Author: Daniel, Bert

Lint Heads

Everybody knows the term "red neck". It's usually used in a derogatory fashion to refer to unsophisticated southerners. Hillbilly. Cracker. White trash. Not something you'd want to be it seems, and yet some southerners have adopted the term to refer to themselves with pride. Mostly, these are conservatives with traditional southern values.

Supposedly the term derives from the sunburn acquired by working on the farm long hours in the hot sun. But some Appalachian miners also adopted a red bandana, worn around their necks, to build union solidarity. They proudly called themselves red necks and marched to stand up for their rights as workers.

I grew up in the piedmont region of South Carolina, the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The piedmont (which means foot of the mountain) is the industrial belt of the south because that's where the river flow was suitable for hydroelectric power generation. My home town, Greenwood, South Carolina, was a railroad town and a cotton mill town.

If you were to visit Greenwood today, you might be charmed or you might be bored. I was a little of both while I lived there. The town took pride in having the widest main street in the world, wider than Red Square in Moscow! Supposedly, a local had travelled to the Soviet Union, measured the breadth of Red Square, compared it to our own treasure, and pronounced our own boulevard about a yard broader than the Russian landmark.

In fact Greenwood's wide main street was an artifact of the train route that had once passed right through the center of town. There used to be a train station there, right in the middle of town, and the city buildings were forced to the periphery as a result. When the train station moved, the space was filled with a series of parallel roads and downtown parking lots, giving little old Greenwood the widest main street in the world! (or so they say).

I went back to Greenwood a few years ago. I took my kids to see the town where I grew up and I have to admit, I still love the place. It's a beautiful part of the country. They have a flower festival there every year because there's a big seed company located there (Park Seed).

But when I grew up, the biggest industries in town by far were the textile mills. Self Mills. Abney Mills. They employed much of the population and even constructed housing subdivisions to house their work force. You can see row after row of solid yet monotonous brick homes if you drive through south Greenwood today. Mill Town, we used to call it.

The belts, they run, the pulleys to roll
By coal and steam, you see
And twenty nine years in this old lint head town
Slowly is killin' me

All the good times are past and gone
All the good times are over
All the good times are past and gone
Like the blossoms that bloom on the clover

In school I had a lot of friends whose parents worked in the mills. Much of mill work was hard and dangerous. Your hand might get caught in the fiercely spinning spools and you had to breathe air filled with cotton fibers all day. Some workers got sick with a new disease called byssinosis from breathing cotton dust. But most people were unaware of that. The mills paid well for straightforward labor. One of the jobs you could do was doffing. All a doffer had to do was pick up the finished spool of yarn and put it in its proper place. Many of my classmates didn't bother to study all that that hard. They figured they could just find a job in the mill like their parents did, right?

And every payday that rolls around
I'm sure to drink my fill
And I swear I'll never work no more
As a doffer in a Carolina mill

Times change. The mills are pretty much all gone. Now Greenwood has other industries but the culture is probably pretty much the same. I miss the old home place sometimes but I'm glad I didn't get stuck there. I enjoy cooking grits for breakfast in my California home and talking and singing about the old home place. If I like, I can go back for a visit. After all I'm a lint head at heart and the nice people there will welcome me with open arms.

Posted:  2/10/2013

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