Loray Mill rebirth

Center of infamous 1929 strike now a symbol of Gastonia revitalization

Loray Mill legacy

This is the fifth and final entry in a Gazette series marking 90 years since the 1929 Loray Mill strike in Gastonia.

It took a long time for the dust to settle in Gastonia after the events of 1929.

Even 90 years later, the dark episode of that year is a stain on Gaston County’s history — a black mark on a community uplifted for the better part of a century by the economic engine of the textile industry. But they’re also events that are crucial to understanding the story of this county — and they’re events that have come into focus in recent years amid several efforts to make sure that story is preserved.

On April 1, 1929, more than 1,000 workers struck at Loray Mill. It was the largest textile mill in Gaston County, which was the heart of the Southeast’s textile industry. Workers were tired of what they called “the stretch out” — management’s policy of making people work more for less pay after layoffs.

The strike — which was organized by the American Communist party-led National Textile Workers Union — quickly became notorious. Local workers who joined the strike didn’t necessarily want a communist overhaul of the government, just better working conditions. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to work 12-hour shifts in the mills in unsafe environments. And many mill workers lived in villages owned by their employers, meaning they could be evicted without much notice.

The strike — and reaction to it — spun out of control. Police and protesters violently clashed in the street at one point. Gastonia Police Chief Orville Aderholt was shot and killed in June of that year as he responded to a call at headquarters and tent colony for strikers. A few months later, in September, union member and balladeer Ella May Wiggins was gunned down on her way from Bessemer City to attend a rally in Gastonia.

The events of 1929 in Gaston County were world news. And in the end, the strike itself was a failure.

Jason Luker, the director of the Gaston County Museum of Art & History who spent the last few years working on an exhibit about the events of 1929, says there’s plenty that folks today can learn from 1929.

“The things we argue about today, in a way, they were arguing about those same things,” Luker said. “Who has the right to protest? Is it un-American to protest? You can still see those arguments taking place today. It may be in a little different way, but the core of it is still the same.”

Another strike

Those arguments started up again soon after the events of 1929.

In September 1934, another strike brought the local textile industry to a brief standstill.

“The scope is much larger than the 1929 strike,” said Jason Luker, the director of the Gaston County Museum of Art & History. “It incorporated the entire Southeast and pretty much shut Gaston County down, including Loray.”

This time, the strike was led by the United Textile Workers Union, and it didn’t carry with it the spectre of communism that inspired much of the local animosity toward the 1929 strike. All told, nearly half a million workers across the country went on strike in 1934 — the midst of the Great Depression.

A striker in the eastern part of the county, Earnest Riley, was even killed in a confrontation with the National Guard, according to Luker.

Even then, some of the issues that drove workers to strike weren’t fully addressed until 1938 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law.

The 1938 laws also established tougher fines and legal consequences for companies that broke labor laws. While child labor was largely illegal by then, plenty of cases slipped through the cracks.

“That was a big changing point for all of the mills in the South and throughout the nation,” Luker said. “Mills had to operate in a way that looks more similar to the U.S. today.”

A new dawn

Not long after the strike ended, Manville-Jenks, the Rhode Island company that owned Loray, left town. In 1935, Firestone Rubber and Tire Co. bought and moved into the old mill, and manufacturing began anew. With the car industry spreading like wildfire, there was plenty of work, and Firestone employees at the old Loray site made tire cord.

But something else happened when Firestone came in, too: The new company ushered in happier times.

“It seems from the word go, they were already trying to implement a lot of new policies and procedures,” Luker said.

Those included some of the policies workers had been striking for in 1929 and 1934 — and some of the protections that Roosevelt would sign into law in 1938. And, importantly, they included perks for employees that made for a better sense of community — and with it company loyalty.

“There were things at Manville-Jenks, but it never developed the community that Firestone was able to cultivate,” Luker said. “All of the employees would say it was less of a community and more of a spy agency (at Manville-Jenks), where at Firestone, you don’t see that belief.”

In fact, Luker said, when people talk fondly of textile mills in the Gaston County of yesteryear, they’re usually talking about the time after the mid-1930s. The height of the new industrial boom – and at Firestone in particular — came after World War II when the economy was growing. That’s when Firestone started letting employees buy houses in the mill village.

“When GIs started coming back, Firestone had already started working on community engagement initiatives with employees,” Luker said. “They had this booming economy, they saw this as a good opportunity to liquidate their housing and sell it to their employees, and this was a monumental change for the mill village. You had employees coming home after the war, and they could buy their own houses. This was the first time they’d been able to buy their own houses.”

Memories like those — rather than the one of the dark events of 1929 — that stuck with many in Gaston County for years.

“When Firestone was there, it was an economic hub,” said former Gastonia Mayor Jennie Stultz, who was heavily involved in the effort to revitalize the building. “It was a good place to work. It was a community that consisted of everything to a swimming pool to a club house to camp for the children to picnic to a very cohesive neighborhood environment, and we need to celebrate that, too.”

Growing cobwebs

The building’s new golden age of renewed prosperity, however, came to an end after more than half a century of flourishing production. In 1993, Firestone left the old Loray site for a brand new plant in Kings Mountain.

After more than 90 years, the ceaseless din of people and machinery stopped cold. The mightiest symbol of Gaston County’s textile might turned into a defacto mausoleum of industry past — decades of memories left to echo in more than 600,000 square feet of darkened, empty hallways.

And for about 20 years, it stayed that way.

In 1998, Firestone signed the property over to the nonprofit Preservation North Carolina. From there, a new future began to grow.

“Preservation North Carolina said we needed to save that mill,” said Lucy Penegar, a giant of historic preservation in Gaston County and one of the driving forces behind the effort to restore Loray. “It was so significant to the history of labor and it was a really good structure. It did not need to be demolished.”

Breath of fresh air

There was pushback, even then, on saving the structure.

“We were encouraged by a number of people just to demolish the building,” Stultz said. “The response was, if we demolish a 600,000-squarefoot building in the middle of a blighted neighborhood, what does that accomplish?”

In the end, restoration efforts prevailed. The nonprofit worked with developers to make sure the mill building was saved in a way that both honored its past and allowed for a lucrative future. The city and county governments even gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding for various aspects of redevelopment. In 2014, the first phase of a residential project — one that cost nearly $40 million — opened to the public. The six-story building would soon be home to loft apartments, a restaurant and other businesses, and even history exhibits. The Loray name was returned to the site, and a historical marker was added to pay homage to Gaston’s textile history and the 1929 strike.

Stultz says the revitalization effort was worthwhile in terms of both economic development and historic preservation.

“There were some people who just wanted it to disappear — a lot of people thought it was a black eye because of the history of the mill and because of the strike,” Stultz said. “But when you look at the entire history of the mill, from the time it was built in the 1900s to the time Firestone bequeathed it to Preservation North Carolina was a blip on the screen. That was just the most notorious part.”

‘The story continues’

Today, more than 90 years after the Loray Mill stood at the center of Gaston County’s most defining moment, it’s still a symbol. Nowadays, though, it’s an emblem of revitalization, of progress, of a city looking toward its future with an eye on its past.

The cavernous structure once again teems with life. Weddings are held there. People work out or sunbathe by a pool. Nearly 200 trendy apartments line its upper floors. And Loray’s old mill village is bouncing back, too — part of an ongoing reclamation effort to provide more affordable housing in the historic area.

Black and white photographs of children hang on the walls of the building’s public access area — children who toiled at textile mills in practices that are outlawed today.

“If those people were here today,” Penegar said, “they’d be absolutely bowled over.”

The building is a busy place these days, but there’s even more life on the horizon. More than 100 new loft apartments are planned for Loray’s 150,000-square-foot west wing. There’s still plenty of commercial space at the site to fill, though a new tenant, Cross Co., is moving its Automation Group to the site with a focus on technological innovation for machine and manufacturing performance.

The Cross Co. space is 16,000 square feet — a fraction of the massive structure — but manufacturing has been at the old Loray building in a quarter century.

“The story continues,” Stultz said. “The story of that mill and what has happened there and what will keep happening there is a continuing story.”

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(Gaston Gazette, 6/2/19)