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This article was copied from the August 2, 1966 issue of The Cleveland Times.

Employees Of Cleveland Mill & Power Co. Number 1 Plant

Old Picture Captures Childhood Memories For Mrs. D.L. Willis

A group picture taken about 1905 brings back a flood of memories for Mrs. D.L. Willis of Shelby.
Just before Cleveland Mill and Power Co.'s number 1 Plant closed operations permanently, a Gastonia photographer lined the 24 employees up in orderly rows outside the frame building and snapped a picture.
Today that photo is a treasured memento of the past for Cenie Southard Willis who at that time was 16 years old… and the prettiest girl in the picture.
The picture also captures the likenesses of her father, Montgomery Southard, general superintendent and mechanic at the plant; her oldest brother, John, younger brother, Charles; and sister Minnie. It is a coincidence that in the picture also is Joe Willis who later was to become her brother-in-law.

Speaks Volumes

The picture speaks volumes about Cleveland's infant textile industry of that day since Mrs. Willis recalls that the youngest employees in the picture are 10 years old and she went to work when she was 13. Mill Number 1 gained it's name because it was the first textile plant erected by the late Major H.P. Schenck, about two miles north of the present community of Lawndale, in an operation that continues today under the name Cleveland Mills.
Cenie Willis draws a colorful picture in the words of life in the small textile community where she was reared before the turn of the century. She does not recall life as hard … and remembers many pleasant events in years that were lean for everyone in Cleveland county which had not recovered from effects of the Civil War.
Number 1 Mill was set in a community of about a dozen mill owned houses, a mill store, a small, two-story frame school, and, of course, a church. Other homes in the community were those of Tom Ramseur and Joe Osborne, both of whom had married into the Schenck family.

12-Hour Day

Working hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. when Cenie Southard was employed in the two-story, frame yarn mill which was built in a "low place" beside the First Broad River and used water power to run the two lines of spinning frames, one line of twisters, one line of spoolers and ball winders. During the long, dark hours in winter the building was lit by kerosene lamps and heated by pot-bellied stoves. River water was piped into the building in a fire protection system but drinking water was carried from a spring nearby.
"I could do just about any of the jobs there were to do in the mill," recalls Mrs. Willis who began at the spinning frames. "I never thought of the hours or the work as being hard. When we got off work, the young people played and had fun just as kids do now, after doing nothing all day."
"But, as I recall those years, I don't believe that we were under the production pressures such as you find in textile plants now. We would catch up with our work and have a few minutes to go sit down….like today's coffee 'break'. And we always had plenty of time to eat for it was the custom to shut down for dinner with everyone going home promptly at 12 o'clock," she smiles.

Family Tradition

Working for Cleveland Mills was a tradition in the Southard family. Montgomery Southard was reared in Richmond, Va. and came to Mill Number 1 before he married Mrs. Willis' mother, Allie Mitchem, who was a native of the Lawndale area and worked in the mill prior to her marriage. Mrs. Willis believes that her mother went to work at the mill when she was 16 in 1878, not many years after the plant was founded in 1873. "My father and two of my brothers never drew a paycheck during their lives from any company but Cleveland Mills," she tells.

The Southard family was a large one of 11 children, five boys and six girls. Sallie Mitchem Southard died when she was only 41 years old. The oldest daughter, Luster (later Mrs. Jethro Lattimore, who died just after Christmas last year) took over to manage the large household, including a baby sister who was only two months old.
"Father never remarried but we managed very well," recounts Mrs. Willis. "Everyone had to do his part of the work. All the children helped out."

Simple Pleasures

Recreation and leisure hour pleasures were simple ones in the rural community which had the mill as it's focal point. The church was a center of religious and social activity, with Sunday school each Sunday and prayer meeting once each week, although church services were conducted only once each month, Mrs. Willis tells.
The first Piedmont School served youngsters in the community who attended school for four years, from the time they were six until they reached 10. "Free School," as it was called, was conducted for a four month term each winter and private subscriptions provided an additional six week term in the summer. Professor Burns was the academic mentor in the frame two-story school house designed with a large room or auditorium downstairs for the daily opening exercises. Upstairs the grades were separated by folding doors which could divide the large room into classrooms.
Excursions to Shelby were rare pleasures for the young Cenie Southard, since roads were in such poor condition that the drive which now takes only a few minutes was a long and hard journey.
A particularly vivid memory was a trip to Shelby in a two horse covered wagon to enjoy the first and only circus she had ever seen. Her father, brother and uncle left home at 2 a.m. for the "straw ride" into Shelby for a day of fun.
It was not too long ago that Mrs. Willis showed her granddaughter the same type of covered wagon ride in a Raleigh museum and had a hard time convincing her that she really had ridden in one as a girl.
Other trips to Shelby that stand out in her memory are a Fourth of July excursion - when it rained all day. And on another occasion Cleveland Mills gave employees a free trip to town to see a baseball game, which Mrs. Willis recalls was played on the same field where Shelby Ball Park now stands. A standout memory is that the trip was made by way of the Lawndale Railroad, privately owned line that served the Cleveland Mills enterprises.
Little remains today of the community where Mrs. Willis grew up and worked as a young girl. It was about the time of the financial panic of 1905 that operations at Mill Number 1 were closed down and all the Schenck textile manufacturing was centered at the larger brick plant in Lawndale.
Mrs. Willis recalls that the Number 1 building stood empty for a number of years and was later dismantled. The mill-owned houses in the community were dismantled or moved. The particular house in which the Southard family lived later burned. Cenie Willis' brother had purchased the house and land which joined his own home and it was destroyed by fire.
Since her parents before her worked at the Cleveland Mills plant, Mrs. Willis has heard a number of interesting facets of operation that date back before her personal memories. Although she never recalls a fire in the small textile plant, she remembers being told that there was a fire where men grabbed roping cans and used water from the dam pond to extinguish the blaze.
Before the time when she was employed at the mill there was a period when it was in operation around the clock, running night and day.


Closing of the plant must have been a milestone in the lives of those who worked there since it was a family-type operation with many of the employees related, including a number of members of the same immediate family, as in the case of the Southards.
But on the very last day of operations Mr.s Willis recalls an amusing incident centered about the bell that rang to summon employees to work and for other community events. Since it was a time of financial panic, or depression, this thought weighed heavily on the minds of all. As a man pulled heartily on the bell rope, it suddenly broke. The startled response of a young man who couldn't speak plainly was, 'Dawd, the panic's hit the bell."
It was two years after the mill closed that Cenie Southard married the late D.L. "Doc" Willis whom she had known as a child growing up in the community. The Willis family farm was about six miles away and they had known each other from the time they were youngsters. Married at 18, Cenie Willis and her husband moved to Shelby in 1908 where they both worked for a number of years at Ella Manufacturing Co., the plant founded by the late John R. Dover Sr. and forerunner of today's Dover Textile Group.
Life has been full for Mrs. Willis who reared a family of four children, Floyd, D.L. Willis Jr., the late Roy Willis and a daughter, Ray, who is Mrs. Snoop Champion.
Today at her home at 415 S. DeKalb St., her green thumb keeps rows of potted plants and ferns along the edge of her porch while she stays busy sewing and making buttons for the public.
When Mrs. Willis tells any of her five grandchildren about her youthful experiences they react as if she has opened the pages of a history book.
But for a woman who looks and acts far younger than her 75 years, a treasured photograph hanging on the wall of her living room brings alive the period of life at the turn of the century as if it were yesterday.