To write about the Manetta Mill and a place called Lando is getting more difficult. People like to say, "Well, my mother talked about it," or "I remember hearing stories from some friends, but I never lived there." Another voice will add, "You can go to the museum, they have saved all kinds of things from the mill and the houses, it is all there."
But that is not the real thing, the honest-to-goodness stories must be told by someone who was born there, raised there, worked there and retired from there. Such a person is John Coker, who has an amazing memory. When you ask about a street, he can tell who lived there, their parents, the names of their siblings and if they could or could not play a fair game of marbles.
John, born June 5, 1926, is the son of Allie Hutto Coker and Jess Vernon Coker, who went to work in textiles at the age of 10. He eventually became a mule spinner and continued in that position until the end of his working life.
John Coker is truly an amazing man. While battling the eye problem macular degeneration, he still visits the museum where he and his friends spin tales about Lando. He fishes on Allen Heath's pond and enjoys the company of his wife, Mary Scott Coker. But, best of all, he delights in talking about his life in that legendary place.
Never miss a local story.
John's education started in the school built behind the Methodist Church in 1907, the very year that the state of South Carolina passed a law decreeing that public schools be constructed and education offered to children of millworkers up to 12 years old. It allowed mothers the free time to work and provided the children a new chance at education. At 13, John moved on to the Oakley Hall School, and then, at 16, he started working in the Manetta Mill as a sweeper, making 50 cents an hour. In time, he reached the level of doffer at a $1, and then to fixer of the napping machines and then on to overseer. John climbed the mill ladder, making enough money to raise his family, build a house and live a comfortable and happy retirement. He, by all American standards, is a successful man.
When the Manetta Mill closed in 1992, he was transferred to the Heath-owned mill in Monroe, N.C., an hour's drive each way from Lando. He continued there until his retirement.
We talked about the lovely little house he built in Edgemoor back in 1954. He said he went to "Mr. Harry" Heath, owner of the Manetta Mill and borrowed $700. There were no lawyers, magistrates or notaries. Two men simply shook hands, and Heath was paid each week for as long as it took. Heath was a kind man who encouraged his employees to look toward the future, and John was a pillar of honor.
Oscar Stroud, husband of Ola, did the stonework in the house. His attractive masonry can be seen in the well-proportioned fireplace and mantel that still serves John and Mary.
The electrical wiring was done by Doug Bigham, who worked second shift at the Bleachery in Rock Hill. He wired the house by working a few hours before it was time to leave, laid his tools out on the floor until tomorrow, picked up his dinner pail and crossed the county line. The wiring that was done is still working today, and the cost of Bigham's electrical skill and materials hit the immense total of $84.
Both Doug and Oscar contributed help and advice as John mastered the carpentry, and in a year, the house was finished. Today, John and Mary live happily in the home they own.
The Cokers were satisfied with the money spent, and all three men were proud. Their strongly forged friendship lasted until the passing of Doug Bigham and Oscar Stroud. These men left their mark on this small community, and all of us have profited from their presence.
When a Lando name is mentioned, John knows a story. He, like everyone in this area, reacted when he heard the name Polly Dawkins Culp. "Oh, yes, I remember Polly," he said. "She was a great singer, a guitar player and could blow a mouth harp like no one else.
Warren "Pappy" Watts stopped by, sat down in a comfortable chair, and the stories started -- some that couldn't be repeated, others that were too funny to write, and others that were typical Lando, all adding color and appreciation for the people who made up the town's population.
"Who was Belle Yarbrough?" The writer asked. John smiled as he said, "I was a little too young to really remember her, but I heard that she was mighty nice to the little girls. Every Thursday afternoon when we all got paid, I've heard that she passed out pennies, and all the children scattered to the store to make big money decisions."
"Do you know Shirley Dawkins?" Pappy asked. "Did I know Shirley"? John laughed and said of course, but you should have known her mama, Emma Kee Thomas. She went after that preacher when he wore those shorts that men began to wear in the 1960s. He passed by her house just as she finished sweeping the porch. She took one look at him and said, "Who are you?"
"I'm the new pastor at the Methodist Church."
"You're what?" she hollered.
"Yes ma'am, I'm your pastor."
She looked at him long and hard and pronounced, "You ain't my pastor wearing those shorts. She plain told him, as she leaned on her broom, "No preacher wearing plaid pants is coming here to preach. He'll be run out of town." He never did fully convince her that he was, in truth, a man of God, not dressed like that.
The stories continued, and the laughter was loud and real. It was an afternoon filled with special blessing. Where on earth could one hear stories and talk to a man who lived in a magic place? Only here, where the village of Lando has earned its right to historical importance, cleverly enhanced by the memory of one John Coker.