For many families, textile mills offered access to wealth that was unavailable in the rural farming communities of the early twentieth-century South. Yet for others, like Minnie and Mattie Carpenter, the Loray Mill represented an interrupted childhood dominated by industrialization. The sisters both worked off-and-on in the mill for the majority of their lives, beginning when they were around the age of ten to at least their mid-fifties, and their story of childhood labor was even used in campaigns for national child labor laws. Minnie and Mattie serve as a reminder that the Loray Mill was not always a means to financial success and economic freedom but could also serve as an avenue for childhood degradation and dependence.
A glance at the Carpenter family’s 1920 census data does not reveal their historical significance. In 1920, Minnie Carpenter lived with her parents, Henry and Mary Carpenter, in their home at 215 South Highland Street on the eastern edge of the mill village. Although an adult of twenty-two, Minnie was unmarried and worked as a spooler at the Loray Mill. Her sixty-three-year-old father had been employed by the mill for portions of his working life, but in recent years Henry had hired himself out as a drayman, or a wagon driver, for local businesses. Mary did not work. The family had lived in Gastonia for at least twenty years, and although Minnie had four other siblings, they had each married and moved out of the home. Her oldest brother, Robert, worked in a cotton mill in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Avery, Minnie’s other brother, was a laborer at the Loray Mill and lived in a boarding house with his young wife. Although there is little exact information on her sister Mattie’s whereabouts in 1920, she likely lived in Gastonia, as her husband had been employed by the Loray Mill only a year before. Minnie’s oldest sister, Emma, had died in Gastonia three years before.
Like many families in the Loray Mill village, the Carpenters left the rural countryside to find steady work and better pay working in cotton mills. Henry and Mary were married in 1884 and soon after moved from their home in Lincoln County, North Carolina, to Gastonia. By 1900, Henry was a wage laborer, and although neither were older than fifteen, his son Robert and daughter Emma both worked in a local cotton mill, most likely Loray. Childhood labor would come to be a defining feature of the Carpenter family. In 1910, Mattie and Avery were both employed by the mill, even though Mattie was only eleven. The census does include an occupation for Minnie, although she had worked for the Loray Mill in the previous decade. Employment limited the children’s educational opportunities; it would take all of them many years to master the rudimentary skills of reading and writing.
Mattie and Minnie’s experience in their youth working in cotton mills would serve them well for the rest of their lives, as both would come to be two of the longest-tenured employees of the Loray and Firestone companies. Only a few months after the 1920 census enumeration, Henry passed away, but Minnie continued to live with her mother for the next decade. By 1930, Minnie was a spooler in the Loray Mill and her mother was a private nurse to a Gastonia family. As a mother of six, Mattie no longer worked in the mill, although her husband was a spooler and her fifteen-year-old son was a speeder at Loray.
Yet things would soon change abruptly. With the death of Mattie’s husband in 1934, Minnie and Mary moved in with Mattie and her many children at 209 South King Street in the Loray Mill village. The loss of her husband’s income likely caused Mattie to once again seek employment. The 1940 census listed Mattie as a spooler, working alongside her two sons Henry and Cramer in the mill. She would continue to work at the mill, now owned by the Firestone Corporation, until her retirement in 1957. In 1955, Firestone executives honored Mattie at the company’s twenty-year anniversary celebration with a watch and a commemorative pin for her two decades of service. Minnie would also go on to work as a tender warper, splicer, and spooler at the Firestone Mill. Minnie, however, was plagued by illness, as numerous issues of the mill’s Firestone News comment on her repeated week- or two-week-long long sick leaves. The two sisters would continue to live with one another until Minnie’s death in 1973 of a stroke. Mattie passed away in 1981, still living in the mill village.