The Marion Manufacturing Plant, original site of the Marion Massacre, which has been in the process of being demolished for several years now.
In 1929, national guardsmen, local sheriffs, and state-backed union busters opened fire on striking workers in the small Appalachian town of Marion, NC, massacring six strikers and injuring many more. No one was held legally accountable. They were killed for demanding the shortening of their work week from 60 to 55 hours. They were paid less than $700 dollars a year; less than $10,000 today, adjusting for inflation.
As the sun rose on the morning of Oct. 2, 1929, hundreds of picketing mill workers in Marion, N.C., found themselves in a deadly standoff with law enforcement. And when the tear gas and fog at the gates of Marion Manufacturing had cleared, three workers were dead, three more were fatally injured and dozens of others were seriously wounded.
Sheriff Oscar Adkins later testified that the strikers had opened fire first, although no guns were found on any of them. Adkins and his 11 deputies — seven of whom were actually anti-union employees who’d been sworn in only moments before the shootings — were all acquitted. Meanwhile, the leaders of the protest and many of their fellow workers were fired, evicted from their company-owned homes and, in some cases, ostracized to the point that they were forced to leave town.
The bloody morning capped a tumultuous year of protests by newly unionized employees pushing for better working conditions. A dramatic climax to a drawn-out conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor, it marked the beginning of the end for the area’s nascent labor movement. That same year, a massive textile strike in Gastonia, N.C., was also violently put down.
The clashes in Marion attracted considerable regional and national media attention at the time, including a pamphlet by acclaimed author Sinclair Lewis titled Cheap and Contented Labor. But “His perspective was very jaded — very much from the outside,” says Western North Carolina native Kim Clark, whose grandfather, Roy Price, was an early organizer at the plant and first president of its United Textile Workers chapter.
Soon, however, the complex circumstances surrounding the protests at Marion Manufacturing and the neighboring Clinchfield Manufacturing Co. retreated into mystery, as participants on all sides refused to talk about what had happened.
“I think, almost in mountain shame, they just shut the door on it,” says Clark, a former WNCW radio host who produced an audio documentary on the strikes for the station in 2005. It was later incorporated into a broader oral-history series funded by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
After the union’s defeat, Price was blackballed by the community, forcing him to flee to Detroit, an area friendlier toward organized labor. Eventually, he found his way back to Asheville, but like many others involved, Price never spoke of his role in the conflict, even to his own children, Clark reports. It was only after her grandfather died that family members discovered a trunk filled with old union documents, membership pins and books.
The violence, she speculates, created a kind of mass post-traumatic stress disorder that rippled through the community’s collective unconscious.
“The day after the shootings took place, all the people that were out there in front of the mill striking — they saw it happen — they didn’t know what else to do, and they just filed back into the mill and went back to work, all but 100 of them,” Clark explains. “The people in McDowell County, once this tragedy happened, it’s like they shut the lid on a box, and they locked it, and that’s it. … It’s like this whole thing has been frozen in time. … I think one of the big reasons is the community has been in some kind of silent solidarity.”…
Throughout the 1990s, amateur author and historian Mike Lawing — a descendant of several strikers as well as one of the accused deputies — went door to door in Marion trying to unearth residents’ stories.
Despite encountering “people who would not talk to me unless I absolutely promised not to use their name, who would tell me, ‘I don’t want my wife to know I had anything to do with this; I don’t want my children to know anything about it,’” Lawing labored on, self-publishing The Marion Massacre in 2004. Until now, the 98-page book was considered the most authoritative history of these painful events.
But just a few weeks ago, Asheville resident Mike Blankenship unveiled a new piece of the puzzle: a comprehensive scrapbook of contemporary news articles and photos, which longtime McDowell historian Anne Swann calls “a treasure trove of information that we have not seen before.”
Blankenship says it was the recent pro-labor rallies in Wisconsin that inspired him to bring the scrapbook out of storage.
“I turn on the radio and hear this report about the governor of Wisconsin wanting to call out the National Guard, and I’m thinking, ‘Holy sh*t — I didn’t think they did that anymore. I thought that was 1920s stuff,’” he explains. “We have to look at history, or else we’re in trouble. Especially right now.”…
Meanwhile, just down the road from the McDowell County Library, the massive old Marion Manufacturing building is being taken down, brick by brick.
After numerous private and public attempts to preserve the sprawling historic structure failed, a painstaking demolition began last September and is expected to continue through this summer. Working from the inside out, the current owner is salvaging as much of the old factory’s materials as possible: bricks, stained-glass windows, piping and more.
Clark believes the protracted dismantling is proving cathartic for residents of this small mountain town. “That tragedy and that trauma — it’s kind of haunted Marion, in a way,” she says. “I think it’s not an accident that this history is coming to the fore at the very time that building is being torn down.
Even so many years later, the old mill still holds secrets, notes Holda. When she found out it was going to be demolished, she donned a headlamp and scoured the dark depths, uncovering assorted artifacts that she was able to secure for the library. Moldy ledgers seem to indicate that as early as 1921, the business had a budget of more than $1.3 million per year.
“That’s unreal to think about that kind of money being brought in back then,” she observes.
Workers weren’t sharing the benefits, however. In 1929, they made about $13 a week — minus the cost of company-provided housing and whatever they were charged at the company store. Yet the strikers’ main demand that year wasn’t money but whittling down their work week from 60 hours to 55. Long days and low pay were standard practice at Southern mills, but even so, the Marion plant was said to have some of the worst working conditions in the region, says Blankenship.
This is apparently the Brooke Swan Car. I struggled to find a primary source to explain it, but the Vintage and Classic Car Club of India and this article in the Telegraph seem pretty confident that it is an actual object and not a fevered dream, and they agree that the swan head had glowing eyes and could spurt hot water from its beak, in order to clear people away from the streets ahead of the car.
The Vintage and Classic Car Club of India has a passage that powerfully evokes the emotions of this car more effectively than I ever could:
The amber lighiting of the car, glowed dissonantly in the dark, coupling
the level of un-comfortableness with the multi-note Gabriel exhaust
horn and an hot water spray in the swan’s beak that enabled the
chauffeur to clear passage through Calcutta’s crowded streets.
And the Telegraph adds an extra dollop of detail:
It was in the fashionable Maidan Park, where Calcutta’s elite promenaded
in their carriages and cars every afternoon, that Scotty displayed the
Swan Car’s most outrageous feature. A dump valve inside the car dropped
splats of whitewash on to the road from the Swan’s rear end – just to
make it more lifelike.
Apparently a keyboard in the back allowed the owner to “play chords and bugle calls” on the horn. TOOT TOOT MOTHERFUCKERS.
You’ll know it’s Mad Max time when I come tooling and screaming my way towards your home in this car, wreathed in blasts of steam, menacingly honking “In the Hall of the Mountain King” out of a rubber horn concealed in a carved swan head, and artistically shitting paint everywhere. I’ll peel to a halt in front of you and say “Can you play the keyboard” in a sexy way, possibly looking over my cool aviator sunglasses. It doesn’t matter if you say “yes” or “no,” I’ll just look at you approvingly and say, “Get in.” You’ll leave your life behind and climb in and just smash the keyboard in a cacophony of magnificent toots, while we drive off through the apocalypse and into the better world.
I’d say “Fuck the keyboard, I have experience in both falconry and jousting, you want me as your chauffeur.”
You’re fuckin hired buddy, because guess what: I can’t drive stick
Photo of the Day – The Pink-throated Twinspot (Hypargos margaritatus) is one of Southern Africa’s most desirable endemic species, and it’s easy to see why. This is a gorgeous species! Unfortunately for eager birders, this species is not an easy one to find… On top of its restricted range, it is also quite secretive. But the challenge makes actually seeing the bird all the more special.
This photo was taken by Rich Lindie in South Africa
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