The Building Marked 1: A Vision of Industry in the South

Nathan Poole

     
   

“It punishes me to look, though there’s comfort in the keeping, a punishing comfort.”-James Still


I. Band Mill, Graham Co. lbr. Co.


On August 14th 1916, someone in the town of Andrews, NC, mailed a hand-dated postcard they purchased from Davis Pharmacy. Unlike the scenic cards one might find today at a gift shop in Western North Carolina, this was a photograph of the Graham County Lumber Mill—not a quaint, water-driven gristmill along some backwater creek, but a sprawling and muddy lumberyard. And the mill is not simply caught here, as if playing foreground to the mountains beyond. It is the subject. To ensure we don’t miss this, the printer embossed the top of the card in small block type with the words, “Band Mill, Graham Co. Lbr. Co.”

The first time I looked at this postcard, I confess I had trouble recognizing the space as industrial. It was as though my vision, when looking at a “postcard” was so bent on finding something scenic that I couldn’t immediately recognize the mill. What I saw first was a charming, small mountain town with several streets lined on either side with modest whitewashed houses. Behind the houses, near the edge of the town, a church steeple rose where it should, nearly touching the tree line beyond it that bordered a stream as it ran through the valley floor. But as I looked closer I realized what I thought was a steeple was actually the brick chimney of a boiler, and that what looked first like houses were piles and piles of cut lumber.

I’m curious who composed this postcard, and especially curious why they decided to send a picture of this particular mill. Did they work there? What did the sender and publisher of this card see in this site that made it seem picturesque, postcard worthy?

Something else I soon discovered about these cards was their entirely customary nature. I had assumed the local Carolinians who built and worked in these mills, who built these structure and bridges and who were exploited by the great lake Barons who owned these sites, wouldn’t want to see the spaces of their own exploitation memorialized. But as it turns out, the Band Mill card was not a one-off, not an anomalous moment captured, but instead, representative a larger and more prevalent phenomenon.

In the early twentieth century, when someone sent a postcard from Western North Carolina, it was likely they sent one like this, of a place of manufacturing or a piece of infrastructure. Look through the catalogs of the Asheville Postcard Company and you’ll find one industrial image after another: The Sylva Paperboard Company, the CJ Harris Tannery, The Southern Railroad Bridge of 1912, The WM Ritter Lumber yard, The Dillsboro Grist Mill, The Champion Pulp Mill of Canton, The Whiting Lumber Company, and on and on.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but today we like to draw near to industry in its vestigial forms; we especially like to reoccupy the rough spaces industry leaves behind—the galleries and breweries of the River Arts District in Asheville, for example—as though to reassure ourselves that these spaces are no longer needed. In other words, you won’t find postcards in downtown Asheville of the Hedrick Quarry, or the Wright Tool Shop, two places I pass everyday.

I often like to think about what goes on at those two places, what gets done each day. How much rock is pulled down and pulverized—as though to make the mountains finally susceptible to the winds—and how much steel lies on the floor of that shop in its bright locks, gleaming for no one at close of day? Surely I am not the only one who has had these thoughts. It is not a romantic feeling, necessarily. It is more so a form of inquisitiveness, a desire to understand, as fully as possible, even in the midst of some discomfort, the systems that support us.

In 1910, if specialty license plates existed, you can bet there wouldn’t have been a “Friends of the Smokies” and not just because the “Smokies” didn’t exist. The capitalist interest—the controlling interest of the time—would not have approved, or sanctioned such expressions of affection for their “resources.” They would not have liked the notion of public awareness or ownership being ratified and represented widely. You would more likely have seen an image of a Shay Locomotive side-cutting a mountain with a load of chestnut. Perhaps nothing was so consummate a symbol of American grandeur and ideology in the late nineteenth century.

Today, it would of course make many cringe, and rightfully so, at the great cost of the trees we took with the Shay—as the ecologist and biologist John Fitzpatrick once said, “we took them all.” But I would also imagine that even in the historical moment, these visions of industry—the Shay, the Band Mill of Graham County—would have induced dichotomous feelings in local citizens, feelings of both power and defeat. And this is what I’d suggest we have forgotten today and what keeps us from easily understanding the pervasiveness of postcards like the Band Mill card from the early twentieth century.

Freud was the first to name it: Das Unheimliche, which is where we get our modern language of the “uncanny.” It is an experience we have now almost entirely relegated to our media outlets, to Hollywood and Buzzfeed—and we prefer to just call it “grotesque” now. It is the simultaneous occurrence of attraction and repulsion, an experience rarely sought out or precisely understood but perhaps at the very heart of our deeply ambivalent posturing toward spaces of production. It is that “what is this?” feeling in the gut. It is the way the eye moves instinctively toward the carcass along the edge of the road, as if to acknowledge something familiar, something undeniably vivid, in the sight.


II. The Building Marked 1


Another post-card from this era that exemplifies the kind of cognitive dissonance I’m suggesting surrounded industry in the early twentieth century in Western North Carolina is that of the Champion Fiber Mill in Canton, NC (which would later become Champion Fiber and Paper, and then The Blue Ridge Paper Company, and then finally Evergreen Packaging). The sender of the postcard circled two of the structures on the property and wrote the following note about them: “The building marked (1.) is the one in which our boilers are and is as it looks today. Building (2.) is the Heiny boiler house.” The sender presumably wanted the recipient of the card to see this space in a more consummate way, to understand how he himself related to it, thus the plural possessive pronoun in his first sentence, “our.” The fact that he writes, “and is as it looks today” suggests to me that whoever the author was, he was not simply visiting from the north to inspect his holdings, and was also not an engineer overseeing the completion of a structure.

I visited Canton again recently and it is a place still dominated by the mill, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at their website. Not a single picture of the industry appears there, which must have involved some seriously devious camera angles. Again, is this not remarkable, that what was once the featured subject, the main entrée and attraction, is now intentionally concealed? In reality, the mill is not concealable. Not by a long shot.

Canton is not that big of a valley and the Champion Mill takes up almost all of the valley floor as it straddles the river. Add to its physical encroachment the fact that most things in Canton bear the mill’s name in some incarnation, streets like Champion Drive or Fiberville Rd, the bank, the pharmacy, and so on. It is both bizarre and relevant to our understanding of this postcard that the town of Canton does not want to recognize itself as a more than a “historic” mill-town on its website. Canton wants outsiders to believe the town is industrial in a vestigial way, not a modern way. To show a picture of the actual mill would be to shatter the dreamy, nostalgic scene the website is trying—albeit unsuccessfully—to create. The essential, obvious question is what has changed between then and now?

When you cross Dutch Cove Creek and come down the hill toward the old historic buildings and empty store fronts of highway 23, the mill is there, shadowed by the clouds that rise from its many cooling towers, digesters, and coal furnaces. You always know which way the wind is blowing in the Canton valley, as the steam and smoke leans always in one direction. The mill is an unavoidably complex thing, towers and piping and conveyers suggesting something viral, as if it had grown there out of some industrial rhizome.

It’s dizzying to look at it in the daylight, the way it reaches into its own various systems and parts, the coal conveyers coming in from the north, the woodchip conveyers crossing the Pigeon River from the west. At night, with all the high-watt xenon burning, it resembles an apocalyptic skyline, like something out of Blade Runner or The Matrix. This is all to say, the place is a mess—and this is where your milk cartons come from now, if you were curious, even some of the “organic” ones. And the small cartons that once sat on your cafeteria tray in elementary school, they likely came from here too.

For those who grew up with family who worked for a Kraft process paper mill as I did—Kraft with a K being the way in which wood lignin is broken down by “cooking” in sodium hydroxide and sulfide at high temperatures—you might find the odor familiar, even welcome in a way that is unaccountable. Paper mills have always smelled this way. And so the mailer of the post-card in August of 1907 would have come home with the odor in his clothing and hair, as so many of my uncles did after their shifts at International Paper outside Augusta, Georgia.

On the recent visit, I rolled my windows down and drove around to the back of the mill, up Fiberville Rd on the north side where the coal is brought in, a security contractor following patiently in a white SUV, keeping good distance while at the same time letting me know I was under escort, of sorts, like it or not. I was hoping to see if that building from the postcard was still standing—the building marked 1. It’s not, sadly. The only historic building still standing (I found all this out after speaking to the mill’s Director of Sustainability, which you might imagine took some serious pestering) is what is now called the “Digester House,” built in 1903, the north wall of which is still visible, opening onto a small dirt court yard, a tiny piece of the otherwise modernized industrial space that still suggest its long, multifarious history.

I would love to know whom the Canton Mill postcard was addressed to, and what the addressee thought of the mill itself. In 1907 the mill was just nearing completion. If you look closely at the photograph of the building marked 1, you’ll notice it doesn’t have its roof on yet. On the letter side of the card, the sender writes, “except that half of the forms are up for the concrete roof…”

I like to think that the forty years before the decade in question (starting in the early 1870’s) make all the difference in my understanding of these postcards as scenes of “grandeur.” In the south, those years leading up to the moment this photograph was taken were full of foreclosures, unpaid taxes, land speculators, sheriff’s auctions, struggling farms, reliance on imported goods and tools from northern factories and machinists, and in general, endemic poverty. This is also a time before the national parks were formed in the South East, before anyone could easily look on a mountain or a waterfall—the visions we might normally associate with grandeur—with any direct sense of public ownership.

In those years leading up to this moment, tremendous tracts of land were owned by, or coming into the procession of men from Ohio and Chicago, men like Peter Thomas, the owner of the Champion Paper Company, who sent his son-in-law Reuben B. Robertson down from Ohio to buy the valley along the Pigeon Ford River in 1903, a place strategically located on a direct rail line to Ohio and near Thomas’s 300,000 acres of southern Appalachian timber land. (To put that number in perspective, that is 25,000 acres bigger than North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park.)

The locals who worked in this Mill could have likely been exploited by Thomas and Robertson in some form or fashion—one Wayne Carson even tells the story of being caught in the conveyer machinery at Champion and being hung by his broken arm above the factory floor, a story that likely still kills at Champion’s “Old Timer” meetings—but, like Carson, those employees might have had a strange, almost tragic sense of allegiance to this space.

I wonder if the man who mailed this postcard wasn’t possessed in someway by the space he beheld, both owned by it and in a more mysterious way, in ownership of it, and therefore found it noteworthy and without stigma in a way that is hard for me to understand. Perhaps there was a “punishing comfort” in the image before him, as the writer and folklorist James Still might say, a phrase that does justice to Freud’s notion of the uncanny.

Still—from Knott County, Kentucky—often tells the story of the tragic and symbiotic relationship of miners and their mines, places of production that created a connection to the American dream and a participation in the nation’s great capitalist appetite, a co-dependency between the workers and their space, a Stockholm Effect, of sorts, similar to the affection Carson must feel for Champion, though he still cannot move his bad arm but a few degrees.

Buildings like these, industrial spaces, were the closest local laborers had come to experiencing sentiments of public grandeur and so why shouldn’t they be the subject of so many postcards? These workers didn’t own these spaces, of course, but they knew the spaces were impotent without their labor, and I would say this sensation was an entirely new experience for rural Western North Carolina, allowing for some of the feelings of modern inadequacy the south had internalized in the century before to finally attenuate. Perhaps that is what made these spaces seem suddenly picturesque, the subject of so many postcards. “Our boiler,” wrote the author of the postcard titled “Standing N.W. Looking N.E over Champion Fiber Mills, Canton, N.C.,” as though there was some comfort in keeping faith with this space, however costly the keeping.






This essay was first published for a catalogue produced by The Center for Craft, Creativity & Design (CCCD) on the occasion of Made in WNC, an exhibition examining the legacy of craft-based industry (textiles, pottery, and furniture) in western North Carolina and its influence on artists and designer-makers working in the region today. The exhibition was on view at CCCD's Benchspace Gallery & Workshop in Asheville, North Carolina September 4, 2015 - January 9, 2016 and at Wanted Design, Brooklyn in Brooklyn, New York May 7-17, 2016. For more information, visit craftcreativitydesign.org and to purchase a catalogue, visit mkt.com/cccd. Made in WNC is curated by Marilyn Zapf, presented by Explore Asheville, and receives support from the NC Arts Council, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.

     
   
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Nathan Poole is the author of two books of fiction: Father Brother Keeper, a collection of stories selected by Edith Pearlman for the 2013 Mary McCarthy Prize and long listed for the International Frank O’Connor Award; and Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost, selected by Benjamin Percy as the winner of the 2014 Quarterly West Novella Contest. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, Image, Quarterly West, The Saturday Evening Post, The Chattahoochee Review, The Four Way Review, among other journals. He holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and has served as a Tennessee Williams Scholar, A Milton Fellow, and a Joan Beebe Teaching Fellow. He currently teaches writing at Appalachian State University and Lees-McRae College and is the non-fiction editor of Orison Books.