Watching the mills run

The old Hippie’s (aka wife Stephanie’s) maternal grandmother Irene would be 101 years old this year. No, she’s not still around but another, more recent death in Stephanie’s family caused us to reflect on that family’s past. Earlier this winter, we gathered with her four brothers at their late parent’s lakeside retirement house in a gated community in South Carolina. I listened to the Old Hippie and her four younger siblings as they reminisced about times and places that I had no real personal connection to. Eventually, they got around to the period in which I joined their clan. (Even when one considers the house’s location, the word “clan” does not apply in the deep southern context here — they’re Scots)

I was reminded of our many visits to Stephanie’s grandmother’s little house on a quiet street near the park in Centerville, Iowa, next to the home of Stephanie’s prosperous aunt and uncle. Grandma Irene’s general demeanor always rubbed me the wrong way but I was just beginning to learn that the value of old folk’s stories always trumps the inconvenience brought on by their cantankerousness.

This was prior to my being diagnosed as a writer and this very conventional Midwestern family thought that I was just plain weird for no justifiable reason. Of course they weren’t surprised that their maverick, Stephanie married someone a little different but she and I were expected to be responsible citizens and limit our eccentricity to weekends and selected holidays. (Eventually, I would either be committed to an institution or published — it just took society a little while to decide.)

Stephanie’s grandmother often spoke of watching the factories or “mills” run in their city of Ottumwa, Iowa as well as visiting other factories some distance away. In her day, this was a social and recreational activity and young married couples would sometimes pool their resources and make a day or more trip out of it, perhaps heading up to Waterloo to check out the John Deere factory.

This would have been during the early days of the Great Depression. Perhaps they were looking for some reassurance that everything their mothers and fathers had worked and fought so hard for wasn’t collapsing like a house of cards. “We got together and took a trip to the McCormick-Deering plant last week — let me tell you, brother, it looks like they’re doing just dandy!”

“We visited one of those paper mills down in Arkansas — they were having a big spill of wet pulp and were trying to get it stopped. They’re running three shifts, though.”

Just as likely, these trips were for entertainment and adventure. Perhaps it was mostly a Midwestern thing — that’s where tractor and old-time machinery shows got their start after all. You can still go to these shows and watch people working hard to feed a 1920s threshing machine or sorghum mill. Grandma Irene went on to relate that plant managers were usually friendly and cooperative toward visitors. They were proud of their operations and enjoyed having an opportunity to show them off.

I used as my mental image of these factories the old Johns Manville plant — a city in itself — nestled in the small Polish community of Manville, N.J. Manville in its heyday boasted at least one bar on every street.

I understand that it’s a relative ghost town now but in the 1960s it still bustled. The factory hummed while ominously acrid smoke and asbestos dust hung in the air. I imagined young couples wandering among the red brick factory buildings and towering smoke stacks of the 1930s; “Hey, let’s see what goes on in this one!” Knowing the bold inquisitiveness of the Poles, that was quite likely how it actually went.

I don’t know when security around industrial plants became so pervasive. Perhaps it was because observers often got in the way. This may have been followed by wartime concerns about spies and sabotage. Strikes and labor disputes were followed by the age of litigation then later, terrorism. All of this would eventually bring about the present era of security fences and gate guards. No more watching the mills run.

The age of finding entertainment in simple things like watching a factory run was ending anyway. Our entertainment would eventually be piped directly to our brains through television and computers so that we need not seek adventure outside our living rooms. Even the fire and sparks of a steel mill crucible couldn’t compare with the dramatic special effects available on our television screens.

Still, we might give this a little more thought. A month ago my story “Park that parka” helped produce a respectable turnout prior to the usual opening date of Abundant Life Greenhouse. These visitors enjoyed the warm atmosphere of the heated greenhouse and the assurance that spring is on the way. Other folks just stopped by to watch the employees start the season’s seeding and make other preparations for the growing season.

About a week after that, New World Pasta in Winchester, Va., held an open house in celebration of 20 years in business at their Frederick County location. This event was also well attended. Perhaps the era of watching the mills run isn’t over after all.

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