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Catawba County Hosts 'The Way We Worked' Smithsonian Exhibit

A Smithsonian art exhibit is touring the state this year, and it opens in Newton Friday. “The Way We Worked” documents how Americans have worked over the past 150 years, and the nation’s transition to a post-industrial economy. The exhibit has been shown across the country, but this time it features a section specific to Catawba County.

The exhibit is in the History Museum of Catawba County in downtown Newton from Aug. 10 to Sep,. 18, and features photos of people working, documentary videos, and machines and tools that were once used at factories and mills in Catawba County. 

Some of those tools are only to look at while others — like a chair and cushions — are made to show the parts of production in local industries.

The exhibit was brought here with help from the North Carolina Humanities Council and Museum on Main Street — a Smithsonian project which brings exhibits to small towns in America, along with local companies and sponsors.

Credit Cole del Charco / WFAE
Part of the exhibit focuses exclusively on industry in Catawba County.

Amber Albert is the director of the Catawba Historical Association and one of the curators of the local part of the exhibit.

“Our local story is Catawba, innovation at work," Albert said, "And we feature five industries: agriculture, ceramics, textiles, furniture and fiber optics, as well as a military component."

Albert said at the height of industrialization, one-in-four Catawba County residents worked in furniture — and that doesn’t account for the numerous people who worked in textile mills. In 1962, the county was home to 10 percent of the nation’s hosiery plants. Those plants and mills made socks and other soft goods. 

One woman who worked in mills and factories her entire career is Georgia Teague, 79.

Credit Cole del Charco / WFAE
Georgia Teague stands by a machine, like one she used in a hosiery mill.

“I worked in a textile mill and I worked in a furniture place for over 28 years,” Teague said. 

She started in a hosiery mill when she was 17. 

Teague looked over a tall green machine with two spools of yarn — a dial looper — just like the one she used to operate to knit socks.

“Ours was like this, it was electric," Teague said. "We had to thread the needle when it broke."

The machine would knit the toe of the sock, and it was Teague’s job to load the socks onto the machine and unload finished ones.

She got the job thanks to her older sister, who worked next to her. People at the mill were paid by the sock, not by the hour. 

Credit Cole del Charco / WFAE
A dial looper, used to knit the toes of socks.

“How many dozens of socks you’d gotten, that’s what your pay would be,” Teague said.

Teague grew up on a farm in Newton, and was the youngest of 17 children. She was expected to help out picking cotton or doing whatever was needed in the field and around the house.

“A lot of times we’d beg Momma to go in and fix our evening meals so we’d get out of hoeing cotton or picking cotton,” Teague said.

After coming home from work, she had two more jobs: working in the field, and canning and preserving fruit. As she put it, those were different times.

Teague said today the benefits of not working in a factory or mill are clear, like avoiding the dangers of working at a plastics factory.

“I cut the end of my thumb off on a bandsaw, sawing up plastic parts,” she said.

But she said there’s something people growing up today miss — working hard from a young age. And, like working with your hands, most of it is intuitive. You have to do it to know it. 

“Like making jam," she said. "I follow the recipe, but you just gotta know how to do it.:"

A trip to the exhibit can’t give anyone the benefits of working with your hands, but just maybe, it can teach its value.