For all the talk about Thanksgiving traditions, the holiday has buckled to technology and trends.
Aboard tables across America next week, eaters will find pumpkin spice in their cornbread and agave nectar in their cranberry sauce. Thousands of frazzled home cooks are sure to ask Alexa how to make gravy in their Instant Pots.
But for many Upstate families, the biggest difference between this year’s festive meal and the ones prepared a generation or so ago is the provenance of the poultry. When the region was a constellation of lively mill towns, each worker was sent home at holiday time with a reasonably rotund turkey, plucked and packaged. Well into the 1990s, Jimmy Smith recalled, he could count on collecting an 8-pound turkey every Thanksgiving.
“Working in the mill, you didn’t make a lot of money,” said Smith, who started at Greenville’s Monaghan Mill in 1985 as a material hauler. “I just remember how good it made us feel. It made us feel that we meant something to them.”
The turkey giveaway was hardly a ritual unique to the textile industry: In the first part of the 20th century, turkey bonuses were as common in U.S. factories as punch clocks and coveralls. Yet the Upstate is as good a site as any to look at the messages that employers intended to send with the turkeys they distributed, and the ways in which workers received them.
Sometimes workers confounded their bosses by folding the company’s meat into family recipes, asserting their identities outside of the labor sphere. As Smithsonian curator Mireya Loza last year wrote in a blog post about the “workers’ turkeys” that her Mexican-born uncles earned through their manufacturing jobs in Chicago, “my aunt would put two away for mole.”
Still, for Auburn University history professor Elijah Gaddis, the worker’s turkey stands as a “lovely, but really insidious thing.” As he puts it, “Eating is a consumptive act,” which is the scholarly way of saying that controlling mill bosses made low-wage workers literally swallow proof of them being good guys.
“As a historian, I’m very quick to dismiss that sense of the workplace (being) something like family,” he continued. “But it was very real.”
And it was never more real than on that day in mid-November, when mill owners would stack up turkeys for the taking.
Tradition takes wing
One way in which workplaces are like families is that nobody but their members knows exactly what goes on within them. In other words, there isn’t any definitive historical evidence showing when or where turkey distribution became a blue-collar habit.
According to folklore, factory owners were scared into the practice by "A Christmas Carol," since they didn’t want their hires to confuse them with Scrooge. But that theory presumes that 19th-century industrialists were well-read and excessively concerned with what their underlings thought of them; it seems more likely that factory owners gave out gifts to ensure loyalty during busy production seasons.
Historians speculate that theming a gift to Thanksgiving had extra appeal at the turn of the century, when politicians were keen to “Americanize” new immigrants. At least in the Upstate, though, employers tended to bundle the holiday turkey with Christmas stocking stuffers and, sometimes, a Christmas ham.
“It was a green-and-red basket; an elongated one, you know,” said Sheila Styles, whose mother sewed clothes at Palmetto Garment in Greenville. Her father worked at Renfrew Bleachery in Travelers Rest for 45 years, so she isn’t certain which factory supplied the annual basket, but “it had oranges and apples, assorted nuts, a grapefruit and the hard candy that was round. I know they had to hide the candy from me because I would eat it all.”
The package that Styles described would have been familiar across the Carolinas, Gaddis said: “It was really commonplace, and often in lieu of any other bonus.”
When the New York Times in 2008 lamented the decline of the free turkey tradition, it theorized that employers quit giving out turkeys because the money to buy birds was going to health care and other benefits instead. At the time, only 3 percent of employers planned to distribute turkeys, although another 8 percent told the polling firm that they would provide their workers with turkey coupons. Very few of those schemes survived the recession though.
Economics weren’t the only factor in the ritual’s demise. As a representative of the polling firm told a Michigan newspaper, with vegetarianism becoming more widespread, a gift of meat can now seem insensitive.
'It changed who I am'
“Insensitive” is not a word that Deborah Rainwater would ever use to describe the holiday contributions of Southern Bleachery, usually just called Taylors' mill.
The man who raised Rainwater was 63 years old when he and his wife took in Rainwater and her two sisters, making him just a few years older than Rainwater is now. “It was back in the day when there weren’t many foster families,” Rainwater remembers. The oldest of the girls was 7.
Rainwater’s foster father was named Palmer Few, but everyone in Blue Ridge called him “Doc.” Few farmed and worked in the dye plant at Taylors'; Lillian Few was a seamstress who made clothes for the mayor of Greer’s wife. Each autumn, the Fews would crowd into Taylors' with all of the other mill families. Thinking back, Rainwater isn’t sure whether every worker was invited to the party, or just those classified as “underprivileged,” but it seemed like her whole world was in that room.
“They would give each child a big bag of toys, like a black garbage bag,” Rainwater said.
In 1964, just before the mill shut down, one of the items in the bag was a stuffed terrycloth Santa Claus that stood nearly as tall as Rainwater. He had a plastic face and plastic boots and a big red-and-white hat, and when Rainwater and her sisters got into the bed they shared, they laid Santa crosswise at the foot of it.
“I kept that thing until I was in my 30s,” Rainwater said. “I already had my first child when I lost track of it.”
For the adults, there was a turkey.
Lillian Few was an adept cook who wasn’t stingy with her talent. Whenever she learned of a death in their community, she’d immediately prepare an entire meal, supplemented by one of the cakes she stored in an unheated room reserved for that purpose. Her family liked her seven-layer pineapple coconut cake best.
On Thanksgiving, Few roasted the Taylors Mill turkey and served it with macaroni and cheese; cranberry sauce; deviled eggs; green beans from her garden, cooked down with fatback; and a baked sweet potato dish called “yam town” that’s little known beyond Highway 101.
This week, Rainwater will make a batch of yam town and celebrate Thanksgiving with her great-nephew. She adopted him 12 years ago when a Department of Social Services worker told her they had nowhere to place a drug-addicted baby. Now Rainwater wonders if she would have done the same if the mill hadn’t set an example of generosity toward relatives when she was growing up.
“It made such an impact on me,” she said. “That someone who didn’t know who I was would give something that great to our family, it changed who I am. I am blessed.”