I am dedicating my newest short story, Heavy Louis, to my father, who passed away suddenly last November. The characters, the general plot, and the scene settings were all of his imagination. Originally designed to be a full-length novel, he spent a lot of time developing the character back stories and potential scene settings, of which he hoped I might take it and flush it out into a full manuscript. One day, I may still write a full novel from his drafts. But for now, I’ve crafted a short story that I hope you will enjoy.
Pop… this one’s for you.
My dad was fascinated with mills and mill town communities – how they got started, how the communities worked, and how they became irrevocably linked to both Southern and rural life. As it turns out, one of the largest textile mills in the South was located not far from where I grew up…
Horse Creek Valley
Horse Creek is a small tributary of the Savannah River, located in Aiken County, South Carolina. While it is itself a fairly small creek, its location across a steep fall line in a valley (now called Midland Valley) provided great potential for harnessing water power for manufacturing at the beginning of the 19th century. Converging with the rapid expansion of the cultivation of cotton in Georgia and South Carolina, particularly in nearby Augusta (Ga), Horse Creek Valley became a key site for these early textile mills. After the building of the Augusta Canal in 1845, the whole Central Savannah River Area (CSRA) became well known – all over the world – for its role in the production of cotton and cotton-based textiles.
Originally, cotton and textile goods were sent down the Savannah River on barges to the city of Savannah, where they could be loaded on ships to buyers world-wide. Before long, Charleston wanted a piece of the action, and so the South Carolina Rail Road was built in 1833 – connecting Hamburg (Augusta) to the Horse Creek Valley mills, and then finally on to Charleston in a single rail line. At the time, the 136 mile rail line was reportedly the longest rail line in the world.
The mills of Horse Creek Valley became towns, either later or originally by design – as part of a new idealized “utopia” model of sustaining a manufacturing labor force.
Vauclose Mill (est. 1833, closed 2005) – located in Vauclose, SC (unincorporated community)
Graniteville Mill (est. 1845, closed 2006) – located in Graniteville, SC
Warren Mill ( est. 1896, closed 1982) – located in Warrenville, SC
Of these, the Graniteville mill was by far the largest and most successful. Built by William Gregg in 1845, with a charter from the State Legislature, the Graniteville mill was, at that time, perhaps the largest textile mill in the South, producing over 12,000 yards of cloth per day.
Like most things in life, the mills were a mixed blessing. They provided steady employment, and the pay packets (comparable to those in Northern States) were higher than most had ever been able to make before. Whole communities were built and funded by these mills – hospitals, worker homes, municipal centers, and schools – interestingly, the one of the first instances of compulsory education for children of the South was at the Graniteville mill. And yet, the work was extremely hard, often requiring constant exposure to very dangerous and unhealthy conditions – debilitating injuries were common, and children (working after school) were likewise exposed to these dangers. It was certainly exploitation, and as it employed mostly poor whites, it was another measure of inequality during times of slavery and lasting well into the Jim Crow era. Yet, when compared to what was there before (which was nothing), it might also be considered progress and a means for upward mobility.
Heavy Louis is set in the fictional mill town of Warrenton, in Horse Creek Valley, during the Depression era. A period when perhaps the jobs created by the mills were more important than ever. This is roughly the place and time of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, a famous novel which offers an unvarnished assessment of the deep, generational poverty afflicting the rural South. Yet in my story, I hope to convey that even in places of great hardship and suffering, some measures of hope and justice can be found.
It is just a story, after all…