Story and photos by Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News
His index finger flips off the top of the steering wheel as his sons stare out the back window from the jump seat.
“He used to work at the mill,” Devin Martin says as he points to a modest brick house, still under construction, off Highmarket Street. “He got laid off.”
Martin’s left arm dangles out of the driver’s window.
His right index finger points to house after house, millworker after millworker. Some have been laid off, some retired and some still working with him in the middle of an uncertain world at Georgetown Steel.
“It’s always been my dream to have a feed and seed store. You know, the kind that was like an out-post in the old days. If you need something, anything, I’ll have it or I can get it,” Martin says, his voice lighter and almost childlike while describing farmers coming by to place orders. Then his voice drops to the tone of a father not wanting his children to hear the harshness of his world. “Course, when I get my business built, we’ll lose business because the mill will be closed, and people won’t be spending.”
Martin says he hasn’t been spending since the mill’s former owners filed for bankruptcy in early 2001, unless the spending results in making money for him and his family.
His plans already are taking shape. He converted half a former convenience store into The Hair and Tanning Connection, operated by his wife, Tammy. The rest of the building, gasoline pumps and outbuildings have chipped white paint. Empty shelves gather dust.
He doesn’t want a loan because he would have to use a farm that’s been in his family for three generations as collateral.
“I pay cash, and that takes a while,” he says, driving a Ford truck he bought after it took on water during the floods from Hurricane Floyd. “This ain’t about me. This is about them, my boys. It’s about the future.”
The future is shaky, Martin knows. James Sanderson, president of the local steelworkers union, knows it too. Georgetown Steel’s owner Daniel Thorne knows, but he is more guarded about the mill’s future.
Sanderson warns that no one can save the mill by buying mill-made products. Georgetown Steel makes wire rods that are sold to other companies. The companies convert the rods into such things as bed springs, nails, cables in radial tires and guitar strings.
Sanderson says the mill, its jobs and even Georgetown can be saved if three things happen: The federal government enforces tariff laws so domestic steel can compete with imports; the high cost of energy declines; and Thorne keeps promises he made to the union during contract negotiations earlier this year.
Sanderson says a contract that expires in February 2008 starts off with small raises for three years, then just profit sharing. The union members agreed to raises of less than 50 cents an hour because the company said it would install a rolling mill to improve quality and production of the rods. The installation would have cost $12 million.
Thorne, speaking by telephone, says he hasn’t been to Georgetown since before more than 100 people were laid off in June. He says he has no immediate plans to install the rolling mill.
“There’s no sense in making more of something faster when no one wants to buy it,” he says.
As the man in charge of a mill with nearly a $30 million annual payroll, a $1 million monthly power bill and a $1.1 million loss last month, Thorne says he is willing to ride out the rough times.
“I have no intention of shutting down the mill. We are in very difficult times,” he says.
Thorne said he doesn’t plan on selling the mill. “I hope and believe we’ll get through … I have not given up on anything down there.”
Down there at the end of Front Street sits the mill like a 34-year-old cousin uncomfortable at the cotillion chaperon’s table. Dressed in dusty green clothes, it sits among the old lady relatives dressed in pink, blue and antique lace. The mill occasionally burps the copper-color dust that settles on cars, the slats of wood covering the sides of houses and leaves of oaks lining the streets.
Its recent relationship with historic Front Street has been shaky as the future of the mill itself. When faced with comments from store owners that they wanted the mill to close because it look bad in the neighborhood, union members called for a boycott.
The boycott last about as long as it takes Martin to run his hunting dogs at the hunt club. A day after the union called for the boycott, it ended after both sides met and agreed to support each other.
After the end of a shift on a Friday, Martin crosses Front Street to his truck. He knocks some dust off his blue uniform and crawls in behind the wheel.
He turns the truck toward Highmarket Street, toward his family. As he pulls into his wife’s shop, she clips the hair of a customer; and their son Forrest pulls up on a four-wheeler. Covered in sweat, the 7-year-old trains his eyes on his father, mother and brother Rivers.
Devin Martin has spent the past eight hours as a welder in central maintenance. His job is to go through the mill mending whatever is broken. He sees the faces of the men and two women who make up the 500 workers. He hears their concerns and listens to the rumors. He feels it when their world beneath them shakes from uncertainty. Most, he said, are tired of worrying if they’ll have a job in a year, a month or a week.
“I don’t talk to them about the mill,” Martin says, nodding toward his family. “There ain’t no need worrying them. Sometimes I have bad days. It’s aggravating when they do some of the things they do down there; but it’s a good bunch of folks to work with.”
Tammy holds 3-year-old Rivers in her lap and watches her husband of nearly nine years sip on a beer beneath the shade of his parents’ carport.
It had been a long day, they all say with a laugh. Martin tips his hat back on his head and takes another drink. Later, in the dark, he’ll let loose his dozen dogs in the woods at the hunt club. He’ll call a friend on his citizens band radio, and he’ll come back home, driving past the entrance to Friendfield Plantation.
“That’s where the man lives when he’s in town,” he says of Thorne.
Driving down the dirt road leading to the plantation the next day, Martin stops off at George Henderson’s house in the middle of a row of homes before the gate that blocks the entrance to the plantation. Henderson has worked in metal reclamation in Georgetown for more than 15 years.
The two men lean against a shed in Henderson’s back yard. They shake their heads when talking about the mill. Martin points to a mobile home just behind a row of pine trees and a brick ranch-style house up the dirt path.
“These two, laid off,” he says.
Hushed so Forrest and Rivers can’t hear, the men’s talk of shutting the mill down moves from “if” to “when.”
“There’s 60 mills in the United States, and this isn’t the only one in bad shape,” Henderson says to Martin. “I found a job here. I’ve got a home here. I don’t want to leave. I love it out here.”
If the mill closes in the first quarter of next year, as Sanderson predicts, Martin’s feed and seed store won’t be ready, and he’ll have to leave his family behind to join his brother Darryl Martin, traveling the country as welders. He will have to endure the hardships on his family to make money.
At the end of the day, Martin sits with his family around their kitchen table as they dog Shadow nudges his leg for a piece of his submarine sandwich. Tammy props her hand in her hand listening to Rivers struggling to explain whey he shouldn’t have to go to bed yet.
Forrest tells his father about a mud hole he ran his four-wheeler in at the hunt club. Within minutes, Rivers falls asleep on his parents’ bed, with Forrest nodding nearby.
Tammy’s eyelids droop, and Martin reaches over to rub her back.
“I don’t think about the mill all the time,” he says.