Lewis Hine caption: A typical Spinner, Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Location: Lancaster, South Carolina, November 1908.
“At the time, my mother may have seen it as an opportunity rather than a bad thing. I think it is understandable for someone in better circumstances to say, ‘How sad.’ But from Mom’s point of view, she would have been thankful that God had provided her a means to help her family. We should not have child labor, and thank God our grandchildren are not exposed to it. Mom may have been faced with things we will never know, but it did not destroy her spunk and strength. She was very much with me the day I learned about her picture. No words could ever explain the depth of emotion I felt when I first saw it, knowing my mother was the beautiful girl in that photograph.” -Roberta Robinson, daughter of Sadie Barton
For 100 years, this beautiful girl stared out into the world, forgotten and anonymous, characterized only as “typical spinner.” When I saw her for the first time, I wondered why Lewis Hine had not identified her. Did she refuse to give her name, or did the impatient looking woman in the background chase him away?
I vowed to find out who she was, what she was like, and how her life turned out. So I tried something that had worked for me with several other unidentified children – I contacted the local newspaper and asked them to publish the photo and an article about my research. They agreed, and I received a call from reporter Greg Summers. On December 28, 2007, the photo appeared in the Lancaster News, and below it the article began:
“All Joe Manning has to go on is a faded yellow 1908 photograph of a young spinner standing beside a textile loom at Springs Mill’s Lancaster Plant. Now, he wants to put a name with it and he hopes that someone local recognizes her.”
The next day, I was contacted by an astonished family member who identified her as Sadie Barton. I notified Summers, and several weeks later, he wrote in a follow-up article:
“The sixth of Sadie and James Harvey Howard’s eight children, Zevie Neely, wept when she saw the image. ‘It’s amazing what the Lord can do. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I didn’t realize how beautiful Momma was and it’s hard to look at it and not cry. Just look at those beautiful hands. I see myself whenever I look at it.'”
Over the course of the next few months, I corresponded frequently with Sadie’s daughter Roberta Robinson, grandson Ed Robinson, and great-granddaughter Shelley Robinson. As I was to learn, Sadie was much more than just a “typical spinner.”
“Sadie was my grandmother. All of my family, both on my mother’s and father’s side, for several generations before me, worked at some point at the Springs Mill in Lancaster. There was nothing else to do here then. It was common then for young children to work in the mill. Things were sort of tough in the South back then. Until the cotton mills came, we really had not come out of Reconstruction. But for children and their parents, it sure beat scraping in the dirt to try to raise crops and chickens. My father said his ancestors sold the family farm and took jobs in town. My father’s grandfather and father drove a wagon for the local grocery store. They felt like they were some of the fortunate ones, because they were eventually able to go in the mill and work only 10 hours a day and make money for the family.”
“A lot of people will take a stance on child labor and say, ‘What a horrible thing.’ But they don’t think about what those kids would have been doing if it wasn’t for that mill. If it wasn’t for the mill, people down here would have starved to death. The kids didn’t have to work there. In my family, it was a choice. Do I want to work in the tobacco fields for 16 hours a day, or do I want to work in a cotton mill? You didn’t have to know how to read and write to work in the cotton mills. If you were a doffer or a spinner or worked in the sewing room, you could learn that kind of stuff in just a matter of hours. Lancaster wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for Springs Industries.” -Ed Robinson, grandson of Sadie Barton
“I am the great-granddaughter of Sadie Barton. I’ve been pouring over the information in your website about the Lewis Hine Project and have enjoyed learning about an aspect of my family history that I knew little about. I knew little about my great-grandmother except a few stories told by my father. I’ve actually never seen a picture of her. It’s been quite spooky looking at the photo, as it looks exactly like my Papa Jim (her only son who survived childhood) and a bit like my father, myself, and my youngest daughter Nora (we all have the same eyes).”
“I’ve always found the hold that the textile industry had on the South very interesting. I grew up in Lancaster, where numerous members of both my mother’s and father’s families worked for Springs Industries. I always said that I would leave South Carolina as fast as I could! After graduate school my husband and I moved to Washington, DC, where we lived for eight years. After two children however, we were in need of family and free babysitters, and we moved back this year.”
“We live about half an hour from Lancaster, in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. We found a beautiful ‘traditional neighborhood development’ that we love (VillageOfBaxter.com). Then we discovered that our development is owned by Clear Springs Development, the real estate division of Springs Industries. They owned a good bit of land in the area and have worked to create ‘responsible’ developments. We now live on Mills Lane (oh, the irony!).”
“So the company that put my grandmother to work as a child now caters to my five and two-year-old daughters as they walk for an ice cream cone or ride in their little wagon to art class in the cute town center designed by Clear Springs (all in the style of the traditional southern towns, of course). What a difference a hundred years makes.” -Shelley Howard-Robinson, great-granddaughter of Sadie Barton
“The Springs Mill, located in Lancaster, South Carolina, was once touted as the ‘world’s largest cotton mill under one roof,’ with about 5,000 employees who produced 4 million yards of cloth per week. At one time, more than 7,000 looms ran full blast in the plant’s 13 spinning rooms. The two-story, century-old cotton mill, which sits on 30-plus acres, shut down in September 2003 after the company determined it was obsolete and its design too inefficient to modernize. KMAC Services dismantled the mill and gave the city of Lancaster two worn-down stoops where mill hands used to sit in front of the plant before the start of their shifts and sharpen their knives.” -KMAC Greenworks, Birmingham, Alabama
Edited interview with Roberta Robinson (RR), daughter of Sadie Barton. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) in the spring of 2008.
JM: Tell me about your mother.
RR: She was born Sarah Agnes Lenora Barton. Back then, as she related to me, if you gave the first gift, the child was named after you. Given that three women gave gifts, she was named after them. When I was growing up, she was affectionately called Miss Sade. She was Aunt Sade to her nieces and nephews. Mother was outgoing, a friendly person. If anything was happening in the neighborhood, illness or joy, she was called on. She cared for people with TB and other diseases. She always remarked that God always protects you when you’re taking care of other people. She was the strength of our family. Everyone came to her house for the holidays. She served as president of the PTA, and later was made honorary president. She was a beautiful woman.
She had eight children. I was the youngest. Three of the children died infant deaths, one at childbirth. At one of those deaths, my father had to come home from the mill before the funeral, and Mother had to wash his clothes and dry them by an open fire, so he could wear them at the funeral. Dad then had to return to work for the remainder of that workday.
It was not an easy life. At work, the women had to wear soft slippers, much like house slippers, because they worked such long hours. They wore aprons with large pockets, in order to collect the debris from the spinning frames. Dad and Mom both worked in the mills when they were young, working 12 to 15 hours per day. I think Mom was about eight or nine when she started working there. She never complained; it was just the way things were. They were grateful for the opportunity to earn a living.
JM: Tell me about your father.
RR: He was an outstanding man, kind and gentle and wise beyond his years (as told to me by my aunt, Frances Pugh, his only living relative I ever met). His mother died when he was born. Aunt Frances said that Dad’s paternal grandfather came from Massachusetts through a company that provide Springs with the original machinery for the mill. Dad worked as a section hand at the mill. He once described his job as someone who made sure that everyone did their job well and kept everything running smoothly. At one time, he was told that he was going to be promoted to supervisor. His supervisor stated that in order to take the job, ‘You’ve got to give the workers hell. You don’t let them get away with anything. You don’t start your day with ‘Good morning’ or a ‘How are you?’ You give them hell every day.’ My dad told me that he said to them, ‘I have to live so that I can die with a clear conscience, so I will not accept your promotion.’ So he worked in the same position until his retirement. He died as he had lived, a man of faith.
JM: Did you live in a mill village?
RR: Yes. I was born there, not far from the mill, but only lived there for my first year. Then we moved to what we called ‘the new village.’ It was a new home, but did not include an indoor bathroom. We had five rooms and a path (to the outdoor toilet). When we had our first bathroom built, only showers were being installed. I had so wanted a tub (for bubble baths), so Mom made some requests, and our first bathtub was installed. She had two brothers who worked in supervisory positions, and it wasn’t too difficult to get company cooperation. When it came to her ‘brood,’ as she jokingly referred to her children, she would stick her neck out if necessary to please. But then, I believe all mothers are ‘trained’ that way.
During the run of a regular day at work, the employees in the mill, including my mother and dad, would go out for their little break and have a Coke. When I was just a kid, I can recall being in the company swimming pool, which was located just below the mill tower, and my mother and dad would come out and wave at me. That was a big deal for all three of us – it simply made our day.
At Christmas time, the mill would put on a big event, and we would all go down for the celebration. Our gift from the mill (one for each child) was a little brown bag of fruits and nuts and candy – a great joy. There was a mill store. My mom told me that when my brother and sisters were little, they would wait to see if there was any money left at the end of the week. Even if it was only a dime, Dad would always bring home a treat for each of them. Mom saved the sacks which the store used for items such as flour, sugar and meal, and she would use them to make clothes for us. I had kept a couple of the sacks as keepsakes, and she made them into the pillow and mattress for Eddie, my firstborn, in 1955. These are sweet memories for him, which he shares with his two children these many years later.
When I was in the fifth grade, I was selected to be a Little Miss Springmaid. The mill provided our dresses and cap and aprons. We were in the big event the day when the first Miss Springmaid was chosen, and we served in her court. My mom and dad were ever so proud. Those were nice times. Had we known more then, perhaps we would have been unhappy. But I am convinced that we were okay where we were, and we grew out of a beautiful life into an even more beautiful life. Mom may have been faced with things we will never know, but it did not destroy her spunk and strength. She was very much with me the day I learned about her picture. No words could ever explain the depth of emotion I felt when I first saw it, knowing my mother was the beautiful girl in that photograph.
Mom taught me to cook. She was the best cook in the whole world and she loved doing it. During World War II, she would make what they called Japanese Fruit Cakes. My brother, Jim, was stationed in Germany, and Mom mailed many of those cakes over there. Jim was so proud to receive them, and would always say, ‘I only got one slice of my mom’s cake.’
JM: One of things that attracted me to the photograph was that she looked so strong and wise, as if she were more mature than her years would indicate.
RR: That was exactly what she was like, and it is wonderful that the photographer could somehow reveal the real person. In my opinion, he was ‘called’ to his work, and it has touched countless lives throughout the nation and the world. Thank God for Mr. Hine.
JM: Mr. Hine would have wanted people to look at the photo and say: ‘That’s a shame. Why does that girl have to work at such a young age?’ Do you think that it would’ve been justified for people to feel that way about her?
RR: At the time, she may have seen it as an opportunity rather than a bad thing. I think it is understandable for someone in better circumstances to say, ‘How sad.’ But from Mom’s point of view, she would have been thankful that God had provided her a means to help her family. We should not have child labor, and thank God our grandchildren are not exposed to it. But many people were very poor in those days. I think that my grandchildren, who are by no means spoiled, need to recognize that they are just two generations away from five rooms and a path.
Despite their troubles, Mom and Dad provided for their children and inspired them to greater challenges. I was inspired to go to college, and later worked for the University of South Carolina, and retired from there. My parents were delighted to know that we did not have to do the things they had to do, but they never felt bitterness about their plight. They believed in God and equally believed in a work ethic that says that one should work hard, and always know that what you do and what you have is not who you are. ‘Love is everything’ was the theme in our family.
Mom died of breast cancer in 1957, at the age of 62. The doctors told us that they had never seen a patient with more spunk, who had that kind of outlook on life. The night she died, she shared with me the story of when her own mom died of cancer. Mom was the baby in the family, and she did not know how she would ever let her mother go. Mom told me, ‘My mother looked at me when she had finally suffered enough and said, ‘I know how hard it will be, because you are my baby, but please ask God to let me go.’
I’ve never doubted that God answers prayers, even when they are difficult to ask for. So I put my head down and prayed, ‘If she cannot be healed and cannot suffer anymore, please take her to her rest.’ When I finished, she said, ‘What are you doing, Baby?’ I said, ‘I’m just resting a bit.’ I raised my head, and she looked up at me and smiled and said, ‘Thank you.’ Everyone in the family was taking turns, so I left, and about three hours later, she was gone.
Her inspiration lives on through her family, and for me personally. I smile as I go remember a more gentle time, snuggled on my mother’s lap, as she sings to me her sweet songs about her dreams of ‘Red Sails in the Sunset,’ or ‘That Little Girl of Mine.’ I envision all those travels she inspired me to take that she never could take. I saw those ‘Red Sails in the Sunset,’ and sing that song to my own babies and grandbabies. Miss Sadie did good. May God bless her memory.
All photos taken February 16, 1953, at 40th wedding anniversary celebration for Sadie and James Howard. Photos provided by Barton family.
Sadie Barton Howard: March 1, 1895 to June 8, 1957
James Harvey Howard: February 2, 1894 to November 5, 1959
*Story published in 2008.