The following piece appears in the Fall 2012 newsletter of UpCountry Friends, an organization devoted to exploring and preserving the history and culture of the upper regions of Greenville County, SC. The opening preface, by the group’s treasurer Penny Forrester, explains the back story of the main text.
Thomas Robinson Dawley, Jr. toured the mountainous regions and the mill towns of the South for the federal Department of Labor in 1903 to determine whether child labor laws were necessary to protect children from “evil” textile magnates who were improperly using their labor to enrich themselves at the detriment of the children.
Among those he visited were the residents of our own Dark Corner. He interviewed, dined and slept in the homes of these people to establish living conditions, health, labor, and educational opportunities.
He eventually came down on the side of the mill owners, much to the chagrin of those who opposed child labor, who suppressed his [resulting] book, “The Child That Toileth Not”. He was forced to resign his position and eventually sold his family farm in order to finance its publication in 1912.
We will be publishing transcripts and some photos of his encounters and adventures in the Dark Corner. The text will be transcribed just as Dawley wrote it, including his use of dialect. It is the opinion of your editor that he was not ridiculing the people in using dialect. Instead, he used it to truly convey speech as he heard it.
You will recognize the names of some of the people he encountered – Hightower, Hodges, Gosnell, Howard, Hensley – and recognize some of the places described and photographed.
In setting out for the Dark Corner, I answered the warnings of my friends who said I would never return, by telling them that I would not only return, but I would bring back some moonshine, which seemed to be the foundation of the Dark Corner’s evil repute. In order that I could keep my promise, the proprietor of the livery stable handed me two pint flasks, one of which was filled with yellow kernels of corn.
He explained the presence of the corn, in that whisky being very scarce since prohibition had gone into effect, someone had offered to fetch “a pint of good old corn: for fifty cents, and after getting the fifty cents, he had sent back the flask filled with the corn. It was not the kind of corn anticipated.
Putting the flasks in my saddle-bags, I left by the old State road across the plateau and up over the Blue Ridge down into South Carolina. This was the road of former times, when it was the great artery of travel from the West, the Kentucky and Tennessee traders driving their hogs and cattle over it, to the cotton markets as far south as Augusta, Georgia, and the mountaineer farmers wagoned their produce over it to feed them.
As soon as I had crossed the summit of the Blue Ridge, a sterile strip of mountainous country presented itself below me. I soon came to a cabin with a weather-beaten door closing its entrance, and green grass grown up all around it. It was abandoned. I looked down upon another one, out of the chimney of which no smoke was coming, and it too proved to be abandoned.
Further on down the mountain, resting upon a terraced hillside, separated from the road by a ravine, was a little wood-colored house. A line of clothes flapped in the wind, and a row of blossoming trees added cheer to the scene.
As I photographed it, two women came trudging up the other side of the hill, followed by a small dog. The dog, upon seeing me, came running down the hill barking spitefully, but retreated as I crossed over and went up to the house, one of the women adding to his discomfiture by throwing sticks and stones at him.
As I asked the women what had become of the families that lived in the cabins I had passed, they replied that they had gone to the cotton-mills. The father of the family living in the last cabin had died about two years ago, after which the mother had taken the children and gone.
“Wasn’t he the man who sold the whiskey?” I asked.
“Waal, I reckon,” came the reply. “I ‘low they all sold et when they got the chanct.”
“Do they do any better at the mills, than they did here?” was my next question.
“Ef they didn’t do any better, I ‘low they wouldn’t stay. We don’t see none comin’ back,” said the older woman.
Returning across the ravine, I rode on, still on down the mighty mountain. My next halt was before a rambling structure of two stories with a neat fence enclosing a yard of shrubbery before a long porch. An upright stone slab like a tomb-stone, marked a spring of running water near the road, with the legend “Poinsette Springs.”
The colorless face of a dark-haired young woman on the porch, appearing above the shrubbery, answered my salutations in a shrill voice. She looked as though she was drying up and slowly dying of lonesomeness and inactivity. She said that the house belonged to her father; that in former days it had been a stopping place for the herders with their droves of hogs and horses and mules, but it was no longer as it used to be.
As I asked her the way to the Dark Corner she laughed drily.
“You don’t mean ter go inter the Dark Corner do you?” she said. “Strangers didn’t used to go in there at all. But I reckon it ain’t nothing like it used to be neither. I ain’t heard of no cuttings up from there for a long time. Things have changed mightily all around, I ‘spect.”
Farther on down another range of mountain, I came upon a large open field. The barren aspect of the country had changed now, and in the field were two men ploughing with slick, fat mules. As my road swung around the edge of the field I saw a man in the road apparently watching the men plough. A jug and a tin cup under the bushes near him looked suspicious, but the jug contained nothing stronger than water.
As I spoke to the man he held one hand to his ear to catch the sound, and I found I had to shout at the top of my voice to make myself heard. But he was unusually talkative. He looked at my government card with interest, and seemed most anxious to inform me on conditions without waiting for me to shout my questions at him.
He said that formerly he was one of the biggest whiskey makers in the country, but he had given it up satisfied that it was for his country’s good. He told how conditions had changed from bad to good; how the country had made great strides in every way, and there were no longer the idle, good for nothing, besotted parents and hungry children lying around in their cabins as formerly.
When I told him that I was going to the Dark Corner, he said, “Be keerful that they don’t ambush you. But I reckon there ain’t so much danger now. It isn’t as bad as it used to be. I used to haul grain in there for their whiskey, but when they killed the officer down at Landrum, I said to ‘em, ‘boys, I’m done now; you had the sympathy of all the folks before, but you’ve got’em again you now.’”
—The full text of “The Child That Toileth Not” is online here.
Those interested in the UPCountry Friends group can join for $15.00/year. All members receive the newsletter, which is published 4 times a year. The group meets 4 times a year; the newsletter comes out about three weeks prior to each meeting. You can find UPCountry Friends on Facebook, and also contact them via email: UpCountryFriends@att.net. To receive a newsletter, send a check to the treasurer: Penny Forrester, 55 Forest Dr., Travelers Rest, S.C. 29690