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Pre-Civil War textile mill loses battle to imports
The Associated Press
TALLASSEE, Ala. — The old stone mill along the Tallapoosa River once made fabric for both slave clothes and Confederate uniforms. It survived the Civil War and the economic struggles of the next century, employing entire generations of families.
But Tallassee Mills, described by its South Carolina parent company as the nation's oldest cloth factory, is closing after 161 years. With walls a yard thick and floor joists made from pine logs, the plant is the latest U.S. mill to lose the fight to foreign imports.
The closing isn't the death knell it once would have been for Tallassee, about 35 miles northeast of Montgomery. The longtime mill city is also home to a factory that makes airplane parts, GKN Aerospace, and Neptune Technology Group, which makes water meters.
But the loss still hurts economically: More than 300 people are losing their jobs in a town of only 4,900. It is also a psychological blow to a town that is losing the very thing that made it a community.
There was a time when almost everyone in Tallassee worked at the plant and lived in the mill village of small homes overlooking the factory. Workers shopped in the company store and went to schools and doctor's offices housed in company buildings.
Charlene Willis, 52, tried nursing school before coming to work at the mill in 1972. Her father worked there, and so did half a dozen other relatives.
"That's the way it is here," said Willis, who spends her days looking for little flaws in big rolls of cream-colored cloth. "Whole families work here. We're going to miss it."
More than 350 U.S. textile plants have closed since 1997, and the industry has lost about 194,400 jobs in the past five years, according to the National Council of Textile Organizations. Low-priced imports from China and elsewhere get much of the blame.
Rodney Griffith, administrative manager at the Tallassee mill, said foreign competition finally got the best of his nonunion factory, where the average wage is $12.50 an hour, plus benefits.
"We have managed to run this mill longer than anyone expected," said Griffith, who started 35 years ago as a cost accountant. "We probably got another 10 years out of it."
A much larger mill was built beside the original structure in 1852, and it turned out fabric for uniforms worn by Confederate troops.
Both of those buildings have long since closed, but workers still produce about 1 million yards of cotton and polycotton fabric a week on 337 looms housed on two floors of a plant that opened in 1900. Moss clings to the mortar in shady spots on the exterior, and white lint coats the walls inside the spinning and weaving rooms.
With the mill set to close in late September or early October, no one is sure yet what will become of the old building. A local historical-preservation group has purchased the oldest mill buildings, but it's unclear whether the rest of the operation will be put up for sale.
Other companies claim the title of the nation's oldest textile mill, including Riverpoint Lace Works, which has operated since 1809 in West Warwick, R.I., and today dyes lace — but doesn't make cloth — for customers including lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret.
Officials at Mount Vernon Mills, which has operated the Tallassee plant since 1900, say no U.S. factory has been making cloth longer than the one they operated for so long in eastern Alabama, a historic survivor now bowing out in a global economy.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company