I wanted to share this article posted on CNN October 30, 2009, in case you haven’t already read it. It’s an interesting look at how American denim is made from the farm field to the cotton mill. A sobering reality that the heritage of denim making is dying in America due to cheaper labor abroad.
Henderson is one reason this place is still in business, on American soil. He has an aww-shucks attitude. He’ll tell you it’s those men and women out there on the floor that keep it going. He’s got pride in the plant, in his workers and in his family.
His father worked for 39 years in the spinning department. His brother retired from the plant after 42 years, having started when he was 16 and eventually making his way into management.
“If I had the ultimate say-so, we would be right here for the next 100 years,” says Henderson, 64, who has worked in the plant for 40 years.
While the nation’s manufacturing base has shrunk, Mount Vernon Mills is a rare exception. The tiny town of Trion — pronounced Try-On, as in “our residents always ‘try on,’” 78-year-old Mayor Benny Perry says — has a staggeringly large annual budget for such a small town. Its $12 million, mostly from taxes the mill pays, provides a state-of-the-art public school, park space and athletic fields.
If the mill shuttered, “it would destroy the town,” Perry says.
In its heydey, the mill had 5,000 workers in the 1940s and 1950s. The company owned everything in town back then, from the tiny mill houses that surround the plant to the town hospital where Henderson and many of his co-workers were born.
As a result, Trion doesn’t have a quaint town square. The mill is the centerpiece.
About two years ago, when the nation’s recession hit hard, the plant had to layoff about 200 workers. “It was awful,” Henderson says.
To save as many jobs as possible and to maximize efficiency, the plant switched to two, 12-hour shifts. That’s down from three shifts, five days a week.
The denim for jeans goes to companies as wide-ranging as Wal-Mart to JCPenney to Dickies to Polo and other high-priced brands. Henderson’s most proud of the mill’s ties to cowboys.
“We make the Wrangler rodeo cowboy jeans that all the rodeo guys still wear,” he says. “We make the fabric right here and have been for — gosh — 30 years.”
Henderson holds up one roll of distressed fabric that’s nearly ready to be shipped. It’s denim that once was used for lower-end clothing. But yuppies like the look. Henderson chuckles and shakes his head.
Martha Teague is 63 and has worked in the mill for the past 35 years. She says other company towns had bosses that sold them out, that cared more about the dollar than its people.
“It just gives me a good feeling to be a part of that family of Mount Vernon Mills,” says Teague, who has a son working at the plant.
“It has educated my children and gives us a house and everything we have really.”
Wolfe wheels 13,000 yards of yarn into the dimly lit “ballroom.” It’s placed among a heap of others. “We’re lucky to have what we got. Other small towns, they don’t have that.”
He turns and walks away in the orange glow of the ballroom.
You want to know a secret? A $12 pair of jeans often comes from the same roll of denim as a $150 designer pair.