There was a time, around the Triad – and certainly around Greensboro – that if someone asked you where you were from, you didn’t say the city, you said something like, “I’m from White Oak,” or, “I’m from Revolution.”
Those were the textile mills around which the owners – The Cone and Sternberger families – built entire communities. The Cones built not just the factories and houses the families lived in but the YMCA they played at and the school they attended.
“They had some of the best teachers – they paid the teachers,” says Judith Sams, who grew up in White Oak, as both of her parents worked at the mill. Her husband grew up in Revolution.”
“That’s a mixed marriage,” someone says to her.
“It sure is,” Judith says, with an easy laugh.
At its peak, the Cones built 1,500 homes that housed 2,500 of their employees. Some saw it as paternalistic – perhaps the company could have paid the workers more so they could afford things like a YMCA membership or a baseball league on their own – but most people who lived in the villages say it was a wonderful life and saw the Cones’ fiscal policies as the prudence that helped the company survive the Great Depression – and secured the bank savings of the employees, at the same time.
The story of these ordinary people is being preserved in a museum exhibit inside the newly-renovated Revolution Mill, in Greensboro. It’s a project spearheaded by UNC-Greensboro professor, Benjamin Filene, and several of his graduate students. And it tells the entire story – not just a Normal Rockwell version of it.
“It was extremely hard and difficult work,” says Filene. “When we interviewed the people who worked in the factories, they remembered how exhausting and, by our standards today, unsafe it was. When you asked the children – people who were children, here – did your parents want you to work in a mill? No, they wanted to move on.”
But Filene and his students also show how much most people enjoyed growing up in the village. See how it worked, in this edition of the Buckley Report.