The story of Avondale Mills is a fascinating story of Governor B.B. Comer investing $10,000 in Birmingham in 1897. The trainer family of Chester, Pennsylvania were interested in moving their existing textile industry into the South, and Birmingham businessmen knew that there was a great need in that area of industries that would employ women. So James McDonald Comer, the governor’s son, became manager of that operation which was in the Avondale section of Birmingham, thus the name Avondale Mills.
Donald Comer built the mill in Sylacauga in 1907; and the Comer Mills were expanded to Pell City, Sycamore, and Alex City, building 10 mills in seven communities. In those early days of the industrial development of Alabama many people were living in poverty in rural areas, working from dawn to dusk as tenant farmers; many had no hope of ever owning a house or having opportunities for their children. When Avondale built these textile mills, they built houses for the mill workers in close proximity to their jobs. These houses had indoor facilities whereas many areas of the country were still using outhouses. Employees rented the houses at reasonable rates for 75 cents a week and most earned $12-20 a week. Mill jobs, though difficult and long, offered these folks who left the farm to come to town regular hours for the first time in their lives.
Later families were given opportunities to buy the houses they rented, and many of them did. I remember, not only my in-laws’ beautiful yard at 30 Pelham, but, also other houses in the village which were so neat that they screamed to the world pride, hard-work, and yes, love for home and family.
Wayne Flynt, Alabama historian and Professor Emeritus of History at Auburn University, in his acclaimed book, Poor but Proud, writes about some of these mill villages and the people who left farms and picking cotton to move to town to work in them. His mother-in-law, Mrs. L.A. House, came to Mignon and is quoted as saying, “Hard as it was, it was easier than digging.” The amenities that were available to the mill workers made the mill village special, even in those early days.
Churches like Mignon Baptist and Mignon Methodist Church provided spiritual teaching and fellowship opportunities for families. Kindergartens were started immediately, and elementary and quality high schools followed. Night schools for workers were held in conjunction with the Alabama Department of Education. Interest free loans and scholarships were available to deserving students who wanted to attend college. Schools were matters of pride and offered bands, glee clubs, athletic teams, and playing fields.
Later schools like B.B. Comer in Sylacauga affiliated with county systems but the Comer family supported the school and this community. Two swimming pools at Lake Louise were magnets for students in the summers. Mills were as-signed specific weeks for vacations at Camp Helen, a company operated camp, in Panama City, Florida. Avondale buses provided transportation. The Comer family supported boys and girls scouting programs, and I remember riding one of those buses when our troops went to Girl Scout Week at Camp Helen. Hazel Parker was the leader of Mignon Troop 12, and some girls from our troop accompanied this Mignon group. Important to the mill community was the Drummond Frazer Hospital, a 35 bed hospital used primarily for mill workers and their families. The hospital, named after the governor’s granddaughter, provided health care services nearby at a time when few people owned automobiles.
There was an Avondale Dairy, and families could have fresh milk and butter delivered to their doors in glass bottles. Avondale was never “stingy” with their resources and did not limit the good things they provided to mill employees only. In the years after WWII, my “uptown family” was able to buy milk from Avondale since many commercial companies were experiencing shortages. I can remember Doc, our milkman, picking up the clean bottles which my mother left on the porch steps with money in the bottle and her order written on a note stuck in the bottle top. The milk was homogenized, and the yellow cream was atop the cold, white milk. My mother would pour it off into a cream pitcher that she and Daddy used for coffee. WE girls could sometimes have coffee, too, mostly cream and a little coffee.
Growing up in Sylacauga I have benefitted from the amenities that the Comer family has provided. The beautiful paintings that hang in the B.B. Comer Memorial library depict mill village life in a way that words cannot. Painted by Douglas Crockwell and donated by Stephen Felker, they were painted for an ad campaign in the Saturday Evening Post, and twelve were assembled into a company calendar. Some were used for the company’ s annual reports. Most of the models in the pictures were company employees or their children. Again family life was stressed in these ads; one read, “Weaving a home of my own – not half an hour away from my work.” My favorite is the painting of the children’s wedding because I know some of these dear folks who still live in our area. It appeared in the July 25, 1947, edition of the Saturday Evening Post.
It was not a scene from a play, but it was painted from photographs and the children were models. They were from the Sylacauga and Sycamore kindergartens, and the pictures were taken in a building next door to Drummond Frazer Hospital. Naaman Culver remembers the Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Campbell, taking him to Goldberg Brothers to be fitted for the coat he wore as the Preacher in the wedding. He is also pictures as a groomsman on the back row of the painting after it was brought to the artist’s attention that only the preacher’s back was shown. The joyful bride was Peggy Strickland DeLoach (now deceased); and I remember her as just that vivacious when we worked together at Avondale Mills’ Sample/OTC Department in the late sixties. The beautiful little blonde is Janice Blackmon Menzies who graduated from SHS and was a fellow classmate. Phil Turner, Wanda Humphrey Rayfield, David Culberson, and others are shown in this painting.
As the Earth Project begins in the days ahead, I hope you will consider the contributions Avondale Mills made to this town, monetary contributions to local charities, Legion stadium, the Comer Museum, and our award winning B.B. Comer Library. It was not so long ago at that. .
Thanks to online resources; Poor But Proud, Wayne Flynt, B.B. Comer Library, and Judy Green at the Comer Museum. My efforts are in honor of Tom Bivin who loves the legacy of Avondale Mills and growing up in the Mill Village. He has always encouraged me when I write anything about B.B. Comer School and Avondale Mills. Thank you, my friend. Prayers for you, Pat, and your family.