Lewis Hine caption: Maple Mills, Dillon, S.C. Ruth Barnhill (elder). Been at it 4 years. Run 6 sides. Emma Barnhill 4 years in mill. 4 sides. Looked 10 years old. Location: Dillon, South Carolina, December 1908.
“It was just a way of life. I think she must have been doing it when she was very young, because she didn’t have any schooling. She couldn’t read or write. My granddaddy died when the children were very young. So they all had to go into the mill to work so that they could make a living. When her youngest brother, Jerry, was just a small boy, they would take him to the mill and keep him there while they worked.” -Geneva McKeithan, daughter of Ruth Barnhill
The following is an excerpt from The Cotton Mills of South Carolina, by August Kohn, published in 1907.
“The worst help conditions are in the past, but they are very much better than they were twelve months ago. This is because there are more people going to the mills, and because some who have left the mills to go to the farms or the country are returning; and, altogether, the cotton mills are better satisfied with the labor conditions than they have been for some time, and that perhaps accounts for the abandonment temporarily of the effort to bring foreign mill laborers into this State.”
“If one were to believe some of the articles of the sensational writers, they would think that the cotton mills of South Carolina grind the life out of the operatives, and that it is not an uncommon thing for an operative on a night run to have his or her teeth shaken out by some irate superintendent. As a matter of fact, there are very few cotton mills in this State that run at night. These few mills that do run at night pay the help from 10 to 20 per cent more for night work than day work, and even for this additional inducement they are unable to get any considerable amount of night help. The Dillon Mills and the companion, Maple Mills, do some spinning at night.”
“The cotton mills even provide for their operatives everything that they might want to buy. Though some people entertain the idea that mill stores are intended for profit, the fact of the matter is that there are very few, if any, cotton mills that have ever made anything out of what is known as the company store. The operatives themselves are just as keen to make a good trade as anyone else, and if the company stores do not sell goods as cheaply and as good as any others they will not get the patronage of the operatives; consequently the company stores have to buy the very best of goods because the operatives will not wear anything but the best of clothes, nor will they eat anything but the best eatables, and the prices have to be on a parity with other places.”
“There has been a very general impression, entirely without foundation, that the cotton mill operatives, as a class, live from hand to mouth. This is an error of fact and an injustice. So far as I know, there are no more contented people in the State. Altogether there are at least 125,000 people directly dependent upon the cotton mills for their livelihood, and I do not know of any class of workers, of the same number, who are so thoroughly satisfied, who live as well, who dress as neatly and who have as many comforts proportionate upon their skill.”
In 1909, Lewis Hine wrote about his investigation of the cotton mills in Dillon, South Carolina, and said this:
“I heard many complaints among the workers about conditions, especially the low wages, long hours, pressure of work and the use of young children. During the past year some children have been turned off but plenty of them remain, many under the guise of ‘helping’. The children themselves overstate their ages, their parents have mis-stated their ages so long. Illiteracy seems to prevail here, and many boys and young women even could not spell their own names. The mill school house is a shed-like structure and very small.”
Lewis Hine caption: Mill School House (in middle) surrounded by mill houses. Maple Mill, Dillon, S.C. Small need here for large schoolhouse. Most of the children in mill. Location: Dillon, South Carolina, December 1908.
Ruth Barnhill was born in South Carolina on October 10, 1893. According to the census, she was the third child of at least 10 children born to William and Annie Barnhill, who were married about 1882. Both her father and her mother are listed in the 1900 census, but her mother is listed as a widow in the 1910 census, so it’s possible that her father may have already died when Ruth was photographed in 1908.
Based on the census, the girl standing next to Ruth was indeed her sister Emma, as Hine claimed, and the little boy was her brother Jerry. The identity of the woman sitting on the porch is not clear.
According to South Carolina marriage records, Ruth married John F. McDowell, in Dillon, on March 15, 1916. They had 10 children, though three of them died shortly after birth. Ruth and her family do not appear in the 1920 and 1930 censuses. I located several of her children after finding her North Carolina death record and her obituary. Her younger brother Jerry (in the photo), died in Baltimore, Maryland in 1991, at the age of 89. I could find no further records for her sister Emma, and none of the descendants I talked to had any recollection of her.
Ruth Barnhill McDowell died on September 1, 1979, at the age of 85. Her husband, John, died in 1954. Her mother, Annie, died in 1964, at the age of 108. I interviewed Ruth’s daughter, Geneva McKeithan, and Ruth’s grandson, Bobby Lee McDowell.
Edited interview with Geneva McKeithan (GM), daughter of Ruth Barnhill. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on September 28, 2009.
JM: When were you born?
GM: 1930. I was the last child.
JM: How many children did your mother have?
GM: She had 10, but three of them died shortly after birth.
JM: Where were you born?
GM: My oldest brother tells me I was born in Robertson County (North Carolina), but as far back as I can remember, I was raised in Hoke County (North Carolina), on the outskirts of the town of Rockfish.
JM: What was your father’s name, and what did he do for a living?
GM: His full name was John Fuller McDowell. He was a farmer. We lived on a farm, tobacco and cotton. When my parents got married, they moved around a lot from farm to farm. Then my daddy bought the farm when I was about three years old.
JM: What did you do on the farm?
GM: I picked cotton, drove the tractor, just about everything, but I didn’t work like the older children did.
JM: Did your mother work?
GM: She stayed home.
JM: Did you live on that farm the whole time you were growing up?
GM: Yes I did, and my mother lived there until my father died. Then she sold it.
JM: When you were young, your family had to face the Depression.
GM: Yes, but I didn’t know it.
JM: And right after that, there was WWII.
GM: So many years have passed since Mom watched three of her boys go to war. She really worried about them. I would return home from school and see that she had been crying a lot because there was no letter in the mail that day. And then maybe the next day she would be all smiles because there was a letter. She would be waiting for the first child to get home to read it to her. She sure would light up after that. Over the years, she saw her boys return and others go, but finally they were all home again. There are just three of us left now: me, my sister Erlie, and Jack.
JM: What was your mother like?
GM: She was a fine lady. She wasn’t too strict with me. That might have been because I was the youngest. I never heard any of my brothers and sisters say anything bad about her. All I’ve got are good memories of my mother. She sewed a lot. She made our clothes.
JM: How tall was she?
DM: A little over four feet, only about 4′ 4″, I think. I was taller than she was when I was in my teens.
JM: She lived a long time.
GM: Her mother lived even longer than she did. Her name was Annie Barnhill. She was 108 when she died. I’ve got her obituary hanging in my bedroom.
JM: Who died first, your mother or your grandmother?
GM: My grandmother.
JM: Did she live her last years with your mother?
GM: She lived in Baltimore with her son Jerry for the last 20 years of her life. She stayed with us on the farm in the summer.
JM: What do you think about the fact that your mother was photographed as a child laborer, and that the picture is in the Library of Congress?
GM: I think it’s great. I think something was accomplished during that time that wouldn’t have been accomplished if those pictures hadn’t been taken. I remember my mother talking about working in a cotton mill, like 10 or 12 hours a day, or at night.
JM: Did she say anything bad about it?
GM: She didn’t complain about it, she just talked about it. It was just a way of life. I think she must have been doing it when she was very young, because she didn’t have any schooling. My dad went to school for several years, but my mother never went to school. She couldn’t read or write. My grandmother worked in the mill, too. My granddaddy died when the children were very young. So they all had to go into the mill to work so that they could make a living. When her youngest brother, Jerry, was just a small boy, they would take him to the mill and keep him there while they worked.
JM: In the picture, there is a woman that might have been your grandmother.
DM: Yes, I was thinking that, too, but it’s not plain enough for me to really see it.
JM: There’s also a little boy in the picture.
DM: Me and my sister talked about that. He had to be one of the younger boys. I would say it was my Uncle Jerry, because he was the last child born to Grandma.
JM: The picture was taken in 1908. In the 1900 census, there is a three-year-old boy named Erlie. He would have been 11 years old when the picture was taken. So it wasn’t him. There’s also a boy named Albert listed, who was less than one year old. He would have been about eight years old when the picture was taken, so he also would have been too old to be the boy.
DM: And Uncle Jerry was born after he was.
JM: Are any of your mother’s sisters and brothers still living?
DM: No, they’ve all passed away.
JM: Was your mother in good health up until she died?
DM: She was. After my father died, in 1954, she lived by herself for many years. She even raised one of her grandsons, Bobby Lee McDowell. He got married and had a family of his own when she died. The last year, we had to put my mother in the nursing home because she came down with dementia.
JM: She died 30 years ago this month, Sept 6, 1979. She was photographed 101 years ago.
DM: I’ll never stop missing my mother. I could always talk to her. I still miss my daddy, too. Mom loved her husband and children through good times and bad. Mom and Dad raised us to have great respect and love for other people and a deep faith in our Lord, Jesus Christ.
Edited interview with Bobby Lee McDowell, grandson of Ruth Barnhill. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on November 6, 2009.
JM: What did you think of the picture?
McDowell: I knew she had worked way back then. She had talked about it a little, but I was surprised to see the picture.
JM: When were you born?
McDowell: I was born in 1940. I lived with my grandmother – my father’s mother – from the time I was six weeks old till about three or four years before she died. My mother and dad separated, and they couldn’t take care of me. We lived on a farm between Raeford and Rockfish, on Route 2. I still got a piece of land that they owned, about 30 acres. I got married when I was 28, and stayed with her a little while after that.
JM: When you left, did you still live near her?
McDowell: Yes. I built a house in Raeford, but out in the country. She was staying in town by that time. I checked on her almost every day. Finally, she moved in with her daughter, Erlie Mae. Then they finally put her in a nursing home down in Garner (North Carolina).
JM: Did she work when you were growing up?
McDowell: She stayed at home mostly. During tobacco season, there were a lot of people working on the farm, maybe 20 or 30. My grandmother would cook for the whole crowd. But she worked a short time in the textile mills when I was about 12 years old.
JM: Were there any other children in the home besides you at that time?
McDowell: No, they were all grown up by that time.
JM: What was she like?
McDowell: She was wonderful. She was not just a substitute mother, she was my best friend. When I was growing up, especially when I was a teenager, we used to have a little boxing match in the morning. We were just playing around. I remember one time she hit me in the stomach, and I had on one of those big western belts, and it busted her hand.
I’ll tell you quite a story. She liked to dip snuff. When she ran out of it, she could be hard to deal with. It was three miles from our house to the closest store. One time she ran out of snuff, and she had me go get her some. I had to walk to the store because Granddaddy had the car. So I walked down there, and they didn’t have the kind she wanted. She always used Railroad Mills, which they had, but she wanted the long ones and they only had the short ones. So I bought her two short ones. I walked all the way back home, but she wouldn’t have it. I had to take it back the next day, which means I had to walk another six miles. She was like that. If she couldn’t have exactly what she wanted, she wouldn’t have nothing. But that was okay. She wasn’t angry about it. If she was here now, I would be happy to walk 30 miles to get her whatever she wanted.
She never went to school. She couldn’t read or write, though she got to where she would write her name. But she was pretty smart. She knew how to count her money. She could do lots of things. She could play the piano. If she heard somebody play something, she could sit right down and play it. But she couldn’t read music.
JM: Was she a good piano player?
McDowell: I thought so. Of course, anything she did, I thought it was good.
JM: What do you miss about her the most?
McDowell: Her cooking, I guess. She was the best cook I’ve ever known. I loved her pineapple cake. I’ve never had one like it since. She cooked it on a griddle, made the layers real thin, about 8 or 10 layers with pineapple between each layer. It was some kind of good.
*Story published in 2010.