Most of you who follow this blog (or our 21 years retrospective) know that when I returned to Alabama in 2000, I didn’t have a grand plan to build the company that is now Alabama Chanin. Any plans I may have had seemed to fall away into something far larger than I ever anticipated. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in such a position and I readily admit that, at times, I was incredibly overwhelmed. However, as the initial “project” morphed into a business, I learned how to run it on the fly—one day at a time. I have often said that I am not a quick learner, but I finally realized that my community has such a wealth of knowledge as to the workings of cotton AND manufacturing. These two things had been part of the vernacular of this community for a century. So while it took time for me to understand, I finally realized I just needed to “go to the well” to draw upon that information. Here in Florence, Alabama, that “well” was Terry Wylie.
I don’t actually remember the first time I officially met Terry. He was and is a leader in local business (along with his family), so I was always aware of his presence in the community. His family knew cotton manufacturing and worked in the industry for their entire careers. His grandmother worked her whole life for a single garment manufacturing mill running a flat lock machine every day until her retirement. His father started in the mills right out of high school. The Wylie family started Tee Jays Manufacturing Co.—a worldwide cotton production facility and once the third largest employer in the Shoals area—in 1976.
Our previous production manager, Steven, worked many years at Tee Jays. He held jobs in multiple areas throughout the business, from the sewing department (pictured in the photo at the top of this post), to supervising inspection, and the dye house (picture above). Steven saw that not only did the company employ an incredible number of people, but also an impressive number of FAMILIES. The Wylies paid a fair wage. They were loyal to their employees and their employees showed the same loyalty and respect in return. In a region where it seemed everyone has worked in cotton at one time or another, I’ve never spoken with anyone who had anything but the VERY BEST to say about Terry and his family. (See the photo below from a company picnic.)
My favorite Terry story comes from a production job gone wrong. He talks about printing on 1×1 Cotton Rib Knit and, he says to me laughingly, “You know how wrong that can go.” (It is very hard to print on a rib fabric and, yes, many things can go wrong.) One summer, they printed and shipped approximately 1,100 dozen of a particular shirt that didn’t make his customers happy. Upon receiving the returned shirts, he and his family (mother and father included) rented a U-Haul truck and RV, drove to Daytona Beach, Florida, and set up shop across from the racetrack one weekend. At the end of the weekend, the shirts were gone and they returned home and to their business. This is the kind of man—and family member—Terry is: get the job done.
The first time I actually met him, I was in need of advice about my first company. In those first meetings with one another, he was so generous with his time and treated me and my employees as his equals. He was able to talk us through issues and helped to shine a flashlight into what was, for me, a very dark cave. His knowledge is wide-ranging, from the business aspects of manufacturing to the cotton itself. When we interviewed Terry for oral histories we are collecting about textile workers, he explained how he knew the right time to harvest cotton. “I’m a big football fan, and it seems to be that about the time it gets close to the Alabama-Tennessee football game that it’s time to pick cotton. You know, the cotton is white and it’s the third Saturday in October—and the fields… just get full and white and the bolls are open fully.”
While Tee Jays closed operations after the signing of NAFTA, luckily for us, Terry continues to work in our community and be a source of practical knowledge and an impartial ear when we need a good opinion, or just to laugh at ourselves. He still owns The Factory, where Alabama Chanin is now housed (coincidentally, the same sewing room where Steven worked all those years ago). Terry plays many roles at Alabama Chanin: a mentor, a guardian angel, and friend. Alabama Chanin would not be the company we are today without the support and kindness that Terry has shown us AND the work that he, his family, and all of the families in their business did before us. An invaluable asset to Alabama Chanin, our community, and to all that know him: Terry Wylie—a part of the heart and soul of Alabama Chanin.
All of the photos in this post courtesy of the Wylie family. Thank you.