Growing Up in a Mill Town in a House by the Railroad Tracks
I grew up in a mill town with three textile plants, but everyone I know called them cotton mills. From the time I was born until I was six, we lived less than two blocks from Oakland Mill. In the early years of the mill villages, at the turn of the century (around 1900), these communities had their own schools, parks, churches, and stores. The mill owned the surrounding houses and general store. They payed you wages, and you paid it back to them in rent and for food and other necessities. The mills sold the houses in the 1940s and 1950s, but remained an integral part of town as the single greatest employer of the working class. It was a good living for people that didn’t go to college. My Uncle Bunk and Aunt Blanche worked at Oakland. Later Uncle Bunk’s daughter Judy, and maybe one or more cousins worked there. My parents worked in the mills, but not Oakland.
Our Oakland House and Neighborhood
I still remember details of the house and the neighborhood even though we moved when I was six. Aunt Blanche and my six cousins moved into the house, so I spent a lot of time in that house for many years after my family moved out.
By the time my parents moved to Oakland in the late 50s, the mill store was gone but we had Buffington’s store directly across from the mill. I’m sure they had a variety of goods, but I only remember the toys, down the left wall of the store, at the back. We always went there after dental visits for me to pick out my reward—coloring books, paper doll books, and cheap toys. I didn’t have to be good to earn a toy, just merely survive the appointment and accompanying torture. Across the street was Mr. Ed’s barber shop, with his house on the other side.
Our house was the second house down the side street from Mr. Ed and Ms. Rena. It had two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, a living room, and a “heater hall” in the center of the house. The house was small, but it had a large yard. The train track ran along the back of the property, with a baseball field and park on the other side. Several blocks of what were formerly mill houses were on the other side of the ballfield.
Nice Place to Raise a Family
All in all, our little mill town was not a bad place to raise a family. It was a different time then. Even young kids played outside, without adults hovering around. Can’t you just picture Mayberry and Sherriff Taylor? Our house had a nice little side porch at the kitchen entrance. I often played in the yard, or beside the porch. There was a Weeping Willow tree near the porch, and I loved to play under it. It was like a tent, with the drooping leafy tendrils.
Knock, Knock, Avon Calling
My Uncle Jack drove an Edisto milk truck and was our milk man. I think he came weekly. I don’t ever remember being a milk drinker, but I remember we sometimes got a five-gallon coffee ice cream. This is the big carton like you see at ice cream stores. Big, but no problem. Most everyone had large chest freezers, filled with fresh garden vegetables. We had an Avon lady who came to the house once a month or so. The insurance man came every month to collect premiums.
We Love Watermelon
My mother loves watermelon. Her daddy used to raise them, so she always had a ready supply. She said Granddaddy would send her to deliver to friends. She would tie rope around a melon and tie it to her bike. She said sometimes she would hit a rock and bust it open on purpose and eat it right on the spot.
Later, when my Aunt Totsie and Uncle Jack raised watermelon, Mom sometimes had as many as a dozen in the garage. She would eat watermelon every day. She’s pretty small but could (and still can) eat a quarter melon by herself! I guess it comes as no surprise that I too developed a taste for watermelon at an early age. What’s not to like, I say?
Planting a Watermelon Vine
One fine day, I was squatting on the ground beside the porch, playing in the dirt. I had dug a small hole with my finger about an inch or so deep. Our insurance man walked up just as I was placing a single watermelon seed in my hole. Our conversation went something like this:
“Whatcha doin’?” he asked.
I replied, “I’m plantin’ me a watermelon vine.”
“Don’t you think you oughta plant more than one seed?” he queried.
“Nah,” I replied. “I don’t like many seeds in my watermelon.”
To the best of my recollection, that kindly man just responded something like “Oh, I see.”
Walking Around the Neighborhood and Playing in the Park
Aunt Blanche’s youngest, cousin Wendy, was just a year or two older than my younger sister Christy. Cousin Dollie was two years older than me. We spent a lot of time together, usually with them, in our old Oakland house. My aunt worked a lot, and many times we kids were on our own, not so unusual in those days.
We did a lot of walking around the neighborhood. There was a patch of woods on the other side of the mill. Someone had hung ropes and cords from the trees, and some kids were adventurous enough to swing across the small ravine. Dollie had a paper route for our hometown local paper. Actually, her brother had to get the route, because girls weren’t allowed to get routes then! Dollie and I would walk the neighborhood delivering papers.
We also loved going to the ballfield and park. It was directly behind the house, across the railroad tracks. Years later my sister Christy told me a horrifying little tidbit about the park. It wasn’t unusual for the train to be stopped on the tracks for hours at a time, probably loading or unloading at the mill. My sister told me that she and Wendy would want to go to the park, and would get impatient, so they crawled under the train—many times over the years!
I have wondered if Buffington’s Store building used to be the company store. It was across the street from the mill and was an old wood building with old wood floors. It was torn down many years ago. Summer’s Restaurant, open Thursday through Saturday is a small family-owned business that was started in 1954. Somewhere along the line it moved into the barber shop building. Oakland Mill was the last of the three mills in our town to close. After drawing down operations a couple times, it closed completely in 2009. In perhaps a huge irony, the old mill building was renovated into luxury apartments in 2013.
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