For 33 years, Mary Warlick rose before the sun came up and waited at the end of a dark road for a ride to work. All those years, she sat
For 33 years, Mary Warlick rose before the sun came up and waited at the end of a dark road for a ride to work. All those years, she sat at the same sewing machine in the same building at the same mill in Morganton. The noise in the sewing room was so loud, says her son, Jimmy, that “the only thing she could listen to was her mind.”
For much of that time, Mary was a single parent raising three children. To this day, Jimmy marvels at the sacrifices that his mother made for him and his two sisters, Sandy and Megan. Yet it wasn’t until he interviewed her many years later that he truly began to understand why she worked so hard for their benefit.
“She explained to me that, growing up, she’d never had anything,” he says. “She never had her own car. Or her own apartment. Even her clothes had all been hand-me-downs. When my sister Sandy came along, she was the very first thing Mom ever had that was hers.”
“Sweet Mary,” as she was known by her friends, devoted her life outside the mill to her children and her church. In 2017, Jimmy decided that his mom — and the thousands of other unheralded workers who lifted North Carolina into the industrial age with their labor — deserved recognition that was long overdue. That idea grew into the Workers’ Legacy Project.
For almost 100 years, starting in the late 1800s, textile and furniture manufacturing stood at the center of North Carolina’s industrial transformation. Both industries were driven by low labor costs and an abundance of raw materials — cotton for textiles and timber for furniture.
For the working poor in North Carolina’s Piedmont, whose only option had been to try to coax a living from the grudging soil, the factories and mills were a godsend. Despite the low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions, the textile mills and furniture factories offered something that farming could not: a paycheck as predictable as the factory steam whistle that announced the beginning and end of each workday.
During World War II, North Carolina ranked first among all states in the manufacture of textile products for military use. By 1955, a full 60 percent of all furniture made in America hailed from within a 125-mile radius of High Point. The pride that North Carolinians took in manufacturing products reached its zenith when news broke that the American flag planted on the surface of the moon by the Apollo astronauts may have been woven in a Burke County textile mill.
By the ’70s, furniture, textile, and — thanks to the development of nylon in the ’30s — hosiery mills dominated the Burke County economy, employing a majority of its workforce. For many, a factory job became like a family inheritance. Jimmy’s grandfather and most of his 32 aunts and uncles worked in the mills.
One of those uncles was Claude Moore, who put in about 35 years at a succession of furniture factories, most of them in Burke County. His son Vance remembers a quiet, kind man who was “a wonderful dad,” a man whose life revolved around his job. “Work was always a priority,” Vance says. “They were all hardworking people back then.”
Eventually, Claude held the coveted position of sample maker at Drexel Furniture, creating pieces of furniture from drawings that were used by the sales department to market new products. For all the pride that he took in his work, he steered his only son in a different direction. “He would not let me get a job in a furniture plant,” Vance says. “He told me, ‘Try to do something else.’”
Vance, who grew up surrounded by people who labored in the mills, saw his father as part of a community of workers who shared the challenges of keeping their families fed and sheltered. “His story was everyone’s story,” Vance says. “They were overworked and underpaid.”
The human toll exacted by mill work diminished somewhat over time. The worst practices — like the exploitation of children for labor — were banned by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Factory conditions continued to get better on multiple fronts.
Anne Ramseur benefited from those improvements. When she was hired by Burke Mills in 1969, she worked in a room that was no longer cooled by fans but by air-conditioning. Having started in the yarn-twisting department, she eventually became a “floater,” mastering every machine in the mill and filling in for absent or sick workers.
“I kept at it until I liked it,” Anne says of her perseverance at the job. She was employed at Burke Mills for 35 years and 10 months. Today, at age 86, the positive, buoyant spirit that propelled her through the monotony and repetition of textile work is still very much in evidence.
“I was happy there,” she remembers. “It was hard work, though. You got a 10-minute break in the morning, 20 minutes for lunch, and 10 minutes in the afternoon.”
Anne’s husband was a supervisor at a plant in Conover. Together, they made a good living for themselves and their three children. “I didn’t want for a thing,” she says. “I could take my money and buy things that women like.”
By the time he was 27, Jimmy Warlick had traveled a long way from the dusty rural road where he grew up in an unpainted, four-room frame house with an outdoor toilet. He was working for U.S. Rep. Lamar “The Great Orator” Gudger, whose speaking skills many compared to those of William Jennings Bryan. Jimmy, by that point an avowed political junkie and avid collector of campaign memorabilia, took time off from work to attend the national presidential convention in 1980 in Detroit. During the convention, he sold political buttons on the street outside.
When he returned home, he walked into Gudger’s office and quit his job, saying, “Congressman, I love you, but I just made more money in a week selling buttons than I’ve made in a year working for you.” Flummoxed, the famously windy congressman could only manage to ask, “You think you can make a living selling buttons?” Jimmy replied, “I don’t know, sir, but I’m going to try.”
Not only did he make a living, but by 1984, Jimmy had become one of the biggest producers of campaign materials in the country. From there, he opened a kiosk in Washington’s Union Station that expanded to become Political Americana, a chain of stores in several metropolitan areas selling political memorabilia. Many of his campaign buttons are now in the Smithsonian Institution.
A serial entrepreneur, Jimmy also purchased two Boeing 707 fuselages, restored them to look just like Air Force One during the Kennedy and Reagan administrations, and took them out on tour. He built five historically accurate re-creations of the Oval Office that have been part of traveling exhibits and rented out by film production companies. In all, he’s started a dozen different businesses. Jimmy reflects on his success with characteristic modesty. “When you’ve grown up without an indoor toilet,” he says, “everything else is extra.”
Today, Jimmy owns a gift store across the street from the White House, employing inner-city youth and second-generation immigrants. He recently gifted 60 percent of the business to his employees. And he’s funding the bulk of the Workers’ Legacy Project through the sale of his political memorabilia.
When employees at the mill where Mary Warlick worked reached their 25th anniversary, management gave them a watch. Returning from her lunch break one day, Mary found that her anniversary watch had been placed on top of her sewing machine. When she showed the watch to her son, he was beside himself. “They didn’t say, ‘Thank you?’” he asked. “They didn’t present it to you in person? They didn’t take your picture?” For years, the memory rankled him. “I always felt that mill workers were looked down upon and forgotten,” Jimmy says. “No one ever made my mom feel valued. That broke my heart as a kid.”
His Workers’ Legacy Project is an attempt to balance the scales and give mill workers like his mom their due. One of Jimmy’s first priorities was to film oral histories of former mill workers to preserve their memories for future generations. The interviews will also serve as the foundation for a documentary, set to be released in 2024. In all, more than two dozen mill workers have been interviewed with dozens more scheduled. He also established a scholarship in his mother’s name for first-generation college students at Western Piedmont Community College.
In addition to the oral histories and the scholarship, the History Museum of Burke County, located in downtown Morganton, recently opened an exhibition that tells the story of the county’s furniture, textile, and hosiery mills, including excerpts from many of Jimmy’s interviews. The museum has been a partner in the project from the beginning.
“They have been so supportive,” he says. “They have given me a lot of freedom to express my appreciation for mill workers.” The museum’s executive director, Claude S. Sitton, a former superior court judge, has known Jimmy since the latter was 15 years old, and the two are like father and son. The Workers’ Legacy Project has been yet another way for the men to honor the community they both love. Jimmy also credits his wife, Valerie Ianieri, for her encouragement. “She has been so selfless in giving me the time away [from D.C.] to be here in Morganton these past six years,” he says.
On April 16, 2023, a crane lowered the most visible component of the Workers’ Legacy Project into place in front of the History Museum of Burke County — a monument to mill workers that is as singular and noble as the subjects it honors. Front and center stands Mary Warlick. She is flanked by Anne Ramseur and Claude Moore. Beneath them are the words “Dignity of Work.”
It is a goosebumps kind of monument. A monument that brings mill workers out of the shadows of the factories in which they labored and into the light for all to see. Here, they are 11 feet tall and as substantial as the corten steel that anchors them in place. For the first time, they appear as heroic as their family members have always known them to be, symbolizing all mill workers, everywhere. Their lifelong efforts are no longer symbolized by a 25th anniversary watch left at a sewing table like an afterthought, but by a monument that cannot be diminished by time.
When Anne Ramseur looks at the Dignity of Work monument, she thinks of her grandchildren, and she imagines what they might say to their children long after she’s gone: “Let’s go see that monument and visit Great-Grandmama Anne,” she says, laughing. And then, like a benediction, Ramseur repeats three words that sum up the monument for her and so many others: “It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing. It’s a blessing.”
To learn more about the Workers’ Legacy Project, visit workerslegacy.org.
The Dignity of Work monument weighs between 8,000 and 9,000 pounds. It stands almost 11 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Yet it is the monument’s depth that draws you in. Employing an art technique known as trompe-l’oeil, or “trick of the eye,” designers Joe Wider and Joel Hughen made their two-dimensional tribute to North Carolina’s mill workers appear to be three-dimensional, creating a powerful optical illusion. As a result, although the monument measures a mere 16 inches front to back, it evokes an uncanny depth of feeling. The technique “makes it alive for people,” Wider says. “It conveys a heroic sense of who these people were to their families and their communities.”
Wider possesses a unique understanding of his subjects. He and several other activists helped save the Granby Mill Village in Columbia, South Carolina, when the University of South Carolina planned to raze it several years ago. Today, he lives in one of the 112 mill houses that were restored thanks to the group’s efforts.
Although Wider was schooled as a fine artist, he spent years as a documentary filmmaker, all of which contributed to an innovative approach to the monument using multiple materials and techniques. The foundation of the piece was fabricated from weathered steel. The photographs of Mary Warlick, Claude Moore, and Anne Ramseur were made of porcelain enamel panels by KVO Industries, and the rest of the monument was sprayed with architectural-grade powder coating. The stocking that Warlick holds is stretched stainless steel woven mesh. The innovative LED-neon lighting was sourced from City Theatrical, based in New York City and London, and the cinematic lights from Germany. The result “has a magical element to it,” Wider says. “It’s like a very sophisticated pop-up book. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it in the world.”
Faced with a pandemic and multiple supply-chain issues, Wider acknowledges that the project was a challenge. “But we’re fanatical about doing good work,” he says. Then he adds a thought that could have been said by many a mill worker whom the monument honors: “And there’s no reason not to do your best work.”