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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriet Herring, February 5, 1976. Interview G-0027. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Human dynamics of mill village

After losing her job in the personnel office of a Philadelphia company, Herring returned to North Carolina, where a mill owner asked her to survey the local population and recruit workers. She could not find any locals to work at the mill—they looked down on mill workl—but she did learn something about the mill workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriet Herring, February 5, 1976. Interview G-0027. 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

MARY FREDERICKSON:
I wanted to ask you about why you decided to come back to North Carolina.
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, I didn't have a job there. And, you see, the college had stopped that course six or eight months before; didn't even take in the last group that they accepted.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But did you come back to a specific job?
HARRIET HERRING:
No. I just came home. I had three brothers here, all married and all had a family, so I just came. I don't know how anybody at those mills in Kinston heard anything about that I had had any personnel experience; but anyway one of the men was a good friend of my brother's, and he found that I was home. So he asked me to come down and talk to him about it. They were having a great deal of turnover (of course everybody was), and having difficulty getting enough workers. They had two mills: a knitting mill and a spinning mill. They decided that there ought to be people in Kinston other than the mill village. Of course, if you lived in a mill house any potential worker was supposed to work for them. Anyhow, he seemed to think that if I'd go around (or somebody'd got around) and tell them something about the work and how long it would take to learn to spin or to knit or whatever. . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You were going around within the mill village in Kinston?
HARRIET HERRING:
No, I didn't have to go there, you see. They worked because they lived in the house. So we chatted about it, and between us we decided that it wouldn't be a bad idea for me to make a sort of a survey in the general area, people of about the same income, you see, as the mill workers. And so I did. And it was really very—he didn't get his money's worth on that, because they just wouldn't work in the cotton mill.
NEWIN BROWN:
Was it because of pride?
HARRIET HERRING:
Yes. Cotton mill workers were a stage lower.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
What were they doing?
HARRIET HERRING:
Most anything. Somebody might be a carpenter in the family, or somebody a plumber or something. I don't remember. But anyway, as I say, he didn't get his money's worth out of it.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You couldn't find any workers [laughter] for him.
HARRIET HERRING:
But I learned to spin in the process.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You did work in one of his mills?
HARRIET HERRING:
One of my propositions was that I wanted to know something about what the work in the mill was. I never got a chance to work on the machines at Roxford, because I was to set that up. But I had my assistant work on a machine for some weeks, 'til she could do any—well, she didn't try all the operations, but two or three different operations—so she'd know what it was like, and what the machines were like, and what it was to sit there for the hours and turn off those things, you see. I wanted to learn some of the processes, so part of my bargain was that I would learn to spin. And I was taught by a girl (we got to chatting and we got very friendly). . . . Incidentally, one of the little Polish girls that I worked with at Remington— no, not Remington, it was. . . .
NEWIN BROWN:
Winchester?
HARRIET HERRING:
. . . Winchester, we got to be quite good chums. But anyway, this girl and I turned out to be exactly the same age: we had the same birthday the same year. And she had worked in that mill twenty years.
NEWIN BROWN:
And this was about 1920 or '21, so she was. . . .
MARY FREDERICKSON:
This was in 1919.
HARRIET HERRING:
Yes. Well, she was born in '92, you see. I'd seen children working in mills and all that, and read about it and all, but nothing ever brought it home to me. And I thought that I had traveled to California and came back through Canada and stopped at various places, and I'd been to college (three colleges) and all that, and she'd been in there spinning all that time.
NEWIN BROWN:
What did that do to your image of workers in general? What did you feel about workers in general before that time, and did that experience change your attitude to them?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, I suppose that I knew so little. We knew the cotton mill people there, you know; and they were called . . . what did they call them, "fuzzy heads" or something or other, because of the lint. It was linty in them then and all. I guess I just, like any farmer's daughter, thought a mill was a pretty bad place, you know.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
You never had really had any contact, had you, when you were living on your father's farm?
HARRIET HERRING:
Oh mercy, no, no. I went to high school, and all the people I knew were friends of these people that I lived with, you see, and people that my parents knew in church (some of them, and some others).
MARY FREDERICKSON:
Where had most of the mill workers who lived in Kinston come from?
HARRIET HERRING:
Well, from the countryside. Now you wouldn't find that farther west; they'd come from Virginia. Now when I did personnel work in Spray and all that I'd ask, "Where were you born?" "Pittsylvania County, Pittsylvania County," you know, up in Virginia, most of them—thousands of them.
MARY FREDERICKSON:
But most of them from the Kinston area had just come off the land. Were they white tenants on the land then?
HARRIET HERRING:
Yes, they were all whites. The mill didn't employ any blacks except in—well, I'm sure they had some if they had any dyeing, and probably had them in the early stages of spinning, what they called "breaking" (they loosened up the bales and run it through the first rough processing; that's