Seventy-three-year old Joyce Pesnell spends most of her days inside her mill village home, which stands littered with memories of the once-bustling Blue Mountain, the town where she was raised, worked and fell in love.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” Pesnell said Thursday. “I used to know the name of every person on every street.”
She began working for Blue Mountain Industries, originally called American Net & Twine Co. and later Linen Thread, in 1958, spending eight to 12 hours, two days a week, balling yarn for the mill.
It was a prominent source of revenue for the county and provided a number of families with income, living and education. But once it shut down in 2000, the community changed, leaving workers with uncertainty and grief for the town they called “home.”
Even the town itself has ceased to exist, annexed into adjacent and much larger Anniston around the same time.
But long before then, back when Blue Mountain was a town and the mill its center, Pesnell spent most of her day at home. When third shift hit at 10 p.m., though, she’d walk to the mill to begin a long night of work.
“I enjoyed the third shift,” Pesnell said with a smile. “I didn’t have to put up with the big bosses.”
While working at the mill, she met Orval Pesnell. The two got married and moved into a mill-provided house she still calls home.
Keep it standing
When the cotton mill was still running, the company provided workers with housing. Carpenters, plumbers and painters from the mill fixed the houses and one of the nurses inspected them randomly to ensure clean living.
“If Marie stopped by and the house wasn’t clean, the mill would make you leave,” Pesnell said, remembering a particularly watchful nurse.
According to Pesnell, the mill was a good place to work. It provided a community where people worked, worshipped and studied together. The couple and their children stayed in Blue Mountain and Orval continued working at the mill until it finally closed. Three years later, he died, leaving Pesnell to cope with the change.
“It’s different here now,” Pesnell said. “Most everyone left or passed away. The people aren’t so close anymore.”
Today, Pesnell lives alone. She visits her siblings and children from time to time and attends New Canaan Baptist Church regularly where she’s in charge of the prayer line.
“I get lonely at times,” Pesnell said. “But I have the Lord on my side, and he truly answers prayers.”
‘A good living’
Jerry Whitten acted as a supervisor where he watched over the entire process of making and spinning yarn and manufacturing different products with the result.
“We’d start off with a bale of cotton and end up with string,” Jerry said. “It was one process after another. If I tried to explain it, you wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”
He and his wife, Shelby, met at the mill, where she worked in the braiding department. They eventually got married, had children and rented a mill village home for a mere $12 a month.
They remember life in the mill village, watching workers walk to and from work, swarming out the doors as one shift ended and the next one began.
“You couldn’t tell what color people were when they walked out,” Shelby said. “Everyone was covered from head to toe with cotton.”
It was a difficult place to work with little pay, but the mill did what it could to keep the community running.
“I never said anything bad about that place,” Jerry said. “I had a choice. If I got fed up, I could leave, but I never did.”
The mill was all they knew. Both Shelby and her mother worked there and Jerry stayed there from the day he started until the day it closed.
According to Jerry, when the mill opened, there were around 3,000 employees. At its close, about 51 remained.
“It slowly went downhill,” Jerry said.
The employees were informed a few months before its closing. Workers were upset, but their distress couldn’t change the decision. All they could do was move on. However, the closing did provide workers with the opportunity attend school. Most men learned a skill and the women became nurses.
“They really cared about the workers,” Jerry said. “People were forced to better themselves when the mill shut down. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have left.”
Although the mill’s closing offered new opportunities, it also left workers without jobs.
“People were lost,” Jerry said. “A lot of them didn’t know what to do with themselves.”
Many mill workers have left or are dead, yet a few still remain, reminiscing about the days when they lived among people they considered family.
“This is my home,” Shelby said. “It’s strange how a little mill village can change you.”
Star staff writer Sarah Cole: 256-235-3568 On Twitter: @SCole_Star.