Weaving the threads of the pas

(News & Observer, 16 April 2005)


Mary Coles remembers the circuses that used to parade through West Durham. She liked the elephants and the horses. She remembers the boarders her mother took in, her country ham and biscuits, and climbing trees, and politicians, gathering in McDonald's drugstore and shaking hands outside the gates of Erwin Mills. Her daddy was head of the union there.

"Time moves on," she said.

So it does. West Durham is now better known as just "Ninth Street," hip and counter-culturish. Once, though, it was a cotton-mill village, working-class and familial. And that West Durham, the myriad mill villages like it, and memories like Mary Coles', are suddenly the focus of a trend.

"It's finally dawning on people that the Southern textile culture may not be with us much longer," Lynn Rumley said.

Rumley is a former West Durham resident who said she has found herself part of "a spontaneous movement ... to take stock of what's going to be gone soon." According to present West Durham chronicler John Schelp, Rumley is "the heart and soul behind" that movement, which has led to a "Southwide Cotton Mill Reunion & Convention" next weekend in Kannapolis. (For information, go to www.textileheritage.org/reunioninfo1.htm.)

Rumley organized the event. Schelp is going to talk about how to reinvigorate mill-village neighborhoods, using Old West Durham as a case in point.

"John has done an extraordinary job of preserving history," said Rumley. With the Southern textile industry dying, even the memories are an endangered species, she said.

"Our elders are passing on," Rumley said. "The last generation to grow up Mill Hill-style are the same age as the World War II generation."

Mary Coles is one of those elders. Her late husband, Louis, was another West Durham native, but they only met on a blind date, when he was home on leave from the Durham Machine Gun Company. West Durham memories were something they shared in later years: snake handlers, medicine shows, lint in their lungs and rocking on the front porch.

"Nobody back then had to lock their doors," Rumley said. "Everybody knew everybody by first names. The values they practiced, a lot of us envy. The children who grew up, whose ancestors were cotton-mill people, they need to know this and be proud of it."

Preservationists are on the job.

Mary Coles has her memories.

"I can remember laying in bed at night," she said. "They had steam trains then, you could hear those trains coming waaayyy off, and they'd get closer and closer and then they'd get to rattling the window. And, I don't know, that always just ... " and she stopped.

"I think about the past a lot," she said.

"There'll never be another place like West Durham"