Tuesday, August 19, 2008
A cotton mill town constructed in 1900
The Bemis Auditorium, constructed in 1922 from the designs of Massachusetts-based architect Andrew Hepburn, was to be the focal point of cultural life in the unincorporated model "company town" of Bemis, Tennessee, now a part of Jackson. The Auditorium Building is an elegant, sophisticated example of Beaux Arts design, and the circumstances surrounding its construction are equally impressive. While the Auditorium alone would be an extraordinary building in any small town, it is only one element of the nationally significant collection of resources nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 as the Bemis Historic District.
The original elements of the Auditorium Building exhibit consistently high quality and reflect the remarkable commitment of the Bemis Brothers Bag Company and its president, Albert Farwell Bemis, in the creation of a model industrial community. The construction of the Auditorium in 1922 was part of the third building phase for the community; initial construction of the community began in 1900. In association with Arthur Shurcliff, a noted landscape designer, Hepburn designed a complex of three buildings, surrounding a small grassy "Common," which was intended to become the new administrative, social and cultural center of the Bemis community. Of these four elements of this City Beautiful-style town plan, three were built: the Auditorium, the Common, located across Missouri Street to the west of the Auditorium, and the Bemis Brothers Mill Administration Building to the south. The fourth element, the Bemis Hotel, was never constructed, and its site remains vacant to this day.
Upon its completion in 1922, the Bemis Auditorium immediately became the cultural center of the community that it was intended to be, serving as a movie house, a stage for skits and community theater productions, and the setting for every high school graduation ceremony for the next fifty years. It was here that the milestones of the citizens of the Bemis community were noted and celebrated. For example, the citizens of Bemis gathered at the Auditorium in 1950 to celebrate the first half-century of their community; a part of this celebration included the opportunity for the residents to watch themselves on the Auditorium's big screen as the "stars" of an in-house company film on the celebration.
THE BEMIS STORY
Taken from "50 Years in the Life of a Community"
Original Print, 1950. The Bemis Company
Reprint 1999, The Bemis Historical Society
back in 1900 . . .
The community of Bemis and the Jackson Fiber Company which was later to be called "Bemis Cotton Mill", were born of the efforts of Judson Moss Bemis and the company he had founded in 1858, now known as Bemis Bro. Bag Company. Realizing that his company's bag factories must have a dependable supply of high-quality cotton bag good, Mr. Bemis decided to build a cotton mill near the cotton fields, source of the raw material; near a good railroad center assuring excellent transportation service; and among people who would make dependable and efficient employees. The site that became Bemis offered all three of these fundamental requisites.
Built on the original 300-acre site donated by the forward-thinking citizens of Jackson and Madison County through county appropriation, the first mill of 21,000 spindle capacity was erected in 1900, actual production starting the year following.
Workers on the construction site of site of mill #2 in 1905
Child pictured near the construction site of mill #2 in 1905
J. B. Young was the first resident manager at Bemis. Under his able direction the mill prospered and the community was transformed from a few scattered negro cabins, gullies, and worn-out cotton fields, to the wide, tree-lined streets, beautiful homes, and well-kept lawns one sees today. Mr. Young died in 1928, but the memory of his countless contributions to Bemis and its people will live forever.
He was succeeded by his son, Fred J. Young, who himself is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his association with the company in Bemis.
The happiness and satisfaction of those who were to call Bemis "home" were of prime importance in all the company's planning. Both Mr. Bemis and Mr. Young, founders, were determined that those who lived in Bemis and who made the mill's operations possible should be satisfied not only with their working environment but with their surroundings and living conditions as well.
From the very first, the future attractiveness of Bemis, as "a good place to live," was carefully planned. Wide streets were laid out, trees and shrubs were planted in abundance, and good substantial houses were erected.
Worker housing units and tenements located just south of the Mill about 1910
Early consideration was given to providing for the entertainment and recreation of those who lived and worked in Bemis. Ample space for baseball and other sports was provided. A YMCA building was erected to serve young and old alike. Other improvements were added from time to time as needed.
School children posing in front of the original Bemis schoolhouse about 1910
Old-timers, and there are many still active today who remember the early days well, will tell you emphatically that down through the years the people of Bemis...all of them...have been just plain "folks", sharing life's blessings and hardships together... They'll tell you... and their fellow townsmen will wholeheartedly agree...that a sincere, friendly atmosphere of real neighborliness and mutual understanding has always prevailed in the community.
in those days . . .
In the early 1900's--those "good old days" as some folks like to call them--things were much different than today. For instance, the original 300-acre plot of land where Bemis now stands was purchased for a mere $20 per acre.
Cotton sold for 9 cents a pound; flour for 75 cents a sack, and sirloin steak was 25 cents per pound. Individual earnings were correspondingly low, but of course a dollar did purchase more worldly goods.
There were no paved roads between Bemis and Jackson, and the less-than-100-mile trip to Memphis was a major undertaking.
Sound movies, radios, television sets and the like were unknown and the automobile, or "horseless carriage," was just beginning to be looked upon with favor. There were no tractors, nor mechanical cotton pickers. Mule power was the order of the day, and growing and harvesting of cotton and other crops were done the "hard way."
Many operations in the mill were slow and tedious as compared with the speedy and largely automatic processes of cotton textile manufacture today.
Life in Bemis then was naturally different, too. Many modern conveniences and facilities we take for granted today were unavailable at that time. But one thing was true then--and it is just as true today--the comfort and welfare of the people of Bemis received top consideration.
down through the years . . .
The growth of Bemis has been solid and substantial. Demand for the high quality cotton cloth being produced made it necessary to double the capacity of the mill in 1905--which meant a corresponding increase in the number of employees needed.
Steady employment, good working conditions, and a progressive community life attracted high caliber people to Bemis--and they developed a unity of purpose that has continued to exemplify the true spirit of American democracy.
Religion was . . . . and has continued to be . . . . a bulwark of community life. The Bemis Union Church was built for the use of the people by Mr. J. M. Bemis in 1908.
The Union Church building, constructed in 1907, is a fine example of Tudor Revival architecture.
Judson Moss Bemis was succeeded in 1909 by his son, Albert Farwell Bemis, who played a most important part in the planning and development of the town of Bemis.
(Note: Albert was the mind behind the plan to build a model mill town. As a recent graduate of MIT with a degree in civil engineering, he was familiar with the latest controversies regarding industrial towns and with the latest innovations in building technology. He enlisted the help of former classmates and friends with MIT connections to assist in the engineering projects related to Bemis. The renowned architects Andrew Hepburn and Arthur Shurcliff were involved in the development of Bemis years before their famous collaboration in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.)
In 1913 an explosion occurred in the power plan, injuring several--two fatally--and causing considerable property damage. Repairs were made immediately, and operations resumed within two weeks. This remains the only major disaster in the history of the town.
To show their appreciation to the founder of their town, in 1914 the people of Bemis subscribed funds to erect a memorial drinking fountain over an artesian well in honor of Judson Moss Bemis. They not only conceived the idea, but designed the fountain and did the work themselves.
Then came World War I, and Bemis, with characteristic American determination, did its part by sending its sons to fight for the democracy we all treasure, while their families did their share at home.
The 1920's marked an era of development. Addition of a second shift became necessary at this time, providing many jobs in the mill and adding to the growing prosperity of the town and its people.
As the Bemis family grew, the spirit of the town became stronger. It became imperative to provide more homes. So it was that an additional three hundred fifty acres were purchased to allow room for further expansion.
In 1920 fifty-four family units were built in East Bemis. Again in 1926, more new homes were erected, this time in the area of West Bemis known as "New Town", to accommodate an additional eighty-four families.
The Auditorium, with a seating capacity of 850, was also built during this period to provide a place for school activities and other community meetings, and entertainment featuring motion pictures.
The cast of the production of "Said Pasha," a home talent play produced in the early twenties
and performed in the auditorium
And so it has continued through the years--the town constantly developing--keeping pace with a growing America. While retaining its "homey" atmosphere and charm, Bemis was adding the comforts and conveniences of progress. People liked their jobs and their home
. . . . new generations joined their elders . . . . and the roots of family life grew deeper.
The school system was expanded . . . . more playgrounds were built to accommodate eager youth. More production in the mill resulted from utilization of various mechanical improvements. . . . the forty-hour work week became a reality.
In 1940 the new Gymnasium building, an addition to the YMCA, was erected. This completely modern structure houses a large gymnasium seating nearly a thousand, suitable for basketball and other community activities. The spacious upstairs provides ample room for future development of a complete women's department.
World War II broke with disastrous suddenness on that fateful December 7, 1941. Bemis and its people sprang into action. On the home front the mill was converted to wartime operation . . . . each family did its part . . . . and the sons and daughters of Bemis marched 396 strong in the armed services of their country . . . . a remarkable record of nearly 10% of the area's population . . . . again to demonstrate to the opponents of democracy that the American Way of Life is here to stay. Twelve Bemis men make the supreme sacrifice . . . . for their homes . . . . their families . . . . and the land they loved.
Glorious peace again . . . . American production remained at full speed. The third shift, added during the war, was made permanent in the mill to meet the demand for Bemis cotton goods, assuring additional jobs, and continuing the town's growth.
. . . today
Since World War II, Bemis has enjoyed prosperous times, and the hum of the mill's operations has been constant. A large number of Bemis men and women who served their country have long since resumed their places in the community's life. Most of the younger veterans are now married, have families, and, as good citizens, are giving freely of their time and effort to make Bemis an even better place in which to live and rear their children.
Bemis today is all one would expect of a community conceived of such practical ideas, planned so carefully, and built on such a solid foundation. It is a good substantial American community where free man and women enjoy the blessings and advantages of our modern civilization in a restful, quiet atmosphere of secure contentment.
Here you'll meet real folks who greet you with genuine warmth and whose friendly handclasp and smile of welcome communicate to you their joy of living, and their secure feeling of confidence in the future.
The people of Bemis enjoy the benefits and advantages of our modern era and at the same time know the deep satisfaction of a closely knot family and community life where the words "friend" and "neighbor" have a special meaning.
Here, in an atmosphere of genuine democracy, people enjoy the rewards of our cherished American Way of Life, and benefit from our system of free enterprise.
Perhaps the Bemis of today could never be better described than by the words of its Golden Anniversary slogan, originated by one who has been a part of Bemis for 46 years.
And so we have the community of Bemis today--the town, its homes and people, its churches and schools, its social life and play, and its work.
A stroll through the town's well-paved, tree-lined streets is an enjoyable experience. One all sides is evidence showing that the large group of maintenance men, by constant work and attention, keep the houses, the parks, and the town as a whole, clean and snugly attractive.
Within the town, the company operates a complete general store, the Bemis Mercantile Company, which stocks a wide variety of dry goods and other merchandise and includes a modern grocery and meat department. Available at nominal rentals is a frozen food locker of 167 units. This store is operated for the convenience of Bemis' people, and is competitive in price with large shopping centers. Many other retail stores, independently operated, also serve the community.
The store building also provides ample rental space for the Bemis Post Office, an up-to-date pharmacy, and a physician's offices and meeting rooms upstairs. In the same block is a modern clinic, leased by the company to private practitioners in medicine and dentistry.
True love of God . . . keystone of real democracy, is very strong in this community. Six churches play a central part in the life of its people. Here there is no intolerance and bigotry--a man worships in the manner of his choice.
Originally Judson Moss Bemis, founder of the town, built a Union Church for use by all faiths. But as the community grew, the various denominations established their own places of worship. Thus the original Union Church has become the Bemis Methodist Church--the land and the building having been deeded to the congregation by the company. There are also three Baptist churches, a Church of Christ, and a Pentecostal Church. Financial aid has been given by the company to help in their building programs. Jackson and the surrounding territory provide other churches for those religious groups in Bemis not large enough to have churches of their own.
Equal opportunity for all is our American belief and an essential part of that opportunity is our free educational system available to all children. A school was established in Bemis when the first families arrived. Through the years, additional facilities have adequately kept pace with the growth of the community.
Today there are five buildings housing the grade schools, and one high school, all well-staffed, and complete with the latest in educational equipment. A modern cafeteria provides hot, nourishing, well-balanced lunches. Competitive athletics and physical education round out a well-coorindated program. The company has cooperated generously with the Madison County school system to give Bemis' youth every scholastic advantage.
Social life and recreation play an important part in Bemis as they do in other communities throughout the land. There are ample parks and playgrounds, a recent addition being one for children under 12, with swings, slides and acrobatic equipment. This newest playground also boasts a fine wading pool for the smaller youngsters.
The town's fine auditorium doubles as a motion picture theatre, where current pictures are shown at hours to accommodate all three of the mill's shifts. The YMCA provides domino and checker tables, reading facilities with magazines, five billiard tables, well-equipped showers and locker rooms for men and women, and many other conveniences. Space is rented for the operation of a beauty parlor and a barber shop.
The new gymnasium-community building is available for all community, recreational, and social activities. In season, it serves as a basketball court. Other times it is used as a skating rink, and for various company and community purposes. Upstairs there are meeting rooms suitable for small parties and banquets, and a women's department complete with modern kitchen. Sewing equipment is available for all who are to use it.
Heart of the town is the Bemis Cotton Mill where 1,250 employees earn more than $2,750,000.00 annually. Equipped with 50,000 spindles and 1,710 looms, the mill each year makes 26,000 bales of cotton into 50 million yards of cotton cloth and one million pounds of sewing thread. Shipped to other Bemis plants throughout the country, these products are used to make cotton bags, and for other purposes to package a variety of foods and commodities essential to the daily lives of millions. The company of which Bemis is a vital part--the Bemis Bro. Bag Company--has been termed, "America's No. 1 Bag Maker."
Contrary to many conceptions of southern mill towns, here are ideal working conditions. The wage scale compares very favorably with that of other industries in the area. Bemis people take pride in producing essential goods for American business and industry.
"Where Industry and Friendliness blend into Progress" is the way she feels about her home town--and certainly she should know, having worked in Bemis for nearly all the half-century since it was founded. This pioneer's spirit truly typifies that of the entire community.
Roots in Bemis grow deep--and the fundamental needs for security and a happy family life are satisfied, as is shown in the length of employees' service records. Of the 1250 on the payroll, over 900 have been employed five years or more. Of these, more than 300 have service records ranging from 20 to 50 years. Many of the present people are descendants of families that settled in Bemis back in the early days. This record is truly indicative of the very low employee turnover.
Employees with long service records are proud of their membership in their "20 year Club." They wear the gold "Cat-in-the-Bag" pin, emblematic of 20 years or more of faithful service, as the bade of honor it is. Silver pins of the same design are awarded to honor those who have five, the, and fifteen year records.
. . . and tomorrow
What does the future hold for Bemis?
The answer to this question is easy and of little concern when one sees and chats with the healthy, clear-eyed youth of the town. Here are those whose parents and grandparents have contributed so much to the community and to the mills' operations during the past half-century, and who themselves, as the men and women of tomorrow, will take over the responsibilities that are rightfully theirs. Through their early years they have been raised in an atmosphere of righteous and clean living that breathes and speaks the true standards of Christianity and Americanism which have made Bemis and our country great . . . . the standards which will keep it great in the years ahead.
Watch them as they diligently pursue their studies in the Bemis schools . . . . as they enjoy themselves at the town's public swimming pool in summer and at the gay roller skating patties at the big gymnasium during the winter months. Share their spirit at a basketball game or on the football field as they combine teamwork with fair play and good sportsmanship.
Surely, like all other American youth, they'll be exposed to temptation . . . . to the false lure of political and social panaceas. But you can depend upon the fact that when it comes to the final decision, they'll make the right one . . . . the decision that will assure a continuance of our way of life . . . . a greater Bemis . . . . and a greater America in the years to come.
It is thus to the youth of Bemis--and of our nation--that we will confidently pass the banner of freedom and progress.
By so doing we shall reaffirm in them our faith that communism and other destructive ideologies shall never blight this great country of ours, and that the beacon of true American democracy shall forever burn brighter and brighter.
So, with reverence and thanksgiving to the Almighty, this story of the first fifty years in the life of the community of Bemis, Tennessee, is in sincere tribute to all Bemis people of yesteryear and today, and is dedicated to those who shall chart its course and guide its destiny during the next half-century . . . . its youth!
Memories of Bemis
Sula (Turner) Hillhouse
The day was a Sunday - it was hot and dry with hardly a leaf moving: a typical day in Decatur County, Tennessee. My Aunt and Uncle from Bemis had been visiting our family during the weekend and now were getting ready to go home. When my Aunt Ethel and Uncle Wafford (Bates) were about ready to leave, I started begging to go home with them. (They had no children and I loved being with them - most especially because they petted me to death.) My parents hesitated, but Aunt Ethel said it was okay with her - so Mom and Dad relented and allowed me to go. I was so excited.
Now, school was in session in Bemis, but in Decatur County the schools had been dismissed for a few weeks for the fall "cotton picking" season. In those days (the 1940's) crops were harvested by hand, and families needed every school-aged child to help with the awesome task of picking acres and acres of cotton. So it was the custom in rural communities to suspend class for a few weeks so children could help their families (and sometimes their neighbors) pick cotton.
If I'd been a very good "cotton picker" Daddy might have thought more than once about allowing me to be away from home for a few days; but the fact was, I was not a very productive picker of cotton - thus permission was granted!
It was getting dark by the time we drove into my Aunt and Uncle's driveway on Old Kentucky Street in Bemis, so I couldn't see well enough to tell much about the neighborhood that night. You see - this was my very first visit, and I was anxious to see what all the houses and yards looked like. (Where I lived, we couldn't even see our neighbor's house.)
The street lights were on and reflected off the multicolored foliage on the trees that lined every street. It was a beautiful sight, and I thought Bemis must be the most beautiful place in the world.
While my Uncle unloaded the car (Mom and Dad had loaded them up with fresh fruits and fall vegetables), my Aunt fixed something for us to eat. We usually ate supper much earlier than this and we were all hungry. I'll never forget that first meal at this house on that fall night in 1943--sandwiches made with sliced bread, bologna, cheese, sliced tomato and real mayonnaise! That was the first time I'd ever eaten store-bought loaf bread and bologna and I thought that was the best food I'd ever tasted....never mind the country ham, home-ground sausage, pork loin and chops, fresh eggs with hot biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, fresh picked vegetables and hot cornbread, fresh fruits, made-from-scratch desserts, fresh milk that had been cooled in our "spring-house". All of this was home grown and home made, and was what we had all the time and I was used to it - so the soft, fresh loaf bread and bologna were a treat to me.
We were all pretty tired, so we got ready for bed early. I could hardly think about sleeping because I was still so excited. Soon after crawling into that fluffy feather bed I started missing Mama, Daddy and my little sister, June. They seemed so far away--60 or 70 miles to me seemed like half way across the state!
Soon, though, I feel asleep. We didn't have to get up early because Uncle Wafford worked on the Second Shift and wouldn't have to go to work until 2:00 o'clock Monday afternoon.
On the farm we always got up really early, and Daddy went to feed the animals and milk the cows about 4:00 o'clock. While he did that, Mama cooked a really big breakfast - every day! You see, people who worked on the farm had to work so hard they needed a big breakfast to keep them going until lunch time -- there was no mid-morning snack-break in those days! At the same time Mama was cooking our breakfast, she also cooked foods to be packed for Daddy to take to the field and for us to take to school for lunch. So, since my "biological clock" was set to get up early, I woke up before my Aunt and Uncle did. I tried to be quiet and not wake them -- but I just had to peek out the window to get a look at the surrounding neighborhood, at least as much as I could see from behind the pull-down window shade.
Finally, I heard them stirring and soon smelled coffee, so I knew breakfast would soon be ready. I got up, slipped into my clothes, made my bed and went into the kitchen. I offered to help but Aunt Ethel had everything under control. She was such a happy person--always smiling and I loved being with her.
We ate breakfast and pretty soon after we finished Uncle Wafford said he was going to the Post Office. I learned that everyone in town had a "box" at the Post Office and went there daily to pick up their mail. I also learned that many of the men in town would meet at the YMCA before going to work and play checkers - or just sit and talk. I also learned that the men could take a bath (shower) at the "Y" for a small fee--which many of them did. That seemed so strange to me - we took our baths at home - in a tin wash tub.
I actually don't remember much we did during my first day in Bemis - except we walked up one side of the street and back down on the other side - stopping on occasion for Aunt Ethel to talk to neighbors who were in their yards or on their front porches. The houses were so white - like they'd just been painted, and the yards were all neat and clean. Later we sat in the swing on the front porch and watched neighbors going to and coming from work at the shift change. I remember some people passing by said they were going to the Company Store - others were on their way to the "Block" (which I later learned was "the Patton Block" where a group of stores, a cafe, a taxi stand and Pettigrew's Drug Store were located.)
It wasn't too long after Uncle Wafford left for work at 1:45 before the kids living on Aunt Ethel's street began coming by on their way home from school. The wind was blowing - not really hard - but hard enough to blow some of the leaves off the trees. They floated gently down and danced their way across the sidewalks and streets. Now, living in the country, I'd never thought much about leaves falling off the trees before. There was just something kind of special about their scooting along on the sidewalks and paved streets that caught my attention.
Right away some of the kids came outside and began riding their bicycles up and down the street - and even around the block. They'd often call out to one another - and sometimes would stop and talk together for a few minutes. I thought they were the luckiest kids on earth. I don't know if I felt jealous - or just a little bit intimidated; maybe both.
I soon learned a few of the kids by name: Barbara and Elizabeth Hinson, Georgia Pearl Kennon and her brothers Farris and Larry, and Willard Cagle, who lived next door. I can't say I got to know any of them during that first visit, but at least knowing their names was a start.
One of my most favorite treats, during that first visit to Bemis, was going to Pettigrew's Drug Store on the Patton Balock to get a chocolate sundae - my very first one ever! I remember it had two scoops of vanilla ice cream served in a tall, clear, footed glass dish and covered with yummy chocolate - piled high with whipped cream and a red cherry on top. That was the best thing I'd ever had to eat in my whole life....even better than bologna, cheese and tomato sandwiches!
While we were eating our chocolate sundaes, a lady came in and stopped to talk to Aunt Ethel. Her name was Miss Annie Phillips - and she talked to me, too, asked all kinds of questions. I thought she was a very nice and friendly lady. When she started to leave she told me she hoped I'd come back to visit Aunt Ethel again and come with her to Sunday School. I got the feeling she really meant it - and that made me feel real good.
All too soon my first visit in Bemis came to an end, and I had no idea when I'd ever get to come back. I remember looking longingly at kids playing on lawns, on sidewalks and a couple of boys tossing a ball as we drove slowly down the street on our way back to my home in Decatur County.
Some months later, two men I'd never seen before, came to see Daddy. They talked for a long time and after they left I learned they were from the Bemis Cotton Mill. They had come to ask Daddy to come back to Bemis to work in the Mill. Daddy had lived and worked in Bemis for several years before I was born - so he was what they called an "experienced hand". They told Daddy that he was really needed because the "Draft" had taken several of the Bemis employees into the Army and left the Mill short of help. The material made in the Mill was in such demand because of the war, that the Bemis Bro. Bag Company needed to increase production. In order to do that they needed to hire more employees.
Daddy told the men to give him a little time to get the rest of his crop out of the field and he'd come and "help them out for a little while". The first Sunday afternoon Daddy left to be gone for a whole week, I cried and cried. Mama, June and I were all by ourselves. We heard all kinds of noises during the night -- and for the first time ever, I felt afraid. I know it must have been hard on Mama, too. She had to do most everything by herself. June and I helped as much as we could, but for the most part Mama had it all to do.
For what seemed like a very long time (it may have been only a matter of weeks) Daddy would ride the Greyhound Bus to Jackson and then catch a City Bus to Bemis on Sunday afternoons. He would work all week and then make the return trip home on the following Friday. Sometimes they had to work six days a week and he didn't get to come home for the weekend - and that made it really seem like a long time. I can remember sitting on a stump down by the road, in front of our house, watching for Daddy to come walking up the hill on Friday afternoons.
The War just kept escalating and the Mill kept hiring more people. Before long nearly everybody in the extended Turner family, who was old enough, was working in the Bemis Cotton Mill--my Granddaddy (Ben) Turner, my uncles, aunts, cousins, my sister Opal, and Daddy.
By the spring of 1944 I suppose Daddy either decided, or was convinced by his superiors, that he was needed in Bemis long-term so he made arrangements to move his family to Bemis. I was both excited - and scared. The school year was about over and I especially dreaded changing schools. At first, we moved into the house with my Mammy and Pappy Turner - they lived on Davidson Street. Their house was near the railroad tracks and trains ran day and night. Every night I thought for sure the train was going to come right through the house! They were so loud and always blew the train whistle at every "crossing." I think there were about four crossings in Bemis, so the whistle blew continually all the way through town.
One thing we learned very quickly while living near the railroad tracks: If you had a washing on the clothes line and heard a train coming - you'd better get the clothes off the line before the train got there or the clothes would get sprinkled with tiny balls of coal soot!
Then came that faithful day - our first day to go to school in Bemis, and I was so scared. Mama walked June and me to school. Oh my! It looked so big. It was a brick, two-story building located next door to the Methodist Church. I was assigned to Miss Mildred Pearson's fifth grade class on the second floor - at the west end of the hall. She just could not have been sweeter or nicer to me - but I felt as "lost as a goose". I had been attending a country, one-room school (almost like the one on "Little House on the Prairie") and our text books were altogether different from those I was given at my new school. "How in the world will I ever understand what all they're talking about?" was the question that kept running through my mind.
First thing every morning we'd say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. Every day we would sing patriotic songs. I remember that Joel Brooks got to lead the singing more than anybody else. He sat right in front of Miss Pearson's desk and it seemed like his hand always went up first when she asked for volunteers to lead the singing. I loved singing the songs -- and sometimes, even now -- nearly sixty years later - I break out singing, "Over hill - over dale, we have hit the dusty trail...." Often we'd get to go outside, line up single file and practice marching like soldiers. I thought that was lots of fun, and it was -- but it was much later that I realized how very much the War influenced about everything we did during those years.
Another thing I soon learned about, that the students were very excited about doing, was the buying of "stamps" for ten cents each, which they would stick into a stamp book. When a book was filled with stamps it would be exchanged for a $25.00 War Bond. People everywhere were being encouraged to buy War Bonds to help support the War effort. I begged dimes from all my relatives and before school was out I managed to accumulate enough stamps to get a War Bond.
A few year later I used that War Bond to buy a piano and Mama and Daddy let me take piano lessons from Mrs. Greer (I believe her name was Lessie Mae.) In 1958 we gave that same piano to the newly organized Northside Methodist Church - to which we moved our membership and became Charter Members.
Miracle of all miracles! I passed the 5th Grade! I may have received the first "social promotion" in the Madison County School System.
Not long after school was out, Daddy found and bought a house on Chester Levee Road. We were glad to have a house of our own again - and have more room to spread out. There was a lot to do getting everything moved and in place. Mama and Daddy planted a late garden. They always had a garden and we were expected to help with the planting, the cultivating and the harvesting - so that kept us busy during that first summer.
We moved our membership to the Bemis Methodist church and Brother L. L. Jones was the pastor. (My parents continued their active membership there until their deaths: Dad in 1993 and Mom in 1999.)
Soon fall was upon us and June and I were now starting the 2nd and 6th grades in Bemis. June still attended classes in the brick, two-story building beside the Methodist Church, but the 6th and 7th grades met in a white, clap-board building across the street, west of the brick building. To my surprise, I didn't feel so lost any more - I suppose it was getting to start "on the same page" with everybody else. I actually started to like school for the first time ever. I made several really neat, new friends and felt so lucky to be going to school in Bemis - and really surprised myself by making good grades.
It was during the sixth grade, I believe, that World War II came to an end. We had no TV so we only saw the excitement in our neighborhoods - and heard it on the radio. The War is over! The boys will be coming home! How excited everybody was. Our family was just as happy the War was over but we couldn't be totally excited because my very-most-favorite cousin, Ben F. Blount, who was born and grew up in Bemis, wouldn't be coming home. He had joined the Army as soon as he was old enough and transferred into the Paratrooper's Division soon after Basic Training. He was killed on his first "jump" into a battle zone in Sicily. We, as all families were who lost family members in the war, were devastated.
Ben F. was especially close to us because as a young boy and teenager he would come and stay with us during the summers and help Daddy on the farm. He loved working outside - and my Dad had no sons to help on the farm - so Ben F. was a great help to him. Ben F. was like a "brother" to Opal, June and me.
After his family first received word that he was "missing in action", I remember sitting on that same stump down by the road in front of our house (where months later I waited for Daddy to come home from Bemis on Friday afternoons), and looking expectantly down the road for Ben F. to come walking up the hill. That was not to be....before too long my Aunt got another letter from the Department of Defense notifying her, with much regret, that Ben F. was now classified as "killed in action".
After the War was over, my Dad thought the boys who had left their jobs in the Mill to go to the Army, would be coming back to their jobs and that he would no longer be needed in the Bemis Cotton Mill. But, as it turned out, the Government passed the G. I. Bill of Rights and many of the Bemis veterans took advantage of that opportunity and went back to school to continue their education. Therefore, Daddy's job and the jobs of lots of other people in the Mill, were secure.
I was really glad because I had come to love our life in Bemis. Why, for a quarter we could go to the movies on Saturday afternoon, buy a coke and a bag of popcorn! We grew up on Roy Rogers, Red Ryder and Gene Autry.
My world continued to expand when I was allowed to go swimming in the Bemis swimming pool and learn to skate at the Bemis skating rink. Bemis kids were so blessed to grow up in such a special "village community" where everybody knew everybody else. Members from all Bemis families either worked, played, worshipped, or went to school together. There was never any fear of walking home from the movies or skating rink at night, or walking to a friend's house after dark to spend the night.
Seventh and Eighth grades were a time of growing - physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. In those days nobody ever thought about objecting to Scripture being read daily at school, or prayers being voiced in the classroom. We had wonderful Christian teachers who not only were intent on our learning the 3-R's but were interested in preparing us to experience well rounded, diverse and productive lives as we journeyed through the ensuing years. The teachers and Principal knew us personally - and knew most of our parents. There was an unwritten and unspoken collaboration between teachers and parents in the education of the children in Bemis, Tennessee....an arrangement that in my opinion just cannot be improved upon.
Now, in the fall of 1947 I went to J. B. Young High School -- a freshman, and a "green one at that"! J. B. Young was a beautiful brick, two-story building and was not very old. Principal Alton Copeland insisted that it be kept impeccably clean, and personally saw that it was "spit and polished" at all times. He took great pride in the school's appearance, as well as his students' successes.
Mr. Copeland was a good man and every student who ever darkened the door of J. B. Young High School has heard him read, several times, his very favorite scripture: Ecclesiastics 3:1-12. He read that particular passage on many occasions during our four years there.
During our time at J. B. Young High School, we were exposed to different cultures through the monthly programs brought in from outside and presented to the student body in the school's auditorium. The girls were taught to cook, sew and the art of housekeeping by Mrs. Frances Mercer and later by Mrs. Eleanor Baxter and Mrs. Bettye Neely. Several Home Economics students were chosen each year to fill the role of "Hostess-Servers" at the many business, social and professional luncheons and evening banquets held in the large Meeting/Dining Room on the second floor of the Y.W.C.A. This was an unique opportunity and we were meticulously trained in the proper method of serving at both formal and semi-formal occasions. For instance....."always serve from the left side of the diner", etc., etc. Not only was it good training for young high school girls - but it was a lot of fun as well.
The guys were taught by Mr. Kirby McKnight to do wood working projects, how to work with electricity, and do many other practical things in the Vocational Shop that would be of benefit to them throughout the course of their lives. Quite a number of Mr. Kirby's students were so impacted by his teaching, and by the content of his character, that they chose their life-time careers in some phase of work they were exposed to in his Shop Class at J. B. Young High School. This stands as a testimony to Mr. Kirby McKnight's profound influence on the lives of the young men he taught.
J. B. Young students were also taught the importance of proper nutrition, personal hygiene and physical education. Some may be surprised to learn that as far back as the 1940's and 1950's we received some introduction to sex education in Health and Home Economics classes - in segregated groups of course! We were taught that character was more important than popularity - not in a formal or required subject, but every teacher used the opportunities they had on a daily basis to instill in each of us the qualities necessary to become a good citizen and a good and decent person. We received all this valuable training, and more, in addition to the curriculum required by the State and by the School Board.
I'm sure every J. B. Young student could share favorite stories about one of our favorite teachers of all time -- Miss Sally Sweeney. She was a tiny "bundle of dynamite" who Joe Nip McKnight swore had eyes in the back of her head. She taught all of us, all that we could absorb, in the areas of math, algebra, geometry, etc. I'm sure all of her students would agree that there will never be another "Miss Sallie".
Sports were always of great interest to most of the residents in Bemis. Through the years there were always successful sports teams fielded through different Bemis recreational organizations. Likewise, sports were an important part of our high school experience. All J. B. Young teams were very much supported by the community. During our freshman year, while a new gymnasium was under construction, we practiced and played our basketball games in the gymnasium at the Y.M.C.A., as had the school's teams in years past. Mr. Copeland, with the help of skilled volunteers who loved the game of basketball, coached the teams.
When we, the Class of 1951, started our sophomore year, J. B. Young High School had its very own, brand new gymnasium - what a beauty! We were so excited and so proud! Now everybody was able to enjoy the new gym because physical education classes were a vital part of the required curriculum. No longer would the basketball teams have to leave the campus to practice.
In the spring, prior to our sophomore year, Mr. Bill Leftwich joined the teaching staff as teacher and coach. And coach he did! He worked that spring and summer organizing, recruiting, preparing and training J. B. Young's first football team to be ready to take the field that coming fall. Nobody - not even the coach - expected the team to be very successful that first year. Most of the boys who ultimately became "the team" had never played football and knew very little about the game.
They won all of their games that first season. Mr. Bill said years later, when asked how he'd been able to field such a powerhouse that first year (with only part of a season to coach and train this new team), "I guess it was because they never had time to learn how to lose." Whatever the reason, that first successful season established J. B. Young's football team as "the team to beat" from then on.
While successfully guiding the football team through a winning first season, Mr. Bill had to start working with the basketball teams (both boys and girls) as soon as school started in order to be ready for the season when it opened in November. He recruited a friend of his, Howard Thomas, (who loved girls' basketball) to come as a volunteer coach and help him - at least until football season was over. Mr. Thomas was tough - boy was he tough! - but he knew basketball and was an excellent coach. He enjoyed it so much that he continued to come to our practice session (and to our games) even after football season was over.
Mr. Bill was very successful during his years at J. B. Young and produced many winning teams. Many of his student athletes went on to become very successful men and women in a wide variety of professions, businesses, the military, the clergy, in education, as well as in other types of work careers.
Suffice it to say that through the past fifty-plus years, Bill Leftwich has kept up with almost every student he ever coached and continues to be interested in their lives. He's still a great fan of basketball and follows many local teams - being especially interested in the teams at Union University.
High School was definitely the highlight of my life, up to that point, and although more than half a century has passed since my high school days, I continue to have fond memories of my years at J. B. Young High School. My experiences as a member of the girls' basketball team are forever indelibly imprinted in my memory. It saddened me to see, earlier in this year, our dear old J. B. Young High School building razed. I do understand the need for progress - but I also understand the need for preserving and maintaining quality structures for their utilization and for posterity.
I, for one, am grateful - and I'm quite sure that hundreds and thousands of current and former Bemisites could join me in grateful appreciation to the Judson Moss Bemis family for choosing to locate a Cotton Mill in an area south of Jackson, Tennessee, and for building a Model Village for the families of their employees. In addition to building and maintaining the homes, they built a house of worship, a Company Store that carried nearly anything anyone would need to buy, and all the recreational and entertainment facilities the community could have hoped for. All this was provided so employees and their families could live comfortable and productive lives, could raise their children to enjoy their childhood, and could prepare them to evolve as useful and productive citizens throughout the course of this lives. To this end, I believe Bemis Bro. Bag Company was more than successful.
I count myself very blessed to have had the privilege of growing up in the very unique and special place called Bemis, Tennessee.
by Raymond Killion Brasher
I was born in our home on "C" street - delivered by Dr. Smythe. My sister, Bonnie Ruth, (deceased) was born in the same house by the same doctor. My brother, Harold (deceased) was born on Massachusetts Street, delivered by Dr. Cottongim.
My father, Jessie William Brasher, was born in Chester County in 1892. He lived in Texas for a while when he was a boy and then lived in Steele, Missouri until he moved to Jackson, Tennessee around 1917. He worked at Southern Engine Boiler Works on North Royal for some time, then got a job driving street cars in Jackson. His "run" was from the court house to the end of Neely Station, which is now Hollywood Boulevard. When the street car barns burned around 1920 he went to work at Bemis. He was a loom fixer in the weave shop where he worked for about 40 years.
My mother, "Dallie", was born Effie Elizabeth Johnson in Decatur County in 1900. Her father, John Henry Johnson, worked at the Company Store. I remember him as a slight built man with a big mustache. My grandmother on Daddy's side was born Minerva Isabell Dillon. She died when I was three years old so I don't remember her. Her family came from New York in the early 1800's.
My maternal grandmother was born Sophia Emily Fisher in Decatur County. She married John Henry Johnson and they moved to Bemis around 1920 or so.
My mother had 6 sisters and 2 brothers and I think they all worked in the mill for at least part of this lives, some longer than others. My mother died in 19763 and my father died in 1982.
My daddy liked sports, hunting, music (played the guitar) and loved shooting pool at the"Y". My brother played the banjo a little bit and I played guitar. We used to sit on the porch on Missouri Street and play and sing--lots of fun!
Momma loved to cook, wash and iron and clean house (at least that's what I remember most about Momma). She sure liked to eat so we always had some good meals. She was also the disciplinarian in the family and I sure remember that!
My parents lived at several addresses in Bemis--Massachusetts, "C", New Town and Missouri.
My special memories in Bemis would fill a book so I can't list all of them. I remember playing ball in the street, "Annie Over", hide and seek, tin can, marble, tops, pick-up-sticks, jack rocks, card games like Old Maid (someone would always mark the Old Maid), Rook (they would always mark the "Rook" too), jumping ditches, climbing trees (and all these were before I was old enough to go to the "Y"). I was more or less raised at the "Y". I played pool, basketball, softball and a little bit of everything -- so much I could fill another book.
I loved going to school. I remember all my teachers from first grade through eighth grade. High School was great! I began to see girls in a different way! I started high school in 1941 and graduated in 1945. I especially remember the rivalry in basketball between Bemis and Jackson. I was fortunate enough to be on the starting five in 1944-45 season when we beat Jackson for the district title.
The Bemis Theatre was great! Nickel movies and talent shows (I was one fourth of a quartet that won a talent content one year. Others were Kelly Harris and Freck King. Can't recall the fourth member) We sang barbershop quartet songs but we won our our jokes!
I remember the class day exercises at graduation time and how Mrs. Woodson smacked her lips and kept us straight, or thought she did. We graduated twenty-nine members and said goodbye to the good old days.
I went to Herron Chapel Baptist Church. I have some fond memories of some of my Sunday School teachers. I joined the church in February 1942 and was baptized in cold water. Brother Scates was pastor and I remember him saying to me, "Raymond, the water heater is out so we're gonna make this short and sweet."
When I was a kid Christmas was an exciting time--always looked forward to getting fruits and nuts, cap pistol, pair of roller skates (wore them out in a couple of weeks and then make a scooter out of them by pulling skates apart and using two by fours).
I remember when Christmas time at church was mostly for children. We would have little plays and every kid would get a bag of hard candy. We didn't have nurseries at church when I was a kid; mothers sat on the back row seats and nursed their babies.
When I was growing up most mothers didn't work at public jobs so they were there to "keep house". I remember Monday was wash day and Tuesday was ironing day. My job was to keep the fire going around the wash pot and to punch the clothes around and to run the rinse water into two wash tubs. I can remember the blue stuff you put in the rinse water and how good it felt to place your arms in the cool water.
We had a cow in the cow pasture at the end of "C" Street next to the creek. I was about six year old then and don't remember the cow's name but I do remember that when I went with Daddy to milk, he would call out, "Soook Jersey", and our cow would come running. She knew Daddy's face or his voice (I don't know which) and would come to get some feed and be milked. I remember Momma making butter. I helped her churn and if I caught her not looking I would slurp a little creamy milk from the churn.
We had hogs every year when I was a boy. Hog killing time was a pretty hard job but the fresh back bones and ribs and tenderloin and sausage were so good! Daddy made the sausage and Momma put it in cloth sacks and hung it in the wood shed along with a ham or shoulder and that was mighty fine eating for quite a time. Daddy had a "meat box" made of oak wood and it was about four by five feet which he used to "salt down the middlins" which was used for eating and for seasoning too. During the summer that box was empty. One day my brother and I decided it would make a good boat if we stopped up the cracks (which we did). We had a little red wagon, so one day while Momma was not looking, we hauled that meat box/boat up to the mill lakes and we got in and paddled out right in the middle of the lade. When water started coming in through the cracks I told my brother, "we're sinking". We swam out and I guess that old meat box is probably still in the ground where the lake used to be.
When we lived on Missouri Street we had the "slop route" for that street. Daddy cautioned us about black widow spiders and I can still see some of those little buggers down around the slop can. I loved to see the hogs eat--kind of hated to kill them in November.
We had a garden too. My brother and I furnished the fertilizer. We took our little red wagon and went to the cow pasture and collected the cow paddies and piled them up in the back yard. We had plenty to spread over the garden spot when a man would come around in the spring to "break up" gardens. Daddy was a good gardener like most folks raised on a farm. I learned a lot about it too.
We had ice brought to the house by Mr. Gaugh and his helper. We kids were always trying to reach in and get some ice shavings out of the ice wagon. We had groceries delivered too. Mr. Ivan Hampton took our orders and they were delivered right to the house. What service!
We had good toilets on Missouri Street. First, we had a two-holer. Later we had a self-flusher. Couldn't beat that.
The Company Store, West Drug Store, Dr. Smythe, company nurse. Twas' heaven!
Then came the war in 1941. I had just turned fourteen and how exciting it was to follow every day's news of the war. It hurt when we heard of some of Bemis' own being killed or wounded or captured, but it was finally over and life went on in Bemis.
I finished high school in May 1945 and married my high schools sweetheart, Raymell York in July of that year. I went to work in the mill in the spinning room as doffer right out of school in May. I still have my first paycheck stub. I was drafted into the Army and discharged in 1947. I returned to work in the mill until the strike. I went to work with the Illinois Central Railroad as Telegrapher/Agent/Operator. I quit the railroad in 1962 and went to work at the Jackson Post Office as mail carrier until I retired in 1990. We moved to the Old Malesus Road in 1962. Raymell and I will be married fifty-seven years July 14th. We have three daughters, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. My wife and I are so glad and proud to have grown up in Bemis where industry and friendliness truly described our way of life--our heritage.
This well is located at the Bemis Park in Bemis, TN. In 1913 the people of Bemis built a drinking fountain over this well.
Developed by the Jackson Fibre Company (a division of the Bemis Brothers Bag Company) beginning in 1900, the town of Bemis rose from the cotton fields of Madison County as a model company town created by the vision of Judson Moss Bemis (1833-1926) and his son, Albert Farwell Bemis (1870-1936). Though the elder Bemis was interested in building a model manufacturing community as early as 1865, it was his son Albert Bemis, following his graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in 1893 with a degree in civil engineering, who created a model town, with the help of his college contemporaries and the resources of M.I.T.
Judson Moss Bemis founded his St. Louis company in 1865, producing cotton bagging and jute sacks for sale. By the 1890s the Bemis Brothers Bag Company had become one of the first American packing companies and one of the nation's earliest multinational corporations. Postwar southern industrialization encouraged the Bemis company to develop a new manufacturing plant in Tennessee. Bemis wanted a mill in the center of a major cotton growing region with its own gin so that the company could buy cotton directly from the farmer and avoid the costs of brokers' fees, ginning, compressing, and shipment. With the new mill located on the Illinois Central Railroad line, the Bemis company anticipated no additional costs beyond shipment of the final product. The strategy proved enormously successful; the company followed this initial experiment with the construction of another bagging mill in 1917 at Bemiston, Alabama.
Within a year a three-hundred-acre site in the open fields of Madison County was transformed into the town of Bemis. Along with the mill, sixty to seventy-five houses for mill workers rose to the north in an area called "Old Bemis." Unlike most company towns, Bemis intended for his site to become a corporate-sponsored experiment in town planning and the development of affordable housing for American workers.
The development pattern of Old Bemis gave the town the appearance of a community that had grown over time, rather than the indifferent sameness of mill villages throughout the nation. Bemis designed several "neighborhoods" around the industrial core, constructing a variety of house forms set on wide, tree-lined streets. The first neighborhoods, known as Old Bemis and Bicycle Hill, were built at the same time as the industrial facilities, in 1900 and 1903 respectively. An area of segregated housing for the town's small population of African American workers arose on Congo Street (now Butler Street) in 1903-5. As the company grew, other housing areas were added, each with site plans and house styles noticeably different from the original neighborhoods.
The basic house forms used in the earliest Bemis neighborhoods derived from familiar southern house types and included shotguns, double shotguns, cubical cottages, L-plan cottages, and hall-and-parlor cottages. The staff of Lockwood, Greene and Company, one of the South's oldest and largest industrial engineering firms, prepared at least one of these plans. The Bemis Company Engineering Department, headed by Albert Farwell Bemis, conducted the original site planning and was assisted by M.I.T. graduates employed directly by Bemis or as consultants.
The original building program included community facilities to support the town. Bemis had its own company farm, company stores, post office, hotel, boarding house, rail depot, schools, playgrounds, churches, auditorium, YMCA building, swimming pool, parks, bath house, and six-hole golf course. Unlike most company towns, the choice of residence remained with the employee and never became an obligation of employment. Regular jitney and train service provided adequate transportation to off-site residences.
The second major building program began in 1919 and lasted until 1921, producing the Silver Circle neighborhood and several prominent buildings. For this work, the Bemis Company hired the Housing Company of Boston, a town-planning and design firm created by Albert Farwell Bemis in 1918. In a notable change of procedure, a local architect, Reuben A. Heavner (b. 1875), designed the final residential area, West Bemis (called Ragtown), in 1926.
The Bemis Company's congenial relationship with its workers lasted more than a half-century; the Bemis mill closed only once for a brief strike in the 1950s. Diminishing profits resulted in the privatization of the town's housing stock in 1965, and houses sold on the basis of seniority to mill employees through a company-sponsored financing plan. In 1975 the City of Jackson annexed Bemis, which further hampered the profitability of the mills, eventually forcing their sale by the Bemis Company in 1980. The mills were operated by two other companies through the 1980s but closed in 1991. Bemis remains an identifiable town with a distinctive character, but is also nationally significant as an example of American welfare capitalism.
John Linn Hopkins and Marsha R. Oates, Memphis