Losing more than just buildings

Jul. 06, 2013 @ 03:44 PM

Harriet & Henderson Yarns, once a bustling center of commerce in the heart of the city, is nothing more than an echo.

Soon, the empty buildings won’t even have that. Buildings are being prepared for collapse, and its formerly robust legacy is fading.

Changing Henderson’s city landscape is a reminder of the past and the future, when the textile industry changed continents and a fiscally struggling city loses more of its tax base.

The sentimental cost is only measured individually. But for most, it is great.

As crews salvage what they can out of the North Henderson Mill, signs of the buidings’ pending fate are beginning to show. Neighbors on Main, David, Bobbitt and Birch streets don’t hear much from the direction of the old mill, but their skyline in that direction is changing a little. Soon there will be just a large empty lot left behind.

Crew members say they are on schedule for a takedown of all the north mill buildings in a demolition phase planned for sometime late in the fall.

Former workers of the long-ago manufacturing giant cringe at the thought. Plant neighbors wonder where those oft-promised jobs of the future will come from, that are still not here.

“I hate to see it come down but when I retired, I retired,” said Daniel Orr, who worked there for 48 years. “I worked there almost all my life, starting in 1943, about a week after I graduated high school, and I worked there till 1991.”

He said he won’t mourn the buildings going down, but instead focuses a measure of regret on how America gave up its mighty textile industry when it was seconded to foreign lands.

“It’s a shame the textiles went out of business all over the United States,” said Orr, who rose to the position of an assistant plant manager before retiring. “They all went overseas.”

“I expected it sooner or later,” he said of the buildings coming down. “I didn’t know what they would do with it.”

“The reason they’re tearing down is they can’t afford the taxes on it,” figured Charlie Perry, a 37-year plant veteran. “The buildings are in good shape, but it was the taxes. Nobody who worked there likes to see this. We all hate to see it go, but what can you do?”

Chris Moss, who worked in the maintenance shop for 18 years, agreed that the buildings have kept their strength.

“I think they should have done more with it,” he said.

Perry, who runs Downtown Antiques on Garnett Street, said a co-worker came in and expressed sorrow about the demolition work being done.

“He said Charlie, when I had seen that I cried,” Perry said. “Harriet & Henderson Yarns pretty much built Henderson. We went through a whole lot in that mill, and 1,400 others did, too.”

George Daye put in 35 years at the South Mill, much of that time in shipping and receiving that included errands to the facility a couple miles northward.

“We would go over there and help as needed,” said Daye, now a city councilman. “I worked in the opening room, then in the warehouse, shipping and receiving. When I left in 1999, it wasn’t the plant it was when I started. It was top-of-the-line.”

Daye said workers were able to take pride in new machines and upgrades near the end.

“No, it’s not good to see it coming down,” Daye said. “It’s going to be hard to replace what we had in Harriet & Henderson Yarns. We have to move on and hope for something to replace it.”

Daye said he doesn’t expect much to take place at the property once it is vacant, but hopefully city leaders will strike on the right new industry to come in to the Henderson area.

Janet Cash, whose husband worked there for more than 30 years, said that promises and more promises for new jobs have not been delivered. The mill facility near where she lives will be just one more sign things continue in the wrong direction for workers who depend most on what city leaders can do.

“It’s empty, and they’re going to do what they do,” Cash said. “The man who owns it is just going to do what he wants, and not listen to us anyway. He has money. He doesn’t care.”

“When the cotton mill was in operation, they kept the streets up and they kept Henderson looking good,” said Freda Hayes, who also is a long-time resident in the neighborhood around the north mill. “It provided jobs for a lot of people for many, many years, and they loved their jobs. That’s all they knew.”

Hayes said the mill buildings are coming down as Raleigh cuts back on unemployment benefits, making the situation for jobless workers look even bleaker.

“They can tear down the building, but until they bring a whole lot of jobs, there is still going to be a whole lot of robbing and stealing,” she said.

Cash said her husband explained it better, but there was a lot of money spent on the new machines that many were so proud of, and that cost became a burden to the company.

“That’s what brought the plant down,” Cash said. “They thought they’d make everything better, get the product out faster, but it didn’t do any of that. My husband was a good worker. He didn’t miss a day.”

The post-mortem on Harriet & Henderson Yarns has been a Vance County conversation piece for the years leading up to the point when the mill buildings finally go down, and it will go on for years to come.

But there are less and less of the old-timers around to join the conversation. Many have either passed away or moved away.

And they are a testament to the fact that saying goodbye to Harriett & Henderson Yarns is so much more than saying goodbye to a building.

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.