By the early 1900s, Riverside Cotton Mills (abbreviated in this section as Riverside) in Danville was the largest textile mill in the South. Riverside developed a mill village for workers employed in its Schoolfield mills. Taking the name Schoolfield, this village was independent of Danville City until annexation in 1951 (Hayes et al. n.d.:1). Completely self-sufficient, the village would eventually include its own post office, police department, hotel, hospital, businesses, nursery, welfare building, YMCA, school, and bandstand (Thompson 1984). In 1903, Riverside began building the village in order to house the numerous workers the company had recruited. Within 10 years, the village encompassed over 400 houses and had a population of more than 5,000 people (Hayes et al. n.d.:1).
The mill owned the houses and charged workers a weekly rent. The houses were generally of a two-, four-, or six-room design, following the normal pattern for mill-owned houses in the South (Anonymous ca. 1917; Thompson 1984:25). Since most parents raised their children as future millworkers, the company encouraged large families by building larger homes closer to the mill and smaller homes farther away: as employees walked to work, the closer houses were more desirable (Hayes et al. n.d.:1). According to local historian Nell Collins Thompson, the typical Schoolfield house had a tin roof, chimney(s), water hydrant, and stick-style railings on the front porch. Each dwelling had a small front yard and a larger backyard with a privy about 50 feet from the back door. Sanitation was not a primary concern, and judging from early pictures showing stained walls, many upstairs residents simply emptied chamber pots out of the windows. Though not very large, backyards were often filled with gardens, cow sheds, flower beds, grape arbors, and chicken lots (Smith 1960:107). The interior of all company housing had plaster walls, fireplaces at the inside corners, and “adequate windows for light and ventilation”; pantries were available only in the larger homes. Fireplaces were typically found in the two front rooms, with flumes for woodstoves located in the adjoining back rooms for additional heating and cooking. Dormer windows on the second floor faced the street (Thompson 1984:26, 27).
Since the mill owned all Schoolfield property, it was up to the company to maintain both the houses and the streets. According to a 1924 report, the Schoolfield house-maintenance staff included two carpenters, two workmen to replace window sills and floors, two men for brickwork, two men to plaster and calcimine, seven painters, and a sanitation staff. As a way to dispose of coal waste from mill operations, cinders were dumped on the streets to provide the roads with a “black top” (Thompson 1984:26, 27). This made it impossible for residents to keep the coal dust out of their houses (Hoffman 1985:Melvin Griffith interview). Initially the houses were lit with kerosene lamps, streetlights providing the only electric light in the village (Hoffman 1985:Ella Paxton interview). Although electricity came to Schoolfield houses in 1917 (Thompson 1984:27), the community did not have a sewage system until annexed by Danville in 1951 (Hoffman 1985:Ella Paxton interview). To bathe, a resident could use either a galvanized tub with water heated on the stove or a wash pot in the backyard (Thompson 1984:26). After the establishment of the welfare building there was also the option of paying a nickel to use using the showers there (Hoffman 1985:Ella Paxton interview).
The mill promoted a basic education for its employees. In the early years, most children attended school through the seventh grade, at which time the boys were legally old enough to start working in the mills. Later, educational opportunities were expanded to include high school (Hayes et al. n.d.:1). Many children attended the school, where only a limited variety of subjects were taught and discipline was strict (Hoffman 1985:Claude Chattin interview). Adults who had not received a regular education as children on the farms could attend the night schools that were also available.
In 1919, Harry Fitzgerald, then president of Riverside and Dan River Mills, instituted a policy called “Industrial Democracy” for the Schoolfield village (Hayes et al. n.d.:1). The idea was praised throughout the region as “a happy scheme of cooperation between those who hired and those who labored”(Meade 1935:11). Implemented in part out of actual concern for the employee and in part as an effort to stop the growing union movement in Danville, Industrial Democracy was a way to bring labor and management together. Defined by Robert Smith (1960:262) as “a plan of employee representation under which wage earners were encouraged to make their demands for improved working conditions the subject of ‘legislation,’” Industrial Democracy took on a form somewhat similar in structure to the U.S. government. There was a cabinet of unelected officials composed entirely of company executives, an unelected Senate of overseers, foremen, and department heads, and a House of Representatives elected by the wage-earning employees; one Representative was elected for every 40 employees (Smith 1960:267). During the period of Industrial Democracy, many programs were instituted in Schoolfield, including recreational facilities such as the YMCA for men, Hilton Hall for women, a theater, and various company-planned activities in nearby Ballou Park (Hayes et al. n.d.:1; Thompson 1984:28). The welfare building was also established.
The era of Industrial Democracy came to an end on September 29, 1930, when 4,000 Riverside and Dan River Mill workers left their jobs as a result of a strike called by the United Textile Workers [UTW] (Thompson 1984:47). The strike resulted from two main issues: a 10 percent wage cut and the stretchout system (whereby mill hands were given additional work). Both were implemented over the objections of the Industrial Democracy organization (Hall 1987:217; Thompson 1984:47). Schoolfield was severely divided between strike supporters and opponents. Violence erupted in the community as houses were bombed, cars overturned, and fellow villagers harassed (Hayes et al. n.d.:1). Residents of the village remembered it as a time of fear and division, causing a break in the community that lasted for decades (Hoffman 1985:Interviews). The strike ended on January 20, 1931, after the failure of the American Federation of Labor to send the help the UTW expected; none of the strikers’ goals were reached (Hall 1987:217; Thompson 1984:47). Since the mill owned all employee houses, over 40 families lost their homes in addition to their jobs as a result of the strike. Harry Fitzgerald died shortly after the end of the strike, officially bringing Industrial Democracy to its end (Hayes et al. n.d.1, :7).
The 1930s were lean years in Schoolfield as the nation struggled with the Depression. World War II sparked an increase in production, but soon after the citizens of Danville decided to annex the village. Again there was division in the community; the mill led a campaign against the idea and many Schoolfield residents agreed with the objections. After a struggle, Danville finally annexed Schoolfield in June 1951 (Hayes et al. n.d.:1; Hoffman 1985:Interviews).
A wonderful oral history project was compiled in 1984–1985 under the direction of David E. Hoffman of Averett College. Twenty-six individuals who grew up in Schoolfield were asked to recount their experiences. In general, the narrators seem to share a fondness for the that community. All five remember Schoolfield as a “family”and think highly of both the village and Harry Fitzgerald. For more personalized recollections of life in Schoolfield, this oral history project is strongly recommended.