Heritage/History Lifestyle

History Feature: Dignity of Work

Photo courtesy of Jim Warlick

Monument Recognizes Contributions of Burke County Millworkers

By Lauren Stepp

Most 16-year-olds these days spend their time fretting over prom dates, SAT scores and TikTok views. Mary Harrison Warlick (1930-2013) didn’t have that luxury.

Raised in Burke County during the thick of the Great Depression, Mary had no choice but to quit school in the 10th grade and take a job as a hosiery repairer at the dusty, dimly lit Garrou-Morganton Full-Fashioned Hosiery Mills. According to Mary’s son, Jim Warlick, she labored at the very same workstation for 33 years, earning a meager $88 per week. “She rarely missed a day’s work, even when ill,” says Warlick, noting that his mother raised three children on her paltry wages.

Mary wasn’t alone in her struggles. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of men, women and, sadly, children labored in Morganton textile mills and furniture factories. Arguably, these workers built Burke County. And yet, their efforts are seldom recognized, says Warlick.

“From watching my mother catch a ride to the mill each morning before the sun rose, I had a deep sensitivity for her plight and the honorable dignity of working hard to provide for her children,” he notes. “I thought, ‘Why is there not a greater story being told about millworkers in Burke County?’”

Hoping to honor his mother and all others who dedicated their lives to industry, Warlick founded the Workers’ Legacy Foundation in 2017.

In the six years since, the foundation has recorded the oral histories of several former millworkers and established the Mary Warlick Scholarship Fund for first-generation students at Western Piedmont Community College. But earlier this spring, the foundation unveiled its most eye-catching initiative yet: the “Dignity of Work” monument.

Installed on the front lawn of the History Museum of Burke County, the larger-than-life edifice features vignettes of three Burke County millworkers: the late Claude Moore of Drexel Furniture Company, Anne Ramseur of Burke Mills and, in the middle, Warlick’s mother. In the front, backlit lettering reads “Dignity of Work.”

Mary valued dignity, or more specifically mutual respect. “She had an innate sense of justice and fairness to all races and detested bigotry,” says Warlick. “She was known as ‘Sweet Mary’ because of her very generous spirit.”

Inside the museum, Warlick has curated an exhibit that also honors his mother and other Burke County millworkers. The showcase features antique sewing machines, old photographs, examples of products manufactured at local factories and even a handset so that visitors can hear the deafening roar of mill equipment.

“This exhibition is a tribute to all of the working people and families from Burke County and surrounding areas,” says Warlick. “The impression we want to convey is that all work was honorable. There is always dignity in work when trying to provide for a family.”

The History Museum of Burke County (201 West Meeting Street, Morganton) is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, call 828.437.1777 or visit TheHistoryMuseumofBurke.org. To learn more about the Workers’ Legacy Foundation, visit WorkersLegacy.org.

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