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East side mill in 1979

Tallasseeans react to mill fire

By Michael and Leigh Anne Butler

The scene was like one from a movie. Hundreds watched the East Tallassee mill engulfed in flames early Thursday morning. The massive fire sparked emotions and memories for those that had a connection.

Mount Vernon Mills employed thousands during its 161 years in Tallassee from 1844-2005.

The two buildings that were destroyed by last week's blaze were known as Mills No. 2 and 3. The cornerstone on the first of the two east side mills constructed was dated 1897-98. The addition for Mill No. 3 was built in 1923. It consisted of concrete and steel. The steel beams are now visible, bent and twisted from the intensity of the heat.

"I rode across the bridge after church Sunday and I cried," Don Hale said. "A building of river rock, stone, mortar and wood all but burned to the ground last week and I felt that I had lost another close friend."

Hale went to work at mill one week prior to his 16th birthday and spent 16 years in all there. He later worked for another industry, now known as GKN.

Spinning room overhaulers
(Courtesy THPS)

"The Tallassee cotton mill, where 'lint heads' for decades had worked to put bacon on the table and a roof over the heads of their family was reduced to nothing but a few stone walls still standing," Hale continued. "For those in their 50s, 60s and older who are lifelong residents of Tallassee, I'm sure have some similar memories of the mill.  When I was growing up in Tallassee, there were basically three groupings of people – farmers, mill-hands and managers and the merchants. My mother and daddy both worked in the mill.  Some pulled double duty, working in the mill and also farming. They worked hard and they provided for their families."

The original east side structure was a four-story stone building, 450 feet long and 125 feet wide. When erected, it was believed to be the largest textile plant in the world built of stone. The stone from the Tallapoosa River is blue granite.

In 1798, Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins described the "light, gray" stone. "(It) is divided into square blocks of various sizes for building," Hawkins wrote. "It requires very little labor to reduce it to form for plain walls. Large masses of it are so nicely fitted and regular as to imitate the walls of an ancient building. The quantity is sufficient for the building of a great city. The narrow flat margin between the hills and the river is convenient for a canal for mills on an extensive scale."

Hawkins was quite the soothsayer as a city was born and the mills became the lifeblood of the community.

"The cotton mill was an institution," Hale added. "As some have put it, the mill birthed you and it buried you meaning that it was a part of every aspect of life in Tallassee, Alabama. There were men who led the mill (too many to name all of them), but some of them named Stumberg, Patterson and Redden.

Before
After

"I remember my first “second hand” (supervisor) – Thurman Coker (now deceased), and first “overseer” – Robert Funderburk.  Both men served as supervisors and encouragers in my early work career – and somehow made me feel special."

Hale remembers the work being "hard, loud and hot."

1951 Tallassee Mills baseball team

"I can recall as a cloth doffer pulling my tee shirt off about every 20 minutes and wringing the sweat out of it. I can recall having to lean over and yell in someone’s ear to tell them something because of the loudness of the shuttle looms used in weaving the cloth. But what I remember most are the people, especially the older mill-hands who took such great pride in their work – spinners, doffers, weavers, loom fixers and millwrights in the shop. There were numerous other job titles – dependent upon the department in which you worked.  They were proud people and were eager to share and teach their trade to new hires. If you showed any inclination for learning, they would take you under their wings and mentor you. It truly was an extended family."

Adolphus Gauntt had a short stint in the mill shortly after high school in the mid 1980s. "My granddaddy worked down there. All my brothers worked there. It was just expected.  My wife’s family worked there.

"I hate it. It had a lot of history. You didn’t think it would go like that, overnight – over 100 years of history."

In the mill's early days, every family member worked in the mill even young children. Before child labor laws, it was not uncommon for the youth to work more than 60 hours per week.

City councilman Charles Blalock worked for Mount Vernon Mills in 1967 and '68. He talked about the mill's impact on Tallassee.

1899 shot from the east side

"There are many people that couldn’t have owned their homes if it hadn’t been for the mill, my father included. They were big contributors to the school system, doctors, the telephone company... all of that was owned by the mill. It it sad, but it didn’t have the economic impact it would have had on our city if people had been working there."

Rodney Griffith was the administrative manager at the mill when it closed in 2005.

"Mount Vernon Mills was a good place to work. I worked  there for years and really enjoyed it. It provided jobs for a lot of people. The people that worked there were great," Griffith said. "Mount Vernon Mills was a big part of Tallassee history. It was a shame when it closed because of foreign competition and bad that it couldn’t be used for something else productive. Now, its even worse that it has burned down and now  a total loss for the future."

*Bill Goss contributed to this report.

Mill Traditions

Painting the School - Mill personnel painted the walls and polished the floors of Tallassee schools prior to each new school year.

4th of July Carnival - Sponsored by the mill annually with the main concession stand run by my Uncle “Doddie” Barker, a Mount Vernon Mill employee.

Mill Village - Homes and duplexes sold to mill employees in Tallassee.

Mill Businesses - Mount Vernon Dry Goods, Mount Vernon Theatre, Mount Vernon Mills Sawmill.

Mill Horn - Sounded three times daily for shift changes.

Tommy Hudson Interview WTLS/Tallassee Times TV
Travis Jones WTLS Wake-Up Call Interview
Mill Fire Video 1
Mill Fire Video 2
Mill Fire Video 3
Mill Fire Video 4
Mill Fire Video 5
Mill Fire Aftermath Drone Video (Courtesy of David Lawrence)

Landmark Mill Destroyed by Fire

Mill Owner Comments on Loss

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