The wood-carved sign on the front door says, simply, "The Bennetts" -- a final touch on the four-bedroom ranch house that Jimmy and Verleen Bennett bought here two years ago, confident their combined wages from the local Pillowtex Corp. towel factory would continue to support the comfortable lifestyle that had long eluded their parents.
Long-time renters with six children, the couple had put in a combined 43 years at the mill -- 25 for him, 18 for her -- and worked extra jobs before buying the $100,000 house with aluminum siding, a front porch, back deck and security system.
"We had made it," Jimmy, 42, said as he watched cable TV in the living room.
Now, they don't know how they'll hold on to it.
Pillowtex, maker of Cannon and Fieldcrest towels, filed for bankruptcy protection last week, dismissing 6,450 workers -- including the Bennetts and nine of their relatives -- in the largest single-day layoff in North Carolina history. The Bennetts have since scrambled to apply for jobs, but with only high school diplomas, their options are slim. Most of the jobs created here in recent years -- in health care, information technology and finance -- require some technical training. So the Bennetts are aiming for positions at Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Taco Bell.
"Everyone keeps telling us we should go back to school, but it's a little late for that," said Verleen Bennett, 38.
Here and across the country, the storied textile industry -- which plucked generations of farmers from their fields and lifted many to the middle class -- is vanishing as Americans snatch up better bargains on imported goods. So far this year, the mills have lost 29,000 jobs, triple the number lost by the same time last year, government figures show, leaving just 448,400 -- half the number that existed in 1970.
The result, economists say, is a growing group of unskilled workers who are striking out not only in the old economy, but also in the new one.
"It is a lost generation in the workforce," said Michael Walden, an economics professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Short of financial compensation from the federal government, their future is going to be worse than their past."
Nowhere is this more obvious than in Kannapolis, where Pillowtex's vast complex of sooty brick buildings and smokestacks extends across several downtown blocks, just off Dale Earnhardt Boulevard -- named for the late NASCAR champion who was born here. When the mill closed, the two counties that surround the city of 40,000 just north of Charlotte became home to 4,000 unemployed textile workers.
Pillowtex employees had already been put on unpaid leave for much of the eight weeks before the shutdown. Now, many are fending off eviction notices, car repossessions and home foreclosures, and making difficult choices about which prescription drugs to skip and which utilities to turn off. Kannapolis's emergency aid budget, just shy of $300,000, is expected to support a few hundred families.
"It's almost like a natural disaster when you're trying to triage people," Kannapolis City Manager Michael G. Mahaney said. "Okay, this person is in desperate condition. This person will be okay for a week. It's just that bad."
State officials have vowed to help re-train thousands of former Pillowtex employees within the North Carolina community college system beginning this fall. But privately, local leaders predict most will never enroll. Instead, they are likely to land in the region's retail and service sectors, where they will earn about half their mill wages. A 2001 study by North Carolina's Employment Security Commission found that only a small fraction of displaced factory employees ever entered state-sponsored worker training programs.
"These workers don't even know if they can learn again," said Joy M. Doyle, office manager for the southern district of the Union of Needletrades , Industrial and Textile Employees, or UNITE, which represents Pillowtex employees. "They never expected they'd have to know more than what was in that mill."
For 95 years, the textile factory had served as the first -- and, in many cases, the only -- job for many Kannapolis residents. James W. Cannon built a towel mill here in 1908 and lured workers from around the state with jobs that represented the new economy of that time and a big step up from the unpredictable business of farming. It was the classic mill town: Cannon controlled the land, the houses and the workers. He called it Kannapolis, Greek for "city of looms."
The city attracted additional industry but nothing as dominant as Cannon. The company aggressively recruited the city's high school students with the promise of competitive wages, flexible hours and lifetime job security.
Until now, there was no reason to doubt those claims.
The Bennetts didn't. Jimmy and Verleen Bennett grew up in the shadow of Plant No. 1, the huge towel factory that employed both sets of their parents. In high school, the mill beckoned with a vocational program that allowed them to leave classes early and earn spending money.
After graduation, a permanent job awaited them, and in the absence of anything better in town, they took it. The average pay at the mill was about $400 a week by 2003. Before the layoffs, the Bennetts together took home about $600 a week, sometimes more with overtime. Now, with their two part-time jobs, they take home half that.
Six of Jimmy's siblings eventually joined him at the mill and, despite his protestations, one of his daughters, 21-year-old Katisha, began working there after leaving basic training in the U.S. Army two years ago. "You got to work somewhere," Jimmy said. "She had no other choice."
So people stayed at the mill, on average for more than 14 years, federal data shows, but often with little internal advancement. On the day Pillowtex closed, the average employee was 46 years old and operated a machine on the factory floor.
Over time, Cannon became Fieldcrest Cannon, which was sold in 1996 to Pillowtex, a Dallas-based pillow maker. The company's popular brands, which include Royal Velvet and Charisma sheets and towels, had become the industry standard, but the business began to falter. Pillowtex was crippled by debt after the merger and faced a torrent of inexpensive imports from Mexico, China and Pakistan, as well as competition from high-end U.S. labels Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger. High management turnover compounded the troubles, said Warren Shoulberg, editor of Home Furnishings News, an industry trade publication.When the company filed for bankruptcy protection, it shuttered 16 factories and put its assets up for sale. Within days, a conglomerate of investors bought the properties and the brand names, but it hasn't spelled out its plans.
"That mill was the city of Kannapolis," said Leann Harrington, a waitress at the Towel City Junction Cafe & Grill, a popular spot with mill workers. Business there is down by half, and the owner has pulled the help-wanted sign out of the window. "We live in a ghost town now," Harrington said.
Pillowtex employees say they will take what they can get. Kannapolis resident Crystal Trendel, 42, who joined the mill out of high school and rose to become a research and development technician, was one of just 700 salaried employees at the company. Now she is a customer service manager at the local Wal-Mart Supercenter, and she said all of her Pillowtex colleagues are asking her to recommend them for jobs there.
"I don't like it," she said of working for the very kind of discount store, filled with inexpensive imported goods, that pushed Pillowtex out of business. "But I have to look out for my family," she said.
Kannapolis leaders say the city will survive the layoffs. Two manufacturers -- Philip Morris International Inc. and toolmaker Stanley Works -- remain in the area, employing a combined 3,500 workers. But the two-county area that surrounds Kannapolis has lost nearly 2,000 jobs in the past year. And most of the new jobs created here are far more technically demanding than those at Pillowtex. For example, Shoe Show Inc., a shoe retailer, recently opened a distribution plant in Kannapolis, but most of its 300 jobs require extensive computer training.
The city, meanwhile, is struggling to move beyond its manufacturing roots. It is courting high-tech companies and higher-income suburban housing from nearby Charlotte. Developers like to brag that two members of the Carolina Panthers football team are now building million-dollar homes within city limits.
But no one believes the local economy, already battered by decades of manufacturing job losses, can absorb 4,000 displaced workers. So the city is bracing for the worst: lost cars, lost homes and, eventually, a raft of residents relocating to other places.
The Bennetts say they will hold on to their house, though they are unsure how they can afford 28 more years on their mortgage without full-time jobs. Both are working part time, Verleen as a home health aide, Jimmy as a maintenance worker at a nearby Cracker Barrel restaurant.
They both agree that cable television will be the first luxury to go. Then their home security system. Then, if things get really bad, one of their two cars, probably Verleen's Nissan Altima rather than Jimmy's new Jeep Grand Cherokee. Sitting in their living room, calculating their expenses, they vow their lifestyle will not dramatically change.
"We were middle class," Jimmy said. Then he corrects himself. "We still are."