Seventy-five years ago—on September 6, 1934—seven workers were shot and killed and 30 others wounded at the Chiquola Mill in my hometown of Honea Path, South Carolina. It was an act that has shaped the town’s history and attitudes in ways that few could have imagined.
Yet, sadly, the old Chiquola Mill today stands in a seemingly unending state of demolition—now being torn down almost brick by brick. Not only have Honea Path’s founding fathers done little to preserve the town’s rich legacy, but it seems that some genuinely want to forget.
I have a special interest in this anniversary because my late grandfather, Dan Beacham, Honea Path’s mayor and superintendent of the mill in 1934, organized the gunmen who fired their weapons at the workers. That day became known as “Bloody Thursday.”
My grandfather died in 1936, many years before I was born. When I was growing up in Honea Path during the 1960s, the subject of the mill violence was taboo. There were hints of what happened, of course, but the topic was never discussed in the open.
I learned the truth about Honea Path’s history in 1994 from a documentary film called The Uprising of '34. Since that film essentially ended Honea Path’s six-decade long secret, I’ve learned about the history of the town and its people through many conversations and stories. I wrote about it in my book, Whitewash: A Southern Journey through Music, Mayhem and Murder.
As a writer who makes his living telling stories, I was shocked to find one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever heard connected to my own family and hometown. Even more shocking, I found, was how an event of such magnitude and importance to the lives of generations of Honea Path families could have been hidden and buried for so long.
Of course the reason that I and so few of my fellow baby boomers knew the story of Chiquola Mill was because it was purposely denied us. There was a campaign of fear and intimidation after the shootings that effectively erased public discussion of what had happened. Fearful workers who wanted to keep their jobs put a self-imposed lid on their own past. Somehow, as the years went by, the violence at Chiquola evolved into a source of shame.
My grandfather, Dan Beacham, at the wheel of his 1919 Hudson Touring Dash.
Many myths have built up over the years about the workers who died in Honea Path 75 years ago. They were called an isolated group of troublemakers and rabble-rousers. Some, mainly the mill’s former management, claimed they deserved what happened to them.
I see it another way. I think these mill workers risked everything—their jobs, their freedom and ultimately their lives—for a cause they believed in. They made a decision to exert some control over their changing place in an increasingly industrialized world. Their method was to attempt to organize their fellow workers into a labor union.
A committee of the South Carolina House of Representatives, led by Honea Path native son Olin D. Johnston, called the strikes by textile workers “final weapons of defense” and placed blame on mill officials who put “more work on the employees than they can do.”
The amazing chain of events that caused friends and neighbors in Honea Path to turn on one another with weapons has to be viewed in the context of the time. In 1934 the cork finally blew and labor protests erupted all over the United States. There were 1,856 work stoppages involving 1,470,000 workers. Honea Path represented a microcosm in a whirlwind of worker unrest.
Lois McClain, a young Chiquola Mill spinning worker, shown just after she was shot on Sept. 6, 1934. The bullet from McClain's bleeding left hand was never removed and was still intact when she died at age 91 in 1993. Eventually the mother of five—"Granny Lois," as she was called—worked at the mill through her mid 70s. She also served as a volunteer midwife, seamstress and cook for local townspeople all of her life. Some years after the shooting, Tom Stalcup, the Chiquola millworker who revealed that he had shot McClain, asked for her forgiveness, which she granted. Stalcup, who said Dan Beacham ordered the mill shooting, later became Sunday School teacher for McClain’s daughter at the Church of God in Honea Path. His son, Virgil Stalcup, went on to play shortstop for the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds.
The shooting of the Honea Path mill workers was a pivotal moment in the General Textile Strike that was sweeping the South. Though the efforts of the workers ended in defeat and much suffering followed, the deaths of the seven Honea Path men was not in vain.
The disillusionment of the workers and the outrageous conduct by the mill owners made a strong impression on the Roosevelt Administration. This helped spur passage of the Wagner Act in 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. Out of these laws came reforms that vastly improved the lives of all American workers.
One example was child labor. Before 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act outlawed employment of children under sixteen, the concept of “helping” was used in the mills. Very young children were taught factory skills by their parents and soon “helped” by working in the mill to increase the family's piecemeal earnings.
“Helping” became a form of apprenticeship and a major part of the mill’s labor system. Because this practice is now illegal, children have a better chance at a quality life by getting to stay in school rather than be exploited as cheap labor.
Other major reforms that came out of the labor unrest was the establishment of the minimum wage and the 40-hour work week. These are reforms—a direct result of what happened in Honea Path—have permeated modern life in the United States and have extended far beyond the textile industry. That’s why these workers were heroes and why their history should be honored.
The funeral for the workers in Honea Path. More than 10,000 people attended.
The corrosive division that poisoned Honea Path after the shootings and the sense of shame that followed the shooting was concocted by those responsible for the violence. Fortunately that has mostly ended now, if for no other reason than fewer and fewer remain with us who can give a first person account of what happened.
Sadly, it is no accident that the history of Chiquola Mill was so effectively suppressed. After 75 years, it’s time to take an honest look at what happened in 1934 and learn about the terrible events that shaped the lives of our grandparents, our parents and ourselves.
We are better off knowing the truth.
Dan Beacham with his wife Emma and her sister Betty Walker vacationing at Silver Springs, Florida in February-March, 1934. A few months later the shooting would be the beginning of the end of Dan Beacham's career.
The remains of Chiquola Mill on Christmas, 2008. Little has changed, except the removal of a few more bricks. The leadership of Honea Path has little interest in saving the mill. It remains in a perpetual state of demolition.