Monday, September 05, 2011

Retrospective: a little North End labor history on Labor Day

Warioto Cotton Mills in 1915
(incorporated in 1905; now the Werthan complex)

The labor history of North Nashville is not easy to find but there are some accounts online like this one:

“I got my first job when I was thirteen years old, working from six in the morning ‘til six at night. . .six days a week, making fifty cents a day,” recalled Josie Coleman .... She was referring to the summer of 1914, when she left her family’s double-log home in Spring Hill, Tennessee, to work in Nashville. Her father Jessie, a farmer supporting ten children younger than Josephine, drove the girl and her shawl-wrapped belongings ... to the city in a mule-drawn wagon.

The previous few years had been unfortunate ones for ... Tennessee farmers. Texas fever, a disease caused ... by tick bites, had invaded the state and killed or quarantined most livestock. That calamity, compounded by the summer drought of 1914 and Maury County’s epidemic of hog cholera ... brought the farm to a standstill. Thus, when Josie’s uncle ... reported in glowing terms on the ready market for labor in industrialized Nashville, first-born Josie decided that Nashville was the place to be ....

Her first job was at Hartsford Hosiery Mill on Twelfth Avenue North at Harrison Street [near what what is now Marathon Village]. She and “lots of other young girls” and women worked for fifty cents a day, six days a week, feeding the machinery that turned out long-length ribbed stockings for boys and girls. She threaded loops of cotton and wool on the large needles of a pre-set pattern or form; the needles created “everything. . .the toe, ribbing, and ends" .... The stockings of white yarn were later dyed black ... by sulphuric dyes. This process was performed away from the processing factory, since the dye was extremely toxic. “And that dye really did smell,” Josie laughed ... “I don’t see how those folks stirring the dye vats stood that job!”

.... her father sold the Spring Hill farm and brought the family to Nashville, buying a residence in the 1700 block of Fourth Avenue North [now Salemtown]. Josie moved in with the family and obtained a job with the H. G. Hill Flour Mill on Van Buren Street [Germantown]. At ... sixteen, she acquired a “better paying job” with the Tennessee Manufacturing Company on Eighth Avenue North [now Werthan Lofts]. She began by sewing sacks of starched calico cotton used for packaging flour and meal. “Ladies really loved those sacks,” she laughed. “When they were empty, the sacks were washed and the stitches cut out so that curtains and clothes could be made from them. I’ve wondered if the ‘free’ fabric ladies got when they bought flour wasn’t more important than the product!”

Plagued by agricultural malaise and drought, a rural generation--many of whom were children--were forced to move to North Nashville for wages even lower than those that had already motivated workers in other industrialized cities to strike at great risk because they did not keep up with the cost of company rent a century ago. It is hard to say whether the farm girls moving into North Nashville were aware of strife like Massachusetts' Bread and Roses Strike of 1912, but they may have been so desperate that it might not have mattered.

While the labor movement was not strong 100 years ago (and likely discouraged by company bosses) here in Nashville, a social welfare organizing movement that built and sustained settlement houses for factory workers was robust. The Warioto Settlement House was founded to care for workers' young children (as we saw above Josie was herself a child laborer), to provide education opportunities, and to prevent diseases.

The building that contained another former settlement house designed to aid and socialize laborers, and otherwise provide "mediation" between rich and poor classes in rapidly changing North Nashville still stands at 10th Avenue North and Garfield Street (now in the Buena Vista neighborhood). The "Flower Mission" building was built more than a decade before the Warioto Cotton Mill incorporated and 2 years before the Pullman strikes in 27 other states that resulted in our annual national observance of this day, Labor Day.

1 comment:

  1. Besides the workers who ran the mills, I think about the laborers and craftsmen who built those wonderful buildings.

    I wrote a story on Werthan years ago for local publication. During the 1970's, a tornado came and wiped out a wing of the plant just minutes after workers were let off for work.

    One of the long-time employees I interviewed, also claimed the basement of Werthan is haunted (he cited cold spots, flash-lights going dead then starting up again and his wrist-watch stopping when he passed through certain spots of the basement).

    It's also rumored that the Werthan family mentioned in Driving Mrs. Daisy are the Nashville Werthans. Apparently, the author went to school with one of the family members.