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Cotton mill tour rekindles memories

The first real job, the first work I did for which I got a company paycheck, was in a cotton mill. The summer after I graduated from high school my dad pulled some strings, 100 percent cotton I suspect, and got me a job on the first shift at the Dan River Cotton Mill in Liberty, S.C.

I was not hired for my management skills and they weren’t looking for someone to write news releases. I was labor. I worked mostly in the dye house, a hot, humid, smelly place, redolent of vinegar, sweat and foul chemicals.

My job was to manhandle large metal spools of yarn from the first floor through an opening in the ceiling and up to the second story where the dyeing vats were set into the floor. I used an electric winch to hoist the spools up to the dye room, but downstairs I made do with raw muscle, of which I had precious little, and hand trucks. It was hard work and by the end of the summer I was eager to get to college.

During Christmas break I worked for my dad, sweeping floors in the weave room and cleaning the fluorescent lights over the looms. It was hot and dirty and by the end of the break I was eager to get back to college.

My dad encouraged my studies and told me an education would give me choices. After I got my degree I chose to stay out of the cotton mill.

Earlier this week, however, I had an opportunity to visit a modern cotton mill, Frontier Spinning Mill in Sanford, N.C. The visit was part of a multi-regional producer tour sponsored by Cotton Incorporated and the Cotton Board. Monsanto, Syngenta and John Deere were corporate sponsors.

It was different. For one thing, I don’t think my dad could have pulled any strings to get me an untrained laborer job. The tasks I performed are no longer needed. They don’t dye yarn here. And they don’t need sweepers. Machines keep the place clean enough to eat lunch off the floors.

Robots do much of the work. Employees monitor the equipment and make adjustments as necessary. Mill representatives say efficiency keeps costs down and makes them competitive with countries with significantly lower wage scales.

Frontier Spinning runs almost continuously, 362 days, 24 hours a day, last year. Nonstop production also keeps the facility competitive. “In Honduras they don’t celebrate the Fourth of July week (once a tradition among Southern textile mills),” a mill executive said.

Our tour guide explained several ways the mill has remained competitive, not the least of which is the modern machinery. One of two Sanford mills, they said, is the largest air jet mill in the world.

Consistent quality also helps, says buyer Mike Beeker. “We use the Cotton Incorporated EFS system to control certain quality properties. Yarn needs to be uniform,” he said, “to maintain dye levels.”

Less contamination would help, too. “We see remnants of shopping bags, parts of

module covers, and a lot of gin parts. We even found a pair of boots one time. Fortunately, no

one was in them.”


Beeker buys cotton mostly from the Memphis area east. “We buy a little West Texas and a little South Texas cotton.”

Frontier Spinning Mill produces some 11 million pounds of yarn a week, most of which goes to customers in Central America. “Y’all keep growing cotton and we’ll keep spinning it,” one tour guide said. “Maybe we can all make a profit.”

The tour brought back memories of the mill I worked in almost 45 years ago. The aroma of cotton is unmistakable. A mill is still noisy. But the technology is space ages ahead of 1967. Frontier Spinning seems to be a good place to work.

I did not pick up a job application.

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