A former labor camp and factory complex comes down in Danville, Virginia. Is it a site worth preserving or an ugly vestige of industrial exploitation? Or both?

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Misty Eyes for a Mill Village

schoolfield demmolitionA former labor camp and factory complex comes down in Danville, Virginia. Is it a site worth preserving or an ugly vestige of industrial exploitation? Or both?

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schoolfield mill village demoDemolition at Danville, Virginia's
Schoolfield Village textile mill
Photo: Julian Henderson for Danville Register & Bee

Schoolfield Village in Danville, Virginia, once had houses, a school and playground, even its own YMCA, but it was never an ordinary neighborhood; the 90-acre complex was designed to supply laborers to the town's textile factories, whose looms and smokestacks were also part of its downtown "campus."

Denice Thibodeau, writing for the Danville Register and Bee, has been following the dissolution of Danville's mills and the quandary over what will become of the textile industry's empty buildings. Dan River, the biggest employer in the city for most of the last century, ceased operation two years ago. Now, Old Mississippi Brick & Heart Pine Co. is salvaging materials as yet another Schoolfield structure — the Number 4 mill — comes down.

Thibodeau writes that the 900,000 sq. ft. Number 5 mill "will remain, as will the main office, the storage building and the case goods high-bay building." Dave Kleir of Old Mississippi told her, “We hope to preserve the No. 3 Dress building or sell it to someone who wants to turn it into condos or town homes.”

Would you like to live in a former sweatshop? Maybe so. A group of local preservationists has organized to find uses for the remaining Schoolfield structures, and in September of last year, several state architectural preservationists addressed their organization. “My first task," said Louis Mallon, "is to dispel the notion that historical preservation is about the stately homes of long-dead great white men. Preservation is about a sense of place, valuing the building and landscapes that define your life. It’s about your house, the house next door and the church up the street, the market down at the corner.”

But is it about what was essentially a labor camp? Does anyone want to be "defined" by that experience?

mill village in charlotte, NC

The Alpha Mill Village in Charlotte, NC
Photo: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks

Textile manufacturing was the core of Danville's economy through the 20th century. Some people became very rich, but many others (presumably, most who raised their families in Schoolfield Village) did not. Anne O'Hare McCormick, reporting on Southern milltowns for the New York Times in 1930, figured she could shock both millowners and Communists; after touring several mill villages, she wrote, "I was continually reminded of Russia." Even in the best of these factory-feeder developments — and Schoolfield apparently was one of the kindest — "The houses are not homes," she wrote. "They go with the job and belong to the mill. Moreover, they make the worker belong to the mill as he could not by the mere fact of employment."

The history of working people — including material culture — warrant study and understanding, and the challenge to document this past is real. Folklorist Archie Green coined the term "laborlore" to encompass the field of study and has worked to preserve workers' culture across the U.S., collecting the songs of coal miners, preserving a five-story copra crane on Islais Creek in San Francisco, bringing together university scholars and union members.

So what about Schoolfield? McCormick called the Southern mill village "a feudal institution, often benevolent, necessary to the establishment of the textile industry in a wholly rural environment, but out of place in a democracy and out of date in a modern industrial system." It took many decades, but time seems to have proved her right. Dan River sold the mill to Gibbs International in 2006.

schoolfield village ymca

Y.M.C.A. activities for the children at Schoolfield Village
Photo: The North Carolina Experience, UNC

Thibodeau reports, "Gibbs is currently moving the machinery out of the No. 1 Weave and readying it for shipment overseas." The machinery's gone, the jobs are gone, and so, of necessity, are the many of the people who held those jobs.

Will preserved buildings alone now be able to tell the "feudal" tale of Schoolfield Village? And (check with John Edwards on this) does anyone want to hear it?

Note: Thanks to John Borden for the alert.

 

 

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