YORK -- An old mill burned in the dark, but Harmon Merritt's memories refused to turn to cinder and ash.
Merritt's momma and daddy worked in that Lockmore Mill for so many years. He worked in that mill. Uncles, aunts, more, worked there. The 69-year-old Merritt was born and raised in a two-room mill house on Rose Street not a hundred yards from the old mill that burned Thursday night.
The next day, Merritt ate lunch at the York Senior Center. Fish, hush puppies, green early peas, sweet tea. His hands, working hands, were the size of bear paws. The fork disappeared between his fingers. This was a man of a generation and hardy stock which York -- maybe nowhere -- shall ever see again.
"We managed," Merritt said. "Mill people never had nothing but love and food. Of that we had plenty. I was in quality control because I was one of the few high school graduates. Started at a dollar and a nickel and hour. And happy to get it."
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The Lockmore "mill village" was a town within York, bounded generally by Madison, Hunter, Blackburn, Rose and Moore streets. There were two or three company stores like the one Merritt's aunt Ada Ramsey ran, selling basic groceries and whatever a momma needed.
"Jot 'em down stores," Merritt said. "Take what you need, jot 'em down on the log, then come back on payday and pay," he said.
Try that at the grocery store in 2008.
"Probably 300 people working in that mill when it was running strong," Merritt said. "Mill people were good people. Strong. Hard working."
Merritt knew Lockmore, the mill itself, end to end.
"Polished floors, the wood three inches thick at least, shining so you could see yourself in them," Merritt said.
This fire took away the building. But memories burn bright.
"Cotton came in bales to the opening, the picker room, where it was made into 'laps' 40 inches wide," he said. Then to the card room where the laps were made into 'slivers.' Over a cylinder into a trumpet -- called that because it had a hole like the end of a trumpet. Then roving frames and more trumpets and the cotton was, by that time, the width of a straw. Then either to combers, or the spinning room, where it was twisted into thread. Yarn, we called it."
Then to the winding room where it was put on those cones. Then back on quills or to the weaving room, to be made into cloth. Then dyeing, and finishing.
"That's what we called a cotton mill, son," Merritt told me.
By now, he couldn't be stopped and I wasn't tryin'.
"We had some funny stories 'round that mill. The frames were where Aaron Harlow got the leg of his bib overalls caught on a belt," Merritt said. "In order to escape injury, he jumped clear from the overalls."
A woman who worked in another York cotton mill for countless years listening to Merritt talk blurted out, "Was he nekkid?"
"Well, I think he was wearing underwear," Merritt said. "But Harlow's wife, wearing a starched white apron in the spinning room, ran over and wrapped him in that starched apron and marched him out of there."
Another guy got pulled up to the ceiling by a belt, Merritt said, lucky to live.
"An uncle lost part of a finger in a machine," Merritt said. "Insurance company man came to see what happened, my uncle showed him with another finger, just like it happened before. He stuck that other finger in the machine just like he had the first finger. And he cut part of that finger off, too."
A woman 79 years old named Pauline Long came and sat down at the senior center table. She started at Lockmore for 40 cents an hour, and her memory is as sharp as the day she got her job.
"My sister and I walked up there, Shorty Jackson was the boss man and he give me and her that job, and I never left," Long said.
She was 16 years old. One of 16 children. Almost all worked in that mill at one time or another. I asked how far it was from her rural home to work.
"About nine miles," Long said.
I asked if she drove in those days.
"Son, we walked to work," said the great Pauline Long.
Long raised five children with the wages from that Lockmore mill, was thrilled with a raise to 45 cents an hour. The only reason she left years later, before Lockmore closed in the 1960s, was a raise at another mill.
"They gave me 73 cents an hour," she said.
Havern Brindle, 82, at another table at the senior center, piped in about how he married a girl last name of Murray. Will Murray, the father-in law, ran the Lockmore card room.
"So I worked there on Sundays," Brindle said. "For 'bout five dollars a day."
York, in the 1950s and early 1960s, before the Lockmore closed, had three other big mills -- the Cannon, the Neely, and the Travora, and other small mills that employed much of the town, said Merritt.
"You could quit a job in the morning, get two more offers before dark," he said.
But then what politicians call "textile mills" died. These people called them "cotton mills," then and forever.
The cotton mill just about died, the politicians that allowed cheap labor and cheap imports helped dig the grave. Company owners that like to keep most of the money threw dirt on the grave, too. A way of life died.
What remains was on Rose Street on Friday. Merritt's cousin, Martha Ramsey, 77, rocked in a chair on a Rose Street porch. Her granddaughter was there to look in on her. It seemed like 1958.
But it is 2008. About all we have left, now that Lockmore's shell is gone, are Pauline Long and Harmon Merritt and their memories. And the wonder at the strength, resilience, toughness and will, of people so much better than myself.