Review of Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945, by David E. Alsobrook

17 Apr

I grew up in the Columbus, Georgia area—as thoroughly a Southern “mill city” as ever existed. Being able to trace the arrival of some of my own family in the area back to the heyday of the mills and the opportunities they provided for rural Southerners seeking steady employment, I am acutely aware of just how large the textile industry looms in regional history. Mills and the worker villages which accompanied them frequently formed not only the largest economic engines in many Southern cities for generations, but represented virtual cities unto themselves. Their daily rhythms vibrated with the activities of the industrial establishments at their center. As is the case with so much from our shared past, though, what was once commonplace is growing more and more remote and increasingly only dimly understood. While I think even the most casually informed student of Southern history grasps that the era of the big mills is a critical one in much of the region, it is sad to see that so many individuals’ lives are increasingly reduced to caricature in both history books and collective memory; desperate operatives trudging appreciatively in dangerous and labor-intensive jobs in noisy facilities living in, but never quite part of, the larger cities in which they resided.

Alsobrook

For its contribution to our understanding of Southern mill workers as real people alone, then, David E. Alsobrook’s Southside: Eufaula’s Cotton Mill Village and Its People, 1890-1945 is a much welcome contribution to both Alabama and Southern historiography in general. But it is much more, as it provides a virtual case study of the rise and decline of the cotton mill as an economic and social force in a Southern city. The book is an intensely personal and compassionate chronicle of life in the mill village of the southeastern Alabama town of Eufaula which details the hopes, dreams, trials, and misfortunes of the laborers which operated the spindles and looms in the venerable city’s largest industrial establishment for over half a century. It also painfully illuminates the biases and prejudices of small town life which effectively rendered mill operatives as “other” for most of that time and offers up an unflinchingly authentic account of Deep South society at both its best and worst. Lay readers and serious academics alike will enjoy the book, as it paints an engrossing picture of what life was like for people during a transitional period in regional history and at the same time illuminates issues such as the philosophy of paternalism by mill management that is part and parcel of understanding how these entities functioned as equal parts business and community.

Alsobrook, one of Alabama’s most respected leaders in the cultural heritage field, is an esteemed scholar and the former director of not one but two presidential libraries. He knows his subject well and brings his personal familiarity to the task with professional grace. Born in Eufaula and raised in Mobile, he has a deep connection to the riverside city and took to heart the stories of triumph and tragedy he heard from family members as a young man. His fluid prose naturally mixes in bits of this intimate story of kith and kin but rests on a bedrock of informed and meticulously-researched narrative of Eufaula mill history. Thankfully, the book goes well beyond a narrow focus on the mills themselves, and presents the story of them and those that worked in them in the context of the larger continuum of the city’s history. This is particularly essential in the book’s success, in no small part due to the fact that Eufaula’s celebrated heritage usually leans extraordinarily heavily towards its antebellum grandeur. The small city along the Chattahoochee River is home to the second-largest historic district in the state and is famous for its annual pilgrimage tour of homes and its pre-Civil War structures and stories. It is to his credit and the reader’s benefit that Alsobrook lays out that chapter of the city’s colorful past with aplomb in an opening chapter, for the story he has to tell of a bygone and largely forgotten chapter in the city’s history can only truly be understood in light of Eufaula’s zenith as one of the wealthiest towns in the state.

A primary theme in Alsobrook’s work is the figurative and quite literal divide between “Old Eufaula” and the “Southside” mill village community which sprang up around the town’s mills in the latter years of the nineteenth century. The social barrier between these two communities was a pronounced one indeed and understanding its manifestations—Southsiders were not welcome in Old Eufaula houses of worship and other community organizations for a very long time—illuminates much about life in the era. But just as Alsobrook’s overview of pre-1890 city history sets the stage for his narrative, his tracking of the impersonal forces which ultimately brought down the artificial wall between the two communities puts into perspective why and how the mill era ended. The economic leveling of the Great Depression, the enormity of the shared goal of winning World War II, and international financial realities in the post-war era all conspired to end both the segregation of life in Eufaula and to varying degrees the mills themselves.

Southside is a touching, thorough, and multi-faceted portrait of mill life in Eufaula which helps us better understand that community individually, and by extension, so many others similar to it elsewhere in the South. The book is one of the very few of its type in Alabama’s historical literature and a major contribution to a relatively narrow slice of the literature on Southern history in general. As a consequence, it should find a rather wide audience both within the state and far beyond. Indeed, the Alabama Historical Association recently recognized both its worth and potential recently by naming it the winner of the Clinton Jackson Coley Award as the best recent book on local history concerns in the state. A hearty thanks from all readers of Alabama and Southern history goes to Alsobrook for bringing Southside’s story to light.

JMB

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