Students developed ten text panels to interpret the history of Bibb City. They also developed a child's guide to the exhibit.
Click here for a gallery guide for children as a companion to this exhibit.
This is the text from the ten history text panels that make up the exhibit.
Bibb City: Collected Lives from a Mill Town
On a crisp autumn night in October 2008, a small fire began in the Bibb Mill. As the flames popped and crackled their way through the 1000-foot-long main building, they destroyed the very reason for Bibb City's existence. The smoldering mill drew hundreds of people for several weeks afterwards. As if attending a funeral, they came to share stories about their working life in the mill and living in the company's town.
Our exhibit adds another voice to that chorus to answer the questions: What was life like in Bibb City, how did it change over time, and what made it unique?
Bibb Mill: A Century of Influence
The Bibb spun more than just cotton; it spun a community.
Opened in 1902, the Bibb Manufacturing Company operated for 96 years. Often referred to as "the Bibb", the mill produced print cloth, yarn, carpet backing, bed sheets and pillow cases. The most profitable product was heat resistant tire cord for companies such as Goodyear.
Begun as a spinning mill, the main building was 300 feet long and housed 24,000 spindles. (A spindle is a spike around which newly spun yarn is wound.) It soon expanded to meet the needs of a growing car industry and World War I requirements. By 1919, it was over 1000 feet in length and housed over 100,000 spindles. The Bibb produced more than all other Columbus mills combined.
To help attract workers and maintain their loyalty, the Bibb Mill created a town with over 260 homes. The Bibb Mill provided a strong sense of community felt in few other places; the mill looked on the town as its family.
Mill Labor: Not Your Average 9-5
Mill work was long, loud, and lint-laden but some changes at the Bibb made work more tolerable.
Imagine working in a hot southern mill for 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for only $10 a week. For men, women, and children working at the Bibb before the 1930s, this was a grim reality.
Inside the mill, the air was full of dust and lint that swirled up from the spinning process. The massive machines were very loud it was hot, extremely hot! Temperatures reached 118°F in the later summer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal laws reduced hours, raised wages, and protected mill workers from the worst excesses of mill management.
Millworkers in the South usually earned about 1/3 less pay than millworkers up North. This was one reason southern mills flourished long after northern mills closed. By the 1960s, southern mill owners welcomed desegregation because it provided a source of even cheaper labor as owners worked to combat lower labor costs from mills across the world.
Before the 1960s, southern textile mills segregated their work force to keep production cost low. Workplace segregation was a subtle reminder to White workers that they could accept their conditions of they could be replaced.
Black workers would always be found in the mill. They were assigned menial or physically challenging positions such as janitorial working and bringing in and opening large cotton bales. At the Bibb they entered through a separate side door. Black workers traveled further to work as they could not rent homes in Bibb City. With desegregation, opportunities opened for Black workers.
White mill workers labored as technicians, spinners, and weavers. Though they made less money than northern textile workers, they earned more than their black co-workers. At this time only White workers could be promoted to higher paying supervisor, or over-seer positions; they could rent inexpensive homes, and take part in social activities in Bibb City. After desegregation the mill could no longer maintain segregated housing.
Creating a Sense of Family
Maintaining family life was a tremendous struggle for the folks in Bibb City.
At the turn of the century, the agricultural economy was depressed and farming families began to migrate to towns like Columbus for mill work. To ensure a stable workforce, the Bibb Mill offered inexpensive homes, basic healthcare, and social activities to its White mill workers. But hours were long and wages were low. After child labor laws banned children from working, childcare became a constant challenge for parents.
To meet the problem of child care, parents worked different shifts which sometimes meant that children became familiar with only one parent. Fathers and mothers also relied on extended family to take care of their children: "I remember when I was 3 or 4 years old him coming to pick me up at night as my grandmother's house when she used to keep me." (Maria Butler Meltzer, Bibb resident) Children came to see a web of kinship ties throughout Bibb City; it was their extended family.
Work First, Play Later
From dangerous work to summers filled with reading and swimming, the life of a Bibb City child changed dramatically.
Prior to the 1930s children were working in the mills. Two-thirds of mill labor was made up of young women and children. Small and agile, they worked long hours doing jobs in hard to reach places. Their income was essential to the family. In 1938, federal legislation ended child labor under the age of sixteen. Summer in the 1950s found children heading for the Comer Auditorium each morning. They often spent time in its makeshift library or played games such as table tennis. Hired as a cleaner at the Comer, an elderly Black lady named Hattie Monroe became the community's summer babysitter. When they weren't at the Comer, kids were at the city's pool.
Community and Loyalty
"It was very unique in the way that it treated the people that lived there, the way it took care of people, the pride that we had knowing we lived there." Maria Butler Meltzer
In the early 1900s, many farmers and their families made the journey from the rural south to work in growing industrial cities. Employees chose to live in worker housing because it was in expensive, rather than take the trolley that ran from central Columbus. To the mill, renting homes meant that they could maintain a strong influence over its residents. If renters or their families stepped out of line (in the mill, in the community, or in the school) they faced possible eviction. To influence community behaviors and attitudes, the mill stressed healthy, moral activities for workers, tenants, and their families. Programs for boys focused on loyalty and physical activity. Programs for girls focused on etiquette, encouraging "proper" speech, and civic education.
Manufacturing and Community
In an effort to foster a sense of community and reduce "idle time," the mill sponsored organizations and activities throughout the year.
Between the 1940as and 1960s, the Bibb created a wide variety of activities to build a sense of community. It built an auditorium with a bowling alley and basketball court, a swimming pool, as well as a golf course and several parks. Activities were provided for men, women, and children. Women's organizations included the Women's Club and the Girls Reserves. Women would produce fall festivals, pageants, charity balls, parades, and other events to unite the community. Members of the Girls Reserves worked hard to earn opportunities to visit distant cities like Washington D.C. and New Orleans. Mill workers could try out for activities such as semi-professional baseball and basketball. Men who held low-level management positions joined social organizations like the Men's Progress Club. Boys could join the Boy Scouts that had its own building by the river.
What makes Bibb City Unique?
Bibb City was one of hundreds of southern mill towns. But two things made it unusual: the mill's long-lasting fatherly control over its "village family," and the design of the mill town.
Paternal Influence Over the Village.
After the 1930s most Southern mill owners began to dissolve paternal control over company towns. In contrast, Bibb Mill retained and increased its fatherly management over this segregated company town until the 1960s.
"It always have been a little town looked like it was set off to itself." Ophelia Perry, mill worker.
Bibb City demonstrates two contrasting ways of building a town. The old village, surrounding the mill, was tightly spaced; featuring unvarying, modest homes on gridded streets with no green space. The mill's no-frills, regimented, industrial process extended into worker homes. The new village (1919-1921) shows more diverse home styles, on curved streets. Located in the northern part of Bibb City, the new village included parks, separate pathways across the community, and trees dividing sidewalks from the street. The new streets looped back on themselves giving the village an isolated, rural feel to what in actuality a dense urban, industrial community.