Memories of the mill flood back

On knees as creaky as the planks of the old mill's floor, the weavers, sewers and loom mechanics walked again through the cavernous rooms, conjuring the ghost of an industry with their decades-old stories of workday incidents, tedious tasks and the quirks of fellow workers.

For more than 70 years, Chatham Mills was one of the Raleigh area's few major employers. Until it closed in 1996, it was a source of hundreds of jobs that put food on the table, kept the Great Depression at bay and sparked envy.

“At one time,” said Winfred Mann, resting both hands on the top of his cane, “if you got a job in Chatham Mills, you had the prince of jobs.” Mann, 78, retired as supervisor of the weaving room in 1992 after 43 years with the company.

On Saturday, the current owner of the mill building, Tom Roberts, and a major tenant, the co-op grocer Chatham Marketplace, invited the workers back for a reunion, including lunch and a tour of the parts of the shopping-center-sized building that have yet to be turned into offices or retail space.

The mill, built in 1925 and later expanded, specialized in cloth labels. At one point, Roberts said, it was the largest maker of woven labels in the world, churning out millions of tags for clothing sold by the likes of L.L. Bean, Neiman Marcus and Marshall Field's. It also made labels for other goods, such as mattresses and even parachutes.

The mill closed, company officials said in 1996, because new types of weaving machines could churn out labels much more quickly, though the quality wasn't as good.

The Chatham Mills payroll was one of the first big sources of cash in town, where bartering had been a big part of the economy. The company even made souvenir tags for the town's bicentennial celebration in 1971.

Now, as the population in and around Pittsboro grows, the building that played such a big part in the town's past is poised to play a big role in its future. The co-op has become a fixture since it opened two years ago, and Roberts has plans for the rest of the property that will make it a cultural focal point, with better spaces for plays, art exhibitions and outdoor music, along with shops.

He said that the building's role in the town's past was part of its value and that he had turned down tenants who wouldn't have fit in.

As the mill workers socialized over plates of barbecue and coconut-pineapple cake, a stream of young customers in shorts and flip-flops walked into the grocery and emerged with lattes, sushi and sacks of organic produce.

The workers barely noticed: They were too busy talking to friends they hadn't seen in 20 or 30 years, in some cases.

“Julius was so good at keeping my loom running,” said Katherine Perry, beaming at Julius Farrar, who sat beside her tucking into a chunk of cake.

Perry, whose 92nd birthday was woven into the reunion, said that just before her husband died he asked her to give his collection of fancy suits to Farrar.

“This place meant everything to Pittsboro and to Chatham,” she said. “It was a good place to be, like being part of a big family.”

In fact, they often were family. Like many workers, Winfred Mann was not the only member of his family to work in the mill; his mother, father, wife and three of his children had jobs there, as did several aunts and uncles.