On Saturday, May 6 at high noon, a gathering in Morganton will unveil a unique set of statues. The hard working folks depicted in the monument represent the many individuals who gave the region its pride. They were on the job everyday, taking on the task of crafting whatever product they were called upon to make. Through their efforts, they built western North Carolina’s industrial base. They were the workers.
A number of years ago I met Jim Warlick, a successful entrepreneur who came from those roots. Born in Morganton, his mother, Mary Harrison Warlick, earned a living as a hosiery worker in order to provide for her three children. Jim vowed to honor her contribution, as well as that of many others. In making good on that promise, he established the Workers Legacy Project. Jim jumped into his research by interviewing numerous people who toiled in textile, hosiery and furniture factories throughout the area. He preserved their story, creating a library of experiences that details what it was like to be among the multitudes who made the gears of manufacturing turn.
Jim worked rigorously on the project and now his work, his presentation of their work, is ready for our viewing. At the Burke History Museum, the Workers Legacy exhibition debuts “The Dignity of Work.” In it, you will see key moments from the many interviews Jim conducted. Also presented are the images of workers, some on the job, some posed with their fellow employees. In color, and looking back at us as we look at them, they convey what it was like to labor each day in a job that required diligence, attention, ingenuity, patience, and a lot of sweat. You can even hear the factory whistle, a sound that called “the hands” to their jobs each morning. The exhibition is a fantastic display and well worth seeing if you have any interest at all in what made possible the world in which you and I now live. We cannot overestimate their impact.
“They literally built this community,” says Jim in a video clip from the website that introduces the Workers Legacy Project. He remembers how his mother faithfully labored over the same sewing machine for 33 years at the “Garrou-Morganton Full Fashion Hosiery Mills, now the site of Morganton’s City Hall.” The integrity of her sacrifice, never missing a day as she walked to the top of the hill to catch a ride to work, forever marked her son. This Saturday makes public his effort to pay tribute to all she and here colleagues gave, not only to their families but to the company, the city, and the customers who used the products they made.
Ceremonies will mark the arrival of the Dignity of Work historic monument. Described as “a unique public art installation commemorating the workers,” it’s a 24 foot permanent iconic monument, on the grounds of the Burke History Museum, and just one of the highlights of the day. Before you go, check out the website, workerslegacy.org. Also, visit thehistorymuseumofburke.org. Then, take a road trip Saturday. Your destination is 201 West Meeting Street in Morganton. Come experience something never before fully heralded. If the sun is good and hot on Saturday, you might even feel the sweat of their long hours on the clock.
Photo: Workers, the backbone of western North Carolina’s history. Image courtesy of the Workers Legacy Project.