Brooks invests in Valley preservation efforts
By Emily Beckett
A circle painted on the hardwood floors of Shawmut Kindergarten represents one of the historic treasures the Valley Historic Preservation Commission has been able to preserve in one of its four mill villages. This circle may seem trivial compared to the building itself, constructed in 1924, but it is more than simply a large dot painted on slats of well-worn wood. For Valley resident and commission treasurer Barbara Brooks, it evokes fond memories of her childhood in a place where the mills often created ties as strong as family. “We would sit around the circle, play our games and do lessons and things,” Brooks says. “When you’re 5 years old, it looks extremely large. When you go in as an adult, you’re wondering, ‘How did we fit in this little building, sitting around this circle?’” Brooks says she had the opportunity to visit her former kindergarten when she became a commissioner for Valley’s historic preservation about six years ago. “I grew up in Valley, so it’s been a home the majority of my life,” Brooks says. “I worked in Lanett in a chemical distribution facility there,
but I attended schools in Valley and lived in Valley.” Shortly after Brooks moved back to her hometown and began working at City Hall, City Clerk Martha Cato introduced Brooks to the history behind Valley’s dated buildings and dynamic people. “I found it fascinating,” says Brooks, a self-proclaimed history buff. “Next thing I know, I was appointed a commissioner.” Brooks dove right into the preservation pool as the commission continued to refurbish various historic buildings in each mill village, including Shawmut Kindergarten, complete with a fresh coat of paint for its legendary circle. A large project Brooks and the commission have adopted is finding a permanent home for Valley’s oral history community theater group, the Cotton Mill Players. The group currently performs in the Langdale Theater, the only one of four theaters still standing from the mill village era. “We have local writers and local performers,” Brooks says. “No one is professional. We would love to have professionals, but it’s all your stories that people tell.” Brooks said that in a sparsely populated area like Valley, the place where stories become scripts for the
Cotton Mill Players can be almost as interesting as the stories themselves. “You’re sitting there, eating at a restaurant, and you start talking to the person next to you,” Brooks says, “and before long, you’re writing stories down. People think, ‘Well, how is that historic?’ It’s gathering the history.” And Valley certainly has its fair share of history. Even with national recognition, Brooks said, the commission is limited in how much it can contribute to restoring some of the city’s most precious structures and preserving their historic integrity. “None of our mill villages are designated by the City Council as historic areas,” Brooks said. “So, we don’t have the capability of managing what happens in those villages.” “I think we’re slowly losing our identity, because you find that community atmosphere is not as prominent as it used to be,” Brooks says. “There seems to be a lack of pride in some of the mill village areas as far as taking care of the homes.” The commission is also concerned about what will happen to the old mill buildings. The mills were the threads that, not too long ago, formed
the seams in the Valley quilt. Those seams began to rip one by one as each of the mills was forced to shut its doors because of the recent economic downturn. “It would be wonderful to have one of the mills converted back into an industry,” Brooks said, “but with their
“I think we’re slowly
losing our identity, because you find that
phere is not as prominent as it used to be.”
age, I just don’t see that happening.” Brooks and other commissioners envision the mill buildings being preserved and converted into museums, small businesses or local venues for performing arts groups like the Cotton Mill Players. “I don’t ever foresee a large manufacturing facility there again,” Brooks says, “but to have some small shops…I think that would be a wonderful project to start with.” Brooks said she and Cato
have been collecting potential museum artifacts from Valley residents who bring them in from the mills. “One of our little philosophies that we’ve come up with for the historic preservation,” Brooks says, “is our purpose is not just preserving the buildings, but it’s also preserving the stories and Valley’s history one structure, one story, at a time.” Brooks said the commission is working to fully convert the former RiverView School building into a haven for Valley’s historical treasures. “The outside of the building has been completely preserved, and we’re working on the inside,” Brooks says. “That’s where we would love to have a cultural center, archives and some of our museum artifacts displayed.” “The city finances a lot of the projects, and of course, the board of education maintains their own buildings,” Brooks said. “We do a lot of grant work, but grants don’t pay for bricks and mortar. You have to depend on private donations.” Brooks said the commission had a study conducted recently on Bethlehem Church to determine how much it would cost to repair. The estimate was nearly $500,000. “Needless to say, it’s still
sitting there,” Brooks says. “Every time we have a large wind, everybody holds their breath, hoping it doesn’t fall in.” Brooks said the commission has discussed removing the columns in an effort to preserve them in a safe environment. “It’s one of the most unique buildings, and it is one of our oldest buildings,” Brooks says. “Bethlehem Church predates the mills themselves. It is the original structure.” For preservation projects such as the church, Brooks said, the commission votes on how the money in its budget is spent. It must approve any changes proposed for buildings that are designated historic structures by the City Council based on the historic significance of the building. “I’d love to see us have the finances to really maintain some of our historic structures,” Brooks says. “We’re not just about the buildings; we’re about the people, too. You can’t maintain just the buildings unless you maintain the stories behind those buildings.” For more information on the Valley Historic Preservation Commission, visit the website via http://www.cityofvalley.com/ home/community/historicpreservation.
Historian writes book detailing ‘what life was like’ Family ties make Valley experience special for author
Spotlight: Q&A with Bob Blythe By Max Davis
By Max Davis
istory is something that never changes with time. History is something that should never be forgotten or left behind. It was meant to be shared with our children and their children to come. Historian Robert Blythe, 59, is doing just that. “Valley’s Textile History”, to be released by the end of the year, will focus on the textile period and the lives that the people in Valley loved when most of the people were working in the mills, Blythe says. With an American history degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago under his belt, he has traveled extensively, researching historical studies across the nation. Blythe is trying to keep the history of Valley living within the hearts of the children by putting different stories and research about the history of Valley into one fairly compact book. “The people that are coming up now, now that all the mills are closed, will have a hard time trying to imagine what life was like in Valley,” Blythe says. “It is hoped that, with this book, I can make it more accessible to a younger audience.” Valley City Council member Jim Jones says Blythe has been associated with the city of Valley since 1999. “He is working on a book on the history of Valley through some grant money and we are hoping that we can pull together a book that will tell the story of Valley,” Jones says. Mary Shell, a representative from the State Historic
Photo by Morgan Stashick
Blythe being interviewed about Valley’s past. Preservation office, is excited about the project. “This project is a bit different from what we usually do,” Shell said. “Most of our publications are walking tour brochures, but we saw here a great opportunity to do a history booklet.” In the past, Blythe has written academic papers about the history of Valley for the Vernacular Architecture Forum organization. With the book about the textile mills in Valley, he is trying to make it more accessible to the average reader. “We are trying to put a lot of illustrations in the book,” Blythe said. “It can make it more accessible to a younger audience. Although the book will not be on sale nationwide, it is hoped that it will be featured in the public libraries, schools throughout Valley and other publishing possibilities may arise. “We are hoping, once this project is done, that we can take some of the same material from the book and take it to an outside publisher so they can come up with a different book that they can sell,” Blythe said. Blythe’s bond with history is tighter than chains linked together. “I’ve always been attracted to the past,” Blythe said. “When I was a teenager, I
read a lot about the Civil War.” During his teenage years, it was the centennial of the Civil War from 1961 to 1965. There were a lot a books and articles about that war, said Blythe. “It deepened my interest in history,” Blythe said. Blythe explains he felt a connection with Valley, because his great-grandfather was a worker in the textile mills similar to the ones in the town. “The particular history of Valley with the textile industry fits in with my family’s history,” Blythe says. “My great-grandfather, in 1898, went to work in a textile mill village in South Carolina near Greenville.” Although Blythe only met his great- grandfather once, he said he felt that that part of the history in Valley connected to his ancestry. During a visit to the Department of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University, Blythe explained how the families moved from the farms to the mill towns and how this ultimately moved the South into the industrial era. “The Valley story is really a part of a bigger story,” Blythe says.
Blythe shares some interesting facts about the cultural background of Valley as he gives an exclusive account of what’s to come in the book. Q: What sparked your interest to write a book about the city of Valley? A: Well, my association with Valley goes way back 10 or 11 years. I belong to a professional organization called the Architecture Vernacular Forum. It’s a national association of people who are interested in American architecture and the people who build it. Back in 1999, the organization VAF had its annual meeting in Columbus, Ga. One of the areas that the meeting focused on was the textile mills and mills villages of Valley. As part of that meeting, I helped to prepare a book that the meeting could use that dealt with Valley, and I also gave a paper at that meeting on the history of Valley. That meeting was the beginning of my association with the people in Valley. After that, I worked on a National Register of Historic Places nomination for Valley. In 2009, the historic commissions received a grant to do the book on Valley. The idea of the book that I’m doing now for Valley is to take some of the information that I developed and researched in the past and present it in a more popular kind of book. The work I have done in the past has been more for an academic audience. The book is something we hope can be used in the schools in Valley and be distributed to people in the Valley. It’s going to be like an overview of the textile history there. Q: During your research for the book, what did you discover? A: The West Point Manufacturing Company left
their corporate records to the county archive and there are some wonderful things in there. I learned when all the mill houses were built in Valley. Until the 1950s, the company owned those houses and rented them out to the workers. I learned when the houses got indoor plumbing, instead of having outhouses. I also learned how much it would cost to put a fence around the yard. I found a number of interviews with long-time residents. Q: What did you learn from your interviews with Valley citizens? A: I think the interviews with the residents were the most interesting thing that I discovered because from talking to people you learn what life was like before everyone owned an automobile. Their lives revolved around the factory, the church they went to and their neighbors. It was a different kind of life the than the life that people live now. Maybe once a week they would go to West Point, Ga., to do their shopping, or go as far as Columbus or Atlanta. Back then that was a big trip for them. That’s the kind of thing I most enjoyed learning about. 100 years ago, people started working at the mills at the age of 10 and that was their life. I would talk to people who their parents and grandparents who worked in the mill. Of course, all that has changed since the mills are closed. Their whole way of life has disappeared. Q: What significance does the city of Valley hold in American history? A: It was one of the places in the South where people moved from working on a farm or working as a sharecropper to working for wages in an industrial industry. It has a very important role in the industrialization of the South. The shift from being almost an exclusively agricultural farming to being more industrial, I would say,
is was the most important part of the story. Q: What role did the textile mills of Valley play in the development of the city? A: The West Point Manufacturing Company controlled just about every aspect of life. They owned all the houses. They would send crews around every three to four years to paint the houses, and they would also send crews to cut the grass for the homes. That was the way of life, which is called paternalism. The company was sort of the role as the “Big Daddy” for everyone that worked for them. We’re talking maybe 4,000 or five 5,000 families in the Valley who worked for the company. Q: How did things change once the manufacturing companies closed? A: The manufacturing companies were so important in the people lives, and now it doesn’t exist anymore. The significance of the transition from the way of life where the company provided a lot for the families and now the lives of thousands has changed within a blink of an eye. The company built recreational facilities and gymnasiums for the community, and now they have nothing. Q: What should be the main focus on the history of Valley? A: I would say the main focus should be the people, the families and how they reacted in that environment. What was life like for those people? Many people have told me that back in the day there were pluses and minuses. Maybe the people didn’t have so much freedom since the company had so much control, but on the other hand it was a very close knit community. Giving that they were living in this world that was largely created by the company, how did that affect their lives?