Quitting Time 

Saying Farewell at Werthan Bag Mill

By Christine Kreyling

(Photographs by Susan Adcock)

In the time-stained light that filters through the windows of the old Werthan Bag Mill at the corner of Eighth Avenue North and Hume Street, there stands a relic of Christmas Past. It is an artificial tree of the kind that suggests a ’50s childhood—its branches are the sort of wire-wrapped green-paper spikes that, after only a few Decembers, began to look like slept-on hair. Nearby is a box of ornaments, garlands and foil icicles, their metallic glint tarnished by a history of holidays.

There will be no Christmas Present in the Werthan Bag Mill this year. By the middle of December, the tree and its trimmings will have been sent packing, along with the last remnants of a century’s worth of burlap sacks. The small cadre of workers who stitched them—the half-dozen survivors from the rows-upon-rows who once labored over Werthan textile bags—will be dispersed, once and for all. Blanche Settle plans to retire; Bobby Creek will look for work elsewhere. The rest of the group—Marie Travis, Nellie Jo Balthrop, Maudie Jones and Rubye Boone—will be relocated to Werthan Industries’ paper packaging plant on Fifth Avenue North. The Werthan Bag Mill, and the Cotton Mill that stretches south along Eighth Avenue, will be left an empty shell, no longer a symbol of the industrializing New South, waiting to take on a new significance as a symbol of a South still in transition.

When they were built, the bag and cotton mills on Eighth Avenue were a clear symbol of the transition from the Old South of white columns to a New South of brick factories, sooty with industrial purpose. From his bully pulpit in Atlanta, Henry Grady preached the New South credo to the financiers in the North. He would have loved the sight of the mills with their lint-filled workrooms. Built by the Tennessee Manufacturing Company between 1869 and 1882, the Eighth Avenue factories formed one of the largest cotton milling complexes in Tennessee. The exteriors of these utilitarian buildings express more than mere function. The mansard roofs, the round-arched style of the windows and the cornice frieze spoke a language in which art and economics, architecture and engineering, were not mutually exclusive tongues. Industry was making the nation and remaking the South. It deserved more than a little respect.

Inside the buildings’ thick, solid masonry walls, plains of open space supported by timbers as big as tree trunks created display halls for machinery and assembly lines. Now these spaces are being put to a new use, making room for the post-industrial possibilities of loft living. The Urban Partnership, an Atlanta firm specializing in the renovation of historic structures for adaptive reuse, plans to purchase the bag mill in January and to renovate it as the first phase of an urban apartment complex. The second phase of the proposed project would include the renovation of the cotton mill.

For the time being, however, the lint-covered sewing machines, their Tin-Woodsman-style oil cans, and the racks of plates and presses stand silent. They are fossils, just like the perfectly preserved skeleton of a bird trapped years ago on the floor of a long-deserted room.

The official name of the company is Werthan Packaging Inc., but to Nashville it has always been simply “Werthan Bag.” In 1895, M. Werthan and Company was located in a warehouse on Second Avenue North. From there a horse-drawn cart, now stored in the cotton mill, traveled throughout the city, collecting used burlap sacks for repair and resale. By 1913, M. Werthan and Company had established a branch in St. Louis and was manufacturing new textile bags made of cotton fabric as well as burlap. This was a success story of which the New South could be proud.

Werthan sacks carried the blended flour and meal that were rapidly putting Nashville on the map of American trade. Cotton bags were big business, and the Werthans needed a source for the raw fabric. The company found that source in the two sprawling factories on Eighth Avenue. In 1905, the dry-goods firm of Morgan and Hamilton had left Nashville’s Courthouse Square and moved into the buildings originally owned by Tennessee Manufacturing. In its Germantown factories, Morgan and Hamilton received bales of raw cotton and spun them into yarn, wove them into cloth or twisted their fibers into thread. The cloth was then carried to the bag mill, where it was printed, cut and sewn into bags. In 1928, the Werthan company left its Clinton Street factory and merged with Morgan and Hamilton. The resulting company was known as the Werthan Bag Corporation.

It is the Werthan name that Nashville recognizes. But it was the nameless thousands of workers who passed through the factory gates who provided the hands that did the company’s work. They operated the cutting, sewing and turning machines that made the bags, and they ran the printing presses that stamped the bags with Martha White or Dixie Lily logos. The workers took over the north side of Germantown and transformed it into a company town. They settled in a rooming house that stood across from the factory on Eighth Avenue, or they lived in small houses in a nearby area known as “Kalb Hollow,” named after the many migrants from DeKalb County.

By the late 1920s, the price of raw Southern cotton was dropping, and Oct. 1929 brought distress to Nashville and the rest of the nation. The market for finished cotton, however, was another matter. Many northern textile concerns moved south to avoid union organizers and the influence of socialists, both of which were identified with foreign immigrant workers and northern intellectuals. In reaction, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began a campaign to organize Southern textile workers.

The CIO drive concentrated on the South’s largest cities, and Nashville was a prime target. In the long hot summer of 1937, a labor lockout by the Washington Manufacturing Company led to a series of strikes, including one at Werthan Bag. Ultimately, hearings by the National Labor Relations Board exposed the Washington Manufacturing Company’s illegal efforts to crush the union and forced the company to reinstate its workers. Labor scored a victory, but union members remained a minority in the Nashville work force.

During World War II, Werthan Bag Corporation employees stitched the sandbags used to rim foxholes and gun emplacements. They also published The Spindle and Shuttle, a tiny magazine, written by workers in the “Card Room,” the “Spinning Room,” the “Weave Room,” the “Cloth Room” and the “Bleachery and Print Shop,” that kept the home fires burning and warmed the hearts of Werthan employees serving overseas.

Well, Sarah Thompson and Gladys Batey were in good spirits Saturday night. They were seen at the Paradise Club with their sailor and soldier friends. What kind of dance were you doing when you fell on the floor? You must have been teaching Gladys to dance. Myrtle James visited her mother and father when they killed hogs. Nettie Lowry hinted around for some fresh meat, but Myrtle acted a hog and ate it all herself.

—Era Cox, First Shift

“Spinning Room”

Dec. 8, 1944

I wonder if everyone is as anxious for Christmas to come as I am. I just hope Santa Claus does not forget me. I could not find a sock big enough and I was just wondering if Mr. Werthan would lend me one of his bags to hang up Christmas Eve night?

—Magdalene Wray

“Card Room”

Dec. 22, 1944

After the war, Werthan workers no longer had to live near the factory or ride the streetcar. Lloyd Buttrey has worked at Werthan for 48 years. He has worked as a press man, a pipe fitter, a carpenter and “just about everything.” Buttrey remembers when four buses from the Todd Motor Coach Company used to bring workers from as far away as Hohenwald. Even now, he drives in from Hickman County, “50 miles each day.”

In the years immediately following World War II, paper bags emerged as a competitor to cloth sacks. Southern pine forests were harvested to produce strong multiwall kraft paper bags, which could be manufactured more cheaply than bags made of cotton.

Werthan Bag initially responded to the challenge by giving more value for the price. The company sewed “dress print” fabric into feed and flour bags that, once emptied, could be fashioned into garments, curtains, pillowcases and napkins. Dishcloths, stitched directly into the bags’ seams, gave housewives even more incentive to recycle. This secondary-use strategy made Werthan Bag executives the highest paid in the state in 1949. It also bought them the time they needed to respond to the inevitable. In 1952, Werthan constructed a multiwall paper bag plant on Fifth Avenue North; in 1960, the size of the paper bag plant was doubled. It is to this factory that the bag mill workers will move by Christmastime.

From 1950 to the mid-1970s, Werthan Textile Mills churned out printed fabric for the garment industry. But, as the ’80s approached, the American textile industry was becoming increasingly vulnerable to foreign competition. Developing countries were making their first forays into industrialization, and the textile business was the industry of choice. History was repeating itself.

The northern United States entered the textile trade during the early 19th century, and the South followed suit after the Civil War. In the middle of the 20th century, the Far East and South America began producing and exporting textiles. In response to a gradual depression in textile prices and a periodic over-supply of textile products, Werthan’s spinning and weaving operations came to a halt in 1975; textile bleaching and finishing operations ceased in 1978. During those years, Werthan’s bags changed from textiles to paper and plastic. The cotton and bag mills, the heart of the company’s textile operation, gradually fell silent.

In employee break rooms throughout the mills, bacterial cultures are growing in the refrigerators and checker boards lie abandoned in mid-game. Time clocks no longer tick off the hours, clip boards for quotas set and met hang empty, and yellowed signs of employee “do’s” and “don’t’s” preach their commandments to vacant rooms.

At one end of the third floor of the bag mill, a small group of workers is processing the last batch of Werthan burlap sacks. Like the faithful in a basilica, they sit at their sewing machines in the long bare room. Twenty four-foot stacks of burlap sheets are waiting for stitching, but they won’t be finished by mid-December.

Sue Daniels, Werthan’s vice president for human resources, calls these workers “the last of a breed. I’ve always said we should have all new employees start out with them, to learn what the work ethic means.”

Marie Travis, who has been at Werthan for 39 years, is proud of the group’s reputation. “All of it’s hard work, but we’ve always worked harder than anybody else.” Marie will move to the paper packaging plant.

Maudie Jones, another 39-year Werthan veteran, remembers winters in the bag mill before gas heat was installed. “There were just those old steam pipes,” she says, pointing to the ceiling, “and it was cold in here. Of course, there’s no air-conditioning.”

“We’ve enjoyed each other, and it will be different in the paper packaging plant, with a lot of other people around. But I won’t miss the building,” says Jones.

“In summer we just opened the windows, turned on the fans, and burned up,” says Bobby Creek, who, with only 26 years of service, is a relative newcomer to Werthan. He says he is “going out” after the bag mill closes.

When Blanche Settles retires this month, she’ll miss her crew at Werthan. “Since July of ’94 we’ve been down to so few here, and it’s become more like family than ever.” Blanche started at Werthan on Aug. 17, 1946. She recalls waiting in “long lines for the city bus.

“But that was a long time ago.”

After 23 years in the bag mill, Rubye Boone recalls many Christmases at Werthan. “Years ago the company used to have a big dinner, and we all made the desserts. But they haven’t done that in a long time.”

In recent years, says 38-year veteran Nellie Jo Balthrop, “we all brought dishes for our own party, and gifts to exchange among ourselves. We decorated a tree and the windows with ornaments we brought from home. We always have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off. We work the Saturday of the weekend before so that we can take the two days.”

The closing of the bag mill and the breakup of the tiny crew is not much of a Christmas present, but the few remaining workers seem to be facing the future with the same stoicism that has helped them get through all the decades of the past. “We came and we stayed because we needed jobs,” says Maudie Jones. “We’ve always worked together, so sure it will be a big change. We really grew up here; most of us have been here since we were 18. It’s our first home. But it’s either going to the paper packaging plant or going home—and we have to work.”

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