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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, November 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Workplace and community conditions and restrictions

Snipes describes in greater detail the kinds of working conditions he faced at the Jay and Muldell Company cotton mill in Bynum, North Carolina, during the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, Snipes focuses on various workplace restrictions that sometimes seeped into the working community. Additionally, Snipes offers an anecdote about the one time he was nearly fired on the job. Interestingly, the anecdote is not only indicative of workplace conditions, but also reveals the culture of working communities, specifically in relationship to moonshining.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John W. Snipes, November 20, 1976. Interview H-0098-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I'd like to know if we could go back to Bynum for a minute, and to the Jay and Muldell Company. When you'd go there, did you have to punch a clock?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
No sir.
BRENT GLASS:
Were there any rules?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
No sir. Well, you were supposed to be there when the lights blinked. At six o'clock you were supposed to be on the job. And we were so afraid we'd lose our job I'd be there an hour sitting there and it dark, sitting there 'til it was time to start, or a half an hour.
BRENT GLASS:
Well, would they fire you if you were late?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
If you stubbed your toe they'd fire you. They'd fire them here for not putting out the lights late at night, at one time in the history of Bynum. Old Mr. Bynum used to go around over the hill at nine o'clock and see who was up. And if you was up he'd knock on the door and tell you to cut the lights out and get into bed.
BRENT GLASS:
This is the man who first started the mill?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
That's right. Well, it was almost as strict when I first come here.
BRENT GLASS:
Well, what kind of rules were there? Do you remember any of them? Could you smoke on the job?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Not in and around the office. Jobs where you'd start up all your machine and get them to running and maybe they'd run thirty or forty minutes (your doffers), well they'd step out in the road out there and smoke. But you didn't smoke in the mill because it was too inflammable.
BRENT GLASS:
Right. What other kind of rules might they have?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
That Depression, the people marching every day wanting jobs. Of course the cotton mill was two storey. You'd start up your machine. If it was running all right you could go to the window and lean out and get fresh air out of that dust—because, you see, so many cotton mill people die of brown lung, they call it.
BRENT GLASS:
Did many of them get that?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Oh yes sir. We was talking about two men died. I set here and seen them go across there coughing every breath. From here you could hear them 'til they got to the post office, coming along a path going out there for groceries or something, coughing every breath. But totally during the Depression just droves come in from Ramseur and Saxapahaw and Burlington; all of them come hunting jobs. Well, they ain't got no jobs. They said a fellow went down to the office, and as he was going on down the walk there the fellow leaning out the window fell out and killed him there on the sidewalk. But this other fellow going on down the road, he'd been down there and asked for a job. He said, "No, we ain't got no job for you, not unless somebody dies." He turned around and was leaving; he started on back and this fellow fell out of the window and got killed. So he was running back down to the office and said, "How about that man just fell out of the window and got killed? Can I have his job?" He said, "No." He said, "The man pushed him out gets his." [Laughter] They told that as a joke. But it was rough, I'm telling you right.
BRENT GLASS:
Well, did you know anybody who would get dismissed?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes, they fired them for nothing. Just get mad with them and fire them.
BRENT GLASS:
Was there a curfew in town where you had to be in by a certain time?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Not after I started working. But there had been, there had a curfew. They had some restrictions. Some of them would send us to church every Sunday. And if they'd get drunk and get in a fight or something down there, the superintendent would say maybe, "Well, you can come back on your job, but you're going to have to straighten up there a little. You're going to have to be at church Sunday morning. I'm expecting you there for four Sundays or five Sundays." Now them restrictions was put on lots of times.
BRENT GLASS:
How about you? Did they ever…?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
No sir. I never did. They threatened to fire me one time. I had never seen no homebrew. They'd take and get a can of yeast and five pounds of sugar, and take an old crock or five gallon jug down in the woods. They'd put that yeast and sugar in there and fill it up with water and let it work off. And it was strong! I never seen none. And then they'd have reed quills, the boys'd go down there and suck it. You couldn't tell how much you were drinking. And when you first started to drinking it, it weren't no more than a Coca-Cola or sweet apple cider. Well, I followed them off down there in the woods. Never been raised up there in the sticks, and I didn't drink. Still don't drink, and I ain't never drank. But I got to sucking on that thing with them, and first thing I know the world started turning around. And somebody run (I reckon they thought they'd get my job) and told the superintendent that I was down the river drunk. He called me to the office next morning and asked me about it. I said, "Well, yes sir. I drank some stuff that I had never seen." I said, "I didn't know that stuff was like that. I got sick; the world started turning around, and I laid down and went to sleep down there. The mill was standing part of the time and ." He said, "Well, I'm going to have to fire you." I come on home. That night he sent for me, and he said, "Come on back on in the morning." I went on back to work, and never lost another day from it. But I got drunk.
BRENT GLASS:
He tried to scare you, huh?
JOHN W. SNIPES:
Yes. I reckon I got drunk. I didn't know what was going on. The world was going around and around. [Laughter]