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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Caesar Cone, January 7, 1983. Interview C-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decline of mill towns and corporate paternalism

Cone describes the dissolution of the mill town model. Electrification spurred demand for appliances, complicating mill owners' efforts at paternalism, which had been limited to providing some forty-watt bulbs and outhouses. In the 1950s, Cone gave up on paternalism and decided to let cities provide those kinds of services.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Caesar Cone, January 7, 1983. Interview C-0003. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

HARRY WATSON:
How about with your own organization, in terms of the traditional relationship with the mill village and the houses?
CEASAR CONE:
We've gotten out of all that.
HARRY WATSON:
What made you decide to do that, and when did you do it?
CEASAR CONE:
I'd say we started on that about 1950. You see, they took us into the city limits in 1923. But the tax rate was less out there than in the city, in that district, because it didn't apply to the bonds, the debt service, as of the time of the take-in in 1923. Also, the company still ran the village system, keeping the streets up, the sewage, the water, etcetera. There were no water meters on the houses, no electric meters. In the fifties we turned the electric system over to Duke. We turned the water system over to the city, put water meters in the houses, electric meters. Originally, when the houses were built, there was maybe a forty-watt bulb in each of the four rooms, maybe, period. And it didn't cost a hell of a lot to absorb that juice when you figured the juice that was being used in the plants and all. But then as electrical appliances came along and people wanted irons and stoves and bought all these items, it was patently unfair. So rather than get mixed up with our employees on how much we'll charge you for an iron or a stove, we just decided to abolish the whole smear. We'll put meters in here, and the heck with it. In the meantime, pressures came from unions for salaries, more money, more money, so we decided the heck with it. It looks like we're going to have to give it to them in the payroll. So the heck with it, we'd just get out of it as far as this paternalism is concerned. You see, we had YMCA's that we financed. We gave them to the city as recreation. Before my time, when we ran the schools out there, we had a nine-month school for those kids, hired the schoolteachers and all, when the county school system was only a four- or five-month system. That was true not just with us but with the whole textile industry. In those days, when you needed a concentration of employees to run your plant, you were on your own. There wasn't any government housing or city housing or whatever. You had to build the houses and invite the people, and maybe they weren't too nice. In the beginning we had outhouses, before my time, and there was a drilled well with a pump between every two houses. That was better than they had up in the mountains or out in the country where they came from, and they were flocking in there. They had the school for the kids, which they didn't have where they came from. The amenities you gave them today would look like nothing and would be criticized by everybody, but it was so damn much better than people had where they came from that they flocked into these mill villages. Then "paternalism" got to be a dirty word. Now it's government paternalism, which is wonderful. Individual paternalism, corporate paternalism became a dirty word, don't you see.
HARRY WATSON:
I see.
CEASAR CONE:
That's one of your problems down here in Cannon Mills. They still have an unincorporated Kannapolis, and I see this new owner, Murdoch, who bought the place out, is getting ready to have Kannapolis incorporated. I don't know, but I suppose Cannon doesn't have its village houses with water meters and electric meters and all like that, so they're way late in getting into this thing. This equality thing came along, and all we wanted to do was run our plants; we didn't want to get mixed up in having the problems out in the community of putting a black and a white together or next door to each other and creating a big problem. We were smart enough to get out before all this equality hit. We had one plant that we weren't out of. It still had a village after equality. We had to tear the whole damn thing down.
HARRY WATSON:
Where was that?
CEASAR CONE:
Down in Rutherford County, Cliffside. It was out in the country, on the Broad River. The mill was a small mill in the beginning, run by water power. The Haynes family. Not the Winston Hanes. Cone Export had sold for that mill. They made plaids for years, and we enlarged it. Plaids went out of business. We turned it into a towel mill like Cannon. Very much smaller, of course. It now makes denim. But it was way out in the country, and we had our own village. But we were a little late in getting the village sold, and we had some blacks over here and whites over here, the same type of housing but in different areas. We came along to find that we couldn't offer the house to the man who'd lived in it with his family for thirty or forty years. You'd have to offer so many of these blacks over here opportunities for these houses, so many whites over here. We just figured that would just create merry knob with us, we, the owners, being accused. Nothing we could do about it, so we tore the whole damn thing down. In the meantime, automobiles have come along, so they can commute there from out in the country to wherever they might go to live. It's not far from Rutherfordton, Shelby, and down that part of the country. That was the only place we ran into that, because we'd gotten rid of everything else. Now what they're going to run into down there at Kannapolis, God only knows.
HARRY WATSON:
It sounds like it could be pretty complicated.
CEASAR CONE:
We fixed all the village up before we sold it. We gave them easy terms and financed it ourselves instead of selling out wholesale to somebody and then let the moneychangers take over. I think it was at four percent interest. They've got them all paid for now. This was 1950-odd. We made the loans dependent on the size of the house. If a fellow had a four-room house, we figured he ought to pay it off in ten or twelve years. If he was in a two-storey house with eight rooms or six rooms, maybe it was fifteen years. In other words, pattern the thing. But that's all out of the way. We're out of the municipal business.