The late afternoon sun had slipped behind Gastonia's old Loray Mill by the time I got there.
Dimming light made the six-story brick building seem even more like a mountain.
The Loray, sometimes called the Firestone, was one of the South's largest textile plants and once teemed with thousands of workers.
Now, it towered empty and silent.
As I stood there, a hawk singing overhead and leaves rattling nearby, I half expected to see a ghostly work crew from the past march out the front door.
Among their number would be the cotton mill kids. Children such as Eugene Bell and John Poindexter. I had just seen their portraits in a program at the Gaston County Public Library and in a new exhibit at the Gaston County Museum of Art & History.
The photos of Eugene, John and other children who worked in Gaston's textile mills were made in November 1908 by Lewis Hine – the father of American documentary photography.
One hundred years later, I was standing at one of the spots where Hine captured the historic images. He'd waited outside the mill during shift changes, asked kids to look into his camera, and then snapped the shutter.
As UNC Chapel Hill professor Robert Allen had explained at the library program, these photos were never meant to be shown in Gaston County. Hine was working for the National Child Labor Committee, documenting abuses of child labor laws in textiles and other industries.
Thousands of the Hine negatives eventually landed in the Library of Congress.
Thanks to Allen – a Gastonia native – the images of Gaston's cotton mill children are back where they were taken 100 years ago.
He called the photos “souvenirs of a moment in this community's history that is now cut off from living memory but should not be forgotten.”
Allen's recent program at the Gaston County library was the heart of “Standing on a Box,” a multi-part community project exploring Gaston's textile heritage. The name comes from the fact that many children who worked in local mills had to stand on a box to reach the machinery.
The diverse project, which began Sept. 2 and runs through Nov. 30, has involved many groups and touched many lives. Thousands took part in the community-wide reading of Elizabeth Winthrop's “Counting on Grace,” a novel about life in a turn-of-the-century textile village. Last week, Winthrop gave a public reading in Gastonia and spoke in local schools.
On Saturday, experts from UNC Charlotte, UNC Chapel Hill, Mitchell Community College and the Levine Museum of the New South were to lead a panel discussion on textile history and culture.
All this happened because Allen wanted to trace relatives of mill children in the Hine pictures. A professor who teaches in the American Studies program at UNC Chapel Hill, he'd found the Gaston images in the Library of Congress while researching an unrelated project.
Last year, when I first interviewed Allen about his effort, he mentioned a great idea: a gathering of descendants of the mill children on the 100th anniversary of Hine's picture-taking.
That was the seed for “Standing on a Box.”
Allen connected with descendants of mill kids from the Carolinas to California.
More than 20 came to his program at the Gaston County library. As images of their relatives flashed on a screen, Allen provided fascinating context.
The photos, he said, “invite us to experience them as images of here, of particular places we know, of memories of places now gone that our parents and grandparents knew.”
At the end of his talk, Allen introduced the descendants, who commented on their relatives in the photos.
The program began to take on the tone of a family reunion. Strangers found common threads. They shared laughter and tears.
“I was overcome,” said 88-year-old Nita Groves, whose father, Eugene Bell, was photographed by Hine in the Loray Mill Village. “It was really a wonderful time.”
After the program, I headed to the county museum in Dallas and took in the new exhibit on Hine's pictures. When you go, pay close attention to a Graflex camera like the one he used in Gaston. In 1908, the camera was cutting edge and helped him get the clarity and intensity he was after. (According to Allen, the mill children had probably never seen a camera before and it was unlikely any of them had ever had their pictures taken.)
The exhibit will stay at the Gaston County museum until Feb. 21 and then move to Charlotte's Levine Museum in March. In June, the photo exhibit returns to the Gaston County library.
“Gastonia 1908: Mill Music & Drama” is coming up Friday at the West Avenue Presbyterian Church in Gastonia.
The musical roots of textile culture is the subject of a new book from UNC Press: “Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South.”
Gaston County plays an important role in the much-overlooked story. The book, written by history professor Patrick Huber, is available at the Gaston County museum gift shop.
“Standing on a Box” is one of Gaston's most ambitious textile culture projects to date. I hope Allen turns it into a book illustrated with the Hine photos.
Enlargements of the images in the Gaston museum take you one step closer to another time and place.
When I left the museum, I went to the Loray. I've been there a million times, but this stop was different. The photos took me back to Gastonia, 1908. I was looking at the same brick mountain from another point of view: the eyes of local cotton mill kids.