Boss family reunites

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The scent of good home-cooked food, mingled with memories of workdays gone by, were part of the scene on Saturday, Sept. 11, as former employees of Reigel-Boss Manufacturing and their family members enjoyed the company’s third annual reunion.

More than 100 folks assembled at Beeland Park on Saturday morning as they celebrated the years they spent at what once was one of the area’s largest employers.

After sharing the Pledge of Allegiance in recognition of Sept. 11, Remembrance Day, those attending took the time to share memories of their days with the plant. Later, they enjoyed a delicious spread courtesy of both the former Reigel-Boss workers and local donor businesses.

Part of the boom

The company came to Greenville in 1951 as part of America’s post-war manufacturing boom. Reigel Textiles, originally located in Trion, Georgia, took over the big red brick building on East Commerce St. that had once housed the Merrimac Hat Factory.

Boss Manufacturing took over the plant in 1961 and later moved to the city’s new industrial complex in 1982.

The plant averaged 500-600 employees and at peak times, employed as many as 1,200 workers. It is estimated some 6,000 workers from Butler, Crenshaw, Lowndes Counties and beyond passed through its gates during its nearly 50-year history in the city.

In 2000, the Greenville plant -once the world’s largest manufacturer of gloves – closed. An era in the Camellia City had ended.

It raised our children

Former employees say they didn’t need motivation to work hard during their years at Reigel-Boss. They simply wanted to give their families the opportunities they didn’t have.

&uot;I put five children through college working at Boss… they all have beautiful homes and nice cars. And we had fun in those days,&uot; said former employee Ada Lee Williams.

As the offspring of plant workers, Joan Hudson McGough expressed gratitude to the company. &uot; As the child of Boss workers, I know that’s what fed me, that’s what raised me…this is what I’d like to say,&uot; she stated with visible emotion.

Barbara Perdue Middleton, whose mother, Freddie, put in 30-plus years at the factory, said with pride her mother had successfully raised six daughters during her years at Reigel-Boss.

Mrs. Perdue recalled the stringent rules found at the factory.

&uot;We had very strict rules, we had to have them – and we obeyed them. But you know, I loved all my supervisors,&uot; she said.

We were family

In fact, many of those present at the reunion said they recognized a real family feeling among the employers.

&uot;We were all good friends; I don’t remember a lot of fussin’ and feudin’ going on when I was there,&uot; remarked Ada Lee Williams.

Annie Matthews, a 22-year veteran of the plant, was one of the first black employees hired there. She says, for her, working at the glove factory was a good experience.

&uot;I have worked at many other places since then and before – but no one else was like Boss. Everybody was family; we tried to help each other out and look out for each other,&uot; Matthews said, then added, &uot;Now you got all these companies nowadays, they just don’t care about you.&uot;

Event organizer O’Neil Kennedy, a 36-year veteran of the plant, said he, too, felt as if Boss &uot;was just one big family anyway&uot;.

The event, which is held the first Saturday after Labor Day each year, is one Kennedy hopes to keep alive as long as there are former Boss employees and their families who will support it. Sadly, the numbers are beginning to dwindle.

&uot;We’ve lost 24 of our folks since January of this year; last year we lost 45 altogether. It’s hard to lose those faces,&uot; Kennedy shared with the crowd.

O’Neil Kennedy is determined, however, to keep the annual Reigel-Boss reunion on the calendar in future years.

&uot;As long as nobody else wants this job and I am still able to do it, we are going to keep this going as long as we can and as long as folks are able to come,&uot; he says.

A gateway to success

Many former employees remarked upon the fact a number of the children of Boss workers went on the college and even worked at Reigel-Boss themselves as teens to earn money for tuition and room and board.

Nadine Bell, a 16-year employee, recalled how her sister was able to earn money at the factory to put toward the college education she dreamed about.

&uot;My sister Denise [Costes] asked [foreperson] Clara Allman if she could work during the summer at Boss, and they gave her a job. Denise went on to Troy, Auburn and then N.C. State for her doctorate…she taught at Troy for 30 years before retiring. It goes to show you just never know who you can help along the way,&uot; Bell said.

Keep them going

In spite of low wages and distinctly unglamorous working conditions, the plant’s former employees largely share fond memories of their days there and enjoy the chance to see old friends and catch up on old times at the annual reunion.

&uot;We loved it all back then, we helped each other out…you want to keep good memories like that alive,&uot; said Williams.

Eighty-nine-year-old Vera Reaves, the oldest former employee present at the reunion, shared hugs with her many acquaintances at the park. She hopes the reunions will continue because she plans to be there, too. &uot;Everyone is like my family, you know,&uot; she said with a glowing smile.