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 Cleveland Mills closes
Workers learned of shutdown late Thursday; 200 affected

Cassie Tarpley
Star Staff Writer

LAWNDALE - Cleveland Mills, an institution in Cleveland County since 1888, shut down abruptly Thursday, leaving about 200 workers wondering where they will get their next paycheck.

Managers from the company, which produced knit fabric for clothing, could not be reached for comment, but one employee said workers had 10 minutes' notice of the closing.

It is possible that local managers had little more notice.

A press release faxed to The Star late Thursday indicated that the Lawndale plant is only part of the picture.

"Operations will cease at Spartan International tomorrow, Friday, May 4," according to the release.

The mill is owned by Spartan Mills in Spartanburg, S.C., and is part of Spartan International. The plant was renamed Cleveland CaroKnit a few years ago.

The company's primary lender, General Electric Capital Corp., seized the assets of Spartan International, which operates six plants in North and South Carolina and Georgia, the press release stated.

Eddie Greene had worked at the mill for 22 years, he said.

"I worked in the finishing department," Greene said. "About 10 minutes 'til five, my supervisor, Ivan Lovelace, came by and said go to the canteen. I didn't know why, but he turned the power off on the machine I was running."

John Beaver, the department manager in finishing, "said he had some bad news, that the plant was shutting down as of right now," Greene said.

"He said they would pay us until 5 o'clock and that's it."

Amy Jones, permanently hired at about 10 a.m. in the shipping and receiving department, said that afternoon she was out of a job.

"I was working temporary for about six months," said Ms. Jones, who received permanent status Thursday morning.

"At about 4:30 p.m. my boss came in to tell us they were closing the plant down effective at 8 a.m. Friday. They (the mill) gave everyone a letter. It was a real experience getting hired and fired all in one day."

Greene said that rumors of a sale had floated around the plant.

"Well, everybody had heard they were in the process of selling it," he said. "Walter Montgomery was the president and we heard he was wanting out of it, and heard that if he couldn't sell he was going to close it."

Barry Leonard, president and chief executive officer of Spartan International, cited "the current economic recession" and said the business faced drastic reductions in orders.

Greene said the sudden loss of a job hits hard.

"I had been working over until 7 o'clock for the last 6 months," he said. "The extra money meant a lot, I was kind of counting on it.

"I'm sure I won't get another job making as much unless I work overtime," said Greene, whose regular pay rate was about $9 an hour.

"I noticed one woman was crying, her and her husband both work there," he said.

Workers turned out knitted cloth for clothing manufacturers, for knit shirts, jogging outfits, fleece material and collars for shirts, Greene said.

The mayor of Lawndale, Mike O'Brien, said Thursday evening, "We've not been informed of anything. That's a terrible thing for the employees and their families, and it's a bad thing for us from the standpoint of the town.

"The rumors that we had heard was that it was for sale and if they didn't sell by maybe July it would close down, but it was just a rumor - I didn't hear that from anyone official."

O'Brien said he also heard that there was a potential buyer.

"They had downsized a while back, put in more machines," he said.

Last fall, The Star learned that about 30 employees were laid off.

At that time, Janet Thompson, employee relations manager in the South Carolina office, said the layoffs were in response to "current business conditions," and that employees had a six-month right of recall if jobs reopened.

Founded in 1888, the mill was the third built by Major H.F. Schenck, a retired Confederate officer. Schenck's enterprises spawned a legendary railroad and several other mills in the county.

Newlin Schenck, a great-grandson, worked as purchasing agent for Cleveland Mills until about 1992, and said he is shocked by the news.

"That's sort of unbelievable," said Schenck, who continued to work at the mill for several years after the family sold it to Spartan in the mid-1980s.

"That hurts a lot of fine people," he said. "I had heard nothing about that. I know a lot of those fine people and that just breaks my heart.

"That's a wonderful bunch of folks there, and a lot of them are pretty old-timers," he said, "plus you've got a sentimental value for the company. I had worked in every department."

Adelaide Craver, chairman of the Cleveland County Chamber, said she had heard nothing of plans for the closing.

"I'm very, very sorry," Mrs. Craver said. "We don't ever want to see an old institution or any institution that employs people have to shut down."

Mrs. Craver said she had heard that the parent company, Spartan Mills, has been closing down other plants.

"We've had so much good news, like the Wal-Mart center and others, you certainly hate to hear those stories that are going the other way," she said.

County Commissioners Chairman Willie McIntosh said the shutdown will have an immediate effect on community stores, service stations, "all these things people use every day going to and from work."

"That's the only industry we have in the upper end," McIntosh said. "It is definitely going to affect the upper end of Cleveland County, because the majority of the employees are from that area."

The only possible bright spot is if the closing came primarily because of out-of-country competition, he said.

"Hopefully it is not just a financial situation. If it has something to do with the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Trade Adjustment Agreement, then the company can file applications for NAFTA and TAA benefits for these employees."

McIntosh said Economic Development Director Steve Nye will contact the Employment Security Commission today to see if the company has notified them. If not, ESC officials will contact mill managers, and local leaders can write letters of support to go along with these applications.

With those benefits, he said, "Employees can be trained through Cleveland Community College to make them more marketable for other jobs."

Next, he said, "We'll try to recruit companies to come in and use the existing building."

Nye said late Thursday, "This is never good news, even if you've just had five announcements of new companies.

"It's very unfortunate, especially falling on the heels of the Wal-Mart announcement," he said. "We'll just have to work as hard as we can to fill the building up or find another similar user there." 

Star Staff Writer Heather Barr contributed to this story.