Appalachian Culture Series to cover murder ballads, paternalism, cheap labor

A front-page banner headline in The Charlotte Observer on Oct. 4, 1929, heralded the latest about a deadly shooting in McDowell County during a textile strike: “53 Arrested in Marion Include Sheriff.”

Six strikers had been killed and many others wounded when deputies fired, but no one would be convicted.

The story of what became known as the “Marion Massacre” will be told on Saturday during the Southern Appalachian Culture Series at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs. The theme of the third annual conference is “Cotton Mill Culture.”

Each of the sessions will include three speakers who’ll cover such topics as:

• “The Role of Race in the Attempt to Unionize the Loray Mill, Gastonia, N.C.”

• “How Furniture Factory Children Viewed Textile Factory Children in the 1960s.”

• “Shot Through the Heart Lying Dead on the Ground: A Revival and Reexamination of Southern Murder Ballads as Layman’s Literature.”

Tim Vanderburg, chairman of the Gardner-Webb Department of Social Sciences, will give a talk on “Charles Cannon, Paternalism and Labor Relations: Kannapolis 1919-1948.”

On Friday during the Appalachian Writers Association annual awards dinner, author Ron Rash will be the featured speaker.

Admission is steep – $80 for the awards dinner and conference. And it’s an event aimed mainly at scholars. But organizers say anyone can show up and attend one conference session for free.

“If you’re interested, we welcome you to come,” said event coordinator Nancy Bottoms, associate professor of art and English at Gardner-Webb. “It will be accessible to anybody.”

The series began four years ago with a focus on New York Times best-selling novelist Rash, who is a Gardner-Webb graduate. His 2008 novel “Serena” has been made into a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and debuts at the BFI London Film Festival in October.

A native of Chester, S.C., where his parents worked at the Eureka Mill, Rash grew up in Boiling Springs after his father graduated from college and became an art professor at Gardner-Webb.

In 1998, Rash wrote “Eureka Mill,” a collection of 42 poems that pay tribute to his textile roots and to textile workers throughout the Carolinas.

He’s taken a great interest in Gardner-Webb’s mill culture conference.

“As the last mill villages disappear and those who worked in them leave us, we should never forget the lives spent in our state’s mills,” said Rash, who is a professor at Western Carolina University. “For so many of us, they sacrificed what hopes and dreams that they had so that we, their descendants, might achieve our hopes and dreams.”

The conference will include an exhibition of textile history from the Kings Mountain Historical Museum; live music from Al Dunkleman and the New Plowed Ground, and Faith Hall with the Log Cabin String Band.

Davidson College Archivist Jan Blodgett will present the exhibit “Under Lake Norman,” stories of the lake when it was under construction and of displaced mill villages.

Retired Gardner-Webb professors Les Brown and Joyce Compton Brown of Troutman will do a program called “Cheap and Contented Labor: Sinclair Lewis and the Marion Textile Strike of 1929.”

A year before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Lewis came to Marion, got a room at the Charles Hotel and covered the strike for Scripps-Howard newspapers. He later wrote a pamphlet about the strike titled “Cheap and Contented Labor.”

Les Brown, who taught biology, is a McDowell County native. Former English professor Joyce Brown was involved in Appalachian studies. For years, the couple gathered information on the Marion strike and interviewed people in the community.

“They were so afraid to talk about it,” Brown said. “They clammed up.”

She thinks retelling the Marion story and others at the conference will offer people “the opportunity to know and learn about real Southern history. Not plantation fantasies, but the history of our parents and grandparents as they lived and worked in the Piedmont and foothills of the South.”

Researcher Maria David contributed to this story.