Sunset Over Tifton's Cotton Mill Village

There was once a cotton mill village in Tifton, Georgia.

Watch out for these cowboys with their guns! Probably BB guns, and I suspect it may be Christmas.

Sidney Hayes, mowing the lawn.

Looks like Christmas to me.

One of my sister's dearest friends shared with me her memories of living at the cotton mill village. She, her sisters, and a brother lived in the village for many years with her mother and father.

The school bus I rode as a child passed the cotton mill, but I never thought much about the neighborhood of houses. It was another community, one I knew nothing about.

Outdoor toilet in background.
My sister's friend remembered the time well. One of the sisters washed clothes on the front porch with a wringer washing machine. The girls took turns taking the slop jar out to empty in the concrete outhouses behind their mill house. Then they would clean the jar and put it inside for the next night. 

She said they ran clothes through two tubs of water before hanging the clothes on the line in freezing weather. The clothes would dry stiff from the hard water, so they would sprinkle the laundry with a mixture of water and coca cola from a metal sprinkler, then iron the rock-hard laundry to soften it.

Mr. A.P. Walker in the center worked at the mill for 60 years.
They played outside with sticks. Sticks became guns; sticks became bows and arrows; sticks became swords. 

When the oldest of the sisters was 15 years old, the family got their first television and moved from a 4-room house to a larger cotton mill house, one with six rooms.

Another sister told me this: 
“The smoke stack was way cool. It looked like it swayed if you stood at the bottom and looked up. Daddy was a doffer and Mama was a winder operator. I remember going to work with my Daddy sometimes. He worked 70-80 hours some weeks, I've heard, and part of that was a night security type shift. He would walk around with a key to clock in to these timer things encased in black leather hanging in different spots around the mill. It was empty most of the time when I was there with him. It was so quiet and the oil they cleaned the floors with was very pungent. The floors were beautiful and shiny. He would buy me a Zero bar from the vending machine in the break room, which I thought was super grand. Mama would bring home goodies, like gold flake cheese crackers and spearmint gum, in her apron. She sewed all of her aprons she used at the mill. I still wear a sweater and some gloves that were made from thread that came from the mill. The funny thing is she wore polyester shirts while she worked so the cotton wouldn't stick to her...ha! She worked there 42 years but because they had no maternity leave or any kind of benefits, she had only about 16 years of seniority....ha. She had to quit work every time she had a baby....7 of us!”

Remnants of the cotton mill village echo with memories of the past. The sweet music of laughter carries through the remaining pecan trees. I took a long walk over the grounds, and everywhere I looked—in the abandoned mill, in the empty lot that once housed Emanuel School, on the earth once cluttered with village houses, in the rotting wood of Bessie Tift Church— I imagined hearing a song that celebrated family love in the face of poverty, hard work, laughter, and tears.

While interviewing people for the cotton mill reunion, a man told me the sunsets viewed from the mill village were more beautiful than anywhere else in Tifton. 

I asked, “Why do you say that?” 

He said, “Because we were usually outside when the sun set in the sky. We were outside playing and we wrapped out hearts around those setting suns.”

Peggy Jean Barker, Jane Walker, Carolyn Dees, Brenda Hayes, and Mary Lee Hayes

Ready for Easter Sunday services

Mamie Moore, Brenda Hayes, and Sidney Hayes

Roscoe Bannister
Lamar Kennedy and Sidney Hayes

I wish I could have lived in the cotton mill village for a week.

The Georgia Museum of Agriculture hosted a preview of their first traveling exhibit featuring the story of the Young Family who worked at the Tifton Cotton Mill 105 years ago.  Joe Manning, the Massachusetts historian who tracked down the Youngs’ story and reunited the family gave a presentation.

Carson and Ethel Dees

Brenda and Sidney Hayes

Preacher Bannister and Granny Walker
Thank you to Mary Sheppard for providing most of these photos.

Thank you to Mamie Kimbrell, Deborah Jordan, Judy Evans, Sue Rice for everything, absolutely everything.

Thank you to Gerald Jordan and Hal Sutton for taking me inside the cotton mill.

Originally posted in 2014.

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