Cannelton Cottonmill Worker in 1864


My name is Hanna -- Hannalee Reed. I'm 12 years old, and I work as a bobbin girl here at the Cannelton Cottonmill. I didn't always work here, though. My home is in Roswell, Georgia. I used to work in the cottonmill there, helpin' to make proud gray cloth for our brave Confederate soldiers. But then one day last July, that mean ole' General Sherman marched right through Roswell and burned down our mill. Then he said that all of us workers were to be considered traitors because we were making Confederate cloth. He ordered all 400 of us rounded up and held for five days in the town square. Most of use were women and children, but it didn't seem to make no difference. Finally, they wagoned us up and told us we were bein' sent up north -- right here in the Yankee's back pocket! I didn't see how I'd ever bear bein' separated from my family. The last thing Mama did was to rip a button off her apron and stuff it into my hand -- somethin' to remember her by, she said. My little brother Jimmy was hired out as a farm hand somewhere in Kentucky. And me, I ended up here in Cannelton.

I guess one mill's pretty much like another. This one's got 309 workers, 231 of them women. Back home in Roswell, I worked from 5 a.m until 7:p.m. every day 'cept Sunday. I'd get a half hour to run home for breakfast between 7 and 7:30 and again for lunch between noon and 12:45. Up here, I get to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. I get paid $2.00 a week. My job as a bobbin girl is to sit with my bobbin box at my feet and watch the spinning girls up here on the third floor. It's too noisy in here for me to hear them calling for more empty bobbins, so I just have to pay attention to their hand signals. Then I run the empty bobbins to those that need'em. I work about 15 minutes out of every hour. The rest of the time I read my ABC book or knit on my stockings and mittens. Mama always said she hoped some day I'd be able to work up in the mill office, keeping books. But I don't 'spose there'll be much chance of that. There aren't any women up in the mill office. I recokon I'll go on to be a spinner myself, making thread. Or maybe I'll be a drawing girl, setting the patterns. Most boys who work at the mill start out at the age of 10 or so as lap boys, carrying cans of carded lapping to the mill workers who need them. Then they might go on to be mechanics or even carpenters.

I guess life ain't so bad here at this mill. By and large, it's a pretty safe place. We ain't never had no fires even though we have open gas laterns to see our work. The air gets filled with so much lint and fibers that they fairly dance up the lamplight like fireflies. I 'spect that's why, after you work here awhile, you get the cough. There have been only two deaths here at the Cannelton mill: one on an elevator and one when a spinnin' girl's long hair got caught in her machine and pulled her in. I guess every mill is dangerous in some way: the brass-tipped, fast moving wooden shuttles can misfire and hit a girl weaver. Fingers that don't move fast enough can get broken. And many a man has lost his arm being careless with the working gears of the great mill wheel.

I guess most people here know I was brought in from the mill in Georgia, but I don't talk much about it. It still feels like I'm in my enemy's own house. I guess that's why when that big ole' Southern ship came steamin' up the Ohio River and fired on this here mill, my heart let out a holler! The first cannon ball clean missed the mill altogether. But that second one made a direct hit -- right up there on that tower -- the one on the right. But it is no 'count since it just has outhouses in it. Good thing it didn't hit the other tower. All 400 of us use that circular staircase to get down from the shops on the top three floors!

I board across the street in one of those block houses make out of sandstone. I have a little room at the back of the house that has a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers, and a washstand with a jug and basin on it. There's a hand-stitched red and yellow quilt on the bed. It's a fine room, and Miz Burton's a fine woman. They say she runs the best boardin' house in Cannelton. We ain't allowed to chew tobacco nor rest our elbows on the table nor drink out of saucers. But every night after work she allows that we sit right down at her parlor table whilst she give us slates, chalk, and books and teaches us! My heart beats so fast I think sometimes it will jump clean out of me. There ain't nothin' I like so much as learnin'. I reach right down in my apron pocket and feel for Mama's button; I'm goin' to make you proud, Mama.