt much as planters felt just before the crazy incident at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Certainly they considered John Lewis no less menacing than John Brown had been. In this area, in which tobacco-chewing Cam Morrison had arisen with his Program of Progress a decade or more earlier, men now began to consider again that everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment, and Carolina manufacturers in the midst of prosperity were secretly fearful that that moment was ticking past.

But my friend, the dirty old man looking at the shining earth around King’s Mountain, was not disturbed. He grinned at the gleam. “It ain’t gold at all, but lots of folks think it is. But it ain’t. I wish it was.” He paused and then added in devout monotone, “God A’mighty I wish it was.” “You sound like you need it.”

“Naw.” He spat. “I don’t need it. But if it was gold I wouldn’t have to worry or work at all. I’d have a car and gasoline in it and I’d ride and ride. Everywhere. Why, Lord have mercy, I’d even go down where my sister lives in Lindale, Georgia. She sho’ would be surprised if she seen me ride up.”

I laughed, but what the old man said was important. Nobody will ever understand either Gold Avenue or the South who does not recognize the itching will to go riding and speeding. Perhaps it rises from that restlessness that was left behind when the pioneers went on. Now the automobile has armed it. I realized that as I rode, feeling a little the restlessness myself. I had set out from Raleigh on my own riding with the omen, good or ill, of seeing a peg-legged Negro mowing a lawn. I had discovered the loss of the key to the spare tire at Chapel Hill, and in Burlington, where I stopped to pull an unwilling mechanic from toying with an outboard motor long enough to cut me a duplicate key, I found myself in the mill country which takes its colors from red brick and blue windows, panes painted blue to keep out the shadow-making sun and to protect the quality of the superior synthetic light within. I passed one mill that had beds of iris before it as blue as the windows behind which men and girls work in clatter and lint all day long and sometimes through the night. Then the lighted blue windows make one of the too few additions to beauty in the South that industry can claim.

Years before I had first felt that night loveliness when I rode through this same country at a time when brightened blue windows of mills at night generally meant not only operations but lines of soldiers, and sometimes the blustering noisiness of the Flying Squadron. Those cars and lines of cars were something new and strange, wicked and terrifying. Or so at least manufacturers thought. But I remember particularly the young women taunting the soldiers and the high laughter. Like war, the people loved it. The prettiest girls and the handsomest boys liked it best. Beauty is no advantage in the operation of a loom; but it has its effect on soldiers as on strikers. A girl knows that. And those girls, so long the mechanical adjuncts of spindle and loom, enjoyed the opportunity which a strike gave them of holding excitement in their hands, of riding at night with their hair flying, of shouting at soldiers, of picnicking around night fires, and sometimes of slipping away from the fires into the darkness with men equally stirred in industrial war. It was good to be young then, good to go in tumultuous crowd and shout at the fence of the Old Man’s House, good to climb into Fords and rush across counties to join other familiar-unfamiliar young people in clamoring at the mesh wire of mill gates. It was excellent even to be very sad at the great funeral for the man who was split open by the bayonet of a frightened boy in National Guard uniform. Oh, certainly it was dangerous business! But Governors and mill managers sometimes played at the equally dangerous and exciting business of exerting simple force. Even Governors stir to being Field Marshals instead of clerks. And in the Carolinas, at least, there were then plenty of mill owners whose sluggish blood began to pulse again in the faith that they were having a part in saving America from Red Revolution.

The road was much quieter when I rode it this last time. But the cars have multiplied in the mill villages. I saw them everywhere. Row on row, immaculate and gleaming, rusty and broken, they sat before the best brick houses in Proximity close to Greensboro and the oldest dwellings in Con-estee south of Greenville. Before houses that needed to be painted, men rubbed new cars with chamois to bring out the ultimate gleam or tried to fix clattering old engines with pieces of wire. Along Gold Avenue a man apparently must be mobile or he is nothing. The children can go hungry and dirty. The doctor may not be paid. The grocer may be complaining, but somehow—certainly on Sunday—the family will move on Gold Avenue.

Among the blue windows and the automobiles I wished I could think the significance of the Cone trees equalled my appreciation of them. They are lovely and they represent an intent to grow and flourish on a certain happy land—for me and my children and theirs. Old Caesar Cone, who lies buried beside the mill village at Proximity, close to Greensboro which he and his brother made, planted them long ago. Few North Carolinians would have bothered planting them. But Csesar Cone was not many generations out of a German ghetto where there were more Jews than trees, and trees were therefore precious, particularly as they might grow out of land that was one’s own. But much as the trees now add in dignity and decency to the Cone villages, in the houses under them live a people who cut down the forests to such an extent that tobacco growers must import from other counties the wood with which they cure their crops, to such an extent that the Piedmont fields are falling open in red gullies. Movement in freedom means more to them than tree or shelter—even more, I often think, than safety or security. From this country long ago the restless went on over the hills to fill Tennessee and Texas—it was easier to kill a bear than to grow corn—but the blood of restlessness was left behind. To that blood garages now mean more than trees.

And looms certainly are more important than trees. Even sometimes—not in Proximity—they may seem more important than people. The Cones themselves think less often of the trees than of the great hall, approximately the same length as the hull of the Queen Mary, in which closely spaced ranks of looms turn out steadily and with a minimum of human intervention and a minimum of need for human watching the thousands of yards of heavy blue denims out of which the Cone millions have been made. The very air is blue with the blue lint, and tinged with blue is the golden hair of the Carolina girls who watch the looms. Some wear caps to cover their permanents. And all the young ones of them seem somehow captured by the machines; but this is poetry, and these girls are no more poems than the rest of us. And, like the rest of us, some were sitting chatting in comfortable idleness when Ben Cone and I came in, but most busy girls they were when we went by. It struck me that some of them, now so solemn at their tasks, looked like some of those girls I had seen, so loudly joyous speeding in Flying Squadron, when I rode on Golden Avenue before.

There is no time among the looms now to wait for trees. The pace is faster all along Gold Avenue. As the Flying Squadron was new technique, so the mill has the new machine. The mill must be more and more mechanized—or die. The big mills grow not for greater and greater markets (the Japs have intervened there) but to take the markets of out-of-date mills which, dropping behind the new pace, can operate only in the best times. In bad times their villages become idle, stagnant pools of human breeding and hunger, irritability, and death. The whole process is puzzling: the newer the machine the fewer the workers needed in its operation, but without the newer machine the jobs of all the workers in the plant may disappear. Men and women angrily shout, ” Stretch-out I” and the stretch-out exists. Avarice hides behind the pretense of efficiency, and exploitation often talks big of progress. But the worst stretch-out is that which workers, paid on a piece basis, put upon themselves. No foreman could drive them so fast. No system could spread their work so far. But in thirst for things they can drive themselves like mechanisms of flesh and blood at full speed all day long. Gold Avenue is not where money is picked out of the road. It is seized or squeezed out bitterly. And the young now joining unions and riding to form unions are as determined to have the good things of life and as careless of the means used in attaining them as were those who first got the gold of this golden road.

No wonder manufacturers cry, “Agitator,” as they would cry, “Snake,” at every union organizer. Most of the manufacturers came originally from the same red hills as those from which their workers come. They know a secret which they have steadily and loudly denied: they know there is no dependable docility in their cousins at the looms. These cousins are the grandchildren of those who opined that it was a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight and who fought like lank and indestructible devils just the same. Dig McClellan up and ask him if they were docile. Once hookworm may have wearied them; sometimes hunger and children and a worn, washed soil made them glad to have even the least wages in the villages. But the looms are not the only machines they can see. Their secret concern is with wheel, not shuttle. They mean to move.

The high road of the industrial South goes on from the Cone trees, past women with fingers flying at spools of yarn, past High Point, where the Flying Squadron began, through towns straddling the railroad, Lexington, Salisbury, Thomasville, where “the Lambeths wear the brass buttons,” as the filling station operator said, to Kannapolis, where the Cannons have a private town in which they make a good part of the towels that wipe the face of the world. As members of it, the Cannons understood the Carolinian race better than the Cones and spent no time planting trees for a people who too often have considered them only as things to be cut down. The Cannons did their planting in one pretty little park about the mill offices and left the village itself an ugly community of dirty clapboard and asphalt shingle. One house there, I remember, sat so close beside and below the unpaved lane that its whole side—even its windows—was painted with splashed yellow mud. But around the Cannon mills, row on unbroken row, sat the new Fords and Plymouths and Chev-rolets and a respectable portion of more expensive cars. By no material standard could Kannapolis be called a pitiful town; but by any aesthetic standard it is a hideous one. And the ugliness is as much a product of workers careless about their living as of careless mill. The Cannons know what beauty is: See their own cool and spacious Union Street five miles away in Concord. There big Negro gardeners gossip softly while they clip the shrubbery on one of the greenest and sweetest streets in the South. But almost any Cannon employee apparently would prefer a gallon of gasoline to a gardenia. And by his needs he may be right.

Trucks roll over this Gold Avenue—the road officials call it U. S. Route 29—carrying denims and yarns, prints and calicoes and cotton bales. No line of communication was ever clearer. All along it, from Danville to Atlanta, many little men with every kind of car may be slaves to the finance companies, but they know and the mills know that they are equipped for flight or Flying Squadron. In industrial warfare John L. Lewis or Steve Nance or any other labor leader in power could move men in automobiles in menacing show of strength from mill to mill. A mill owner may be forgiven if he is disturbed by the vision of hundreds of strange men and women clamoring at his gates. Miles would be nothing and not all the highway patrolmen in the Carolinas could stop all those cars if their owners once wished to move. Hence perhaps the fences. And perhaps the fences nevertheless are a mistake.

Of course, there have always been fences. But longer and longer, higher and higher, they grow everywhere along the road upon which so many more little men—and women— have cars now than had them five years ago. The fences are always the same: on steel uprights set in concrete is a mesh wire fence that would resist the weight and strength of elephants. Across its top, on prongs tilted outward, is strung a strand or several strands of barbed-wire that would tear the flesh of a man or a mob. Such cyclone fences may be necessary. But it would be hard to devise a better advertisement of mill fear in this land where for so long it has been sworn that labor is “cheap and contented.” Sometimes, indeed, the fences seem to extend to hysteria. In Gastonia one huge mill—three blocks long and five stories high—has not stopped with running the impregnable steel fortifications about itself. Across the street, between the Firestone mill and the Firestone club, it has provided a small but well-equipped playground for the children of its workers. In it are slides and swings and a wading pool. And around the little park the cyclone fences run, high and tight enough to turn a playground into a fort or a prison. Also high enough, perhaps, to teach the children that property is afraid of people—their people.

In Greenville as in Gastonia, some of the mills are almost incredibly big in a South of little buildings. I remember one in particular and how it loomed in the darkness. I had suddenly wanted to go into a mill operating at night. It was already late then. I had gone with two newspapermen to a Greek’s place for a bite to eat. They thought it might be arranged at that hour, late as it was. But riding all around Greenville we could find but one mill in operation and that apparently in only one department. Between us and the mill the big fences rose and their gates were locked as against an army. Flood lights illumined every entrance. But while we wandered about looking for a way in, a man came, walking softly in the darkness, out of the mill. He did not see us where we moved in the shadow until he let himself out of the gate and then locked it behind him. He saw us and was afraid. The gate swayed behind him as he backed against it. Smith asked him if we could get in.

“No,” he said, as if he were pleading with us. “No.”

There was no superintendent, he said, or assistant superintendent on hand who could let us in. He could not. No one could. It was not permitted. He slipped away quickly, glad to be gone, almost scurrying into the darkness across the street.

“He probably slipped out,” said Cantwell. “Maybe he thought he was caught. He’s probably going home to a hot meal or a new wife or something.”

We looked a little longer. The lights continued to burn over the moving machinery in the mill but no one else came out. At last we went back to my room in the Poinsett Hotel. There we sat a long time talking, about all things and particularly about South Carolina. Smith said the people had hated the newspapers since the papers fought Tillman. Cantwell spoke of the change in Charleston when his Irish ancestors came to outnumber the aristocrats. But, while I wanted to hear about South Carolina, about politician and aristocrat and Irishman, my mind kept going back to the more and more automobiles and the longer and higher fences —higher than horse-high, stronger than bull-strong—and the timid man who came out of the mill. He had seemed so lost, but where there were so many cars, old ones and new ones, not everybody could be lost in the mill villages. They were ready to move anywhere anytime.

“And that readiness,” I told myself—I think I told them, too—”that readiness indicates a faith that there is still somewhere to go. And maybe a determination to go there.”

In the darkness Gold Avenue lay paved for their moving —and I wondered how the mica would shine in the darkness of their moving under the moon.


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