The Cotton Mill

1922, Denver, Colorado

Grover Cleveland Kolchak knew he was a lucky man. Some would say he had worked for his luck, but he knew plenty of others that worked as hard, or nearly so, and hadn’t made it. He had a job, the lovely Katerina, and a fine young son.

“So,” he thought, “if you want to stay lucky, get to work.”

He took the wrench from the older man, Stark, and crawled beneath the machinery. It was dirty with yellow slime from the leaking joints. He knew Katerina would be furious with him for getting so dirty, but the old man had been unable to loosen the bolts. He was the foreman, and they expected him to get the job done.

The bolts held the large vat to the floor, and he slithered through the slime to get to it. He locked onto the first bolt, and braced his feet against one of the vat’s legs. “What idiot put this on so tight!” he muttered under his breath.

Stark heard him laugh, and peered under the vat fearfully. “You alright?”

“It was me,” came the reply, “I put on this bolt not two years ago. It is only fitting that I remove it.”

Grover remembered it all clearly, in spite of all that had happened since then. He had arrived back in Denver with a hundred other soldiers, ready for civilian life after winning the “Great War,” the “War to End All Wars.” He hoped it was true; the last war ever to be fought. It would make losing Harvey less painful, give it some meaning.

“Give me the come-along,” he shouted. Stark passed him a four-foot piece of pipe. He placed one end over the handle of the wrench and pulled again. The nut slipped, then came loose. He removed the pipe and unbolted the nut. Then he repeated the process on the remaining two nuts, passed the nuts and the wrench out to Stark, and crawled out.

“Tommy,” he shouted to the other end of the huge room, “This one’s ready to go.”

He led Stark to the next piece of equipment, and they began to take it apart. This piece was covered with the yellowish powder, and Stark’s pounding stirred up a small cloud of dust that hovered over them as they worked.

The dust clouded his view of the large room, and he could almost see it as it had been over twenty years ago. Harvey was ten, the same age as Grover, and together they pushed the broom. It was made out of three push brooms, nailed together with the handles cut off so the children could work them. The kids worked the brooms in pairs, sweeping up the cotton lint from six in the morning until six thirty at night. They were paid thirty cents a day, minus fines, which were common. Fines for talking, playing, laughing, working too slow, having to use the bathroom …

“What a sweatshop,” he thought, “I would never have made it without Harvey.”

At any given time the mill had employed over four hundred children, from seven to thirteen years old. By the time they were thirteen, the kids were told to lie about their age, and say they were sixteen, so they could work as adults. The children were used for all the cleaning, sweeping, and any other tasks too simple to require an adult.

Grover’s family came to Denver because his father had experience in a cotton mill in Russia, and relatives here. The whole family had worked the mill, his father and mother made big money — nearly two dollars a day between them — but somehow they never got all of their money, what with having to pay rent on the company-owned houses, and having to buy groceries at the company store. At first, Grover’s father had wanted him to go to the school, but found out that the whole family would lose their jobs if Grover didn’t work, too. Not much different from Russia, his father had remarked.

On his first day, Grover was paired with a big tough looking kid who had been in the mill for several years. The bigger boy was quick to point out to the new kid that he was in charge, and would brook no backtalk or slacking off. Grover ignored him, and was quickly tripped into a mud puddle. Without hesitation, Grover went after the larger boy, and they fought for several minutes. Finally, the floor boss came over and broke up the fight. They were each fined a day’s pay.

Pushing the broom, side-by-side, the winded boy whispered, “What’s your name, and where’d you learn to fight like that? Quietly, we can’t let them see us talking,” he cautioned.

“I’m Grover Cleveland Kolchak. I fought in Russia, and on the boat. We had nothing else to do on the boat, and there were all these pushy German kids. What’s your name?”

“Harvey Grass, and I’m German.” The bigger boy smiled.

Grover smiled back. “We can be Americans, now.”

Over the next few years they became close friends, working together efficiently and quietly. And together, they could look out for each other; protect each other from the bigger kids, and the adults. Many times they had stood back to back, and fought off the packs of boys that roamed the company housing. More than one bully had found himself bushwhacked while trying to steal a lunch. Most importantly, they covered for each other when they worked, keeping their fines to a minimum. That meant their families had more to eat, and maybe put a little aside for the day they could get out, and away from the mill.

Harvey was lanky with long arms and legs, and seemed to move slower than he actually did. Grover was short and heavyset, but deceptively quick. Both of them were eager to learn, and spent Sunday afternoons reading together, or getting simple instruction from one of their mothers.

In 1903, a coal strike had shut the mill down, and they would have starved if Mr. Jerome, the Mill President, hadn’t waived their rent and provided the workers with supplies. Harvey and Grover had headed into Denver to work at various odd jobs, always as a team, and brought in enough money to survive. The mill never recovered from the strike, Mr. Jerome died mysteriously, and the mill was closed soon after.

Somehow both families got by. Harvey and Grover worked together at various jobs, and together they grew into young men. They were among the first to enlist to defend America when the war broke out.

“Uh, Kolchak,” Stark looked at him funny, “I said what are we supposed to do next?”

“Oh, sorry Stark,” he shook his head to clear the memories. “Let’s help Tommy load the vats up, he looks like he could use the help.”

It took all of them to load the vat onto the truck, even using the hoist left over from the cotton mill days. By the time they were done, every one of them was covered with yellow slime. “No sense in cleaning it off,” Grover told them, “we’ll just get dirty again unloading it at the other end.”

Grover was sorry the plant was moving. He had spent much of his life in the vicinity of the old cotton mill, and somehow he felt this was where he had left Harvey, pushing one of those extra wide brooms through the dust of the mill.

Tommy drove the truck, and they each found someplace to ride. They crossed the river and headed up Santa Fe into the railyards, passing the old radium institute site where Grover had originally gotten the equipment two years earlier.

He was fresh off the train and needed the work, and had signed on for a day or two’s work. Mr. Stevenson had liked his work and kept him on, to fix the leaks, and do all the general repairs that the relocated plant required. Grover didn’t really understand what the plant did, but he figured out where the pipes had to go, and how to keep things working. He learned a lot about pumps and motors, and didn’t mind that Pittsburgh Radium paid regularly, either.

Finally, they arrived at a warehouse on Twelfth Avenue, and were directed to take their load around back. Grover doubted they could get it all back together in such a small area, but somehow they managed.

After a week of taking the old equipment apart, they had removed everything that belonged to Pittsburgh Radium from the old mill. Grover brought his two year-old son into the mill at dusk. “See,” he explained, “this is where the mill was. The cotton was spun down there,” he pointed to the far end of the huge room. “The thread came down the center,” he spun around with his arms wide, tracing the path of the thread, “and to the looms up here. Harvey and I,” he stopped and turned to the toddler, “Harvey was my friend; you are named after him. We worked here. Together we swept the floors with a big broom. We were just boys. Together we beat them all.” He stopped. “Almost all,” he whispered.

He fell silent, standing there in the half-light. Faintly he heard the sound of the looms, and could just barely make out two boys, pushing an extra wide broom. “Harvey?” he asked. The boys didn’t turn, but swept on into the darkness.

He turned to his son. The boy was in the middle of the room pointing and twirling, in imitation of his father, “Mill,” he said, “thread and spun,” he spun around once more. “Loom, broom.”

Grover picked him up and hugged him in the darkness, “Harvey,” he said.