’Twas in Marion, North Carolina, In a little mountain town,
Six workers of the textile In cold blood were shot down.
— Woody Guthrie, “The Marion Massacre”
As the sun rose on the morning of Oct. 2, 1929, hundreds of picketing mill workers in Marion, N.C., found themselves in a deadly standoff with law enforcement. And when the tear gas and fog at the gates of Marion Manufacturing had cleared, three workers were dead, three more were fatally injured and dozens of others were seriously wounded.
Sheriff Oscar Adkins later testified that the strikers had opened fire first, although no guns were found on any of them. Adkins and his 11 deputies — seven of whom were actually anti-union employees who’d been sworn in only moments before the shootings — were all acquitted. Meanwhile, the leaders of the protest and many of their fellow workers were fired, evicted from their company-owned homes and, in some cases, ostracized to the point that they were forced to leave town.
The bloody morning capped a tumultuous year of protests by newly unionized employees pushing for better working conditions. A dramatic climax to a drawn-out conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor, it marked the beginning of the end for the area's nascent labor movement. That same year, a massive textile strike in Gastonia, N.C., was also violently put down.
But after decades of suppression and neglect, dedicated locals are shining light on the Marion tragedy once more. And in a curious twist, high-profile current events are intertwining with these long-buried memories.
Shutting the door
The clashes in Marion attracted considerable regional and national media attention at the time, including a pamphlet by acclaimed author Sinclair Lewis titled Cheap and Contented Labor. But “His perspective was very jaded — very much from the outside,” says Western North Carolina native Kim Clark, whose grandfather, Roy Price, was an early organizer at the plant and first president of its United Textile Workers chapter.
Soon, however, the complex circumstances surrounding the protests at Marion Manufacturing and the neighboring Clinchfield Manufacturing Co. retreated into mystery, as participants on all sides refused to talk about what had happened.
"I think, almost in mountain shame, they just shut the door on it," says Clark, a former WNCW radio host who produced an audio documentary on the strikes for the station in 2005. It was later incorporated into a broader oral-history series funded by a grant from the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area.
After the union's defeat, Price was blackballed by the community, forcing him to flee to Detroit, an area friendlier toward organized labor. Eventually, he found his way back to Asheville, but like many others involved, Price never spoke of his role in the conflict, even to his own children, Clark reports. It was only after her grandfather died that family members discovered a trunk filled with old union documents, membership pins and books.
The violence, she speculates, created a kind of mass post-traumatic stress disorder that rippled through the community’s collective unconscious.
"The day after the shootings took place, all the people that were out there in front of the mill striking — they saw it happen — they didn't know what else to do, and they just filed back into the mill and went back to work, all but 100 of them," Clark explains. "The people in McDowell County, once this tragedy happened, it's like they shut the lid on a box, and they locked it, and that's it. … It's like this whole thing has been frozen in time. … I think one of the big reasons is the community has been in some kind of silent solidarity."
More recently, however, those tight lips have started loosening a bit, as Clark and others have attempted to unlock that box of secrets.
Opening the book
Throughout the 1990s, amateur author and historian Mike Lawing — a descendant of several strikers as well as one of the accused deputies — went door to door in Marion trying to unearth residents' stories.
Despite encountering "people who would not talk to me unless I absolutely promised not to use their name, who would tell me, 'I don't want my wife to know I had anything to do with this; I don't want my children to know anything about it,'" Lawing labored on, self-publishing The Marion Massacre in 2004. Until now, the 98-page book was considered the most authoritative history of these painful events.
But just a few weeks ago, Asheville resident Mike Blankenship unveiled a new piece of the puzzle: a comprehensive scrapbook of contemporary news articles and photos, which longtime McDowell historian Anne Swann calls "a treasure trove of information that we have not seen before."
Blankenship says it was the recent pro-labor rallies in Wisconsin that inspired him to bring the scrapbook out of storage.
"I turn on the radio and hear this report about the governor of Wisconsin wanting to call out the National Guard, and I'm thinking, 'Holy sh*t — I didn't think they did that anymore. I thought that was 1920s stuff,'" he explains. "We have to look at history, or else we're in trouble. Especially right now."
Blankenship's grandfather, Arthur DeBruhl — a union leader in Asheville in the 1920s — was dispatched to Marion after the shootings to try to figure out what had happened. But whatever he discovered, he didn’t share it with even his closest family. When Blankenship began investigating the massacre for a 1985 thesis he wrote while attending Western Carolina University, he’d heard only rumors concerning his grandfather's involvement.
As part of that research, however, he wound up in Marion at the home of Ruth Greenlee, who’d been the principal at the Clinchfield Manufacturing Co.’s school at the time of the strikes. After a long talk, she handed Blankenship the scrapbook.
"I think I was the first researcher to knock on her door," Blankenship remembers. "When Miss Greenlee gave me this scrapbook, she looked me right in the eye and said, 'You know, Marion was wronged; Marion was done wrong.' She felt the reputation of the community and the people down there had been tarnished as a result of this strike."
Greenlee and her two sisters — all three are now deceased — were legendary McDowell County educators and preservationists, according to Swann, whose parents worked at the mill and who lived in company housing as a young child. She now serves as historian at the Mountain Gateway Museum and Heritage Center in Old Fort.
"They collected all kinds of historical documents and genealogies and made them available to the McDowell County Public Library and the Historic Carson House," Swann reports.
In fact, the library was already safeguarding 67 scrapbooks compiled by the Greenlee sisters when Blankenship showed up with his, Genealogical Assistant Patti Holda reveals. They cover all aspects of McDowell history, including handwritten minutes of school board meetings dating back to 1885. Until now, however, anything related to the 1929 strikes was conspicuously absent.
"We didn't know this scrapbook existed, and we really appreciate Mike miraculously bringing it back where it should be," says Swann.
Tearing down the walls
Meanwhile, just down the road from the McDowell County Library, the massive old Marion Manufacturing building is being taken down, brick by brick.
After numerous private and public attempts to preserve the sprawling historic structure failed, a painstaking demolition began last September and is expected to continue through this summer. Working from the inside out, the current owner is salvaging as much of the old factory’s materials as possible: bricks, stained-glass windows, piping and more.
Clark believes the protracted dismantling is proving cathartic for residents of this small mountain town. "That tragedy and that trauma — it's kind of haunted Marion, in a way," she says. "I think it's not an accident that this history is coming to the fore at the very time that building is being torn down.
"Because of the way this story, these events, these feelings, this tragedy was just kind of shut down, I think that in some way some of this stuff has been locked away in that building. And now, when the building is being torn down, it's part of the release."
Even so many years later, the old mill still holds secrets, notes Holda. When she found out it was going to be demolished, she donned a headlamp and scoured the dark depths, uncovering assorted artifacts that she was able to secure for the library. Moldy ledgers seem to indicate that as early as 1921, the business had a budget of more than $1.3 million per year.
"That's unreal to think about that kind of money being brought in back then," she observes.
Workers weren’t sharing the benefits, however. In 1929, they made about $13 a week — minus the cost of company-provided housing and whatever they were charged at the company store. Yet the strikers’ main demand that year wasn’t money but whittling down their work week from 60 hours to 55. Long days and low pay were standard practice at Southern mills, but even so, the Marion plant was said to have some of the worst working conditions in the region, says Blankenship.
The lessons of history
Outside the old mill's crumbling gate, a small gravestone marks the spot where the strikers were killed nearly 82 years ago. Looking toward the roof, it's easy to imagine the watchful eyes of the National Guardsmen up there manning machine guns pointed at the crowd.
At this writing, it’s unclear what’s in store for the little monument as the property is redeveloped. Determined to perpetuate the memory of this bitter incident and the times it reflected, however, Clark, Blankenship, Swann, Holda and others are trying to pull together a display to mark the anniversary of the shootings, featuring material from the scrapbook and other recently discovered relics. Eventually, they hope to combine those items with the Greenlee sisters' 67 other scrapbooks and additional memorabilia in a permanent exhibit — and perhaps a McDowell County history museum.
Resurrecting the tragedy could be "a painful thing for the community," Swann concedes. Nonetheless, she believes, "It's very important that the students, particularly the young people, are educated on this subject in the proper way. It's part of our history, for better or for worse."
In the meantime, the group is still working on figuring out exactly what that history is, hoping to get grants and enlist further expertise as word about the scrapbook and the bigger story spreads.
"We're in the process of researching and collecting data in order to provide, not a new history, but an accurate history that's fair to the community," Blankenship explains. "I think that's what Miss Greenlee wanted."
After all, he points out: "It could go this way up there right now in Madison, if someone fired some shots. If we don't have a history, we don't have anything to look at, to learn from."
The scrapbook, digitized in its entirety by Mountain Xpress (with help from Henco Reprogaphics), is presented here in two chapters: