University of North Carolina at Asheville






Rural To Modern:


The Shift From Agriculture To Industry In The Enka Community


And The Enka Plant’s Uniqueness In Its Concern For Their Women Employees 










A Senior History Thesis Submitted to

The Faculty of the Department of History

In Candidacy for the Degree of

Batchelor of Arts in History









Jennifer Chapman









Asheville, North Carolina

November 2003


The young women who left home for the rayon plants pioneered a new pattern of female experience, and they created for their post-World War II daughters an environment far different from the one they, in their youth, had known.[1]


In September of 1928 the Dutch Company, Nederlandsche Kunstzydefabriek, commonly known as Enka, officially named the Appalachian town of Asheville, North Carolina as the location of their newest rayon manufacturing plant.[2]  Among the reasons why the Dutch company chose Asheville, was the abundance of resources- especially the large numbers of women residing there who were eager for employment.  After establishing a community in the rural and largely agricultural region of Buncombe County, the plant’s management worked to encourage its women employees to become educated, modern, athletic, and active in their community.  Through educational encouragements, structured recreation, and an available social voice, the American Enka plant helped to shape the lives of these women and give them a sphere outside of the home.  Because the American Enka Plant has allowed modern readers to only view the good qualities of the plant it is difficult to judge whether or not Enka truly was the positive community they seemed to be.  However, testimonies of Enka employees and the plant’s lack of involvement in the General Textile Strike of 1934 back up Enka’s reputation in the positive treatment of its female employees. 

To understand the era in which the Enka Plant operated, the decades leading up to its construction must be analyzed. The industrialization of the South was something that did not happen quickly. Jacquelyn Hall et al. analyze the lives of the rural Southerner in the book Like A Family.  Along with Allen Tullos’ book Habits Of Industry the shift of industry from the North to the South is explained, as well as the gradual and inevitable movement of rural farmers off the land and into the industrial working world of millwork.  James Cobb’s book Industrialization And Southern Society and A.E. Parkins’ The South: Its Economic-Geographic Development shed light on Southern resources but do not provide the in depth social aspects that Hall and Tullos incorporate into their texts.  On the other hand, Lu Ann Jones and Victoria Byerly’s research is based solely upon oral histories collected by the authors.  These texts discuss the issues that poor rural women of the South faced in the early twentieth century, while Alice Kessler-Harris in Out To Work and Delores Janiewski in Sisterhood Denied, discuss problems that women encounter in the working world of the 1920’s and after.  All of these texts address the movement from a rural, agricultural South to one of industry, and they analyze some of the problems encountered.

By the 1920’s Western North Carolina had begun to industrialize, including the construction of the American Enka Plant.  Although the American Enka Plant was the largest rayon plant in the world to that date there have been no books written about the plant.[3]  There have been books written about neighboring mills such as the Loray and Bemberg mills in John Salmond’s Gastonia 1929 and Jacquelyn Hall’s article Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South, respectively.

Unlike their works, which deal with strikes and bad experiences, this thesis will attempt to focus on how the American Enka Plant helped to better the lives of the women it employed. Since there has not been any research done on this topic I have had to rely mostly on publications produced by the plant itself.  There is no way to access plant records to find out statistics on employees and products because on 30 August 1940 a great flood hit the Enka and Asheville area. Most records were destroyed in the water and mud.[4] 

This paper will focus on the factors that encouraged The American Enka Plant to locate in the rural area of present-day Enka, explore the lives of farmers and women workers whose experiences can be paralleled with those of the rural residents of the Enka community, and the numerous ways in which the Enka Plant helped to educate, modernize, and create a community outside of the home for its female employees.  Because there are no histories focused on the residents of the region or employees of the plant, this thesis is derived from articles produced by the company, giving biases to those publications.  Since management wanted to create a positive atmosphere at the plant there is no record that anything bad occurred.  This cannot be true and so I will take this into consideration when reviewing these publications. 

  During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the textile industry began to gradually move their operations from the North to the South.  The American Industrial Revolution of the 1800’s had rooted itself largely in the North, due to the abundance of cheap foreign laborers and a close trade with large Northern cities such as New York.[5]  By the end of the nineteenth century, however, textile merchants recognized that the South possessed many assets useful to their industry.  Soon, wealthy merchants began investing their money in mill construction. Many were looking to transform their small towns into prosperous cities, while others were hoping for large financial gains.[6]  Whether motivated by generosity or prosperity, it is clear that merchants helped move the textile industry to the South with their determination for Southern growth.

The rural family farms of the South were drawn to the new mills of the South because of the financial stability they provided.  The agricultural economy in the mountain regions, like the area where the Enka Plant was later erected, suffered significantly during the early twentieth century.  Their small tracts of land could produce enough crops to earn a livable wage. To make things harder on the struggling farmer, in1920 cotton prices had dropped steeply from the 1919 price of 35 cents a pound to 15 cents a pound or lower.[7]  Farmers had predicted that the new Railroad system would be “… the time for their prosperity... and they will have a good market for every thing we raise.”[8]  Unfortunately, the Railroad linked farmers to markets that demanded cotton or tobacco, and farmers were forced to produce these crops, where they received a small profit from their harvest.  Most small farmers could not afford to produce the highly demanded crops for such little pay.[9]

Mill owners knew they could entice farmers in dire situations into industrial work if they sent former farmers to tell of the prosperity they had found in the industry.  Many families were persuading by friends and decided a move to the mill was their best hope for money.  Some families found the move from the farm to the mill beneficial and livable while others could not adapt to the industrial setting and forwent the monetary benefits for their old rural life.  Men, like Martin Lowe, an eastern Tennessee farmer, found it rewarding to work in the Poe Mill in Greenville, S.C. To supplement his farm income he began working at the mill, Lowe was able to enjoy family life while working, and stated that after more than forty years of working at Poe Mill, “I’ve never begrudged it a day that I come to the mill at all.”[10]  On the contrary, men like Mr. Hickum could not stand the change from his western North Carolina mountain home to the mill in Greenville, S.C., and soon after he moved to the mill he headed back to the mountains to his financially troubled timber company.  The monetary benefits were not enough to keep him working in the factory.[11]

The American Enka Plant located their facility in the predominantly agriculture region of western Buncombe County.  Farmers from this area were struggling to make ends meet on the farms when the mill began production in the early 1930’s.  According to the United States Census, in 1920 the total value of all crops, for Buncombe County, was $2,825,739.  In this year there were a total of 3,701 farms and the total acres of farmland was 266,134.[12]  By 1930 the number of farms had increased to 3,895 but the total acres of farmland had dropped to 230,761.  These numbers indicate that there was a slight increase in the total number of farmers, but that on average farm size had gotten smaller, and farmers could not harvest as much on a smaller plot of land.  In 1930 the value of their field and orchard crops combined had also decreased, down to $1,496,447.[13]  Based on this data it can be assumed that the overall value of crops had dropped by 1930, giving farmers less money.  Coupled with their smaller crop size farmers became desperate for money and could no longer remain in agriculture alone.  The opportunity for a steady income at the mill was something they could not pass up.

Along with a large pool of employees, mill owners also realized the potential the South possessed in natural resources.  Items such as building materials, fuel, iron, steel, coal, land, cheap labor, and water were found in abundance in the South and could be harvested more cheaply than in the North.  These resources could also be transported to the mills more quickly because of their close location to the factories.[14]  Of all these resources abundant in the South, cheap labor was the biggest factor that drew Northern Industries. According to James C. Cobb, author of Industrialization and Southern Society, New England industrialists, responding to the heightened competition among Northern entrepreneurs, moved south to take advantage of the cheap labor provided by the rural region.[15]  Cheap labor almost guaranteed a larger profit because less capital was expended to pay employees.

Southern counties, like Buncombe, paid workers less in comparison to Northern counties. In 1930 there were an estimated 3,614 manufacturing wage earners in Buncombe County and their total wages was $3,413,642.  This gives the average employee an approximate income of $945 per year.[16]  In comparison, Nassau County, New York had a similar number of wage earners in manufacturing, 3,611.  However, the total wages paid to these workers was $5,561,316, giving them an average income of approximately $1,540.[17]  This comparison indicates that workers were paid a higher income in the North.  Since manufacturers could pay their Southern employees less money for the same work, entrepreneurs headed south to take advantage of the cheap labor and abundance of workers looking for employment.

In the rural farm setting of the twentieth century women were given a limited say-so in the decisions about farm life.  Men were typically in charge of making the decisions concerning work and delegating chores among family members.  A wife’s role was usually limited to tending to the household and family.  Their chores often included tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing, attending to the children, and gathering foods from the livestock. [18]  Although their jobs were important, many women often took the opportunity to work outside of the home and become active in the local economy. Creative women would use the resources available on the farm to make goods and sell at the local store.  Lu Ann Jones, author of Mama Learned Us To Work: Farm Women In The New South, found from her oral histories that women traded and sold such goods as berries, fish, excess vegetables, poultry, and dairy products.[19]  Women also earned money by becoming sharecroppers, performing hired domestic work such as washing clothes, picking crops for neighboring farms, or taking in boarders for a fee.[20]  For a large family a women’s earning could enhance the man’s and give her a chance to become part of her economic community.  On the other hand, for a single woman with children these small jobs could not support a family.

Women who did leave the farm for an industrial job faced problems with their new jobs.  Jacquelyn Hall contends that with the large availability of women and children desperate for employment, mills were encouraged to adopt a system of labor where long hours, child labor, and low pay was common, much like the industry’s early days.[21]  Some women like Gladys Griffin, from Greensboro, North Carolina, remembered how her mother had to work in the mill all her life to support her nine young children after their stepfather left. Gladys recalled, “…when one of us [children] got old enough, we had to go to work to help support the family.  And we’d give our mother our money…I went to work in the mill when I was ten.”[22]  Gladys said that although her family was a large single-parent home, they never went hungry.  The low wages were enough to keep the family fed, but on at least one occasion she participated in a strike against low pay for women in her mill.  Other women like Aliene Walser, a mill worker from Thomasville, North Carolina, recalled that in retrospect she wished that she had done more than simply working in the mill all her life.  She told her young daughter, “I got married when I was just a child. You need to get a little more out of life than just getting married, having children, and working in that mill.”[23]  Women like Walser illustrate that life as an industrial worker was not always the most fulfilling or rewarding employment but it was necessary to provide for a dependent family.  Generally, women who worked in mills often had to face lower wages and longer hours, leaving them little opportunity to become educated or active in their community. 

World War I helped to change the attitude society held about women in the workforce.  During the absence of men, women were able to demonstrate that they could perform jobs that were previously thought of as “inappropriate” for women, such as bank tellers, furniture manufacturers, or automobile assemblers.[24]  The absence of men allowed women to work in jobs which society deemed more important and valuable. The increased feeling of importance may have encouraged them to become life-long employees.  According to Alice Kessler-Harris, author of Out To Work: A History Of Wage-Earning Women In The United States, in the decade following the war the idea of women in the workplace changed.  Women who were employed were no longer the single and poor women of the early 1900’s.  These women had the opportunity to have a marriage and have a job. Managing a household and keeping a steady job was an adventure many women chose to tackle.  Rhonda McCulloch, a professor at Smith College, argued that:

[Men] have not understood that it is impossible to make a home within four walls. The doors and windows of a modern house are the open doors and windows of the community itself, and a woman cannot create the spirit of a home save as she shares in creating the spirit of the community in which she lives… Women needed to work… [for] personal satisfaction…. [work was] a development of their personalities, an enlargement of their lives.[25]


Women like McCulloch understood that working in a wage-earning job meant they were connected to their surrounding community and could grow as individuals because they would be developing character and a sense of responsibility as wives and workers.  Arguments like this made women realize that marriage and employment were no longer mutually exclusive.  Employment gave women a stronger role in society than merely child bearing and raising, they chose to be part of the economic world and it gave them a sense of independence and purpose.[26] 

By the 1920’s women’s work outside of the home was widely accepted and more married women chose to stay in the workforce.  In 1920 the majority of female workers were between 15 and 24 years old.  By 1940 the age had risen to an average of 25 to 40 years old.[27]  This implies that it was common for women to become long-term employees.  The young women who began working in the 1920’s did not leave their positions when they wed; instead, many of them chose to remain at their jobs.  It was not uncommon for a thirty-year-old female to be married, have children, and work in a job outside the home.  This illustrates the acceptance of married women as workers who were essential to the economy and society.

Although women became widely established as long-term workers, few mills placed women in supervisory positions.  These positions were mainly left for men, even if they had less experience than their female counterparts.  Often, there were the low-skill, “woman jobs”, such as weaving, spinning, and packaging, whereas men were given the “skilled” work of fixing broken machinery, dyeing fabrics, or the “responsible” jobs of supervising the “less skilled” workers.[28]  Aliene Walser recalls that the men at her job were performing jobs that required less skill but incurred a higher wage.  She expressed her disgust in this practice by stating, “They [men] were sitting on their rears writing down numbers. They say it was brain work. And I said, “What brain?””[29]  She knew that her work was just as important as the man’s job but she was receiving less pay because she was a woman.

It was during this era of decreased agricultural prices, increased manufacturing, and the emergence of women as important contributors to the economy and society that The American Enka Plant opened its large rayon facility in Asheville, N.C.  The city had steadily been growing as the largest and most industrial city in Buncombe County. According to the 1920 U.S. Census, the average number of wage earners working in manufacturing jobs in Buncombe County was 2,256.[30]  By 1930 that number had risen only slightly to 3,614.[31]  The farming industry in Buncombe County had also increased slightly from 3,509 total farms in 1920 to 3,805 by 1930.[32]  These numbers indicate that although Southern Industrialization had taken hold, Buncombe County still had more farmers than workers in manufacturing.  The small growth in manufacturers can be attributed to the possibility that men and women remained on the farm when intense labor was needed, but turned to the mills during the slower months.  Therefore, they were still classified as a “farmer”, and only those solely in manufacturing were added to the category.

            Although Buncombe County was not the largest city for manufacturing in the South the large Dutch Company, Nederlandsche Kunstzydefabriek, decided to locate its first American rayon plant in the rural area west of Asheville.  The name Enka was actually adapted from their Dutch name, using their initials, N.K., phonetically sounded to be Enka.[33]  The Dutch noticed that a large portion of their goods were being sold in the United States, and building a plant there would reduce the cost of shipping since the rayon would then be produced in America.[34]  This realization made the Dutch owners determined to find an American city suitable for their factory.  

In order to find the best city the company sent their most knowledgeable men, engineers, executive officers, and bankers to the United States to determine the ideal location for their operations.  The group traveled to the fifty-one cities, pre-chosen by the owners, equipped with a list of eighteen essential elements necessary for their destination.  After touring the cities the group eliminated all but six locations; Asheville was one of the six remaining.  For four months they negotiated with Asheville city leaders, determined to get all of their demands met, or else Enka would locate in a more accommodating city.[35]

Although the plant was located west of the city limits the city of Asheville took all responsibility for the plant’s acquisition and building.  After extensive negotiations city leaders agreed to the demands and signed the contract on Saturday September 22, 1928.  Dr. A. L. Moritz, Vice President and chief engineer of Enka and Wallace B. Davis, who represented the city of Asheville, signed the contract at five o’clock in the executive office of the Central Bank and Trust Company.  The Asheville Citizen Times wrote, “This simple statement [the contract] heralds the greatest fact in the life of modern Asheville, and in the opinion of everyone marks a turning point in the career of this great city”. [36]  The acquisition of the Enka plant showed that the South did possess many resources large industries were looking for; the North was not always the best place for manufacturing.  The Asheville Citizen Times contended that this new acquisition would be the starting place for Asheville’s expansion.  Their optimism and enthusiasm may have been attributed to their eagerness to pull other industries into the area.  From the article Asheville sounded like it was the top city for an industry to locate, which is exactly the image they wanted to project.

Like many other Southern industrial entrepreneurs, Enka was drawn south because of the vast abundance of natural resources and a more moderate climate.  In the surrounding area natural resources such as wood pulp, coal, sulphite, and a large quantity of flowing water could be harvested for Enka’s use. [37]  Asheville’s moderate and comfortable climate had already become famous, for its health benefits, and for the viscose process of rayon production Enka used it was ideal.  The climate of Western North Carolina was noticeably different than other regions of the country because it lacked the extremely cold winters of the North and the exceedingly hot summers of the South; its temperature was more constant than anywhere else in the East.[38]  These natural resources and an appealing climate attracted the Dutch to Asheville.

            Asheville also boasted a large supply of cheap labor.  According to F. Boyer, the Consulting Engineer for the Asheville Chamber of Commerce, in 1923 the average wage earner was paid $1,255 a year, but in Asheville that wage was only $918.   The lower wage did not equate to a lower standard of living because Asheville’s cost of living was considerably lower than most cities.[39]  This allowed plants to hire paid labor at a rate cheaper than most other places in the country.  Although the claim that Asheville’s cost of living was lower than other cities even in the surrounding area may have been accurate, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce was probably looking for ways to entice more manufacturers into the region.  The lower wage could also have been attributed to a struggling economy based on under-employment, low agriculture prices, or under-productivity as a city.  It is hard to say what the real reason was for Asheville’s lower wages based on a pamphlet from the Chamber of Commerce.  It can only be shown that wages were lower in Asheville.

The Charlotte Observer claimed that although the mill workers in Asheville were paid lower wages than most workers in the county, they were the best.  Employees in North Carolina were not the “ignorant and radical” immigrant worker of the North or the “incapable” Negro of the South. The laborers of North Carolina were “intelligent, steady, home-loving, and pure-blooded labouring [sic] persons.”[40]  These claims made by The Charlotte Observer illustrate the biases held by many Southern whites against people that were not native-born white Americans.  This ideology of Southern white worker’s superiority to other laborers may have been a persuasive argument to companies looking to locate in a mainly native white area.  Although their biases were not correct, Southerners used it as positive argument for drawing industries into the region.   

Before the plant opened it was made clear that the plant was eager to hire women for their rayon production.  The Asheville Citizen Times was told that the initial payroll would consist of two-thirds women and one-third men.[41]  The Times also claimed that “Female Labor [was a] Big Factor In Getting Plant,” saying that the nearby Champion Company of Canton, NC informed engineers of the Enka Corporation that it would be glad if Enka were to settle in Asheville and provide opportunities for women.[42]

Females had been a large group of employees in the early southern textile industry, and The American Enka Plant did not differ in that respect.  However, its eagerness to provide opportunities for women to become economically stable, educated, physically fit, and active members in their community was different than other industries of the region.  Beginning pay for women at Enka was lower than a man’s pay, even if they were performing the same tasks, however, by the time a woman reached the position of supervisor at Enka she received the same pay as a man.[43]  Although many factories did not consider women suitable for supervisory positions Enka placed women in many upper level roles.[44] 

Along with the economic advantages the plant supplied to the area, the community surrounding the plant, known as Hominy, benefited from its existence. Hominy saw improvements in its sanitary water and sewer treatment facilities, the major road, Sand Hill-Russell Jones Road, was paved to allow easier transportation for workers and residents.  The school system was extended to reach the needs of families with children at the mill.  Other major improvements for the rural town were the extension of the city’s bus line, additional telephone lines were extended to the area, and the Southern Rail Road station was built and provided services to and from Asheville.[45]  The existence of the plant instantly improved the lives of the rural residents in the surrounding areas. The nearby inhabitants now had access to telephones, the railroad, and improved sanitation; without the Enka plant these developments may have taken longer to reach the rural area.  

            Many people, who were familiar with the surrounding community before Enka came, remarked at the splendid change brought about by the company.  Rural West Asheville was slowly becoming modern and urbanized.  To accommodate rural residents seeking a home close to the plant, the Enka Corporation built an attractive community of mill houses within walking distance to the plant.  Within two years of the village’s construction several restaurants, soft drink stands, boarding houses, and general stores had sprung up in the vicinity.  These new and convenient stores were dependent upon workers at the Enka Plant.[46] 

            The plant also provided many other resources that would not have been available to the West Asheville community before. Enka Village contained its own library, which housed over two thousand books.  Enka management encouraged young children and adults to read.  The Enka Voice, Enka’s monthly newspaper, encouraged parents to provide their children with classic novel that had been adapted for younger readers. The Enka Voice claimed that reading was important for a child’s education and they should be supplied with worthwhile models, and, “As a rule the best literature is that which has stood the test of time.”  Therefore the classics were best suited for children eager for role models.[47]  The library also offered classes on subjects such as shorthand, taught in 100-forty minute lessons.  Classes such as these allowed employees to learn new and useful skills at no charge.[48]  The plant wanted to encourage skills such as literacy, but they probably also wanted to provide their readers with a limited selection of books so they would not get ideas about plant management or unionization.

In an effort to provide the safest village possible Enka was staffed with a police force, fire department, and hospital.  The hospital contained an operating room and two nurses on duty at all times to ensure that Enka employees could receive medical treatment whenever it was needed.[49]  Although no information indicates Enka was an unsafe environment, the round-the-clock hospital staff and operating room raise the question of safety inside the plant.  Contained in almost every edition of the Enka Voice was some mention of the importance of safety and why employees should practice it at home, work, and in leisure.  Because the Enka Voice omitted discussions of work it is hard to tell what happened in the factory.  In the February 1932 edition there is the statement, “Practical Jokes will not be tolerated…They don’t mean any harm but that doesn’t pay hospital bills or make up lost time…All cases of horse play will be severely dealt with and are sufficient reasons for immediate discharge.”[50]  It can be assumed that a severe accident occurred due to a practical joke and Enka management did not want any kind of activities that threatened safety.  With the constant reminders to practice safety in The Voice the reader gets the idea that there were places in the plant that were unsafe so workers had to be constantly reminded to practice safety.   

The Dutch managers also tried to ensure employees were receiving an education.  Along with the library’s books and classes, a Dutch school was built for young Dutch children, and a new grammar school was constructed to help ease the crowdedness of the nearby American grammar school.  To provide opportunities for a religious education a new Baptist church was erected adjacent to the village.[51] 

All employees, not just men, at the mill were encouraged to participate in recreation.  Volleyball, basketball, baseball, and tennis facilities and courts were built either on the plant’s grounds or at the Enka Country Club.  In the May 1930 issue of The Enka Voice the girls of the plant voiced their appreciation to the management for fixing the facilities, and let them know that the women were making good use them.[52]  The Enka Country Club was opened to the Enka community in 1930, and all workers were eligible to join at a fee of $5 quarterly per family.  The Club provided the tennis courts, a boathouse, a sandy beach for sun bathing, and a pier extending into the lake for diving. [53]  All of the recreation provided by the Enka Plant indicates that management was interested in promoting a healthy lifestyle for its workers, and they tried to provide opportunities for everyone to participate in physical activity.

The plant boasted that women who worked and lived in the Enka Community in rural West Asheville were just as modern, sophisticated, and educated as women who lived in large cities.  The Enka Village homes of the 1930’s were equipped with modern technology.  The kitchens were furnished with electric stoves, and indoor plumbing allowed for bathrooms.  The welfare nurse, who made regular inspections of the homes, answered all of their sanitation and health questions concerning the living quarters.  Her job was to make sure families had properly kept homes.[54]  She was sent to each home by order of the Enka Management.  Their motives may have ranged from pure concern for their workers well being to making sure their employees were not housing illegal objects or living in filth and destroying the houses.  Nonetheless, the modern conveniences provided by the plant were things unknown to the people of the Enka community before it’s opening.[55]

To encourage its workers to be socially connected A.L. Moritz, the Technical Vice President, gave his workers The Enka Voice.  In 1930 Moritz wrote the introduction to the very first Voice.  In this he said “…. Remember this paper is YOUR OWN property… it entirely depends upon you if it shall become a live wire or a dead article.”[56]  In response to his call the women of Enka filled the paper every month for more than twenty-five years.  The paper consisted of personal announcements such as weddings, births, deaths, vacations, new employees, and any information the women wanted to share with the community.  Women took pride in publishing songs and cheers, composed by their department.  The Packing Department wrote this poem:

Hello, Twisters, Reelers, and Sorting girls


Open the door, move over, and give us a


We’re the Packing Department from Enka,

you bet,

And in your elated Voice you’ve never

us met.

…from seven in morning until five-thirty at


It’s weigh, pack, and wrap silk in bundles

quite tight.[57]


These girls were eager to share their new voice with the Enka community.  It was women like these that kept Enka a closely connected community and made The Enka Voice a “live wire”. 

Although the plant published the newspaper talk of work was not allowed.  Employees could not complain about their employment and were prohibited to voice their grievances about management or one another; only positive words were allowed in The Voice.  Through this technique management was able to keep up a positive image of work at the plant.  Readers of the paper could only hear about the positives in the Enka community, and after reading it they would also feel positive about their job.  Through avoiding negative talk about work, management was able to inhibit any large collaboration among disgruntled workers because there was no way they could communicate to a large group of people.  Employees were fed the good news and hidden from any bad that occurred.

The American Enka Plant helped their women keep up with technological and social trends of the 1930’s.  The Enka telegraph service was established to provide employees communication across long distances. The new system was, “ a most modern way of keeping in touch with the world,” claimed the Enka Voice[58]When couples were wed it was announced in The Enka Voice, and to make sure the young couples began their marriage in a modern style Enka management presented each newlywed couple with engraved silver for their dining room.[59]  By providing them modern luxuries for their homes and money to spend in city shops the Enka Plant attempted to help rural women become modern and sophisticated.  They wanted their women to be part of a larger society where they were able to experience and purchase luxuries of a middle-class urban home.[60]

To make sure Enka women were caught up on the latest educational material The Enka Voice and its editors provided small lessons on grammar from time to time.  These lessons gave employees tips on how to speak properly in their contemporary society.  One lesson read, “AIN’T – not an accepted word, say “I am not”… Acquire –distinguish from obtain and procure….Funny –use peculiar, strange, unusual –instead of…”[61]  The American Enka Company viewed the women workers as valuable employees, not as a source of cheap labor, and they wanted their women to conduct themselves in that manner as well. 

Another way in which the Enka Plant helped to enrich the lives of women in their community was to encourage participation in sports.  The Enka Athletic Association was formed to organize athletics within the community.  By 1938 their sports had expanded to include basketball, softball, bowling, an indoor rifle club, and a dramatics club that included singing and dancing in their shows.  The Dramatics Club preformed its plays at the local Sand Hill School Auditorium since the plant did not have a staged auditorium suitable for plays.[62]  Recreation gave employees something to do besides factory and house work, the members of a club could have an activity to look forward to wherein they could show their off their talents.

For the women at Enka their athletic teams were a source of pride.  According to Mary Roberts, a forty-year Enka employee, the majority of women who participated on the sports teams were young and single.  Although she could not find the time to participate in any extra activities because she had kids and a home to fill her time, she still took pride in hearing and talking about their women’s basketball team.  In fact, when asked if she played any sports for Enka during her years of employment she replied, “no”, but quickly said that the women’s basketball team was good for many years.  Even though she did not play on the team she felt pride through their accomplishments and wanted to brag on them.[63]

Women’s athletics had been growing in popularity across the county since the mid-1920’s.  It was more popular among factory workers because elite women saw athletics as “unlady-like” and refused to teach it in young women’s schools.  Working class women did not view athletics the same way.[64]  The working-class women of Enka were eager to embrace athleticism because it gave them another opportunity to use their hands-on skills to succeed.  The success of the basketball team reflected well upon Enka women, implying that if these few women were strong and dedicated to their tasks, then so were the other women of the Enka community.  The opportunity to participate on the athletic teams gave women a chance to get involved in a life outside of the factory and the home. Enka’s extra clubs and athletics allowed them to have a well rounded and fulfilling experience while working at the plant.

From what the sources indicate women at the Enka Plant were not treated unfairly, like some other mills around the area.  For instance, in 1928 at the Loray Mill in Gastonia, North Carolina the plant began a massive attempt to reduce costs.  By carrying out their plan they laid off over one thousand workers, gave employees drastically increased work, and cut pay by almost half.  In April strikers, led by the United Textile Workers, protested the increased work and reduced pay.  At the end of the nearly month-long strike the Chief of Police and the strike’s famous balladeer, Ella May Wiggins had been killed and dozens more had been arrested.[65]

In 1929 similar strikes occurred in Elizabethton, Tennessee at the Bemberg and Glantzoff rayon plant.  Over three hundred and sixty young women, who were protesting low wages, petty rules, and high-handed attitudes, led the strike against the mill owners. After six months of strike however, workers had not gotten far in their attempts to gain higher wages, instead they were simply granted a settlement of no discrimination against union members.[66]

Numerous other strikes occurred across the Carolinas in 1929.  In South Carolina there were eighty-one separate strikes involving 79,027 workers.  In North Carolina the number of strikers was even larger.  The key fact about many of these strikes was that almost all were organized without union leadership.  Disgruntled employees, under their own accord, led the protests.[67]  Workers were fed up with their owners because machines were replacing jobs, there was an increase in the number of job-watchers and supervisors, and a faster working pace was demanded.  In fact, most women found timepieces installed on every machine to keep track of their paces.[68]  As a result of these intense rules workers were reading to strike for better working conditions.

Workers of the American Enka Plant did not participate in these early strikes of 1929, because the plant was not open yet.  But, five short years later, in 1934, the outcry of injustice in the textile industry was heard all over the South.  This time over two-thirds of the southern textile workers walked out of their jobs.[69]  However, Enka employees did not participate in the strike.  There is little evidence to support the reason for their lack of revolt, except that workers at Enka were treated better, and management’s efforts to provide education, recreation, and socialization for both men and women kept employees content with their jobs.  Enka remained union-free for a decade, not until 1939 did they became a member of the United Textile Workers Union.[70]  Although a large number of strikes in 1934 occurred in unionized plants a large number of them happened in un-unionized ones.  Enka chose to remain in that small thirty-three percent of workers who did not rebel against their owners.

The American Enka plant was an exceptional plant during the first couple decades of its existence.  Like the southern industrialists of the early twentieth century, American Enka saw many benefits to locating a factory in the South.  Among them were close and abundant natural resources provided by the rural areas, especially in Western North Carolina.  Another major factor that drew the Dutch Company to Western N.C. was the large amount of women eager to be employed in steady paying labor.

The Enka plant was the largest rayon plant in Asheville and in the world.  For the rural women of Western North Carolina who worked at the Enka plant, it was the most important thing to happen to them for a number of reasons.  The plant’s library and schools provided educational opportunities new to rural women, the plant’s management made efforts to keep its employees up to date with the new technology of the times.  Women’s participation was encouraged at the plant’s Country Club, and women’s athletic teams gave workers the chance to become small-town legends.  The social network created through The Enka Voice allowed women of the community to become leaders via their ability to dictate, in part, what information about the personal lives of Enka employees was published.

Although many women between 1929 and 1934 participated in large strikes against low wages and oppressive rules, women of Enka did not.  This may have been due to the fact that women at Enka were given a better experience than women of neighboring plants.  While it is hard to determine for sure whether or not women were truly treated kindly and encouraged to become modern, educated, and athletic women at the American Enka Plant the majority of evidence points to that conclusion.

Through all of their experiences at Enka women of the 1920’s and 1930’s were able to grow intellectually and socially, setting the groundwork for their daughters of the post-World War II era, who struggled for equal treatment and equal pay with that of men. Although their struggle would be hard and long their predecessors helped to pave the way. 


[1] Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South” Journal of American History vol. 73 (1986).

[2] “American Enka Locates Great Rayon Plant Here,” The Asheville Citizen Times (NC), 23 September 1928, sec. A., final edition.

[3] C.R. Sumner, “Largest Plant In World For Manufacture Of Rayon Is Located At Asheville,” The Charlotte Observer, 18 November 1928.

[4] “Great Flood In Asheville,” The Enka Voice, 30 August 1940.

[5] Margaret Terrell Parker, Lowell: A Study of Industrial Development (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1940), 190-191.

[6] Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, et al. Like A Family. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press,  1987), 24.

[7] Hall, 10.

[8]Allen Tullos, Habits of Industry, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 134-135.

[9] Ibid., 135.

[10] Ibid., 37

[11] Ibid., 36

[12] U.S. Census 1920. Accessed through the University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. United States Historical Census Data Browser. ONLINE. 1998. University of Virginia. <>.  (hereafter referred to as USHCDB). Total value of all crops, Total number of farms, and Total number of acres of land in farms,  for Buncombe County, N.C.

[13]USHCDB 1930. Total number of  farms, Total number of acres of land in farms, and Total value of field and orchard crops, for Buncombe County, N.C.

 It is hard to compare the difference in crop value from 1920 to 1930 because the categories for the Census changed. In 1920 the category was “total value of all crops” whereas in 1930 the comparative category was “total value of field and orchard crops”.  Although it can be assumed these two are relatively the same data, the total for 1930 may have been higher if the two categories had been exactly the same.

[14] A.E .Parkins, The South: Its Economic-Geographic Development (New York: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1938), 417-419.

[15] James C. Cobb, Industrialization and Southern Society (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984), 18.

[16] USHCDB 1930.  Average number of wage earners in manufacturing and Annual wages in manufacturing, 1929, for Buncombe County, N.C.  

[17] USHCDB 1930. Average number of wage earners in manufacturing and Annual wages in manufacturing, 1929, for Nassau County, NY.

[18] Hall, 14.

[19] Lu Ann Jones, Mama Learned Us To Work Farm Women In The New South, (Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 52-56.

[20] Hall, 14-15.

[21] Ibid., 51-52.

[22] Gladys Griffin speaking in Victoria Byerly’s, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls: Personal Histories Of Womanhood And Poverty In The South (New York: ILR Press, 1986), 167.

[23] Aliene Walser speaking in Victoria Byerly’s, Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls: Personal Histories Of Womanhood And Poverty In The South (New York: ILR Press, 1986), 85.

[24] Alice Kessler-Harris, Out To Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 219.

[25] Ibid., 228-229.

[26] Ibid., 229.

[27] Hall, 69.

[28] Dolores E. Janiewski, Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class in a New South Community (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1985),  99.

[29] Aliene Walser, speaking in Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls, 83.

[30] “total number of wage earners in manufacturing”  1920 U.S. Census, USHCDB.

[31]  “total number of wage earners in manufacturing” 1930 U.S. Census, USHCDB.

[32]  “total numbers of male famrs”1920 and 1930 U.S. Census, USHCDB.

[33]  “Enka Brings Industry to Mountains,” The Asheville Citizen Times, 18 May, 1940.

Pack Memorial Library Newspaper File Collection Asheville and Buncombe County”  vol. 90, Files 80 M-Z, 80.1, (Hereafter referred to as PMLNFC).

[34] “Climate Strong Factor In Pull Of Land Of Sky,” The Asheville Citizen Times, 23 September 1928, pg. 1 & 2, PMLNFC.

[35]  “Climate Strong Factor In Pull Of Land Of Sky,” The Asheville Citizen Times, 23 September 1928. PMLNFC>

[36]  “Contract Signed After Months Of Negotiation by Dr. Moritz and Davis,” The Asheville Citizen Times, 23 September 1928, section A, page 1. PMLNFC.

[37]  “Here’s Rayon Plant Projects In Brief,” The Asheville Citizen Times, 23 September 1928. PMLNFC.

[38]  C.R. Sumner, “Largest Plant In World For Manufacture Of Rayon Is Located At Asheville,” The Charlotte Observer, 18 November, 1928. PMLNFC.

[39] Frederic Q. Boyer, Consulting Engineer for the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. “Industrial Opportunities In The Asheville District 1899-1925,”  (Pamphlet in  PMLNFC).

[40] Sumner.

[41] “Here’s Rayon Plant Project In Brief.”  The Asheville Citizen Times. 23 September 1928.

[42] “Female Labor Big Factor In Getting Plant,” The Asheville Citizen Times.23 September 1928.

[43] Mary Roberts, telephone interview by author, 2 October 2003.

[44] Ibid. 

[45] “Here’s Rayon Plant Project In Brief.”  The Asheville Citizen Times. 23 September 1928.


[46] Robert Bunnelle, “Model Village Grows Up At Enka” The Asheville Citizen Times, 29 June 1930. PMLNFC. ( Hereafter referred to as Bunnelle).

[47] “Books For Children,” The Enka Voice, April 1930, pg. 9.  

[48] “Classes”, The Enka Voice, June 1931, pg. 16.

[49] Bunnelle.

[50] “Practical Jokes Will Not Be Tolerated”, The Enka Voice, February 1932.

[51] Bunnelle.

[52] The Enka Voice, May 1930, pg. 12.

[53] Bunnelle.

[54] “Employees Of Industry Encouraged To Devote Leisure To Recreation.”  The Asheville Citizen Times. 21 June 1931.

[55] Ibid.

[56] “Letter From A.L. Moritz, The Enka Voice,  April 1930, vol. 1, no. 1, page 1.

[57] “New Arrivals Are Welcomed,” The Enka Voice, March 1931, pg. 23.

[58] “Enka Telegraph Service,” The Enka Voice, April 1930,  pg. 9.

[59] “Employees Of Industry Encourage To Devote Leisure To Recreation.” TACT.  

[60] Ibid.

[61] “Our English Lesson,” The Enka Voice, March 1931, pg. 16.

[62] “Enka Athletic Association News”, The Enka Voice, August 1938, pg.18 and January 1939, pg. 18.


[63] Mary Roberts, interview.

[64] Jennifer Hargreaves, Sporting Females: Critical Issues In The History And Sociology Of Women’s Sports (New York: Routledge, 1987), 131.

[65] John Salmond, Gastonia 1929: The Story Of The Loray Mill Strike, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995),  xii – 14.

[66] Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South,” Journal Of American History  vol 73 (1986).

[67] Ibid., 9.

[68] John Salmond, The General Textile Strik of 1934,” (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002),  9.

[69] Janet Irons, Testing The New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South,” (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2002),  3.

[70] John Jervis Collection, “13th Anniversary Edition: Enka Rayon Workers Union, Local 2598,” D. Hiden Ramsey Library Special Collections, UNCA, file M77.12.1.23.




Primary Sources




Boyer, Frederic Q. “Industrial Opportunities In The Asheville District 1899-1925,” located in the “Pack Memorial Library Newspaper File Collection Asheville and Buncombe County” Volume 90, Files 80 M-Z, 80.1. Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC.


Oral Histories


Byerly, Victoria. Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls: Personal Histories Of Womanhood And Poverty In The South. New York: Industrial and Labor Relations (IRL) of Cornell University Press, 1986.


D. Hiden Ramsey Special Collections


John Jervis Collection. “13th Anniversary Edition Enka Rayon Workers Union.” D. Hiden Ramsey Library Special Collection, UNCA, file M77.12.1.23.




Sumner, C.R. “Largest Plant In World For Manufacture Of Rayon Is Located In Asheville,” The Charlotte Observer, 28 November 1928. Located in the “Pack Memorial Library Newspaper File Collection Asheville and Buncombe County” Volume 90, Files 80 M-Z, 80.1. Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC.


The Asheville Citizen Times, 1928-1945. Located in the “Pack Memorial Library Newspaper File Collection Asheville and Buncombe County” Volume 90, Files 80 M-Z, 80.1. Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC.


Monthly Publications


The Enka Voice: Organ Of The Employees Of The American Enka Corporation. 1930-1950.




University of Virginia Geospatial and Statistical Data Center. United States Historical Census Data Browser. ONLINE. 1998. University of Virginia. < > 2 October 2003.




Secondary Sources


Cobb, James C. Industrialization and Southern Society 1877-1984. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1984.


Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd. Like A Family. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1987.


- - -. “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South.” Journal of American History vol. 73 (1986).


Hargreaves, Jennifer. Sporting Females: Critical Issues In The History And Sociology Of Women’s Sports. New York: Routledge, 1987.


Irons, Janet. Testing The New Deal: The General Textile Strike Of 1934 In the American South. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2002.


Janiewski, Dolores E. Sisterhood Denied: Race, Gender, and Class In A New South Community. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1985.


Jones, Lu Ann. Mama Learned Us To Work Farm Women In The New South. Chapel Hill, N.C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002.


Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out To Work: A History Of Wage-Earning Women In The United States. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1982.


Parker, Margaret Terrell. Lowell: A Study of Industrial Development. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1940.


Parkins, A.E. The South: Its Economic-Geographic Development. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1938.


Salmond, John A. The General Textile Strike of 1934. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002.


- - -. Gastonia 1929 The Story Of The Loray Mill Strike. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.



Tullos, Allen. Habits of Industry. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1989.