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Going "down South" to work was common for rural Southwest Virginians in the '20s and '30s

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Mr. & Mrs. Jack Wallen (Leona Clendenin)

J.H. Osborne’s maternal uncle Jack Wallen and wife Leona Clendenin Wallen around the time of their marriage.

Growing up, I sometimes heard it said that this or that family member (or family friend) once “went down South” to work. I think I was a teenager before I really wondered where “down South” was or why they went there for work.

I noted that most had not stayed, at least not among Mom’s immediate family. I also knew I had cousins living in the greater Spartanburg area, specifically in and around Union. On Dad’s side, some of his people also lived in South Carolina in the Pacolet area.

When I finally realized the aunts and uncles of mine who’d temporarily “went down South” had done so to work in a cotton mill, I couldn’t understand why they would have left their homes in Hancock County, in Northeast Tennessee, or Lee or Scott County in Southwest Virginia, and passed right by Kingsport’s Borden Mill to go hundreds of miles away to another cotton mill.

I still don’t have a definitive answer. But I have some theories, including one that stands out to me as the most likely answer. I’ll save it for last.

Maybe Borden’s mill in Kingsport had plenty of workers already. Compared to the mills in South Carolina (I recently read that state had more than 160 cotton mills, including the largest facility under one roof in the world, in the early 1900s), the one in Kingsport was relatively new. I’m not sure about its capacity or workforce levels compared to the mills “down South.”

I do know some other members of Mom’s extended family, as well as members of her family’s community, already had moved to South Carolina. So that meant potential connections at the mills down there and also possible boarding opportunities.

But the most likely reason they “went down South” that I’ve heard is this: The mills in South Carolina would send recruiters up to Lee County and Scott County and probably other counties in the region. They didn’t just come offering jobs for successful applicants. They brought transportation. Sign on with them, pack your suitcase, and get on their bus. Next thing you knew, you were in a city in South Carolina with a factory job that provided steady pay. Housing? You could rent a modest-but-modern home from the mill. Need groceries or dry goods? Get them at the company store.

My cousin Millard Ray Hall was the first to tell me about the recruiters and the buses. Family members think that might be how mom’s eldest sibling, my Uncle Jack Wallen, first made his way “down South.” He went to Buffalo, S.C., a mill town about three miles from the city of Union. Buffalo Cotton Mill had opened in 1902. It lasted as a business until the early 1990s. It and its surrounding village are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Uncle Jack went down as a young (18 years old or less), single man. He came back married to the love of his life, who his little sisters thought was “the prettiest woman they’d ever seen” the first time he brought her home. Mom was too young to remember it. Uncle Jack was away working when Mom was born in 1933 and didn’t see her until she was 9 months old. I wrote a few columns back about him hiding her from their mother in an old-fashioned trunk.

But Mom’s sisters Mary Ruth and Bonnie had vivid memories of Leona’s first visit, especially her fine yellow suit and matching, wide-brimmed yellow hat. As the crow flies, Aunt Leona and Uncle Jack hadn’t been born or raised that far apart, at least not by today’s standards. He was born in 1914 in Lee County near the Tennessee state line and not far from the Scott County line. She was from the Purchase community in Scott County. Her birth certificate places her birth in 1915 at Duffield, but I think that was simply the nearest “big” town. The 1920 census shows her as a 4-year-old living with her family on Necessary Road, Powell, Scott County.

By the way, her birth name was Billie Sue Clendenin. She later chose Leona and had it legally changed. I think she knew what she was doing. She was much more of a “Leona” than a “Billie Sue.”

Mom doesn’t remember Jack without Leona, and Mom adored Leona. The feeling was mutual.

We believe Aunt Leona “went down South” after being recruited by a scout for the Buffalo Mill, but we don’t know if she rode the bus. We do know that she and Uncle Jack met while working at Buffalo Mill, courted, and married in 1934. They had a double wedding with their close friends Jonn (“Johnny”) Wesley Willis and Elizabeth Mae Rogers on Christmas Eve 1934. (That’s the wedding day picture online with this article, of the two couples, the preacher, and the preacher’s wife).

None of us are real clear on how long Jack and Leona stayed down South. They did have one child while there, but that daughter died shortly after birth. Uncle Jack drove the baby in its tiny coffin back to Hancock County for burial in the Willis Cemetery behind the childhood home of his mother, Pearl. Leona was unable to travel. Another daughter who died as a toddler is buried there as well.

But they worked on long enough to save up to buy their own farm near my grandparents in Lee County. Their surviving daughters are Mae Willis (of Columbia, S.C.) and Joyce (Mrs. Sinetker) Ryans (of Church Hill). Both remember being told that while working in Buffalo, their parents made $22 per week, combined: Uncle Jack earned $10 a week in the carding room, and Aunt Leona made $12 per week in the spinning room.

Prior to their marriage, each had boarded with kinfolks or people known from home. Uncle Jack boarded for a while, perhaps, with his and Mom’s maternal Uncle Hammie Johnson. He for sure, we know, boarded with family friends Matt and Laurie Fleenor (they also later moved back here, living in Kingsport). At some point while at the Fleenors’ they had another boarder, my Uncle Lon (before he’d married my Aunt Ova).

After Uncle Jack and Aunt Leona married, they shared a home briefly with their friends, Mr. & Mrs. Johnny Willis. They remained friends the rest of their lives. A good thing, considering. You see, ultimately, Jack and Leona’s daughter Elizabeth Mae married the other couple’s son, John Wayne Willis.

Uncle Jack and Aunt Leona grew their farm over the years, adding more and more to their initial purchase, and they prospered as Uncle Jack wasn’t afraid to try new ventures. His planting of pines was among the targets of my family’s Christmas tree hunts I’ve written about in the past. And he sort of introduced me to Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner: I didn’t really take notice of those country singers on that syndicated television show until Uncle Jack bought a beautiful pair of blonde horses, and named them Dolly and Porter.

A few years after Jack and Leona’s marriage, Mom’s sister Venus and her husband, Carson Lawson, went down South for work. They went to Whitmire, S.C., to work in a mill there. They stayed long enough for their youngest daughter, my cousin Brenda Mays, to be born in Whitmire. And they, too, had a boarder for a while: my Uncle Guy Wallen.

Uncle Carson and Aunt Venus had regular gigs at the cotton mill in Whitmire. Uncle Guy went to the mill each shift as a “spare hand.” If extra workers were needed that shift, he was put to work. If not, he was sent back home. Aunt Venus would have a bit of advance notice when Uncle Guy was sent home rather than being put to work on the night shift. The last stretch of the walk home was dark and lonely. Uncle Guy, a spiffy dresser, wore taps on his shoes. When he reached the start of the dark stretch, he’d let out running the rest of the way, and Aunt Venus would hear the rat-a-tat-tat tapping as he came into the home stretch, up the walk and steps, and across the porch to the door.

They all came back to this region as well. Uncle Guy retired from J.P. Stevens. Uncle Carson and Aunt Venus worked and added to his family’s farm, eventually running a large dairy operation and a thriving greenhouse/nursery business. Uncle Lon moved home, married Aunt Ova, and they eventually moved to Kingsport and got jobs at Borden/J.P. Stevens. She left there to work largely in sales, including a stint at the Betty Gay Shop on Broad Street. Uncle Lon retired from J.P Stevens.

I’m intrigued now by what I’ve learned online about Buffalo, Whitmire, and the once thriving cotton mills of South Carolina. I don’t want to go “down South” to work. But I think I’m going to have to go take a look around some weekend.