May 29, 2013

Do It Yourself

Pub Notes

Photo Credit: Georgia Department of Archives and History

Women work in the Carwood Manufacturing Company, Winder, GA, 1960.

C.J. Bartunek’s story about a local sewing cooperative is a reminder of what a vital role sewing plants played in small-town economies all over Georgia until recently. Just like the PALS of Athens Musicians cooperative that is the subject of her story aims to do, local sewing plants provided jobs mostly to women. The work was demanding, non-union and low-paying, but it was steady when there weren’t many jobs for women. Sewing plants made money for their owners and for their employees, and they were important income-generators. It is encouraging to think, just as one of the last plants in the region has recently closed over in Hartwell, that the future might bring a resurgence in sewing jobs—especially jobs that are more creative than the old ones.

When I was growing up over in Greensboro, my folks dug out the area under our big old general store to make space for a sewing plant. (That meant moving the unclaimed corpse known only as “Oscar” to an upstairs storage room, an oft-told tale I won’t go into here.) The sewing plant was good for business, not only because of the rent but also because all those women needed groceries and clothing. The trick was to find a reliable business to occupy the space and to replace them if they couldn’t make it.

The quintessential Greensboro (and Athens) sewing plant story was the arrival of Frank Felchlin, who came driving through Greensboro one day on his way from Miami to Virginia, to scout out a location for a sewing plant. The story is that Frank ran into local attorney Ed Brown and was enjoying a visit in Ed’s office when Ed inquired whether Frank would care for a Coca-Cola. Frank allowed as how he would, so Ed picked up the telephone and called over to Moore’s Pharmacy to order two fountain Cokes on ice. Presently, the refreshments arrived, held aloft on a tray by Nancy, the pharmacy’s delivery man, who had walked them over. According to the story, now legend, Frank Felchlin was so bowled over by the whole procedure of ordering two fountain Cokes by phone and having them personally delivered, that he decided on the spot that Greensboro was the place for his new business, and he set up his plant underneath our store. Frank eventually moved his operation over here to Athens, where he prospered for many years. The business is still in operation, but not on these shores. Frank and his sons saw earlier than most sewing plant owners that the only way they could compete with foreign labor was to move their plants to the source of the cheaper labor. So, Greensboro and Athens and Winder and Hartwell and all our other small towns lost these sources of income. Here’s hoping the PALS of Athens Musicians cooperative can find a way to reclaim some of the jobs that have been lost.

Efforts like these on a small scale combine our indigenous Athens resources with people needing jobs and willing to learn skills. That’s where the music scene itself came from, and it’s what we’re in danger of losing every time a local business gets pushed out by a chain. It’s those special touches of homegrown charm that make you want to live in a place—the things that by definition cannot be mass-produced and franchised. It’s the difference between a two-liter plastic bottle and a hand-drawn drink in a glass that comes walking up on a tray.