The Clayton of years past isn't as distant as one might think. Just take a ride around town with Jack Lee, who grew up in the Bartex/Liberty mill community known as "Cotton Mill Hill."
Lee took me on a tour of the area while I was working on this week's Garner-Clayton Record story about the mill community and its ties to the child labor movement. His father worked in the mill from age 9 to his death, so Lee had heard his share of stories about the hardships.
Our first stop was the old brick mill building itself. Little about the outside has changed since it stopped producing textiles decades ago. Located near the corner of West Main and Moore streets, it now sits mostly vacant. Lee recalls that the white cinderblock building next to the main factory was where black employees worked.
But Lee never worked in the mill himself, so he gets most excited about his old haunts in the surrounding neighborhood. He showed me the cottage he grew up in, and as we passed the other remaining two-door cottages built by the mill company and sold to employees, he could name just about everybody that lived in them.
"It sounds crazy, but I knew everybody," Lee said.
He and his buddies roamed the whole neighborhood, with the exception of one spot: Kligo Street, across from what's now a park. That area was known, at least to them, as Shanghai.
"It was Shanghai if you went over there," Lee said. "It was the roughest part of Clayton."
There were separate classes of people, too, in 1930s and '40s Clayton, Lee recalls. The mill workers' kids typically kept their distance from the wealthy merchants' kids who lived downtown. Farm kids didn't mix with the others either. But even so, Lee says there wasn't much bullying.
"You didn't have to worry about no bullies coming after you," he said. "We looked after our own."
Not surprisingly, then, the folks on Cotton Mill Hill weren't too happy when their separate community was incorporated into the Town of Clayton.
"We raised cane about it," Lee said, noting that the mill community had the second-best water quality in the state. "The people that were born and bred here had a lot of pride."