Title: Oral History Interview with Mareda Sigmon Cobb and Carrie Sigmon Yelton, June 16 and 18, 1979. Interview H-0115.
Identifier: H-0115
Interviewer: Dilley, Patty
Interviewee: Yelton, Carrie Sigmon
Subjects: Women in the textile industry    Textile workers--Southern States--Social conditions    
Extent: 03:50:12
Abstract:  Mareda Sigmon Cobb and her sister Carrie Sigmon Yelton both worked long careers in North Carolina textile mills, completing the family journey from farm to factory in the early decades of the twentieth century. Here they describe their family lives both as children and parents, the many implications of the Depression, working conditions in the mills, religion, and other themes central to social and labor history. The economic and material realities of textile employment are explored in detail; each suffered a major injury on the job, neither favored unionization (though their husbands did), and neither received a pension. To the extent that Yelton and Cobb politicized their employment conditions and worker treatment, they tended to do so not through support of unionization but through a more general support for the Democratic Party of Roosevelt. Cobb and Yelton worked at various jobs in such mills as West Hickory, Shoe String, Moding, and Gastonia Mills. Cobb's memories of the Gastonia Strike and 1934 General Strike became important pieces of Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et al.'s, Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, an award-winning scholarly work published in 1987 by UNC Press.

The sisters came from a family of eight children (a ninth died in infancy). The family moved to various southern locales on account of their father's work as a finish carpenter, before returning to the Hickory, North Carolina, area. Their father, who favored a connection to farming, twice tried to move his family from Hickory back to the countryside, but each time the children were miserable. Yelton dropped out of school after the eighth grade at age fourteen—then the legal minimum age for withdrawal—and three years later took a job at a textile mill. Her favorite job was creeling, though favoritism determined who worked which job; she generally enjoyed her work at the mills, and expresses pride in her ability to produce high quality work. She did not marry until she was thirty-one, but argues that her choice was not unusual and recalls how young adults entertained themselves during their off-hours. Prior to marriage, Yelton had two sons (the first when she was seventeen, the second when she was twenty-one), and she explains that she was able to continue working because her mother and a neighbor woman provided childcare; she and her husband subsequently had three daughters. Yelton remembers the community that formed among the female workers with particular fondness. Despite periodic resentments over wages, working conditions, job assignment, and benefits, Yelton did not support unionization efforts. She describes her attachment to the Lutheran Church; her pastor provided needed support for her over the years, particularly after her husband became disabled. Around 1971, she suffered a serious workplace injury to her arm.

Cobb married in 1925; she and her husband, also a mill worker, had no children. Both became ardent Democrats out of appreciation for Roosevelt's response to the Depression; although her husband held leadership roles in the union local, she never joined. She recalls what she knew from others regarding the 1929 and 1934 textile strikes; she notes that it was commonly understood that Gastonia police chief Orville F. Aderholt was killed not by striking workers but by other police. She also remembers important social and religious events among the lives of Gastonians, especially Earl Armstrong's evangelistic meetings, and describes aspects of life in Gastonia's mill villages. Working conditions in the mills were often difficult; "stretch-outs" (a demand by the mill owner for increased output without any corresponding reward to the workers) were common, and workers were often little appreciated. In 1963, she suffered a serious workplace injury to her leg, which ultimately resulted in her retiring on Social Security disability; after her doctor wrongly limited her treatment initially to save her employer greater treatment costs, she developed gangrene and was then hospitalized for nearly five months. She and her sister recount other instances of poor medical treatment and difficulty obtaining workman's compensation and unemployment on account of employer resistance. Because Cobb had no children, she felt somewhat less vulnerable contesting certain workplace rules and also quit various job assignments in the mills that she found too stressful.