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Beacon blanketed its workers with warmth, film to reveal
The night the hulking Beacon Manufacturing building burned, Rebecca Williams knew she had to walk toward the fire.
That night in 2003, Williams and husband Jerry Pope walked in darkness through their Swannanoa neighborhood toward the flames. There, outside the emergency perimeter, they found people – lots of people – witnessing what a fire chief in a documentary Williams is creating said was “the end of an era.”
Williams, a Swannanoa resident still, is editing “Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of An American Mill Town.” She hopes to pass the film off to a finishing editor this fall to get the project ready for film festivals. The documentary will also be shown in Swannanoa, Williams said in a recent interview.
Helping her complete the project is a recent $4,000 grant by the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Valley Endowment Fund, the Buckner Family Endowment Fund and the Forbes Fund for Black Mountain-Swannanoa Valley. But perhaps the most significant support has come from the people who worked at Beacon and the families that lived in the mill village the company and its founder, Charles Owen, built for them.
“My kids, a lot of the time, would have been hungry if it hadn’t been for Beacon,” Kathleen Swann says in a teaser for the documentary, reflecting the gratitude many local residents feel for the company. “We wouldn’t have had a house to live in. Beacon helped me raise my kids. They clothed us and fed us.”
“What you hear over and over is, we were like a family,” Williams said about interviews she conducted over the last decade. “Not only did people lose their jobs (when the mill closed), but they lost the way they were connected with each other. They had made such important and deep relationships.”
“Just plain, country people,” Jean Hill, who worked there 38 years (as did her husband Charles), said recently. “It was a wonderful place. Charles Owen, he was a good people person.”
“Blanket Town” examines how Beacon shaped Swannanoa, how the textile industry shaped the South and how the industry’s decline affected Southern communities like Swannanoa. “By telling the story in a sort of deep, small way, we were able to tell that much bigger story,” Williams said.
She and Pope have a long history of gathering stories in small communities. For 10 years after their move here in 1999, they interviewed people in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky for oral history projects, many of which ended up as plays performed by local townspeople. They had gathered dozens of stories from the Beacon mill village as part of their plays, "Way Back When: Folktales of Black Mountain and the Swannanoa Valley," presented at the Black Mountain Center for the Arts between 2001-2006.
Beacon Manufacturing came to Swannanoa in 1923 when Charles Owen, wary of union action in the Northeast, purchased a large tract of land in the valley to relocate his blanket factory from New Bedford, Massachusetts. The mill employed as many as 2,200 people. Beacon built a baseball stadium that could seat hundreds of people. It sponsored summer recreation programs for kids in the village. People told Williams it didn’t matter if someone lived there or not; anyone could attend.
“I heard stories that if something broke in the (Valley) schools, they wouldn’t call the school board, they would call Beacon. And Beacon would send someone to fix it,” Williams said. People told Williams about interest-free loans Beacon provided to workers for funerals, college and hospital stays.
The company “put lots of groceries on the table and paid for a lot of mortgages and kids to go to college,” said Tedd Smith, who worked there off and on for about 24 years. “We had an unbelievable camaraderie in the company – respect and appreciation for all the employees.”
That big, brick building was “a beacon for the valley,” said Charles Ownsbey, a Beacon employee for 25 years. “You’d see that big red building up there, you knew you were home. It was like a lighthouse on a coast. It was just such a part of everybody’s life.”
Williams interviewed a man who was electrocuted at the mill but wouldn’t sue the company. “He said, after all they have done for the Valley, he would never do that,” she said. “People just felt a real sense of loyalty. And that reflects a lot on how they were treated.”
It's all the more remarkable considering how violent clashes between textile workers and owners were in other parts of North Carolina. Long hours for low pay sparked a series of strikes in the South between 1929-1934. Six people died in the 1929 Marion textile strike (the strike was so divisive that no churches would hold services for them). Seventy-one people were arrested – and the police chief killed – during a 1929 strike at a textile mill in Gastonia.
There might have been strife in Swannanoa had the Owen family not lived close by, Williams said. “People would talk about Mr. Owen walking the floor and knowing everyone’s name,” she said. “I interviewed Charles Owen (Jr.); when he was coming up, he had to work all three shifts. His dad made him take a bus from the house to Beacon. He had to learn every piece of the business from the ground up.”
The Owen family sold its stock in the mill in the late '60s and facilitated the sale of homes to employees. Workers didn’t feel the same loyalty to the new absentee owners, Pillowtex, which filed for bankruptcy and closed the mill. The 2003 fire, so large it drew 367 firefighters and 24 trucks from area fire departments, was a painful close to part of the Valley’s history.
Until the night Beacon burned, Williams didn’t know how much it meant to Swannanoa. “For months, people would come and visit the ruins,” she said. “You would see people breaking down in their cars, picking up bricks.” The significance of the fire, she said, is evident in words that Anthony Penland, chief of the Swannanoa Fire Department, says in the teaser about the blaze and a big wall’s collapse.
“When I saw that wall come down, I knew that was the end of an era,” he says.
“I could see all that fire coming out of that top story and the wall leaning, fixing to fall, and I was crying,” the late Zelma Morgan says in the promo. “I think everyone in Swannanoa was crying that day.”
Williams is raising money to complete the project. Make a tax-deductible donation at blankettown.org or through its new producing partner, the Center for Independent Documentary (documentaries.org/blanket-town).