Life on Front Street

Houses at 100 and 101 Front Street in 1941 (view from North Main Street) (from Register 1941:A3)As with the houses in the Schoolfield village, the Front Street houses were company houses, owned and presumably maintained first by Riverside (before 1909) and later by Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills (from 1909 to 1949, R&DRC). Virtually all previous research relating to mill housing in Danville has focused on the Schoolfield village, while mill housing outside the village has either been generally referred to as a group or neglected altogether.

The Sanborn insurance maps indicate that the Front Street houses were of a duplex design; therefore, one building was divided into two different homes, each with its own street address. Although no floor plan or yard description exists relating specifically to these houses, since they were owned by the company it seems probable that they followed the same basic floor and yard plan as the Schoolfield houses.

Since these properties were part of North Danville (a section of Danville which had been incorporated into the city in 1896) and was not part of a separate village, like the Schoolfield houses were, the condition of the area is unclear. Schoolfield streets were "paved" with coal cinders and lined with electric streetlights, with electricity introduced into the houses in 1917 and a sewage system absent until annexation by Danville in 1951. As part of the city of Danville, it is possible that the road conditions were different on Front Street and very likely that at least a sewage system (if not electricity) came to Front Street residents long before those in Schoolfield. Since the company owned the property, the mill must have provided house maintenance and although no data presently exists to provide confirmation, the mill's North Danville property most likely had a maintenance staff comparable to the one in Schoolfield. Rent for the company houses in North Danville (including Front Street) probably fell into the same range as those in Schoolfield. Nell C. Thompson (1984:25) recorded weekly rental costs in Schoolfield in 1929 as follows:

2-room house: $0.75–$100
3-room house: $1.00–$1.25
4-room house: $1.25–$3.00
5-room house: $1.75–$3.60

Riverside (and later R&DRC) rented their Front Street homes almost exclusively to their employees, reflecting the nature of company housing. Research among census records and city directories shows that almost all heads of household head living in the Front Street houses worked for the mill. Although several Riverside/R&DRC mills were located in North Danville, since employees walked to work it seems likely the residents were employed in the closer Mill No. 6. All of the specific jobs listed for the residents are wage-paying jobs, but this was usual for mill employees. In its first 18 years, Riverside included a very small number of salaried positions while a majority of the employees worked for wages. According to Smith (1960:45), in 1884, 1891, and 1901 Riverside employed 32, 200, and 340 wageworkers, respectively, while only 5, 15, and 26 people drew salaries. This trend of employing mostly wageworkers continued throughout the existence of both Riverside and R&DRC. The majority of the residents of these Front Street houses were laborers (spinners, weavers, carders, maintenance workers, etc.). Apparently, no mill office workers lived in these houses, and only twice does census and city directory information report a person in a managerial position residing in these houses: an overseer lived in 101 Front Street in 1900 and a supervisor lived in 102 Front Street in 1947–1948.

Smith recorded the average wages for mill jobs for four different years as well as the average hourly rate for all employees in 1914 and 1922–1931. Before 1903, males over the age of 14 worked 12 hours a day, while women (by law) worked no more than 10 hours a day (Smith 1960:47). Although a 1901 strike for a shorter workday was unsuccessful, R. A. Schoolfield helped implement such a policy in the spring of 1903, instituting a 10-hour day, the workweek remaining six days (Smith 1960:100). Employment at the mill was a family affair, and it was common for the entire household to work for the mill. Although males generally earned more than females and females were designated to and prohibited from certain jobs because of their gender, most women contributed to the household income by working in the mill. Children could legally begin their employment at the mill once they turned 14 years old. In this way, the entire family would add to the household earnings.

The six houses on Front Street that are related to 44PY178 and 44PY181 apparently were reserved for families. With less than five exceptions a married couple headed each household, and most of the exceptions are widows. Although most household heads living on the Front Street properties were married, no generalization can be made as to their ages. Ages of heads of household ranged from 21 to 75. For the years with more complete data on the number of people living in each house, it is seen that either children or boarders lived in the house, and sometimes there were both. It was also not uncommon for extended family to reside in the house, for example, house numbers 103 and 106 in 1900.

According to census data, in the years 1900, 1910, and 1920, all except one of the houses were occupied by no less than three people, and over half of the houses show more than one household living in the house. In 1920, it appears that five families resided at 100 Front Street, with the rear of the house partitioned off for two different groups of residents. The act of dividing the house into front and rear so that different households could live separately seems to have been a fairly common practice of the time period and was noted many times during research. Sometimes a white family would inhabit the front part of the house and a black family would live in the rear of the house. The only known black families living in the researched Front Street house during the entire time span represented in this report lived in the rear of house number 100 in 1920.

Taking in boarders was also common. Although only the names of the household heads could be obtained for several years, other years include the names of known boarders residing in the house. In the 1950s, it appears that either adult children or some other type of relation would live in the house as boarders. The fact that people opened their houses to relations and boarders could extend back to the roots of the mill towns when mostly farmers came to the mills to work, bringing with them their tradition of keeping close ties with kin and friends.

The only available information concerning the education of the Front Street residents comes from the census data and what can be hypothesized using the Schoolfield information. As explained earlier, the company encouraged those residing in Schoolfield to get a basic education, and the same might have been true for workers living outside Schoolfield. Over half of all residents of the Front Street houses over the age of 6 in the years 1900, 1910, and 1920 were able to read and write. Although the information pertaining to schooling is not well documented, the census records indicate that some of the children between the ages of 6 and 14 were attending school; however, the data also shows that some of the children were already working in the mill despite their young ages. In 1900, out of the seven children between ages 6 and 14, two attended school while three were laborers at the mill. Since five of the children could read and four could write, it is possible that more of these children had attended school at some point or at least were taught by their parents. In 1910, only one of the six children from the represented houses attended school at that time, and only one other shared the knowledge of reading and writing. However, three children (ages 9, 12, and 14) were listed as working for the cotton mill. In 1920, both of the two children listed attended school and had attained literacy.
For most people living in Front Street houses, residency in that house was temporary. Often, a different family headed each house after about two years. With only a few exceptions, movement in and out of 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, and 106 Front Street was very frequent. This does not seem uncommon for the mill-owned houses in North Danville.

We tracked the movements of several people who at one time or another lived on Front Street through some of their house changes. It appears that moving often was a common trend. Interestingly, many times the move was to a different house on the same street as the last one. Research did not uncover the reason for the frequent moves, although it is likely that the company initiated them. Although information about the household heads' specific jobs while living at each house is incomplete, there is little evidence that changes in job caused each move. While someone like James McQueen switched jobs at the mill during the course of his moves, others like John Brown and George Gore remained in the same positions. Nor does it appear that changes in family size led to each move.

With very few exceptions, residents moved to streets in the same general area. Some of the moves relate to a change in the specific mill at which a worker was employed (for example, a switch from Mill No. 6 to Mill No. 7 might result in moving to a different street), but that does not explain the moves involving houses on the same street or to streets closest to the same mill. Whatever the reason, the houses relevant to Sites 44PY178 and 44PY181 generally served as temporary homes for the mill employees renting them.