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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Julius Fry, August 19, 1974. Interview E-0004. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Role of company stores in generating employee debt

Fry describes how the Mansfield Mill exercised its power over workers outside of the factory during the Great Depression. According to Fry, workers were coerced to trade with the company store, where prices were raised, credit was extended, and debts were created. For Fry and other workers, this led to indebtedness to the company. These conditions, Fry explains, were further reason for workers to embrace the goals and politics of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Julius Fry, August 19, 1974. Interview E-0004. 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

BILL FINGER:
Did you have to buy all your food through the company stores?
JULIUS FRY:
Yes, not in the beginning, but in the height of the Depression, the supervisor came around to me, and I'm sure that they did it all over the mill, and they said, "Julius, do you trade at the company store?" And they knew that I didn't, because they had the records. I said, "No, I'm not trading there now, I'm buying from such-and-such." A little local grocer. And they would say, "Well, we think that maybe you ought to trade at the company stores, you know, the company gives you a job and if you like your job, and I know you do, there are not many to find, we think that you ought to trade at the company store." And put pressure on me and you knew that if you didn't, you would lose your job, so you would go trade at the company store. And they would be lenient with you, they would get you in debt. They would be lenient and give you more trade than you earned in the mill. And then after they got you so far behind, you never would draw any cash money.
BILL FINGER:
Did that happen to you?
JULIUS FRY:
Oh, yes, it's happened to me. But I finally said, "To hell with this shit, I can't stand that." And I finally worked that off, but I've see people work ten years and never draw a penny's cash. And it became so necessary that the company owned the dairy, they would furnish the milk and if a worker needed a doctor, they would have to get the company store manager to vouch for them that he would pay them by taking it out of their paycheck. And it even got so far as to where movie tickets for a little theater downtown, a little tiny cubbyhole, you had to go to the company store to get those, you didn't have any cash money and they would let you have the.
BILL FINGER:
Were the prices a lot higher for all these things than in that little grocery store?
JULIUS FRY:
Yes, they were, and it was common knowledge that one of the head clerks at the store, in a joking way, but it was serious, he would be overheard, and he would do it just to let them hear it, "By the way, So-And-So left today owing some money. Go up a cent a pound on sugar." Just do it openly, they would do it that way. And you could go out and as the manager to let you have a $5 book, or $1 check or a $1.50 check or a $10 book, that was coupons, you know, and he would pick up the phone and say, "How much time does So-and-So have? How much has he worked?" That was to see whether he had the money or not. If you didn't have it, you didn't get it. You were completely a slave to it.
BILL FINGER:
But you felt free from that too, in 1933?
JULIUS FRY:
Oh, free from all of that. Well, the main freedom was that somebody was telling the company what they had to do and it was the government. And everybody knew it and Roosevelt was coming on the air with his fireside chats, and he really had the working people behind him.
BILL FINGER:
Did you all talk about that at work, that kind of thing?
JULIUS FRY:
Oh, yes. I don't remember many of the discussions of it, not specifically, but it was. . . oh, everybody felt the same way. Roosevelt had the working people.