Christmas tradition continues at Oakdale.
By Mary Browning

Employees and retired employees of Oakdale Cotton Mills know that there is at least one thing certain this Christmas season: They will receive a good-sized bag of special edibles from Oakdale, continuing a tradition of Christmas giving that is probably as old as the mill.

As of this writing, and according to plant manager Phillip Clodfelter, the goods have been ordered and the day has been set when the bags will be filled with just the right amount and variety of fruit, candy, nuts, peanuts, and jelly. Also, in each bag, there will be a ball of Oakdale’s colorful twine. Folks who are unable to come to the mill will receive home delivery. 

My interest in this tradition was piqued by old correspondence found in the Ragsdale Collection of papers given to the Jamestown Alumni Archives. Most of these papers date from the years William G. Ragsdale was running Oakdale Mills, about 1905 to 1928. Some referred to Christmas donations sent by other manufacturers to William G. Ragsdale. “For your mill Sunday School,” is specified in one case, and there are similar messages in others. There wasn’t just one of these, either. They were regular as clockwork, over the years. 

The earliest reference I found that connected the mill, or in this case “the Factory,” with Christmas was found in a typescript copy of entries from the journal of long ago Jamestown resident Albert L. Vickrey. Vickrey frequently attended preaching “at the Factory,” either in the mill building itself or—more likely—in the first Oakdale schoolhouse, where worship services were also held. One was dated Dec. 24, 1906, and said that Vickrey “went to a Christmas tree at the Factory.” It looks as though “a Christmas tree” was an event, rather than an object. Don’t you think gifts are more or less implied?

A cover letter from Cassella Color Co. of Atlanta, Georgia, dated 1909, says “As in previous years,.” a check is enclosed as a donation for the “dressing of your Christmas tree for children of your mill operators.” Checks from this same firm came regularly in mid-December year after year.

Amon Green & Co. of Baltimore at some point also began sending donations. The letter of Dec. 16, 1916, says, “We enclose our Christmas donation for your mill Sunday School. Wishing you all a happy Christmas.” These, too, were sent every year.

An old photo from the collection at the mill shows employees at some past date, around 1900, perhaps. There are plenty of girls and boys, perhaps aged ten and above, and I think the women may outnumber the men. No one looks fat. Several show bare feet. Not many smiles. In fact, “glum” might describe the overall mood. Still, these were people who had wages coming in, and if two or three or more people in a family were working, they could live pretty well. Work was work, after all, and not supposed to be fun.

Plenty of job applications are in the Ragsdale Collection, some from men working in other mills, so jobs at Oakdale were sought after. There are also some requests or thanks for special help from workers or former ones. The latter seem to come from people who knew that William G. Ragsdale knew them, and would help them if he could. 

Conventional local wisdom is that among those who worked there, there was always a feeling of belonging to a family at Oakdale. These letters reflect that sort of familiarity.

There have been a lot of Christmases since those earliest years. “The Christmas tree” at the Factory or at the Sunday school has become the produce bag of treats at the old brick mill building. However, the feeling of goodwill and respect among members of this big family seems to be something that has not changed at all.

News & Record, Sunday, December 25, 2005

Reprinted with permission of the News & Record  and of the author