Robert Ragan and Woodrow Wright Interviews

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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0:00

 JAMIE STONEY: -- [own?], and this is the best we could do. (pause; background noise)

1:00

[Silence]

2:00

[Silence]

3:00

JAIME STONEY: Yeah, we’re rolling, OK?

RAGAN: All right, this is the beautiful town of McAdenville, North Carolina. Behind me are the mills that are here, the town is noted for these mills; today, though, a lot of people remember McAdenville as Christmas Town, USA.

JAMIE STONEY: Sorry – (break in video)rolling.

RAGAN: This is beautiful McAdenville, North Carolina. McAdenville is a historic textile mill town and right behind us are three of the plants that you can see. The first one was built in 1881 by Colonel R.Y. McAden. He was -- Colonel McAden was a Charlotte banker a railroad pioneer that helped put together the present day Southern Railway system and he built these mills here in 1881. His second mill was built a few years later, about 1884, and the one directly behind 4:00-- the furthest behind -- was about 1901. At the time the mills were built, my grandfather, George Washington Ragan, had the first store associated with this historic town and it was owned partly by Colonel McAden’s two sons, Ben McAden and George McAden, and George Ragan owned the other part of it and was the active manager. It was a large store, and not only served the trade of the mills and the employees, but it served the trade for this entire area and was perhaps the largest store in the area. We had people not only from Gaston County but from York County and [Mecklenburg?] County. The mills were very historic, it was the first really fine mill in the county, if you can see, most 5:00of it was of good brick construction, a village was built with it, it was the first electrically lighted mill in the United States. It was powered by an Edison generator, number 31, and that generator is still here at McAdenville and owned by the mills; of course, not used at this time. The mill was run by water power and my father -- my grandfather would tell the story many times of how people came to McAdenville, particularly at night, to see the mill lit up because it was a beautiful sight, and they called it “light in a bottle,” they would just come to see the village. And, there was a lot of traffic that occurred here because of the textile mills and the nearby town of Lowell and the nearby mill of Woodlawn, so this had become a very progressive business community. The mills prospered and provided employment here, and George Gray, 6:00another of the textile pioneers, was the superintendent of the first mill here. And, the story that I’ve always heard is the combination of Gray and Ragan and the textile industry started here at McAdenville, that each evening or many evenings when Gray was through with his work at the textile mill, he would come to the McAden and Ragan store and he and my grandfather would talk hour upon hour about the textile industry and think of the day when they would have enough money saved up to go into the industry themselves. They saw what was happening here at McAdenville, it was prosperous, it was making Colonel McAden a lot of money, and so -- I think this was where they decided that they were going to go into the industry themselves and within a few short years, 1886 to be exact, 7:00both of ’em started in the textile industry, the cotton manufacturing industry, in Gastonia, and helped start the first mill there; they built the second cotton mill there, so a lot of textile history began here at McAdenville.

GEORGE STONEY: Nice, very nice.

RAGAN: Tha--

(break in audio; background noise)

8:00

[Silence]

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[Silence]

JAMIE STONEY: Yeah (inaudible) -- (pause) -- cut.

12:00

(pause; children playing; background noise)

JAMIE STONEY: Come all the way around, Rob. That’s all right. (inaudible) no big deal. Can you get through that (inaudible)?

13:00

M1: What’s happening?

JAMIE STONEY: (inaudible).

M1: Yeah, what’s happening?

GEORGE STONEY: We’re just [making some TV?]. Hi, how long?

M1: Thirty-eight years.

GEORGE STONEY: Good lord.

(pause; children playing; background noise)

JAMIE STONEY: Comin’ all the way around, [Dad?].

(pause; children playing; background noise)

JAMIE STONEY: Coming around.

14:00

(pause; children playing; background noise)

JAMIE STONEY: That was wile-- thou-- wild-- sound-- one thousand and one bells and bars -- and kids.

GEORGE STONEY: OK Woody, show us your pictures, and tell us about them.

15:00

WOODROW WRIGHT: Well this first picture here that I have you seeing, it’s when I was about six years old and I lived at the end of the South Point Road, which is south of Belmont; then, later, we came on in to Belmont and moved to the -- what they call the Belmont Peach Orchard, but that picture there is my old -- my youngest half-brother, which is -- I’m settin’ in between his legs and the other little feller is my baby half -- uh, baby brother. And, that is the possum dog that we kept there at the home; and then after that, well, I grew up in Belmont after we got away from the South Point area which I was eight years old at that time. And, when we left the country and moved to the suburbs of the 16:00city. And then I have another picture here just about the time I entered the textile mill, this was made just a little before I became employed with the Eagle Yarn Mills, which later changed its name to RL Stowe Mills, which was about 55 years, uh, 53 years later; the mill changed from R L Stowe, uh, Eagle --

GEORGE STONEY: [OK?], cut, just a--

(break in video)

JAMIE STONEY We’re rolling.

WRIGHT: All right, I’m gonna show a picture of when I was a small boy, six years old, and that man behind me is my youngest half brother, and the little boy setting beside of him is -- is my full brother; that was the baby of the family, and that was the last ’un of the family. But, that one in between the older person’s legs is Woodrow, that’s when I was only six years old, but 17:00then I can show you another picture, when I became a teenager, right before I became employed with the Eagle Yarn Mills, which was April the 21st, 1935. And, I went to work shortly after this picture was made at the age of -- I was three days past 17 years old when I went to work in the Eagle Yarn plant.

GEORGE STONEY: OK, now, Woody we’re going to be showing you some scenes from 1934; see if you recognize anybody and tell us about that. OK, here we go.

(Audio of parade scenes)

WRIGHT: They’re moving a little fast, but so far I don’t recognize any of the people that’s in the parade.

18:00

GEORGE STONEY: Could you tell us where this is taking place?

WRIGHT: I believe that is taken in Gastonia. I’d say, along about the years of ’29 or ’30, that looks like Gas--

GEORGE STONEY: This is -- this is ’34.

WRIGHT: Oh, well I was thinking about the [distracting?] ’29 but, moving on up to ’34, that’s still looks like the city of Gastonia at that time, that’s the way Gastonia’s buildings looked and that’s about the way the people at that time dressed, I’m going by their dressed apparel.

GEORGE STONEY: Would you know, uh, where that is -- the street?

WRIGHT: Well, I couldn’t definitely identify the street it’s on; it could be Franklin or it could be Main Street, but it looks more like Main Street than it does Franklin. Uh, I couldn’t possibly end-- identify the street, but I would say by the picture that it is Main Street in Gastonia. That’s the appearance 19:00that Gastonia has the first time I was ever up there, and the way the textiles was operating at that particular time, that’s the appearance that Gastonia had to me, at that particular time, ’cause I was a real young boy whenever Gastonia looked something similar to that.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, this happened on Labor Day, in 19--

WRIGHT: Thirty-four.

GEORGE STONEY: -- 34. Did -- if you went downtown, tell us about it, and see -- if you -- did you see this parade?

WRIGHT: Uh, one -- one particular time I was in Gastonia when they’re having the parade, uh, they had big parade but there more people viewing it from the sidewalks than they were, uh, in the parade. In other words, they was a pretty good group of people in that parade that I saw when I was up there, but there was so many people on the sidewalks viewing the parade, you couldn’t -- you 20:00couldn’t get through the sidewalks, you had to just stand still to see it, because you couldn’t move on. Because, the sidewalks, the people didn’t -- wasn’t used to parades in that particular area, because, you know, they had, uh, public appearance laws that kind of held the crowd back; in other words, the city had little old city laws that prevented people from gathering too much in too big of crowds due to fire, uh, hazards, you know, they claim that they didn’t have fire equipment, if one broke out it would endanger the peoples’ lives. But, you know, now the later years, all that’s disappeared and they have equipment to handle the crowds and at that time they didn’t because they was short of equipment, because they didn’t buy the mechanized equipment back 21:00then that they have now, because they was horse drawn equipment.

GEORGE STONEY: [Now?] –

(Audio of parade scenes)

WRIGHT: And, I believe that particular scene there is the old Loray plant, which is now the Firestone.

GEORGE STONEY: No, this is Parkdale.

WRIGHT: Well, uh, Parkdale’s bought so many of the mills, why, I don’t know which ones they own, which one’s they don’t, but --

GEORGE STONEY: OK, now --

WRIGHT: -- that particular view of the plant looks like the Firestone looks now, but it could still be right on up the street and be a Parkdale plant.

GEORGE STONEY: [Identifies it?] -- the fella talking identifies [it as?] a Parkdale mill.

WRIGHT: OK, well --

GEORGE STONEY: So, let’s --

WRIGHT: -- they on the same street, Firestone and Parkdale plant are on the same street, that is Parkdale’s main plant.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, would you -- did you go down there to watch the strike?

22:00

WRIGHT: I went up there and got as close as I could, which was two blocks, because that was a close as the soldiers would let the spectators, because they had it roped off, and I couldn’t get close enough to see everything, but I saw the troops, you know, the National Guards, and they would -- had the guns mounted on top of the plants and the troops was all around in the parking lots and they kept the crowd back as far as possible without, you know, trouble with the -- with the civilians. And, the governor of North Carolina at that time, I don’t recall his name, well, who was governor back in ’34, but, uh, I’m not sure but it could have been Gregg Cherry, but, anyway, they call out the National Guards in Gastonia to that strike, and later they called them to Belmont, for this one here in Belmont. But, uh, not only --

GEORGE STONEY: OK, now, when you’re talking --

WRIGHT: -- I only visited twice up there while that strike was in progress, and 23:00it was just to be a spectator. I --

GEORGE STONEY: OK, now we’ll go ahead with this -- and when you talk, you want to turn to me and talk; but, watch the -- the screen right now.

(Audio of parade scenes)

ALBERT HENSON: (Audio from video) (inaudible) ladies and gentlemen, and fellow workers, and the labor people of the Parkdale Mills --

WRIGHT: That speaker is not Bill, is it? Is that speaker supposed to be [Floyd Bill?]?

GEORGE STONEY: No.

HENSON: -- [hesitation?] will [laugh?] at this small manufacturing company, which is the same -- one of the same [chain of mills as is Parkdale?]? There are a few of you people here --

WRIGHT: I wished I could identify the speaker for you, but I don’t recognize him; I’m just trying to place the voice, but I don’t recognize the man, but 24:00it could be Bill. Because --

HELFAND: It’s [Albert Henson?]

GEORGE STONEY: It’s Al-- it’s Albert Henson, Albert Henson.

WRIGHT: Albert Henson, well, I didn’t -- I couldn’t recognize him and identify him because, you know, it’s been so long, when all this took place, you know, there’s some things that I don’t remember, you know, that I saw up there during that strike, because, you know, me being a small boy, I didn’t get too close, ’cause I was more or less scared of the troops; you know, because I didn’t want a bayonet in me. And -- which, they used their bayonets instead of firing on the people. The -- they never got orders to fire the rifles, but they did get orders to charge with the bayonets, which they killed a few people. But, I tried to come up with the man’s name that got bayoneted in Belmont, at the Knit Products, when they -- when they had that strike, but, I 25:00haven’t come up with his name, but I remember when it happened ’cause I was down there.

GEORGE STONEY: OK, I want you to say again, “When I went up there, I was only 15.”

WRIGHT: OK, when I went to the strike in Gastonia, I was only 15 years old; I liked a little bit being old enough to be employed in the plant, because at that time they had done passed the child labor law, and before that, before they passed the child labor law, you could go to work at nine years old. But, during the time I was in the teens, you had to be 16. So, I was still unemployed at the time that that strike took place in Gastonia, and -- but I went for curiousity to just sees how the people was acting and reacting to the troops being up there.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, this, what you’re watching now, is a flying squadron that came here and closed the Parkdale mills. Listen to what this fella says, can 26:00you hear it all right? Listen to what he says.

(Audio of newsreel scenes)

HENSON: (inaudible; audio from strike scenes) and the people voted 100% to [shut those down?].

WRIGHT: I can understand most of these words, yessir.

HENSON: (inaudible) I went back in another conference with the superintendant, and he asked me how long we’d give him to (inaudible), which we realized that we have to give him time to [raise our wage?] to take care of the [rotors?], because we want to work again. But, we want better conditions when we work again (cheers; inaudible).

27:00

WRIGHT: The conditions back then were horrible, I’ll have to admit that. The -- the people just didn’t make enough money to hardly live; in other words, the wages were so low that it was hard to live and work in a textile plant.

GEORGE STONEY: Now, what did you earn when you first when into the textile plant?

WRIGHT: When I first went to work down here at the Eagle Yarn Mills I was making three dollars and a quarter a week for 40 hours. And, it -- you know, that wasn’t much money, because I had to give Mother $3 of the three and a quarter, and she’d let me keep a quarter to go to a movie, and they was only 15 cents at that time, but I would have movie fare and a bag of popcorn out of the quarter. But, whenever Franklin Roosevelt got elected president, about six months later our wages jumped from three dollars and a quarter a week, 40 hours, 28:00to $12 a week. They was shouting and singing ’cause we thought we were rich when we drawed a $12 paycheck. In other words, back then, when they paid off, they didn’t pay off in checks, they paid off in cash. All of it but the odd money would be dollar bills and then if it got down lower than a dollar they’d give you change, you know, silver; and they’d try to give you all fifty-centers. In other words, if you made $12, they would give you maybe $11 of it in paper money, they’d give you two of the fifty-centers, you know, ’cause everybody liked to get all that silver, you know, because it felt better in your hand than the dollar bill. But, we drawed $12 a week and he set 29:00the wage laws so that we would get a raise every so often. Well, our first raise we got a 20 cent raise on the day, it raised us up to twelve-twenty. And, it began to come so often it wasn’t long till they got us up to $15 a week with those twenty cent raises a week. In other words, it took about five years, but we finally got to $15 a week for our wages for 40 hours. And the longer he stayed in, the more our wages went up, and the textile people in the South, and I don’t know what the North thought about Roosevelt, but the South come off of starvation to a modern way of living under the president, because he give us a much better wage law and fixed it so the mill man had to pay for the help that he was employing and he had to pay a good wage [decided?] what he was paying; when Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, and as long as he stayed 30:00President of the United States, the textile people was getting a raise at least once a year and sometimes twice a year, and I went from three dollars and a quarter under Roosevelt up to about $250 a week while he was president.

GEORGE STONEY: Two-hundred and fifty dollars a week?

WRIGHT: Two-hundred and fifty dollars when Roosevelt died with that cerebral hemorrhage, in Albany, Georgia. I never will forget how my wages went from three dollars and a quarter a week to $250 a week for the same job that I was on. I was doffing twisters for three and a quarter, and when I quit doffing twisters 35 years later, I was making 200--