Life around the Dwight Mill Village – Part 4


This week Vagabond received a message from Mike Morgan who wrote:

“I have been reading The Messenger and I came across your stories on the mill village. The Emery family in the story is my great grandmother (Lula Emery) and her children. Lula moved in 1907 to Alabama City from Falkville, AL after her husband, J.R. Emery, died. They came in a covered wagon to a house on Sandusky Lane. That house was in my family until my dad sold it in the late 1980s.”

Ed (W.A.) Lewis of the Etowah Historical Society recently brought a booklet to the Vagabond about someone from the Dwight Cotton Mill Village. The book is called “A USA Mill Town Saga of the 1900’s,”  written by Eugene Livingston, who wrote what he remembered about the times, hardships, laughter and love shared between two families, Jim and Ester Livingston and Roy and Betty Emery as they lived in the early 1900’s.

Mr. Livingston’s recollection of the times and events that happened in the mill villages of Alabama City and Lupton City, Tenn., as well as the other places mentioned, will captivate your imagination and make you laugh and cry.

It will also take you back in history to the good times and the hard times and perhaps stir the memories you may have of your own families of years gone by.

The continuation of his story is as follows:

“When I was one year old, an epidemic of smallpox hit Alabama City. The people were dying right and left. The doctors didn’t know what to do. The company had three doctors, Burns, Action and Cantrell. Dr. Burns was an ex-military doctor, very gruff and rough.

“One day I was at the ballpark and saw a ball player run out of the park after a fly ball.

A truck ran over him, breaking his leg. Dr. Burns happened to be passing by at the time.

He had two strong men to hold down the ball player and he pulled the broken bone back into place and put a splint on it.

All this was done without any kind of sedative. The man hollered and cried but to no avail. Then Dr. Burns sent the ball player home without any pain pills.

Dr. Cantrell was a young and feisty little man just out of medical school. He drove a “T” Model Ford Coupe. Dr. Action was a chubby man in his early forties. He was also a drug addict. He would sit around sleeping all the time.

By today’s medical standards, they would not even make good first-aid workers, but there was one thing they could do. That was delivering babies.

I suppose that was because they had so much practice. Every couple in town had at least one baby and they would get a new one each year.

If you needed a doctor, just stop by the mill office on the way to work, leave your name and address; a doctor would be at your house very soon.

The people had no telephones, so you would have to go by the mill office in person on your way to work.

The way payment was handled for these services was that the company would take one penny out of each dollar that each worker made. This didn’t seem like very much money, but about three thousand workers with an average pay of 10 dollars per week made a tidy sum for three doctors.

The company had a house just on the outskirts of town, in a big field on the other side of Wilson Street. They built a high fence around the house and armed guards were there 24 hours a day. No one could go in or out. They called it the ‘pest house’

Anyone with small pox, or who thought they might have it, was put in the house. No doctors went to help them. Doctors did not know what to do. If they died, they died. If they got well, they went home.

Their relatives took food to them and put it on the ground at the gate. Someone inside came out and picked up the food. Jim stayed there several weeks. He was one of the lucky ones and he recovered.

I slept with Jim and my baby brother, Jesse, slept with Mama. Jim had the pox, I didn’t. Mama didn’t have the pox but Jesse had it and died. He was three months old.

About two years later the First World War was raging in Europe and some of the returning soldiers brought the flu bug back. The doctors didn’t know anything about this either.

People all over the country were dying like flies. I saw a big wagon, pulled by two mules, loaded with pine boxes.

People were dying so fast, they could not make caskets fast enough, and so they just buried them in pine boxes.

The wagon went down one side of the street and set off boxes, and then went back down the other side picking up dead people in boxes.

They would take them to the cemetery and set them off to be buried as soon as graves could be dug.

They had no burial services, just put them in the hole and covered them with dirt.

My little sister, Mary, who was about one year old had the flu and died. Jim and I rode to the Clayton Cemetery on the wagon, carrying her body, and watched as her body was put in the ground and covered up.

Mama was home in the bed so sick that she could not even get up. She almost died. Just imagine what Jim and Mama had to endure.

The mill had to close down because of the lack of help. People did not have much food and had no oil for lamps.

Everything would be very quiet then all of a sudden someone would scream, ‘Oh, he is gone, he is gone; Lord, Lord, what will I do? My dear husband or wife is gone.’ And then silence again.

The one screaming had collapsed, just too weak to carry on.

Then a few minutes later, someone on the other side of the street would let out a cold scream, ‘Lord, Lord, my darling is gone. What will I do? My baby, my baby.’

This went on for days. People were dying everywhere. I was only six years old and knew nothing of death but I found out very quickly. A lot of people died because of the lack of care.

There was no one to feed them or give them water. Food was available, but there was no one to prepare it. Everyone was so sick.

Those who did not have the flu would not come close to those who did have it because it was fatal to almost all who did have it.

Grandpa and Grandma Livingston, Aunt Minnie and her children lived on a farm on Sand Mountain. They did not have the flu but they would not come down and check on us.

When all this was over, Grandpa came down and, for all the food he had on the farm, he brought us a little jar of some kind of little peas.

We had a little food, but Mama could not get up to cook it. We were all nearly starved. I was so hungry that I got into the jar of peas and ate so many that I vomited them up.

After several weeks, the flu began to let up. Those who survived took months to regain their strength enough to go back to work.

The mill began to operate again, but only for half a day. This was so that the people could get money to buy a little food.    

It was months before the mill was back in full operation. I certainly hope I never see such a time like that again

Even after some 80 years, it is very hard for me to write about all I saw. I never knew how all our other relatives fared, but I don’t think any of them died. It was a time to try people’s faith

I sometimes think that was the reason Mama and Jim didn’t go to church when they were young.

After a while, Jim was able to go back to work, but Mama was not doing very well at all. She would try to cook and take care of two children.

She would just sit and cry a lot. After all, she had been through a lot in the last three or four years. She had been through two epidemics, the smallpox and the flu, and had lost two babies.

Jim went to work as usual one morning, then he came back in about an hour and said, ‘Ess, get ready, we are going to Miss Wooten’s to stay a week.’ He always called Grandma Wooten ‘Miss Wooten.’ Grandma Wooten was my mother’s mother. Mama perked up considerably at this news.

The day came for us to leave and we walked down to the square, which was where the streetcar stopped. We rode to Attalla and then rode a train across Sand Mountain to Guntersville, which is on the Tennessee River.

Here we got on a big, three-story high, steamboat and rode down river to Hobbs Landing where Grandpa Wooten met us with his horse and buggy. We stayed with Grandma a week before we went back home.

After we got back home, Jim talked with Roy and they both decided to move to Tennessee and try farming with Tom Galloway, so we moved into adjoining log cabins on one of Tom Galloway’s farms.

They raised only corn. About the middle of the summer when the corn was about six feet high, the buyers from the cereal factories would come down from Chicago and buy the whole corn crop. They would pay them one-half the price then and one-half in the fall when they came back to get the corn.

That fall, they would pull the corn and haul it to the barnyard. They would send huge wagons down and take the corn back to the factory.

Roy and Jim thought this was a great life. So all they had to do was lie around all winter and hunt and fish. After the long winter was over and plowing time was at hand, they begin to think about how long it would be until payday again.

They were also thinking that if they were in Alabama City, they would be making $10 every week.

So they got up and moved back to Alabama City and went to work in Dwight Cotton Mill again.

Mama decided to go back to work in the mill too. She enrolled Maggie and me in the company’s day care center on Lake Front Avenue.

This was located just across the lake, about one hundred yards from the mill. In those days, you seldom saw a baby nursing a bottle. Almost all babies were breast-fed.

There were several nursing babies in this day care place. Their mothers would come out of the mill at 9 a.m. and at 12 p.m. to feed the babies. The mill stopped from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. for lunch.

The mothers would come back again at 3 p.m. to feed the little ones again.

Maggie and I liked this place. There were lots of kids to play with. Mama quit her job at the mill after a short time so we didn’t get to go to the day care for a very long time. We were not old enough to go to school so we stayed home with Mama.

After Jim would go to work Mama would clean the kitchen, fix us some lunch and then we had the whole afternoon to go have a good time.

We would go to Aunt Betty’s house and sometimes to Grandma Thompson’s and sometimes to Aunt Matt’s. Aunt Matt was Grandpa’s twin sister but I always called her ‘Aunt Matt.’

She lived with her son, Cleve, and his wife Viola. Cleve only went to the fourth grade in school, but he was a genius when it came to knowing about electricity. He was also an expert auto mechanic.

He was the only man in Alabama City who could set the timing right on an auto engine. He could make more money in one day working on cars than all week in the mill.

Viola and Cleve had two children, a boy and a girl. I can’t recall the girl’s name but the boy’s name was Charlie, who was a genius also.

He never missed a day in school, from the time he started in the first grade until he graduated from high school. He never made less than one hundred on any tests.

He won the highest honor of any schoolboy in the USA. Every time we went to see them, Cleve would take us home in his car.

I don’t know what make car he drove, but it was a big one with a cloth top. At that time, cars didn’t have a muffler and you could hear them coming two blocks away. It was a big beautiful green color. We sure felt important riding in this car.    

Everyone would run out to see the car when they heard it coming.

They would also do this whenever they would hear an airplane come over – which was not very often. They would just holler and wave at the pilot.”

Check again next week as we continue the story of Eugene Livingston and the Mill Village.

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