White Mill groundbreaking 3

Former Dan River Mills employee Randy Hedrick reflects on his years working at the mills, where he started at age 15. 

Hunt “Randy” Hedrick Jr. got a job at Dan River Mills when he was 15 years old. His parents worked at the mill, as did most of his family. 

In Danville, Dan River workers were known as “mill rats” and their kids were “mill brats” by those who did not work at the mills, said Hedrick.

As the mills employed roughly 35% of Danville’s population prior to World War II, mill workers and their children represented a large portion of the city’s residents.

“I stand here proud to say I was a rat and I am, and remain, a mill brat,” said Hedrick Thursday at the ground breaking for the project — Dan River Falls — that will transform one of the last physical expressions of the city’s role in the textile industry, the White Mill. 

The White Mill, which closed in 1996, will over the next two years, be turned into a multi-use complex with apartments, retail and office space and parking on the 18 acres it inhabits along the Dan River. (See story on page 1A). Additional plans include a riverfront park and a whitewater attraction in the adjacent canal that is next to the river. 

Hedrick was one of the speakers at Thursday’s ground breaking, and one of many former mill workers who came to mark the beginning of a new future for the former White Mill, also known as Mill. No. 8.

Hedrick spoke about life as a mill worker’s child, as well as his days as a worker there. 

Dan River Mills salaries housed, fed, clothed and educated multiple generations for more than a century, said Hedrick.

The company practiced paternal management, with the idea that “healthy, happy employees were good employees,” said Hedrick. 

Dan River built most of the houses in the Schoolfield area for their workers, subsidized a nursing school and had a medical clinic for its employees, he said. 

Hedrick said he learned to swim in the Schoolfield Recreation Center pool, watched movies at the Schoolfield theater and played football, baseball and basketball in its fields. 

Dan River employees were part of the mill family and fellow workers knew each other and each other’s children. If you met someone you didn’t know, but they were a mill worker, you were almost instant friends, said Hedrick.

Hedrick began working at Dan River as a teenager, and while it was mostly manual labor, he considered it a step up from working in the tobacco fields. 

If you were ready to work and willing to work, then Dan River was the place to be, said Hedrick, adding that being a mill worker at Dan River was more than a way to make a living, it was a way of life.

He remembers moving boxes that were larger than he was. 

“You couldn’t hear yourself think a lot of times, but it was something to witness,” he said. 

Later, as he traveled overseas to other textile factories, Hedrick would tell people he was from Danville, Virginia and they knew where he was talking about.

“Dan River put Danville on the international map as well,” he said.

Hedrick, in describing the work at the mill, said the first floor of the White Mill was once the largest single weaving unit in the world. 

Hedrick said Dan River Mills not only housed, fed, clothed and educated him as a child, it also helped launch his career. 

When Dan River Mills closed in 2006, “I was heartbroken,” said Hedrick, adding that because his parents had passed away by then, they didn’t have to see what happened to the mills, and Danville, as a collapse of the tobacco industry around the same time led to years of decline for the city. 

Danville, which likes to call itself the “Comeback City” has invested millions in its downtown River District and now also eagerly awaits the construction of Caesars Virginia on the site of the former Dan River Mills site at Schoolfield. 

Hedrick said it makes his heart swell to know the White Mill will live on and continue to serve Danville — and that it will be a tribute to the company that built it — Dan River Mills. 

“I prayed for it,” he said of the project.

“I’m excited about the changes in Danville. I’m glad to see it turning the corner and becoming the city I know it can be,” said Hedrick. 

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