Article by Denney Barnette - 1948

Beginnings are always interesting.  The birth of new things, be it in an animate form or just a new idea, has certain appeal to almost everyone.  Yet the most important thing is not so much the beginning itself as the progress made from the beginning.  Such an origin has even greater appeal when it has a personal effect on an individual as did the birth of this plant on everyone that is now or has ever been an employee.

First Silk - L to R:  T.O. Day, F.G. Kraft, A.G. Flemming - chemist holding a glass bobbin.

Surely, there is no better way to portray the commencement of the operation of our plant in 1925 and its progressive development throughout the years than to relate the stories of a few of those first employees who were here at the first and have remained to see the passing of each milestone along the road of progress.

William D. "Bill" Hunt of Plant I Chemical Laboratory looks at two souvenirs of his early days with Du Pont, the first rent receipt for a Company house and his patent agreement, both dated 1925.

William D. “Bill” Hunt, bacteriologist in Plant 1 Chemical Laboratory, really saw the beginning of the production of rayon at Old Hickory.  Construction of Plant 1 Spinning Room wasn’t even completed when, in answer to an advertisement in a Nashville newspaper, Bill became a laboratory technician here on January 22, 1925. 

While talking to him about the “old days” we found Bill to be virtually a walking history book.  He frequently consulted dates jotted down inside the doors of his storage cabinets or referred to various notations in memorandum books.  He exhibited a rent receipt dated March 21, 1925, which was for the first rent he paid for a Company house.  This receipt is headed “Du Pont Fibersilk Company,” which was the designation of our branch of the Company at that time.  He also has the patent agreement that he signed on May 13 1925, and from the back of a cabinet came laboratory analysis reports of 1925, probably some of the first records made.

Front of plant during construction

Although the walls and roof were up in Plant 1 Spinning Room, it wasn’t completely closed up and trucks hauling dirt drove right into the Spinning Room during those first days that Bill was here.  The Laboratory was located in the corner Plant Spinning Room just to the right of the entrance to the stairs leading to the present Lab.  Bill used to drive his 1924 T Model right on back and park just outside the walls of the Laboratory.  During those cold days of the winter of ’25 he would have to make a trip to the Power House and borrow hot water to get the old Ford running when he got ready to leave.  The area now covered by Plant 2 was practically a woods and a corral of horses was located in this vicinity.  A filling station and restaurant was located just across the street, where our parking area is now located.

"In the early days we worked seven days a week, with no days off, no vacations and 20  minutes for lunch only if our work was caught up.  If employees work was not satisfactory they were laid off for a week or two- or fired.  The work was much harder physically than it is today.  Many places were hot, humid and had unpleasant odors.  In the wash rack area, splashing water was a constant part of the job, requiring employees to wear bathing suits or cut-off trousers.  Frankly, compared to today, the conditions were simply unbelievable.  People today just would not accept such jobs if there were any alternatives at all." - "Pete" Sloan 1975

Bill’s first days were spent unpacking equipment and getting prepared for operation.  Construction workers were still installing lights and hot lugs.  According to him, there’s no comparison between that equipment and the ultra-modern equipment present in the Old Hickory Laboratories today.  Most of the cabinets and tables were “homemade” and no glass-blowing equipment or many other items of equipment considered standard today were in evidence then. 

There were four employees at the beginning and this number was increased to only eight or ten for quite some time after operation began.  Here were performed, in addition to the functions of the Chemical Lab, all physical testing done in those days as well as the cleaning of spinnerettes.  Today there are 52 people in the Chemical Laboratories alone, besides the dozens in Physical Testing and Spinnerette Labs and the other related departments. 

For a short while, the Laboratory had the only phone in the vicinity and the Lab personnel had to serve as messengers for First Aid, located adjacent to them, and Spinning Area supervision, whose office was next door.  Bill recalls that he helped Anne Hoskins, nurse now at Cellophane, to unpack and set up the equipment for the original dispensary, located in a room just about the size of one of the doctor’s offices in our present Medical Department.  There were a couple of cots and a nurse on duty with necessary supplies to apply emergency treatment to injuries.  This small first aid station was a far cry from our modern, well-equipped Medical Department, complete with X ray and staffed with four doctors and a corps of nurses.

Mr. Hunt well remembers the beginning of operation.  He says he saw a sample bottle of the first viscose produced by Plant 1 Chemical Building.  To him it looked like a bottle of sorghum molasses.  He also ran the control analysis on the start-up caustic and bath.  The first rayon yarn produced reminded him of binder twine.

“In those days I never heard quality mentioned,” says Bill.  And even though his duties are now not so closely related to the actual manufacture of rayon, Bill admits he is just naturally curious and therefore likes to keep up with what is going on.  Consequently, he’s well aware of the tremendous improvement that has been made in production methods and quality of product.  

When you mention safety, you touch on a subject that immediately sparks a note of interest in the face of Mr. Hunt.  To compute his own days without an injury just subtract his service date from the present date and you’ll have it, over 23 without a blemish on his safety record.  Being a member of the 8000 Day Club himself, Bill is interested in the records of his fellow employees and so it’s an additional duty of his to maintain the records for his area on days gone without an injury.  The outstanding records of these people who work in an area where hazards are many are a good example of progress from the standpoint of safety.  Even though it was two or three years after he went to work here before Bill Hunt attended a safety meeting on this plant, things have definitely changed.  Now Plant 1 Chemical Laboratory has a safety meeting every Monday morning and has a combined Control Section meeting every five weeks. 

"Living in Madison, the only way to get to work in the 1920s was to cross what was known as the Swinging Bridge, located north of the present bridge.  I drove a Model T Ford, and was in a car pool with four others.  After heavy rains, getting to work could be quite an adventure.  The Cumberland River would overflow its banks, forming a lake on the Madison side of the bridge and making it impossible to drive onto the bridge.  So we'd take off on foot, hiking a half-mile down some railroad tracks above the water, and then crossing a foot bridge to the Swinging Bridge.  Then we'd cross the bridge to a point on the plant side where a company flatbed truck would be waiting to take us the rest of the way to work.  The group would be packed pretty tightly into the back of that truck, with feet dangling over the side, and I can recall arriving at the plant in that manner any number of times. " - Gray Livingston - 1975 - hired on at the age of 14 in August of 1925.

Bill’s present job is very different from any other on the plant.  It consists of running bacteriological tests on all water used in this plant, at the Cellophane Plant and in the Village, as well as similar tests on milk, trade waste and sewage. 

You don’t have to talk to him long until you’ll be convinced that Bill Hunt is “sold on his job.”  He says he fully intended to make a career of his affiliation with DuPont when he answered that ad in 1925.  He seems to be doing just that and enjoying every minute of it.

Russell Shedden, now Plant 1 Textile Area clerk, working in the Production Control Section , cast his lot with DuPont in Old Hickory on February 26, 1925.  Russ has the distinction of having worked in two departments which are no longer in existence on this plant:  the Wash and Bleach Area, discontinued in 1939, and the Sales Office, which was moved to Chattanooga in 1930.

Russell N. Shedden, Production Control Section, consults the schedule of the modern new conference room which now covers the space formerly occupied by the washers in the old Plant 1 Wash and Bleach Area in which Russ started to work in 1925.

His reasons for seeking employment with Du Pont were two-fold.  He had just talked a young lady into becoming Mrs. Shedden and was interested in securing a job with a future in this locality.  Also he had formerly had a job on the road for Marshal-Field of Chicago and had an idea of learning about rayon with the intention of some day getting into the selling end of the business.

Thus it was that he came to be on of the first men hired in the Wash and Bleach Area, almost before construction was completed.  The walls in the front of the buildings were not completed.  Men were still working on the sawtooth roof and completing the insulation.  Those first few days were spent cleaning up after construction and washing waste.  Naturally with operation in its infancy, a large percentage of that first rayon produced for several weeks went into waste.  Russ recalls that at one time there must have been over a hundred thousand pounds of waste on hand.  This was washed in huge mastic tubs with a large fire hose.

So many of the present-day employees have no idea as to what the Wash and Bleach Area was like, we will attempt to summarize the operation of the department that Russ helped to start some 23 years ago.  Where desulphuring now takes place while the rayon is in cake form, in those days the Wash and Bleach did this job to the skeins after they left the Reeling Room, the cakes receiving only a preliminary acid wash in the Spinning Room.  All the first year’s production went to skeins.

The four machines that went into operation in Plant 1 to accomplish this wash and bleach job were long, tunnel-like enclosed racks with the washing solutions and bleaching solutions (primarily chlorine) entering through the top.  The skeins were put on rods at the front of the machine and charged into the machine.  The first step was a hot wash of caustic, next a cold wash to remove the caustic, then the bleaching solution was applied.  This bleach was washed out, a second bleach given and washed out, then the rayon passed into the finishing stage.  The skeins were then removed still wet and after being wrapped in large muslin cloths were put into a centrifugal wringer to remove excess moisture.  The skeins were the restrung into a dryer.

In this dryer, which somewhat resembled those dryers now being used to dry the rayon in cake form, the first step was the removal of the moisture with heat until the rayon was almost dry.  It was then cooled and humidified or a certain amount of the moisture reinstated before being removed to a rolling rack, or “Trojan horse,” to go into Skein Inspection.  This operation normally required for operators, one to charge the skeins into the washer, one to remove and centrifuge the wet skeins, a man to charge the dryer and another to transfer the rayon from the dryer onto the “Trojan horses.”  The amount of handling necessary for this method was the primary objection to it.  The delicate nature of skeins of rayon, especially when wet, created an eternal problem of injury to the yarn through handling. 

"It's been 48 years since I started work in rayon winding, but I still remember my starting rate of pay: 17 cents per hour.  Back in those days and into the 1920s we had what was known as an 'efficiency rate.'  That is, the amount of pay received depended on the number of rayon cones we turned out.  If I worked at what was considered 100 percent efficiency, I was able to take home as much as $25 per week." - Ed Allen - 1975

Mr. Shedden, during a lull in Wash and Bleach operations, assisted a representative of the Universal Winding Machine company in leveling and installing the first winding machine in the Old Hickory Plant, early in 1926.  Later, after progressing to the position of supervisor in the Wash and Bleach Area, Russ went into the Sales Office where he eventually became chief clerk.  This Sales Office, located approximately where the Purchasing Office is now, took orders for rayon by phone and mail, having no teletype at the time.  They also received customer complaints.  Upon the transfer of this office to Chattanooga, Russ went into the Production Control Section, which took over some of the duties of the Sales Office. 

In the type work in which Mr. Shedden has been engaged, he has been engaged, he has been in a good position to note the great advancement made in the quality of the product produced here.  He can remember when poundage, not quality, was the keynote.  However, since his main job now is compiling weekly and monthly reports on rejects and grading, it is evident to him that progress in the field of quality has been outstanding.  When asked what he considers to be some of the major contributions to this notable change, Russ listed: minimizing the handling of rayon; use of information gained from customers as to what is required; and foremost, the increased number of quality-minded employees who have come to realize that quality of product is one of the prime constituents of job security.  

Also, as is ever long-service employee, Mr. Shedden is greatly impressed with the progress made in the field of safety.  From the days prior to 1930, when there was virtually no organization for safety, activity has been increased until today the doctrine of safety has been instilled in each and every employee.  Personnel have become so safety minded that they have carried accident prevention home with them and educated everyone with whom they have come in contact.  

With 23 years of recollection behind him, in which he has seen the plant “come a long way,” Russell Shedden is convinced that the next quarter of a century will bring changes just as revolutionary and progress just as definite.  

W.T. "Tom" Jackson inspects one of the new large-type buckets in use in Plant 1 Spinning

None should be better informed about the early-day activities than W.T. “Tom” Jackson, now Day Crew foreman in Plant 1 Spinning Room.  Mr. Jackson, who began his career with Du pont on November 30, 1924, as a rigger on Construction, helped to set the first boilers and generators in the Power House.  This association with the Du Pont influenced him to the extent that he decided he would like to transfer into Operations and continue as a Du Ponter.  This transfer was accomplished and he began his career in Plant 1 Spinning Area as a pump tester on April 15, 1925. 

At that time only four of the old Type 3 spinning machines were in operation.  In his capacity as pump tester it was Tom’s responsibility to regulate the denier by controlling the flow of viscose through the pumps into the acid bath.  The only denier run for the first two or three years, according to Mr. Jackson, was 150-24.  As a comparison today, there are 15 different deniers being spun in Plant 1 Spinning alone, ranging up to 900 denier.  In 1925, a denier change necessitated a pump adjustment on each individual pump with a pair of pliers and a wrench.  Today, the PIV control, a mechanical chain drive on the end of the machine, makes the adjustment on the entire pump delivery of the spinning machine at one time. 

While many of us may not be too familiar with present-day spinning machines or their operations, we can certainly visualize the improvements made after getting a description of those first four machines compared with the 231 we have operating in both plants today. 

These machines which pioneered operation at Old Hickory were built on a platform as the machines now located in Plants 1B and 2A.  But this was before the days of Desulphuring Area and the wash racks were built between the machines right on the platform.  The cakes of rayon were removed from the spinning machines and immediately hung on these racks for the preliminary wash.  These machines had no “goof trough” (trough to catch viscose dripping from the pumps) or sewers through which to run this viscose.  They used long metal pans about four feet long under the pumps.  It was necessary to frequently empty these pans into garbage cans to be carried out. 

On those first machines, one side (50 buckets) was driven by a single motor.  Thus, if I became necessary to stop one bucket, one entire side of the machine ceased operation.  Therefore, the doffing (removing of completed cakes of rayon from the bucket of the spinning machine) required that the machines be shut down completely and then threaded back up.  It required 30 to 45 minutes for this operation.  Today, each individual bucket is driven by a separate motor and so one position may be stopped at a time.  It now takes a crew approximately six minutes to doff an entire machine and even then each position is spinning “feed wheel wraps” while the bucket is stopped.  These are sold as a by-product, so actually no production time is lost.  

Instead of roller type guides in the bath trough, a porcelain-tipped hook guide was used.  This type guide caused many broken filaments.  Therefore, their elimination was a major contribution to the improvement of quality.  The rayon thread, after leaving the bath trough, simply went over the feed wheel and made no loop, going directly into the funnel.  The speed of these wheels on those first four machines was 129 revolutions per minute.  Today, the RPM of our machines runs as high as 250.  This results in more poundage and, strange to say, better quality. 

According to Tom, it’s a toss-up as to the greatest problem encountered in early-day spinning, between breaking funnels and flying buckets.  These funnels through which the thread passes down into the bucket (which spins the rayon into cake form) were made of glass in those days instead of hard rubber as they are today.  Naturally they were easily broken and were a continual problem not only because of the expense involved but as a perpetual safety hazard. 

It hasn’t been so long ago when this country went through the “flying saucer” era.  All this might have brought back some memories of those flying buckets for many employees who used to work in the Spinning Room in the “good ole days.”  Buckets of the present-day spinning machines are in a lock-type compartment and can’t come off during the spinning operation, but before these compartments, with their wooden covers and safety rails, were installed, it was not an uncommon sight to have a bucket go sailing over a machine and break down several positions on the next machine or to have a bucket go dancing down the aisle between the machines spinning like a whirling dervish.  

In addition to the afore-mentioned steps of progress, Mr. Jackson also mentioned improvements in the elimination of fumes due to change from wooden fume ducts over the machines to ducts under the machines and the great improvement in the viscose (from which rayon is spun) through continual research and development.

In summing it all up, Mr. Jackson said, “there’s just no comparison between the production of rayon today and in 1925.  Looking back, I can’t see how they possibly sold the stuff we made then.” 

There is no trace of nostalgic longing for the “good ole days’ in the face of Annie Jo Elam when she reminisces about her early days at the plant.  As she expresses it, “When you look back to the first year of operation, it is almost inconceivable that there has been so much progress made.” 

Annie Jo Elam of the Physical Testing Laboratory gazes in amazement at one of the intricate automatic lacing machines that lace skeins in Plant 2A Reeling Room today.  Such a machine would have been nothing short of miraculous in 1925 when Mrs. Elam started reeling in Plant 1 Textile area.
When lacing was done by hand.

Mrs. Elam, whose adjusted service date is May 26, 1925, fist came to work on April 9 of that year as a reel operator.  She had just begun working and her first job had been on the night shift in a bakery.  She came to Old Hickory because she wanted a day job.  Like so many of the wearers of the three star oval, she had no intention of staying very long.  “She was just kinda looking around.”  Even after six months she took a vacation and shopped around for another job.  But up to now she says “I’ve never found anything that would beat what I had.” 

When Annie Jo first entered Plant 1 Textile Area on that day in April 1925, it contained two sections of reels.  She recalls that the thing that impressed her most that first day was the noise of the clicking flys. 

A recollection of her training period brought to her mind one of the things in which much progress has been made.  Instead of going into a training class in a training room, as ins the case with new Textile Area operators now, Mrs. Elam was put in the area on the job and was instructed only until it was felt by her instructress that she was capable of accepting an assignment.  On a new job, in the noise and confusion of a new environment and a little nervous, she naturally could not adapt herself so easily to her new duties. 

In those days, a reel operator’s assignment consisted of one fly, or eight girls to each reeling machine.  All lacing was done by hand, the operator lacing one fly while another filled.  Thirty to forty “doles” (skeins from one filled fly twisted together) was top production.  In comparison today, with innumerable improvements in machinery and methods plus the skill of better trained operators, one operator can carry an assignment of as many as eleven flys on the light deniers and 127 “doles” per day on the heavier deniers are easily obtainable. 

Of course, the major innovation to reeling was the introduction of automatic lacers.  At first rumors of such machines, Mrs. Elam said that the consensus of the reel operators was that “such talk was crazy.”  However, it proved to be true and today these mechanical fingers can lace as many as 435 doles per day with two operators on the machine. 

Many were the problems of reeling in those days.  Flying sulphur from the cakes covered the machines in a short time and frequent thorough clean-ups were necessary.  Cakes came from the Spinning Room on aluminum inserts without a wrapping of any kind.  This absence of a protective covering  certainly did not decrease the defects from handling.  Colored bands on the inserts identified deniers instead of the design on the wrap as today.  Power shutdowns were frequent.  Many times an early morning shutdown would necessitate the operators’ going home for the rest of the day. 

Of course there was little emphasis on quality in these days.  The primary objective was production.  Everything and everyone was new, so the main thing was to learn to produce rayon.  Up until the fall of 1925, the operator’s waste wasn’t even checked.  Therefore, it was not an uncommon practice, if a cake didn’t run so well, to discard it into waste and try another.  Mrs. Elam recalls one instance of finding a grasshopper in the middle of a cake she was reeling.  Her first recollection of any forward steps in quality was in 1926, when an inspection for rust or “red spots” was started. 

There must have been little or no safety education or publicity in those early days because if there was it couldn’t have been very extensive, as Mrs. Elam doesn’t remember it.  Housekeeping consisted merely of keeping your work area clear enough to enable you to move about.  

Most work weeks were six days and 57 hours, 10 hours a day Monday through Friday and seven hours a day on Saturday.  Many operators would come to work early in order to have extra production before work time. 

Mrs. Elam says she doesn’t remember much about the rest of the plant in 1925 because in those days, before RAYON YARNS and other means of disseminating information, employees knew very little about what went on outside of their own department.  She does remember, however, the first cafeteria in a corner of what is now Plant 1 Shipping Room and how employees ate their lunches on the shipping platform. 

Mrs. Elam worked in the Reeling Rooms as an operator, on reinspection and as forelady until her transfer into the Physical Testing Laboratory in 1930.  Today she has a most interesting job in the Cross Section Laboratory and after 23 year as a DuPonter is very much impressed with the great progress that has been made in production methods, quality, safety and housekeeping.  She and her husband, Herbert Elam, a supervisor in Maintenance, form one of the many husband and wife teams that have contributed to this progress that has been made since that embryonic period of 1925.  

Claude Coleman, shift supervisor, inspects a perfect three-pound cone that has just come off a winding machine in Plant I Textile Area.  Such a cone could only have been a dream in the early days when Claude started winding.

While Claude Coleman many not have been one of the first individuals to go to work in Plant 1 Textile Area, he surely has been in that area longer than anyone here today.  Even though he quit a couple of times to go to school, he has been around Plant 1 Textile off and on for over 22 years and has worked on practically every job in the area.  From that first day, March 2, 1926, until the present he has been a service operator, pickup operator, winderoperator and foremand and at present is a shift supervisor.  He had just returned from that now historic “Florida Boom” and learned about Du Pont from a girl who had come from his home tome, Livingston, Tennessee, to work at Old Hickory.  Claude says he well remembers that first shift he worked here.  He came to work in the afternoon and worked 14 hours putting colored denier bands on the old aluminum inserts.

On that day in 1926, there were only approximately 200 winding machines in Plant 1 Textile Area, the rest of the room being filled with reels.  Today there are 685 winding machines in Plant 1, plus 576 in Plant 2B.  When asked for a comparison between those winders of then and now, Claude replied, “Gosh, they’ve been practically made over.”

In the early days, there was a frame under each machine filled with sawdust like the floors of a frontier saloon.  There were sawdust bins in the corners of the room from which these frames were refilled at intervals.  Present-day machines have improved spindles and guides and different tension and the speed of the spindle has been increased from 1000 RPM to 1350 and even as high as 2000 on tube winding.  Then each winding machine had an individual intermittent oiling unit which was driven by a belt.  These belts’ breaking and jumping off were a continual nuisance.  In addition this type oiler sprayed oil like “Old Faithful” and after a shift, the legs of the operator’s trousers were spotted with oil up to the knees.  At present, the oilers that put the proper amount of oil into the yarn travel at a greatly reduced speed and 96 spindles, or one entire side of a winder alley, are tied together and propelled by a single chain-driven shaft from one motor. 

In 1926, the machines were grouped into 24-spindle alleys instead of 96 as in a present-day alley.  Over these machines were stock racks with four red poles and four white ones.  A rayon distributor or “stock boy” put cakes of rayon on the white poles.  An inspector or “thread marker,” as they were called, came along and checked the cakes.  Those considered in condition to run were placed on the red rack, from which the winder operator got his cakes for winding.  Today the same operator removes the rayon from the carriers, inspects it and winds it.  The elimination of rayon hanging over the machines and only one person handling the cakes are decided improvements in housekeeping and quality.

Other equipment improvements recalled by Claude were improved pin trays on which to place finished cones and the buggies on which these trays are placed.  The old type buggies plus the soft asphalt-covered floor that they had to move over in 1926 made moving a loaded buggy a two-man job and at times it was like “pushing a log wagon out of a mud hole.”  The scissors used by winder operators in the early days of operation were of the dime store variety like baby sister uses to cut out paper dolls.  Today they are specially designed and round for 1/8” and ¼” knots.

Improvements in methods have been so great that it ispossible for operators to run more production with much less effort.  According to Claude, an operator who could run 36 spindles would have really been a “whiz” in those days.  Now operators carry an assignment of 124 spindles on an average denier.   In those days everything was wound into two-pound cones on a 12E spindle on a cone core that much resembled an ice cream cone, coming to a sharp point at one end.  Now production is put out in two-, three-, and four-pound cones on three-degree cores.  It woul dhave been a miracle in 1926 to have equaled the approximately 55,000 pounds of production per day that is presently being wound in Plant 1 Textile even with the same number of machines that there are today.  The primary problem was summed up by Mr. Coleman as being “just getting the stuff to run.”  The top grade rayon then was not as good as the present day SR-3 (lowest grade rayon).  The cakes were thin and filaments easily broken.  “We’ve come such a long way that there’s no comparison between present-day quality and the poor excuse for rayon produced in 1926.”

Claude couldn’t complete his recollections of the past without touching on the forward steps in the field of safety.  He believes that simple education of the operators through personal contact has been the biggest factor in the reduction of the accident frequency rates.   In those early days of operation the turnover of personnel was so rapid that an educational program was practically impossible.  People were here today and gone tomorrow.  This in itself is a big contrast between the past and the present, when a large percentage of the employees who come to work at Old Hickory come with the intention of making their job here their career, as has Claude Coleman.

Rayon Plant I - Today - Near Reemay®


Source:  Rayon Yarns; June 1948; Old Hickory Site - 50 Years