Yesterday's News

Mill's whistle marked work time for over 100 years

By FRANK BOYETT, Gleaner staff writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

That whistle blew so regularly that people probably didn't pay much attention to it, but it was way too loud to be totally ignored.

I'm talking about the steam whistle that once was an integral part of the huge old mill that stood on Washington Street between 1883 and 1986. It was a large affair, a solid brass specimen that weighed 57 pounds.

There's a lot I don't know about this whistle, although it's not for lack of trying to find out. Fifty years ago this week the old whistle came to light after a quarter-century of silence and obscurity.

William James "Bill" Wyatt, who fed the boiler at what was Bear Brand hosiery as of 1956, found the whistle "among a pile of odds and ends cleaned out of a store room to be sold for scrap. He asked to buy it so it could be preserved for its historical value," according to a Gleaner story written by Don Armstrong.

Wyatt's request was granted. He paid all of $1 for it. He probably would have had to pay more had Bear Brand officials realized what it was made of.

"Hours of sandpapering revealed that it is solid brass, instead of cast iron as Wyatt first thought."

Wyatt had visions of selling the whistle to its original manufacturer, perhaps for as much as $1,000. But I doubt that happened. The original manufacturer -- the American Steam Gauge and Valve Manufacturing Co. of Boston -- no longer existed as of 1956. It had been taken over by Schaeffer& Budenberg about the time of World War I.

What I find interesting about this whistle is that it was not the mill's original whistle when the mill opened in the 1880s to manufacture cotton sheeting.

George Cooksey Jr. was personnel manager at Bear Brand and his father worked at the old cotton mill before the Great Depression closed it for six years during the 1930s. He said Wyatt's whistle had originally graced a steamboat, while the mill's original whistle -- which the old-timers referred to as a "wildcat" whistle -- was removed while the boiler room of the mill was undergoing renovations in 1919.

"Cooksey said the boat whistle was put in because the wildcat whistle disturbed plant employees by its ear-rending scream. The change didn't help much, though, as the workers still had to retreat from the boiler room and cover their ears when it blew."

Armstrong interviewed several old-timers while preparing his story about the whistle, including Hubert Watkins, a Bear Brand employee who used to blow the whistle for the cotton mill before it closed in 1930.

"Watkins said the whistle blew at 6 a.m. and again at five minutes to 7 a.m.," presumably to give employees a five-minute warning before their shift began.

"Opinions vary, but Wyatt said that when he was a boy the whistle was used to sound curfew at 9 p.m. He said the sound could be heard clearly for miles and miles into the country."

Watkins said the whistle was blown under 200 pounds per square inch of pressure. "It could have been operated under less," he said, "but that's what we used."

That's quite a bit of pressure, coming in at well above the high-end rating for a high-pressure steam engine on a riverboat. No wonder the shriek was enough to raise the dead.

The whistle operated like this: When the valve was opened, steam was released to the top of the whistle, where it was channeled down and out the three sound chambers -- resulting in a deafening blast.

The cotton mill's original "wildcat" whistle was sold to the Anderson Box and Basket factory, which operated here up into the 1950s. Wyatt's whistle was retired when Henry Pope of Bear Brand bought the factory in the spring of 1937 and ordered the old machinery removed so hosiery machinery could be installed. After more than six years of silence, the whistle then tarnished in a storage room for nearly two decades.

I tried to find out what ultimately happened to Wyatt's whistle, but was unsuccessful. He died in 1979 at the age of 72, leaving three daughters and two sons, all of whom had left Henderson by that time. I couldn't track any of them down to ask what became of the whistle, but I'm sure it didn't end up in the junk pile. We have Wyatt to thank for that.

100 years ago

The Henderson City Council agreed to discontinue Oak Hill Cemetery on the recommendation of the city health board, The Gleaner reported in 1906.

The health board said the water table was too high for graves to be dug there and that "more than one-half of the water from this cemetery drains through the city." The cemetery was located off Pringle Street near South Heights Elementary School.

75 years ago

The city's first playground for children opened at the corner of Fifth and Ingram streets on what had formerly been a vacant lot, according to a 1931 article in The Gleaner.

The playground included slides, swings and a see-saw, as well basketball and volleyball courts and a sand pit. Floodlights allowed use until 9 p.m.

25 years ago

About 300 people signed a petition asking for a local option election in the Spottsville-Baskett voting precinct after a liquor store at the entrance to Broadview subdivision was granted a license, The Gleaner reported in 1981. The effort was unsuccessful.



Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2006 HCH&GS