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Under the Hammer

By       Message David Glenn Cox     Permalink
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Under the Hammer
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Through serendipity, I received the other day in the mail, a four page full color brochure. "Online Auction Due to Plant Closure, 2 Day Auction of Over 700 Lots of Textile and Plant Support Equipment." I thought it odd that I should receive this in the mail, but maybe, someone out there thought I might be in the market to open my own textile mill. Or perhaps, like with the outsourcing companies they have to post these jobs locally first.

Anyone out there interested in opening a textile mill? I didn't think so, but this is a world wide auction, so I bet someplace in the world, there will be some interest. In a strange twist of Orwellianism this auction is brought to you by (and I kid you not) "Go Industry" asset sales and services worldwide. Sometimes you just don't know whether to laugh or cry, they don't even try to hide it anymore. It is like the US Army changing their name to Killco, the death and dying folks!

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Having been born in the North and moving to the South as a teenager, I have always been fascinated by the way a field of cotton can fool the eye. Ninety degrees outside, but as you drive by, for just an instant, your eyes see a snowy farm field. As the cotton is harvested, it was taken by cotton wagons to the gin for processing. The cotton wagons are big oversized wire baskets half the size of a tractor- trailer lumbering down the road pulled by a straining tractor. Occasionally, a gust of wind or an overloaded trailer would drop a dry drift on the roadside. Just as with its frozen counterpart it begins white and pristine, then slowly, it becomes dirty with traffic and then slowly it melts away into the dirt.

Every county in cotton country had a cotton gin and some had two or more. From there, the cotton would make its way to the textile mill just like the one being auctioned off by "Go Industry." Every community of any acclaim had some sort of mill or plant manufacturing products from the locally produced cotton. When America was an agrarian society a hundred and fifty years ago the raw cotton was shipped of to England and England built her Empire by importing raw materials and exporting finished goods.

Not far from Powder Springs is the Thread Mill complex, A picturesque three story brick structure adorned with Greek columns and ginger bread trim. It operated successfully for three quarters of a century proving the nation with numberless varieties of thread and twine. Her trimmings spoke of her prosperity, her prosperity, brought income to the community. Today she is a combination shopping mall -- office complex, but she speaks to us still. Like a rusting cannon in front of a National Guard armory she has become but a curiosity, she has fallen from her high station as the community apogee and has become a toy for the children to play upon.

Like any factory job, the work was hard and monotonous, the cotton dust made the hot air almost impossible to breathe. The pay was low and when the workers began to organize in the 1930's deaths were not uncommon. The mill owners and the workers were stuck with each other, for the workers it might be the only job available besides farming. The mill owners couldn't move because they were already in the lowest paid region of the country. The farmers feared the mill closing would make selling crops their more difficult and local governments were usually in the pocket of the mill owners.

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Foe generations a twilight war was waged between the workers and the mill owners as was illustrated in the film "Norma Rae." Before it closed in Montgomery, Alabama the JP Stevens sewing mill was an armed camp complete with steel louvers over all the windows. Armed guards stood at barbed wire topped gates and separate guards worked the parking lot defending their own fenced perimeters, from anyone, dispensing information of a union organizing persuasion.

But it was more paranoia than protection; the civil rights movement had left the owners fearful of what might happen next. The locals were for the most part, thoroughly indoctrinated in anti union rhetoric and were docile and dutifully humble.

But how, the owners thought, can we bring this to an end? Armed guards with barbed wire fences, the solution came by opening sewing mills overseas. With 15 cent an hour wages and a few armed goons you could more than offset the cost of transportation. So one by one the sewing mills began to shut down to become, shopping malls, office parks, weed farms and empty monuments to greed.

The business leaders pressured Congress to lower those ugly tariffs which were limiting growth. We must have Free Trade they cried, to aid our friends and to bring them up to our standards besides, Americans don't want these jobs! It was a lie of course, just another way to make a bigger buck and to lower costs. Just another way for the company to exploit the poor and to pollute without government interference or regulation. That NFL, NBA or MLB jersey that you will pay $175.00 costs the company $5 to $10 bucks to manufacture while to produce the jersey in this country might cost double that ten bucks. But you know, without any sewing mills in this country its kind of silly to have textile mills, isn't it?

So let's call "Go Industry" and see if we can't convert the mill to condos! But as I travel the South, I see the empty factory hulks and I strain to read their faded paint, just to see what is was that they once produced. The small towns fade away; some like the one around the Thread Mill are close enough to a city to become bedroom communities. To prosper, never knowing how it was that they came into being in the first place. Or knowing what that big building was once used for, Thread Mill, now that's a funny name for a shopping mall.

I have become all too familiar with these auctions because of my years in the engine business. Hercules engine was auctioned off on the court house steps in the 1990's. Clinton engines are gone and Onan closed their domestic production as well. Wisconsin engines, the finest air-cooled engine in the world hangs on by a thread and likewise her sister company Continental Engine. I worked around the Wisconsin and Continental people for 25 years. One man I knew there began as a teenager and ended up as their top OEM salesman.

The manufacturing plant in Milwaukee was right across the street from the Briggs & Stratton engine factory. Just down the road, a couple of Interstate exits was the Kohler engine factory. Part of my job was dealing with the warranty department. There I met a man named Elmer. Elmer's job was to evaluate my warranty claims and at first I didn't care much for Elmer, but as time went on I came to respect him. He pulled no punches, he cut no deals, if you had a legitimate warranty it would get paid, but you better have your story straight and your ducks in a row. Elmer was a laconical man, not prone to idle conversation and it wasn't until I visited the factory that I met Elmer off the job. He was very friendly and very knowledgeable and highly thought of by his co-workers.

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The company management to the distributors to buy enough inventory to last for a while because there was a strike coming. Of course, management had told us of strike rumors before trying to goose sales numbers, but this time they meant it. The strike came and after a few months management announced that they were moving the factories to Tennessee. Then after a few months the company was bought out by the Teledyne Corporation, then a few years later it was sold and bought, then sold and bought again.

Most of the company veterans had made the move to Tennessee, some just long enough to retire and some made Tennessee their home. Elmer was transferred to the manufacturing division of the company and then, the company laid him off. I was talking to one of the old timers on the phone one day and asked, "How's old Elmer doing?" The phone grew quiet with a pregnant pause then, "haven't you heard? " Elmer killed himself."

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I who am I? Born at the pinnacle of American prosperity to parents raised during the last great depression. I was the youngest child of the youngest children born almost between the generations and that in fact clouds and obscures who it is that I (more...)
 

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