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Oral History Interview with Mareda Sigmon Cobb and Carrie Sigmon Yelton, June 16 and 18, 1979. Interview H-0115. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Mareda Sigmon Cobb and her sister Carrie Sigmon Yelton both worked long careers in North Carolina textile mills, completing the family journey from farm to factory in the early decades of the twentieth century. Here they describe their family lives both as children and parents, the many implications of the Depression, working conditions in the mills, religion, and other themes central to social and labor history. The economic and material realities of textile employment are explored in detail; each suffered a major injury on the job, neither favored unionization (though their husbands did), and neither received a pension. To the extent that Yelton and Cobb politicized their employment conditions and worker treatment, they tended to do so not through support of unionization but through a more general support for the Democratic Party of Roosevelt. Cobb and Yelton worked at various jobs in such mills as West Hickory, Shoe String, Moding, and Gastonia Mills. Cobb's memories of the Gastonia Strike and 1934 General Strike became important pieces of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et al.'s, Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, an award-winning scholarly work published in 1987 by UNC Press.

    The sisters came from a family of eight children (a ninth died in infancy). The family moved to various southern locales on account of their father's work as a finish carpenter, before returning to the Hickory, North Carolina, area. Their father, who favored a connection to farming, twice tried to move his family from Hickory back to the countryside, but each time the children were miserable. Yelton dropped out of school after the eighth grade at age fourteen—then the legal minimum age for withdrawal—and three years later took a job at a textile mill. Her favorite job was creeling, though favoritism determined who worked which job; she generally enjoyed her work at the mills, and expresses pride in her ability to produce high quality work. She did not marry until she was thirty-one, but argues that her choice was not unusual and recalls how young adults entertained themselves during their off-hours. Prior to marriage, Yelton had two sons (the first when she was seventeen, the second when she was twenty-one), and she explains that she was able to continue working because her mother and a neighbor woman provided childcare; she and her husband subsequently had three daughters. Yelton remembers the community that formed among the female workers with particular fondness. Despite periodic resentments over wages, working conditions, job assignment, and benefits, Yelton did not support unionization efforts. She describes her attachment to the Lutheran Church; her pastor provided needed support for her over the years, particularly after her husband became disabled. Around 1971, she suffered a serious workplace injury to her arm.

    Cobb married in 1925; she and her husband, also a mill worker, had no children. Both became ardent Democrats out of appreciation for Roosevelt's response to the Depression; although her husband held leadership roles in the union local, she never joined. She recalls what she knew from others regarding the 1929 and 1934 textile strikes; she notes that it was commonly understood that Gastonia police chief Orville F. Aderholt was killed not by striking workers but by other police. She also remembers important social and religious events among the lives of Gastonians, especially Earl Armstrong's evangelistic meetings, and describes aspects of life in Gastonia's mill villages. Working conditions in the mills were often difficult; "stretch-outs" (a demand by the mill owner for increased output without any corresponding reward to the workers) were common, and workers were often little appreciated. In 1963, she suffered a serious workplace injury to her leg, which ultimately resulted in her retiring on Social Security disability; after her doctor wrongly limited her treatment initially to save her employer greater treatment costs, she developed gangrene and was then hospitalized for nearly five months. She and her sister recount other instances of poor medical treatment and difficulty obtaining workman's compensation and unemployment on account of employer resistance. Because Cobb had no children, she felt somewhat less vulnerable contesting certain workplace rules and also quit various job assignments in the mills that she found too stressful.

    Excerpts
  • Cebe Sigmon moves his family to Hickory
  • Why Sally Sigmon did not work outside her home
  • Everyone in the family contributed to the family income
  • Life in the Sigmon house
  • Cebe Sigmon tries to return to the farm
  • Favoritism in the mills
  • Learning new jobs, finding friends, and feeling proud of one's work
  • Negative effects of technological advances in the textile and hosiery mills
  • Carrie and Alvin Yelton meet
  • Entertainment for youth and young adults in Hickory, North Carolina
  • Balancing motherhood and work
  • Reasons Yelton quit her job
  • Why Yelton believes unionization failed
  • Yelton compares different work venues and jobs
  • Yelton scoffs at nostalgia
  • Community among hosiery mill workers
  • Changing conditions in the mills
  • The Yeltons found needed community and support within their church
  • A medical mistake forced Alvin Yelton to retire
  • Home remedies
  • Yelton disapproves of suburbanization of her town
  • Though her unwed pregnancies were unusual, Yelton is glad she kept her children
  • The Cobbs decide not to have children
  • Poor medical care forces Cobb to quit her job
  • The Gastonia Strike of 1929
  • Earl Armstrong's ministry in Gastonia
  • Why unionization failed in the South, according to Cobb
  • Life in Gastonia's mill villages
  • Why Cobb became a loyal Democrat
  • Cobb's work on local Democratic campaigns
  • Cobb's husband's union activities
  • Various strike leaders
  • Contrasting being paid by the piece to hourly wages
  • Cobb freely left jobs she didn't like
  • Fighting to get worker's compensation
  • Campaigning for buses in Hickory, North Carolina
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • Subjects
  • Women in the textile industry
  • Textile workers--Southern States--Social conditions
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.