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Last of area's once booming textile industry closing

By By Bob Johnson/Associated Press Writer
Jan. 2, 2001
GENEVA, Ala. (AP) The whistle stopped blowing years ago that let the people of Geneva know when it was time to get up and go to work at the cotton mill.
It was a sound heard across Geneva County from Slocumb to Hartford to Geneva to Samson as more than 3,000 folks in the small southeast Alabama county worked in cotton mills, cut and sew plants and other phases of the textile industry.
The jobs have now gone the way of the whistle.
When CMI Inc., once Clinton Mills, locks the doors to its fabric making mill in Geneva on Feb. 5, the county's last remaining textile job will be gone.
Probate Judge Harry Atkison worked in the mills for 31 years. He said the county's textile jobs did not disappear overnight, but gradually gave way to technology, changing times and cheap labor outside the United States.
The decline started in the late 1960s. Cut and sew jobs were lost forever four or five years ago,'' Atkison said.
Evelyn Warren worked at the CMI facility for 22 years and said she can remember when life in the small town of about 5,000 centered on the blowing of the whistle at the cotton mill.
This was a mill town. When the whistle blew, you knew it was time to get up and go to work. It would blow twice, just in case you didn't get up the first time,'' Warren said.
Warren said work has been slow at the plant for some time. She said she was at home recently when a co-worker called and told her the bad news a notice had been posted saying the plant would close.
Two days before what was to be her last day as an inspector in the plant's laboratory, Warren, a 61-year-old widow, sat in her living room and remembered what she said was a good way of life.
I almost cried. I think I did cry a little when I heard it was closing. I had a feeling this was coming, but you are never ready for it,'' Warren said.
While the work could be hard, Warren said the mill provided a good source of income for residents in the somewhat isolated town mostly known for its tendency to flood when the Pea River jumps its banks.
I worked there when it wasn't air-conditioned. You'd work so hard that your clothes would be wet when you got off,'' Warren said. But it paid better wages than I had ever made. Because of those jobs, people here could afford things they couldn't afford before.''
They were good to us. They put a school in out there for the ones who wanted to get a GED.''
Mayor Warren Beck said he hopes to attract new industry into the vacant CMI mill and into a big building that used to be home to a Russell Corp. plant that made sweat shirts. That facility closed in 1998.
Beck said he expects the people of Geneva to rally and come through this crisis, just like all the times they have come out in the rain in the middle of the night to throw sand bags on the earthen levy that stands between downtown and the Pea River.
Geneva will pull together and come back from this,'' Beck said. We have a great school system, great people and a will to survive.''
Folks in Geneva blame the decline of the textile industry on the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994.
Workers in the cotton mills can make $10 an hour or more. A worker in Pakistan makes $2 a day. We can't compete with that,'' Atkison said.
Bill Walsh, head of the Auburn University textile engineering program, said what's happening in Geneva and many other small towns does not mean the textile industry is dying. It just means it is changing rapidly. He said textile industry jobs are up by 3.1 percent this year in Alabama.
But he said what's happening is that cut and sew plants, like the Russell sweat shirt facility, have closed and been replaced by plants that make fabric. Also, he said technology is improving rapidly and plants with older equipment can't keep up with newer operations.
In the case of the CMI plant in Geneva, Walsh said the problem was not related to NAFTA.
The Geneva situation is a tough situation. They were making the one kind of fabric that is just not selling,'' Walsh said.
In Geneva, a friendly town where folks still stop in a downtown barber shop to talk about the news of the day, life won't be the same without a textile plant.
There's been a cotton mill out there for years. I remember it being there when I was a little boy and now I'm 70,'' barber Carl Warren said. The young people who work out there have house payments and car payments. I don't know what they are going to do.''
Anna Thomas, the office manager for CMI, has worked at the plant for 38 years under three different companies.
There's a lot of sadness out there,'' Thomas said. She said she's not sure what she will do once the plant closes.
I'm not old enough to retire. I guess I'll look for another job, but I don't think it will be here in Geneva,'' Thomas said.
For Evelyn Warren, there will always be sadness whenever she drives through town and sees the mill.
More than anything I'm going to wonder how the people who worked there are doing.''