Robert Ragan Interview 2

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search This Transcript

 GEORGE STONEY: You ready?



ROBERT RAGAN: Well, they stayed for dinner and Mr. Stowe was telling his wife, said, ladies and gentlemen, we are building a cotton mill in Gastonia and they think that the prospects are good for making money and paying a dividend and would like for me to invest a little money in the thing. And Miss Stowe came out and she just sort of put a damper on the whole deal. She said, “I’ll tell you one thing,” she said, “I wouldn’t have any stock in a cotton mill.” And so that cooled things off for awhile. I think her family had had some money in a cotton mill before the Civil War, which had not done well after the Civil War and this -- she still remembered this. And anyway, that cooled things off and they had to go spend a couple more hours with Mr. Stowe, but 1:00finally he did take $3,000 of stock in the Trenton Cotton Mills and that was the story of how difficult it was to raise a few thousand dollars. It did not make sense to spend approximately 30 to 40 percent of your total capital to build a mill village unless it was an absolute necessity. And even later I’ve heard my father say that the Ragan Spinning Company, and this was built in the 1920s and I showed you and article from the Charlotte Observer one time that quoted him as making this statement, but when they were building the Ragan Spinning Company in the 1920s a village was still a necessity because the people who came to work wanted or had to have a place to stay, and they also had to have a place to bring their mother and their father and their uncle and their grandfather and 2:00so, even at that time it was still a necessity. And so that’s all I have to say on that subject.

GEORGE STONEY: Now tell us where those people came from and if they had to recruit them or --

RAGAN: Well, in the early days when the industry in Gaston County started, the people came from the county, maybe even the adjoining county later. There were plenty of people that needed and wanted cotton mill work that paid wages. Now, as more mills were built and rather than looking for hundreds of employees (inaudible) the early part of the twentieth century, they were looking for thousands of employees and then several big mill building years, like before and during and right after World War I, and then in the 1920s at that time they had to go further out to adjoining counties and then to the next county and ran out of people there. Then they went up into areas of Virginia and particularly 3:00Tennessee and the mountains of North Carolina. I’d probably say Tennessee and the mountains of North Carolina were big areas. They brought down the Scotch Irish people that settled and both originally settled and later settled there like Gaston County and Cleveland County and Mecklenburg and York Counties and someone had asked me well, just how did this happen, and I think during the heyday of the mill building activities that agents were actually sent into these areas to recruit people to come. And when they came they brought entire families with them and then they did need places to stay. As you know, I think they liked them because the mill rented the houses to them reasonably inexpensive. Most mills kept them in good condition, painted them, fixed them 4:00up. They sold them coal or wood at cost so it was sort of a fringe -- the other side of the matter is that is was a fringe benefit to the employees to have these mill houses. Later, primarily in the 1960s, most mills sold off the villages to the employees and I know this for a fact also, many of the employees were quite upset at having to buy the house when it had bene furnished inexpensively to them over the years, that they preferred for the old ways to continue, but I think after the fact, I’m sure they were very proud to own their own homes and if you drive around Gaston County today, some of these mill village homes are very attractive and others were not, just like any area of 5:00town, but many of them are very attractive and the people took a lot of pride in them.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, I want to jump to a whole different area in the -- you want to stop just a minute, Jamie?

(break in video)

RAGAN: Let’s go a little further first. I’ve got one other mill I want to mention that will tie in to some of the reasons, I think, that the Southern industry may have caught on If I can go one step further. If we can go a little further by the -- now here again talk of a specific family instance, because it’s one that I know the most about, but it was also happening with other textile (inaudible) of the time. The Trenton Cotton Mill was very successful for its day. It was started during the panic of 1893. It made very good money 6:00during the Depression of 1897. I have articles that attest to this particular mill and the mills in Gastonia were paying cash dividends of 20 and 30 percent, and I had one in 1897 where upon the announcement of the Trenton paying a 30 percent cash dividend and a 30 percent stock dividend, it was -- the article said that it had been declared almost impossible by Northern textile experts at the time. But for whatever reason, things were good for the better managed mills and they were making money. By the end of the century, in 1899, my grandfather had decided for a number of reasons that we won’t go into now that he wanted to build another mill that was more modern that he even had more 7:00control over. So he built the first mill that he can pretty well completely control, the Arlington Cotton Mills, and it was chartered in January of 1900 and the first mill of the 20th century chartered in this part of the state and was completed the following year. And the Arlington was a well-known mill. It was being built at the same time as the giant Loray Mill was built. The Loray actually was a tremendous mill, but it was not a financial success. The Arlington was a financial success and this building -- the building, everything was more modern and my grandfather was progressive. He wanted to have a more modern building, he wanted to make a different, and here again, it’s a whole new story. He wanted to make a product that was of a finer quality. Quality was more important to him than size, and he wanted a product that would be 8:00competitive with the New England markets where the larger and more progressive mills were still at that time and so at the Arlington he installed combing machinery, which produced a finer count of yarn and this was -- has the distinction of being the first mill in the entire South that produced combed yarns and it somewhat set a trend there. Shortly thereafter Mr. George Gray started producing combed yarn, Mr. (inaudible) got into combed yarn, the Groves and the Stowes and all those got into combed yarns and this started a trend in the South of producing a quality product that not only competed with New England, it surpassed New England and these are some of the photographs of the 9:00Arlington Mill when it was started. The Arlington was successful and it built additional capacity, and at this time many mill owners would take the money out and build another small mill and another small mill. My grandfather and others chose to just increase the size of their present operation and to have their expansion in that way. During -- eventually, the Northern mills had a situation where it was more difficult for them to make money, or so they thought, than the Southern mills. The Southern mills may have been making more money. The time had come where it was not something that happened automatically that a Southern mill did not automatically make money. The time came where it wasn’t just 10:00because they were in the South or just because they had a lesser wage scale or for whatever reason it was, Southerners had to learn how to manage a mill and those who did not manage a mill well, those mills went under. It was not at all unusual to see a Southern cotton mill go into bankruptcy. The better managed mills became better managers and they succeeded and they expanded.

GEORGE STONEY: Could you talk about if it’s right, talk about the role of places like Clemson and Georgia Tech and NC State?

RAGAN: The little bit I know they did come in. Particularly --

GEORGE STONEY: I have to mention those because I’ve got to cut out my voice.

RAGAN: Particularly areas -- the education area was supported by colleges like North Carolina State, Clemson College in Clemson, South Carolina and Georgia 11:00Tech to mention one of several, and there were some good northern schools that I may go into later that my father went to. He went to both Georgia Tech and then to New Bedford school. But these were very good in providing educated technicians and managers and future owners for the textile industry and this came originally, it was just people like Mr. Gray and his brother-in-law, John R. [Withers?], that just -- they were just naturally smart people and had picked up the mechanical process and they’d gone into it and they trained other people and those people trained other people. You know, they would go to different mills. But then we came to a time in the late 19-teens and the 1920s and the 1930s where the (break in video) educating being produced.


JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible)


JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible) a close up.


RAGAN: We finally came to a time where more formally educated textile management supervisory people had to be produced and places like Clemson and North Carolina State and Georgia Tech were producing these.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, talk about that in terms of the efficiency and the Bee-do system and all of that.

RAGAN: The Bee-do system -- more specifically talk about that -- maybe you can sort of get me started a little bit.

GEORGE STONEY: The Bee-do system was only one of a number of efficiency systems (inaudible) so just ignore that if you want to and talk about the efficiency.


RAGAN: A little bit before we get that, to go back to the competitive position between the Southern and New England mills. The New England mills of course had been in business longer. They were giant mills compared to the Southern mills. I think I’m correct in saying -- of course the Southern mills were newer mills. A smaller mill with newer machinery could perhaps produce as much as some of the larger mills. They didn’t quite look as impressive, but they were -- they had modern equipment and modern machinery and if it wasn’t modern the good managers would throw it -- or give it away or sell it and get modern machinery. The textile mills in the North were for whatever reason holding more to the status quo. They were, how shall we say it, they were trying to still pay the same dividends with the -- it was harder to pay the dividens and they 14:00had to work these mills harder to get that done. I’m getting a little tongue-tied in saying this, but I hope this comes over correctly. They were having to work harder maybe or to do things that they had not done before and one of the ways that they still paid these dividends was to perhaps not put money into new plant and equipment, and as the years passed, I think the Southern mills came into a better position along these lines and could produce the yarn and the cloth and the woven products more cheaply than the Northern mills could. And there’s more than one reason. The labor situation in the North was different. They had maybe five nationalities of employees. Languages 15:00had to be put in -- five different instructions had to be given in five different languages. It was more expensive to live in the North, but for whatever reason, they were still trying to pay those dividends. And conglomeration companies were getting bigger. I don’t remember the name, something like the Boston connection owned tremendous textile mills in Lowell and Laurence Massachusetts. But anyway, the Southern mills were making more money. One of the things, as I understand it, by the 1920s that happened were -- that was that the New England mills made what could be considered a strategic mistake. They had up until that time -- they had the superiority and the finer 16:00grades of textile products. They made a decision to go into the less fine production, whereas at the same time Southern mills like the Arlington that my grandfather started, had made the exact opposite decision to go into more quality and more refined textile products, and I think this was one of the reasons that the Southern mill economy expanded and the Northern mill economy went down. And then my father after graduating from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Georgia, he went to the New Bedford textile school and at this time, it was 1919 - 1920, at this time New England was still the -- by far the most superior area and the most prosperous area in textiles and it always impressed my father when he was in New Bedford to see these tremendous mills and to see the treasurers 17:00and the superintendents of the mills driving in these large cars and limousines, going to fine clubs and everything. And for a young man it was very impressive to him, but my father has told me many times, he said that he did see the need at that time to produce a quality product to really compete with the best and that he could see some of the things that were weak in New England and he with many other people tried to -- not to do the same thing in the South and to do things that would be more progressive.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, talk about the introduction of the more efficient systems like the Bee-do system.

RAGAN: OK, I think -- yes, this exactly goes back to the Northern mill companies and they had gotten larger, the companies that had absorbed many large mills and 18:00still trying to pay these dividends and make more money for the company, they had to be more efficient and in being more efficient they had to work their employees harder, and I think part of the situation was that the Northern mills that owned mills in the South, those Southern mills were capable of making more money than the Northern mills, so therefore maybe those Southern mills had to work harder to support the New Bedford and the Lowell and the Lawrence mills and the stockholders. So the -- I think the Loray mill was in Gastonia was a perfect example. It had been purchased by the Manville Jenks Company of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and it was only one of the plants of the Manville Jenks operation. And in the Loray they instituted what became -- what was officially 19:00known as the Boede system, I guess originated in France, but to everyone in Gaston County it was just called the stretch out system, and all it was, was making -- having one worker to supposedly do a more efficient job to do more work for his pay. And so this is what they instituted in the mills to try to make them more progressive. This, I think, historians would say is one of the things that led up to the famous 1929 strike at the Loray Mill in Gastonia. It was overdone and the -- I know from my father’s viewpoint and most of the locally owned mills, the mill men that owned and ran the mills, that it was overdone. And they did not feel that they did the same thing in their mills, but the Manville Jenks Company sent down a superintendent from Pawtucket. He 20:00instituted the stretch out system there. He did make it more productive. I suppose it could be said he was not the most likeable -- or his personality did not endear himself to the employees and I think they had some very bad feelings. This was evident to the management of the Manville Jenks Company and this particular man was replaced, and someone else came in who supposedly could do the same thing a little bit more gently, but by that time I think the feelings had become too strong and you know better than I do the National Textile Workers Union had become -- come into the town and was talking with the employees of the Loray. They obviously had figured that the textile industry of the United 21:00States was in the South, so that was a place to go and the center of the Southern industry was in Gaston County, so that was a place to go, and the largest mill in Gaston County was the Loray, so that was the place to go, and that’s where they began their work. This was a whole new story that we can get in and talk about if you want to with the Communist Party and the National Textile Workers Union and Fred Beal and the people that are involved, but I’ll wait for your instructions.

GEORGE STONEY: OK, now I think the next thing we want to talk about -- just a moment.

RAGAN: I had it somewhere.

GEORGE STONEY: OK, now just describe -- talk about the ’34 strike then.

RAGAN: Of course we’ve talked many times that the strike that has amazed historians and that we’ve all read about during this time was -- the one that interests most people was the 1929 strike at the Loray Mill -- the 22:00communist-inspired strike. This one occurred and was over in that year and was really not the largest strike. The main strike was the one in 1934 that was referred to as “The General Strike”. The flying squadrons -- this was not at one company, this was in all over the South and very heavily in Gaston County because Gaston County was one of the leading textile centers. What I know about it, I was -- of course my family itself is from talking with people and studying it and my father, [Caldwell?] Ragan, was directly involved in not only the industry, but in the strike. He was the president -- and maybe my grandfather was president until his death in 1936 -- but my father was the manager from the 23:00very beginning of the Ragan Spinning Company and it’s located a little bit west of Gastonia, close to Bessemer City. This is a photograph of it. It’s along the Southern Railway and it’s about seven miles outside of Gastonia. I don’t know all of the facts leading up to the strike, but I’m sure that it was, you know, we were in a depression. We were in a very bad depression. The mills of Gastonia, the economy of Gaston County had been severely affected. The economy and the textile industry really had begun declining in 1927, two years before the 1929 stock market crash. So by the time of the stock market crash conditions were very strained for many of the Gaston County mills, the large groups of mills -- the [Gray-Separk?] group which operated seven or eight mills, 24:00the Armstrong group of mills which had 10 or 12 or 15 mills, there were the [Stoweline Berger?] mills in Belmont, they’re a successful group of mills. The Hutchinson group of mills, and large independent mills like the Cramerton Mills and the McAden Mills and the Ragan Spinning Company and the Groves Mills and the Smyre Mills, they were all operating, but by 1934 the Gray-Separk and the Armstrong mills primarily had gotten into severe financial difficulty, had basically failed and had been taken into receivership -- a receivership that developed into the very successful company called Textiles Incorporated, which had been chartered in 1933 and it did not come out of receivership until the beginning of World War II. But anyway, the environment was that most of the 25:00mills of Gastonia, and many of Gaston County, were either not running or were working on very much curtailed production, in other words, two or three days a week. The only exceptions to those, the Ragan Spinning Company, the Groves Mill -- in Gastonia [there were?] exceptions -- maybe the Smyre Mills, the Trenton and the Dixon Mills were about the only ones that were able to run full-time during that thing with -- my father always felt very fortunate that they were. It wasn’t easy and he was on the road most of the time selling. He had some very good connections that we talked about, [Bogram?], Crawford, and John [Bromley?] and Sons, and places like this that provided them the ability to run right through the Depression. They were always fully employed, and the reason 26:00that I mention this that this was why -- this was part of the general strike. Those employees that were with mills, they were either not operating or not able to operate or were greatly curtailing their production, wages, and everything else, they were primarily the ones that were on strike and they wanted to close down those mills, like the Ragan Spinning Company, that were operating. So, our limited experience to the 1934 strike is at the Ragan Spinning Company, but this was happening all across Gaston County, Cleveland County, York County, South Carolina, Georgia, I presume, and to Tennessee, wherever there was a textile industry. It was in 1934, and I think it was on the day -- and you caught me off guard -- the day before Labor Day or something, 1934 that the flying 27:00squadron hit the Ragan Spinning Company and there was just a group -- a large group as I understand it, of unemployed textile workers whose purpose was to close down the Ragan Spinning Company. They arrived there. My father was informed that they were coming. He was a younger man then and maybe did things -- he was very mad and I was told by a friend 50 years later that -- from Charlotte -- that he was -- he was selling textile supplies -- he was there at the Ragan Spinning Company, he could verify everything that took place from a distance, from a safe distance. He witnessed what went on. Anyway, my father and the superintendent and a few other people were the only ones that would go outside of the mill office to meet these people and my father was extremely mad and probably said things back then that you couldn’t get by saying now, but in 28:00effect he stopped them and told them that everything he had was tied up in this company that if they came through and tried to destroy the property that they would have to go right through him, that he was going to stand there and try to stop them and I think things maybe calmed down a little bit. My dad was told later by one of the section hands at the Ragan Spinning Company by the name of Sid Black, and they called him Bear Black because he was so big and strong, but anyway, Bear told my father later, he said, “Mr. Ragan,” he said, “You didn’t notice it but I was standing right behind you with a four foot metal pipe and if they had tried to come through you,” he said, “I would have stood right with you and we would have taken on as many of them as we could.” 29:00So that was the kind of atmosphere. It was a rough atmosphere and Dad was quoted in newspapers and particularly the Daily News Record in New York, which is a trade publication, saying it was a damnable outrage that things like this could happen on a civilized society. They were providing employment to people, they were paying wages and for others to come in and try to close them down they didn’t think was right. But anyway, what finally happened is some -- maybe through an agreement with Caldwell Ragan standing here and the leader of the strikers, they had agreed to let them go on through the mill. He told the superintendent, it was Mr. Robert Miller at the time, he said, “Close the mill down. Send the employees home,” and at that time the flying squadron did go 30:00through the mill. They did not do major damage as they had done in some of the other mills, but they call it the ends, they tore them down -- all of the ends off of all of the machines which means that all the machines, whenever you started again, had to be set back up. So they did minor damage, then they went on to other mills. But it was a very terrifying thing probably at the time. As a matter of fact, some of the mill office people were not sticking their head out the door and there my dad was standing out in the middle of the whole thing, but it turned out all right and there’s an article that I think you --