For 18 years, Orlene Hooper worked at the Ely & Walker factory here, turning out blue jeans on her sewing machine. Then the factory shut down, throwing Hooper and almost 300 others out of work. Now Hooper is down to her last unemployment check and doesn't know where to find the rent money for her trailer. The blue jean factory was the only game in town.
"You go places and ask for a job and people look at you like you're nuts," said Hooper, 41, who has two children and an unemployed husband. She is not alone. Four out of 10 workers are without jobs here in rural Stewart County.
With unemployment reaching 9.4 percent nationwide in April, the highest level since World War II, the recession has come full force to the South.
Once, in recent years, believed to be a land of plentiful jobs and boom times, the South has fallen victim to recession like the rest of the nation. Alabama steel and North Carolina textiles have been hard hit, and Georgia, Florida and Louisiana remain the only southern states with single-digit unemployment.
"In the early '70s, it was felt the South could never have a recession," said Donald Ratajczak, a Georgia State University economist. ". . . . But so many of our manufacturing facilities are old and inefficient. And we've got a lot of housing-related industry: forest products, appliance makers, carpet firms. A housing slump sends a ripple all the way through the inventory chain, enough to knock off some of our manufacturers."
For years, these firms flocked to the South for cheap labor, hospitable local government and no unions. But these days such historic buffers haven't been enough to protect small towns like Dover.
More than a century ago, Dover surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Last summer it was defeated again, by recession, fashion trends and cheap foreign denim stitched in Hong Kong by workers earning a fraction of an American hourly wage.
"We just didn't have the business," said Lloyd Hancock, the Memphis-based Ely & Walker's executive vice president. "It got to the point where we couldn't do anything but close" last summer. "It's always wrenching to do something like that, but it was our last resort."
Such business failures have had a ripple effect here on the banks of the Cumberland River. The Dover Cafe has closed down on the town square. A factory outlet nailed a "Closed for Remodeling" sign on the door, but no one expects it to reopen. The Chevrolet dealer has moved out.
Another textile firm, Oshkosh B'Gosh, moved into the vacated factory. But only 75 workers were rehired, not enough to take up the slack. There is word of more layoffs down the road in nearby towns in a state where more than 12 percent are out of work, and the Rev. Bill Reding reports that his outreach funds for the hard-up are almost gone.
And yet, pockets of prosperity still bolster the myth of the booming South. A dusty crossroad like Twin City, Ga., enjoys good times alongside devasted communities like Dover. Both are virtually identical one-company textile towns of 1,400.
Twin City sewing machine operator Pat Williamson prospers stitching military dress shirts for $5 an hour at a subsidiary of Creighton Inc. Her husband earns $8 an hour as a telephone repairman.
They grill sirloin steaks at least once a week and take two children to McDonalds. Others, too, are doing well in a town whose banker-mayor, F. Dickson Durden, puts the local unemployment rate at 4 percent, 5 points below the national average.
Still, Williamson says she fears that her good fortune may be fragile. She has relatives outside Dover who haven't worked for two years after being laid off by an appliance maker. "They used to live better than we do . . . ," she reflected over a stack of green Army shirts. "It makes you realize that your life would be a disaster without a job you depend on."
At first glance, Dover and Twin City are more kin than not. Both are small, rural way stations on the way to someplace else. Both prospered in the past as one-company towns, tiny links in the industrial backbone of the South: textiles. But towns like Dover are becoming more and more common.
The only areas that enjoy some immunity from hard times boast diversified industry, like Tattnal County, Ga., with a 5.1 percent unemployment rate in March. Here, surviving companies have absorbed layoffs from others and a state prison and nearby Army base provide cushions.
"You're not going to make $10 to $20 an hour, but there's plenty of jobs for people who want to get out and work," said Wilton Rhoden, 43, managing editor of The Tattnal Journal. "We have 20 to 50 help wanted ads a week from farmers and textile companies who want people to work."
Twin City's factory president, Howard Quarles, 64, said he's looking for about a dozen machine operators, and Bill Rogers, pipe-puffing editor of the local Emanuel County weekly, The Blade, reports advertising revenues up 14 percent, mostly from new retail stores.
Twin City's factory produces military dress shirts for post exchanges around the country. Such military sales account for more than half of Creighton's $25 million in annual revenues, according to president Albert Cohen.
Cohen has protected his business from recession by making some shirts overseas, some stateside, keeping prices competitive, and mixing U.S. customers with sales abroad. There are regulation Army maternity blouses on the drawing boards, for example, and racks of dress blues destined for Saudi Arabia's navy.
Sales remain strong, he said, though back orders have slipped from six months to two. Still, there are no layoffs expected at his Twin City factory, where pocket presser Ella Hobb, 45, has been "depending on this job for 10 years. It helped me graduate my children from high school. It bought their books and clothes. Without it, you couldn't amount to nothing."
But in a rural outback like Dover, when layoffs hit there is no one to take up the slack except the state unemployment office in the courthouse basement.
"My boss tells me to suggest that they move out of the county, but you just can't get them to move," said local unemployment office director Patsy Brigham. "For one thing, they don't have any money to move, but more important, this is home."
The telephone rings. A laid-off plant worker wants state aid to train as a cosmetologist. "I'm sorry, Rita," she said, "but we've already got three in cosmetology. Now if you get a note from a beautician who will hire you, we might be able to work something out."
"Every day more and more people are applying for assistance," said Nancy Skurlock, Stewart County human services director. "They ask us for help, but we have no help to give."
Orlene Hooper is among hundreds of unemployed garment workers who await word on an extension of nearly depleted unemployment benefits. And her husband, Charles, was among 200 let go from $3.50 an hour county public service jobs. He's been hunting work for months.
"I've offered to work for below minimum wage, mopping floors, cleaning up, anything," said the Army veteran. "I can't figure it out. It's the first time in my life I haven't been able to find a job. I've picked up a little work mowing grass, but that won't last the summer."
Many Dover people are taking temporary jobs, and steeling themselves for harder times. The area cannery, which allows locals to store homegrown vegetables under a federal grant, expects a deluge come summer. Linda Reason, 29, mother of two, said she's grateful to be pushing a mop for $3.35 an hour at Dover Elementary, a public service job that lasts only a month. Still, she said, "It's better than collecting food stamps."
"If this had happened in Nashville or Atlanta, you would have had riots in the street with 40 percent unemployment," said banker Bill Tippit. "But most people here were able to fall back on Uncle Jeb's farm, shoot a deer, cut some firewood. It hurts, but not as bad as a county that had to depend entirely on wages to survive."