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The Mill Village and the Movies

July 26, 2008

When we began our research on the single screen movie theaters of South Carolina, we started with the 1945 edition of “Film Daily Yearbook.” This annual publication lists the name of every movie theater by state and city. Several listings referred to “Aiken County Stores.” At first, we thought this was a mistake. We had never heard of a movie theater with such a name. We soon discovered that Aiken County Stores served several of South Carolina’s cotton mill towns.

The cotton mills in South Carolina employed thousands of people during the 1930s to 1950s. Small housing developments were built for the mill workers. These mill villages were often served by a mill company store. Anything a mill worker needed could be bought at the company store, including food, cloth, shoes, and fuel. One account we have read stated that even coffins were available at the company store.

The mill village was built so that a worker never had to leave. While the size and character of each mill village was different, they often included a drugstore, lunch counter, barber shop, bank, post office and jail. Some of the company stores had a large room above for meetings, box suppers, dances, and showing movies. In some of the mill villages, this multi-purpose space was in a building behind the store.

Loonies courtesy of Tony Chibbaro, Prosperity, SC

Workers in the cotton mills worked long hours and were paid little. The work was hard, dirty, and dangerous. The mill offered a self-perpetuating culture and a closed economy. Many workers were paid in script. This could be spent in the businesses in the mill village like cash. Sometimes, the towns nearby would accept script in payment. If a worker ran low on cash, he could go to the mill office and get an advance in the form of tokens called "loonies" or "dugaloos." He could spend them at the store and have the amount deducted from his pay.

Gerald Bratcher, of Honea Path, told us that mill workers often came to his father’s barber shop in Anderson. He told us, “There are three kinds of haircuts. For cash you’d get a good haircut. For credit you’d get a fair haircut. For mill tokens you’d hardly get a haircut at all.

Many of the mills operated on shifts. Movies were sometimes scheduled in the mornings to accommodate those of night shifts.

The importance of the motion pictures to residents of these mill villages is apparent in an interview done as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) oral history project in August, 1938. The interviewer asked the wife of a mill worker to describe a typical day in her life."You'd like to know what a day in my life is like? Well, taint no trouble at all for me to tell you because every one is so much like the other I've learned the pattern by heart long ago.

"The year goes round bringin' very little change but the weather. Poor folks don't have no vacation, you know, when they's time off from cooking, and washing, and worrying about the grocery bill. The only money I've spent for pleasure this year went for the picture show and for them flowers. I'm glad my flowers done so well. Hit's nicer settin' on the porch when they's somethin' to look at besides a red, ugly hill."

"Next day starts like the one before and ends about the same. Of course, on Fridays and Saturdays hits a little different. Both of us enjoys Westerns and we gen'ly go once a week to the picture show. I go on Friday night while he stays with the children and then he goes on Saturday. They's always a bunch of women goin' on Friday and I go along with them. Hit'd be nice if me and him could go together sometimes but they's nobody to leave the children with. If it wasn't for that movie I don't know what I'd do. Course, we aint really able to spend the 15¢ apiece for foolishness when he's just makin' nine dollars and sixty cent a week, but a body caint stand it if he don't have a little pleasure sometimes.”

The woman describes a dreary situation and it is important to keep some historical perspective on life in a mill village. These mill towns grew up at a time when much of the south was moving from a farm economy to one that included industrial development. For many who worked in the cotton mills and lumber mills, this meant a regular paycheck, access to medical care, and a social life that was not available on the family farm.

The mill villages of South Carolina existed in a unique period of history. That culture is fading from memory. The pleasure that came from watching the movies was common in the broader culture of that time. Like the mill villages, the single screen movie theaters are fading from our landscape.


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