THE BEMIS STORY
Taken from “50 Years in the Life of a Community”
Original Print, 1950. The Bemis Company
Reprint 1999, The Bemis Historical Society
back in 1900 . . .
The community of Bemis and the Jackson Fiber Company which was later to be called “Bemis Cotton Mill”, were born of the efforts of Judson Moss Bemis and the company he had founded in 1858, now known as Bemis Bro. Bag Company. Realizing that his company’s bag factories must have a dependable supply of high-quality cotton bag good, Mr. Bemis decided to build a cotton mill near the cotton fields, source of the raw material; near a good railroad center assuring excellent transportation service; and among people who would make dependable and efficient employees. The site that became Bemis offered all three of these fundamental requisites.
Built on the original 300-acre site donated by the forward-thinking citizens of Jackson and Madison County through county appropriation, the first mill of 21,000 spindle capacity was erected in 1900, actual production starting the year following.
J. B. Young was the first resident manager at Bemis. Under his able direction the mill prospered and the community was transformed from a few scattered negro cabins, gullies, and worn-out cotton fields, to the wide, tree-lined streets, beautiful homes, and well-kept lawns one sees today. Mr. Young died in 1928, but the memory of his countless contributions to Bemis and its people will live forever.
He was succeeded by his son, Fred J. Young, who himself is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of his association with the company in Bemis.
The happiness and satisfaction of those who were to call Bemis “home” were of prime importance in all the company’s planning. Both Mr. Bemis and Mr. Young, founders, were determined that those who lived in Bemis and who made the mill’s operations possible should be satisfied not only with their working environment but with their surroundings and living conditions as well.
From the very first, the future attractiveness of Bemis, as “a good place to live,” was carefully planned. Wide streets were laid out, trees and shrubs were planted in abundance, and good substantial houses were erected.
Worker housing units and tenements located just south of the Mill about 1910
Early consideration was given to providing for the entertainment and recreation of those who lived and worked in Bemis. Ample space for baseball and other sports was provided. A YMCA building was erected to serve young and old alike. Other improvements were added from time to time as needed.
School children posing in front of the original Bemis schoolhouse about 1910
Old-timers, and there are many still active today who remember the early days well, will tell you emphatically that down through the years the people of Bemis…all of them…have been just plain “folks”, sharing life’s blessings and hardships together… They’ll tell you… and their fellow townsmen will wholeheartedly agree…that a sincere, friendly atmosphere of real neighborliness and mutual understanding has always prevailed in the community.
in those days . . .
In the early 1900’s–those “good old days” as some folks like to call them–things were much different than today. For instance, the original 300-acre plot of land where Bemis now stands was purchased for a mere $20 per acre.
Cotton sold for 9 cents a pound; flour for 75 cents a sack, and sirloin steak was 25 cents per pound. Individual earnings were correspondingly low, but of course a dollar did purchase more worldly goods.
There were no paved roads between Bemis and Jackson, and the less-than-100-mile trip to Memphis was a major undertaking.
Sound movies, radios, television sets and the like were unknown and the automobile, or “horseless carriage,” was just beginning to be looked upon with favor. There were no tractors, nor mechanical cotton pickers. Mule power was the order of the day, and growing and harvesting of cotton and other crops were done the “hard way.”
Many operations in the mill were slow and tedious as compared with the speedy and largely automatic processes of cotton textile manufacture today.
Life in Bemis then was naturally different, too. Many modern conveniences and facilities we take for granted today were unavailable at that time. But one thing was true then–and it is just as true today–the comfort and welfare of the people of Bemis received top consideration.
down through the years . . .
The growth of Bemis has been solid and substantial. Demand for the high quality cotton cloth being produced made it necessary to double the capacity of the mill in 1905–which meant a corresponding increase in the number of employees needed.
Steady employment, good working conditions, and a progressive community life attracted high caliber people to Bemis–and they developed a unity of purpose that has continued to exemplify the true spirit of American democracy.
Religion was . . . . and has continued to be . . . . a bulwark of community life. The Bemis Union Church was built for the use of the people by Mr. J. M. Bemis in 1908.
The Union Church building, constructed in 1907, is a fine example of Tudor Revival architecture.
Judson Moss Bemis was succeeded in 1909 by his son, Albert Farwell Bemis, who played a most important part in the planning and development of the town of Bemis.
(Note: Albert was the mind behind the plan to build a model mill town. As a recent graduate of MIT with a degree in civil engineering, he was familiar with the latest controversies regarding industrial towns and with the latest innovations in building technology. He enlisted the help of former classmates and friends with MIT connections to assist in the engineering projects related to Bemis. The renowned architects Andrew Hepburn and Arthur Shurcliff were involved in the development of Bemis years before their famous collaboration in the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg.)
In 1913 an explosion occurred in the power plan, injuring several–two fatally–and causing considerable property damage. Repairs were made immediately, and operations resumed within two weeks. This remains the only major disaster in the history of the town.
To show their appreciation to the founder of their town, in 1914 the people of Bemis subscribed funds to erect a memorial drinking fountain over an artesian well in honor of Judson Moss Bemis. They not only conceived the idea, but designed the fountain and did the work themselves.
Then came World War I, and Bemis, with characteristic American determination, did its part by sending its sons to fight for the democracy we all treasure, while their families did their share at home.
The 1920’s marked an era of development. Addition of a second shift became necessary at this time, providing many jobs in the mill and adding to the growing prosperity of the town and its people.
As the Bemis family grew, the spirit of the town became stronger. It became imperative to provide more homes. So it was that an additional three hundred fifty acres were purchased to allow room for further expansion.
In 1920 fifty-four family units were built in East Bemis. Again in 1926, more new homes were erected, this time in the area of West Bemis known as “New Town”, to accommodate an additional eighty-four families.
The Auditorium, with a seating capacity of 850, was also built during this period to provide a place for school activities and other community meetings, and entertainment featuring motion pictures.
The cast of the production of “Said Pasha,” a home talent play produced in the early twenties
and performed in the auditorium
And so it has continued through the years–the town constantly developing–keeping pace with a growing America. While retaining its “homey” atmosphere and charm, Bemis was adding the comforts and conveniences of progress. People liked their jobs and their home
. . . . new generations joined their elders . . . . and the roots of family life grew deeper.
The school system was expanded . . . . more playgrounds were built to accommodate eager youth. More production in the mill resulted from utilization of various mechanical improvements. . . . the forty-hour work week became a reality.
In 1940 the new Gymnasium building, an addition to the YMCA, was erected. This completely modern structure houses a large gymnasium seating nearly a thousand, suitable for basketball and other community activities. The spacious upstairs provides ample room for future development of a complete women’s department.
World War II broke with disastrous suddenness on that fateful December 7, 1941. Bemis and its people sprang into action. On the home front the mill was converted to wartime operation . . . . each family did its part . . . . and the sons and daughters of Bemis marched 396 strong in the armed services of their country . . . . a remarkable record of nearly 10% of the area’s population . . . . again to demonstrate to the opponents of democracy that the American Way of Life is here to stay. Twelve Bemis men make the supreme sacrifice . . . . for their homes . . . . their families . . . . and the land they loved.
Glorious peace again . . . . American production remained at full speed. The third shift, added during the war, was made permanent in the mill to meet the demand for Bemis cotton goods, assuring additional jobs, and continuing the town’s growth.
. . . today
Since World War II, Bemis has enjoyed prosperous times, and the hum of the mill’s operations has been constant. A large number of Bemis men and women who served their country have long since resumed their places in the community’s life. Most of the younger veterans are now married, have families, and, as good citizens, are giving freely of their time and effort to make Bemis an even better place in which to live and rear their children.
Bemis today is all one would expect of a community conceived of such practical ideas, planned so carefully, and built on such a solid foundation. It is a good substantial American community where free man and women enjoy the blessings and advantages of our modern civilization in a restful, quiet atmosphere of secure contentment.
Here you’ll meet real folks who greet you with genuine warmth and whose friendly handclasp and smile of welcome communicate to you their joy of living, and their secure feeling of confidence in the future.
The people of Bemis enjoy the benefits and advantages of our modern era and at the same time know the deep satisfaction of a closely knot family and community life where the words “friend” and “neighbor” have a special meaning.
Here, in an atmosphere of genuine democracy, people enjoy the rewards of our cherished American Way of Life, and benefit from our system of free enterprise.
Perhaps the Bemis of today could never be better described than by the words of its Golden Anniversary slogan, originated by one who has been a part of Bemis for 46 years.
And so we have the community of Bemis today–the town, its homes and people, its churches and schools, its social life and play, and its work.
A stroll through the town’s well-paved, tree-lined streets is an enjoyable experience. One all sides is evidence showing that the large group of maintenance men, by constant work and attention, keep the houses, the parks, and the town as a whole, clean and snugly attractive.
Within the town, the company operates a complete general store, the Bemis Mercantile Company, which stocks a wide variety of dry goods and other merchandise and includes a modern grocery and meat department. Available at nominal rentals is a frozen food locker of 167 units. This store is operated for the convenience of Bemis’ people, and is competitive in price with large shopping centers. Many other retail stores, independently operated, also serve the community.
The store building also provides ample rental space for the Bemis Post Office, an up-to-date pharmacy, and a physician’s offices and meeting rooms upstairs. In the same block is a modern clinic, leased by the company to private practitioners in medicine and dentistry.
True love of God . . . keystone of real democracy, is very strong in this community. Six churches play a central part in the life of its people. Here there is no intolerance and bigotry–a man worships in the manner of his choice.
Originally Judson Moss Bemis, founder of the town, built a Union Church for use by all faiths. But as the community grew, the various denominations established their own places of worship. Thus the original Union Church has become the Bemis Methodist Church–the land and the building having been deeded to the congregation by the company. There are also three Baptist churches, a Church of Christ, and a Pentecostal Church. Financial aid has been given by the company to help in their building programs. Jackson and the surrounding territory provide other churches for those religious groups in Bemis not large enough to have churches of their own.
Equal opportunity for all is our American belief and an essential part of that opportunity is our free educational system available to all children. A school was established in Bemis when the first families arrived. Through the years, additional facilities have adequately kept pace with the growth of the community.
Today there are five buildings housing the grade schools, and one high school, all well-staffed, and complete with the latest in educational equipment. A modern cafeteria provides hot, nourishing, well-balanced lunches. Competitive athletics and physical education round out a well-coorindated program. The company has cooperated generously with the Madison County school system to give Bemis’ youth every scholastic advantage.
Social life and recreation play an important part in Bemis as they do in other communities throughout the land. There are ample parks and playgrounds, a recent addition being one for children under 12, with swings, slides and acrobatic equipment. This newest playground also boasts a fine wading pool for the smaller youngsters.
The town’s fine auditorium doubles as a motion picture theatre, where current pictures are shown at hours to accommodate all three of the mill’s shifts. The YMCA provides domino and checker tables, reading facilities with magazines, five billiard tables, well-equipped showers and locker rooms for men and women, and many other conveniences. Space is rented for the operation of a beauty parlor and a barber shop.
The new gymnasium-community building is available for all community, recreational, and social activities. In season, it serves as a basketball court. Other times it is used as a skating rink, and for various company and community purposes. Upstairs there are meeting rooms suitable for small parties and banquets, and a women’s department complete with modern kitchen. Sewing equipment is available for all who are to use it.
Heart of the town is the Bemis Cotton Mill where 1,250 employees earn more than $2,750,000.00 annually. Equipped with 50,000 spindles and 1,710 looms, the mill each year makes 26,000 bales of cotton into 50 million yards of cotton cloth and one million pounds of sewing thread. Shipped to other Bemis plants throughout the country, these products are used to make cotton bags, and for other purposes to package a variety of foods and commodities essential to the daily lives of millions. The company of which Bemis is a vital part–the Bemis Bro. Bag Company–has been termed, “America’s No. 1 Bag Maker.”
Contrary to many conceptions of southern mill towns, here are ideal working conditions. The wage scale compares very favorably with that of other industries in the area. Bemis people take pride in producing essential goods for American business and industry.
“Where Industry and Friendliness blend into Progress” is the way she feels about her home town–and certainly she should know, having worked in Bemis for nearly all the half-century since it was founded. This pioneer’s spirit truly typifies that of the entire community.
Roots in Bemis grow deep–and the fundamental needs for security and a happy family life are satisfied, as is shown in the length of employees’ service records. Of the 1250 on the payroll, over 900 have been employed five years or more. Of these, more than 300 have service records ranging from 20 to 50 years. Many of the present people are descendants of families that settled in Bemis back in the early days. This record is truly indicative of the very low employee turnover.
Employees with long service records are proud of their membership in their “20 year Club.” They wear the gold “Cat-in-the-Bag” pin, emblematic of 20 years or more of faithful service, as the bade of honor it is. Silver pins of the same design are awarded to honor those who have five, the, and fifteen year records.
. . . and tomorrow
What does the future hold for Bemis?
The answer to this question is easy and of little concern when one sees and chats with the healthy, clear-eyed youth of the town. Here are those whose parents and grandparents have contributed so much to the community and to the mills’ operations during the past half-century, and who themselves, as the men and women of tomorrow, will take over the responsibilities that are rightfully theirs. Through their early years they have been raised in an atmosphere of righteous and clean living that breathes and speaks the true standards of Christianity and Americanism which have made Bemis and our country great . . . . the standards which will keep it great in the years ahead.
Watch them as they diligently pursue their studies in the Bemis schools . . . . as they enjoy themselves at the town’s public swimming pool in summer and at the gay roller skating patties at the big gymnasium during the winter months. Share their spirit at a basketball game or on the football field as they combine teamwork with fair play and good sportsmanship.
Surely, like all other American youth, they’ll be exposed to temptation . . . . to the false lure of political and social panaceas. But you can depend upon the fact that when it comes to the final decision, they’ll make the right one . . . . the decision that will assure a continuance of our way of life . . . . a greater Bemis . . . . and a greater America in the years to come.
It is thus to the youth of Bemis–and of our nation–that we will confidently pass the banner of freedom and progress.
By so doing we shall reaffirm in them our faith that communism and other destructive ideologies shall never blight this great country of ours, and that the beacon of true American democracy shall forever burn brighter and brighter.
So, with reverence and thanksgiving to the Almighty, this story of the first fifty years in the life of the community of Bemis, Tennessee, is in sincere tribute to all Bemis people of yesteryear and today, and is dedicated to those who shall chart its course and guide its destiny during the next half-century . . . . its youth!