The unsettling tale of the silver-haired old woman who watched over the mill . . . and everyone in it
Ghosts peered down from the rafters, people said. When the old mill finally shut down, after shaking the earth of my hometown for a hundred years, workers who stayed on to dismantle its machines said they heard strange things when they walked the vast, echoing rooms. They heard footsteps and an unsettling, whispering sound, as if generations who had worked themselves to death refused to depart just because the rich men closed the doors. The place had always been haunted, old people said. Spirits swirled in the air white with cotton dust, and the machines seemed hungry. Some say the mansions are haunted down here, but if ghosts linger anywhere, I believe, it is behind the padlocked gates of the redbrick monoliths you find, crumbling, in many Southern towns. I know it is foolishness, but sometimes I ride past the place our mill stood and think of her, and wonder if she haunts this place, and if she looks over her people, still.
My friend Homer Barnwell told me about the old woman and promised to tell me more, but he walks with the angels now. I often think of her in this season of the black cat, the glowing pumpkin smile, and boys who shout "boo" from under bedsheets, and sometimes I wish I knew more, but usually I don't. The point of Halloween is to know enough to scare you a little; and never look under the sheet.
A child of mill workers here in Jacksonville, Alabama, Homer told me of a woman tall as a man in old-fashioned hook- and-eye shoes, with silver hair that hung to the hem of her black dress. Her face was like cut pine, and her eyes were like honey. They say she had Indian blood; that's where she learned her remedies, and charms. She came, like everyone in the village, from the mountains, among the starved-out hillbillies who took their stations at the machines.
Homer was a boy the first time he saw her, on a street paved in soot and cinders, and his mother warned him not to stare. She would turn a rude boy into a doodlebug, or at least that was what the little boys lied about when they were getting dog sick on rabbit tobacco behind the cotton shed. But as he got older, he saw the truth of it: In a place where the company owned the doctor, being sick meant being fired, and the old woman made medicines for men with brown lung and picked herbs to help women with morning sickness, so they could keep their places at the machines. She protected them the best she could from the Yankee outsiders who had no respect for them or the magic of the mountains.
The mill owner was not good to his people. He paid them near nothing and did not weep when the machines wrecked their bodies. He starved them to break a strike in 1933 and watched them suffer from his great house. The old woman watched, too, with her amber eyes.
In time, the rich man began to wither and fail, and his great house rotted around him, and all fell to death and ruin. The people worked on. And some said she aided in this, somehow, but of course it was just the passing of time.
Just foolishness of course, just a story to tell, on a night when the bedsheet beasties walk the earth.
Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of several best-selling books, including Ava's Man and Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. His newest book, My Southern Journey: True Stories from the Heart of the South, is on sale now.