Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2014/Spring/Benjamin F. Cates
Benjamin Franklin Cates lived with his daughter and son-in-law from the year 1930 until 1940. His life was filled with many struggles ranging from his inability to further his education, to being unable to transition to a better paying job with benefits. He was interviewed in mid 1930s as part of the Federal Writers' Project.
The Early Years
Benjamin Franklin Cates was born in 1872 in Swepsonville, North Carolina. For the first eighteen years of his life, Cates lived on a farm with his mother, father, and later his stepfather. At the age of ten, Cates’ father died, and his mother remarried two years later, and gave birth to another child. Once he was old enough, Cates worked on the farm with other boys his age. Throughout the spring, summer and fall months, the boys worked on the farm, and during the rest of the year, attended a public school in the area. The school year solely depended on the growing season, and as a result, some years the boys were educated for as many as four or five months, and other years only for three. Cates also attended Sunday school every week at a Methodist Protestant church in the area.
A Life of Hard Work
Once Cates was old enough to move off of the farm, he moved in with his uncle and worked at his lumber mill in 1890 and 1891. From 1892 to 1897, Cates worked at the Saxapahaw cotton mill, which his grandfather had helped found. While working at the mill, Cates met a woman named Mary Spear and later married her. Cates moved to Burlington and later Carrboro during the next fifteen years and spent 1898 to 1912 working at the cotton mill in both cities. During 1913 and 1914, Cates and his wife lived on the land of a man named John Nicholson. Cates worked as Nicholson’s helper, a job that often involved bringing Nicholson hickory wood that would later be use to build chairs. Living on this land was the best living that the Cates family experienced. After working for Nicholson, Cates moved on to work at a cotton mill in Glen Raven from 1915 until 1918. Cates had always been fond of the farm life though, and moved onto a farm for the next five years with his family. From 1919 until 1923, Cates did not make any profit, nor go into debt, earning just enough for his family to get by. In 1924, Cates returned to working at the cotton mills, and continued working there until 1929 when his wife passed away. From 1930 until 1940, Cates lived with one of his daughters and her husband. At the time this interview was conducted, Cates was still living on the property with his daughter. He worked when he was able, but enjoyed talking to his many friends.
Lack of An Education
In the rural south, education was not a high priority. During the late 1800s, the future for many children involved working on farms or mills. An education would not help them towards either of these goals. As such, schooling only lasted for around three to five months each year, and was very dependent on the growing season for crops. Also, there was often only one teacher for every seventy-five students in the rural areas, which made it much harder to receive extra help if need be. Due to these restraints, students were only taught basic subjects such as U.S. History, simple arithmetic, and geography. Most students taught in these schools were also very poor, and could only attend public school because it was free. This poor preliminary education and lack of wealth by most rural farm owners made it almost impossible for anyone to pursue a higher education. This issue was very relevant to Cates because he often mentioned how he wished that he could have gone to university in Chapel Hill, but his family could not afford it.
Inability to Further One’s Economic Situation
Most people in rural North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked as either farmers or mill workers. As farmers, people either owned their own land or worked on land they rented. Working as a farmer involved hard work and unreliable pay. The success of crops varied year to year based on demand for each crop and also the environmental factors that year, which could damage one’s ability for a high crop yield. As a farmer, there was no moving up in the world. One could do it for his whole life, and yet there was no way for most farmers to become more profitable. Other people worked in mills and this also was not a high-paying job. People often had to work long hours and six days a week, yet they did not make enough money to move to a job better than mill work. Also in this occupation, the ability to move up to higher positions within the mill was very challenging. Hard work as a general mill worker did not help the odds of getting a promotion to a higher up job in the mill, and while working as a general mill worker, no extra experience was gained to help a person attain promotions or apply for higher and better paid positions. For Cates, this was also a pertinent issue in his life. He always worked the same level jobs in the mill, and was unable to gain a promotion even though he had quite a bit of experience.
Issues of Historical Production
Benjamin Franklin Cates’ life history was written as part of a federal program called the Federal Writers’ Project. The Federal Writers’ Project was a New Deal program that aimed to support writers during the Great Depression by giving them a steady job with a purpose. The purpose of the project was to record in writing many of the histories and local traditions of all of the states. Although this program had good intentions, it was not perfect. The writers were unrestricted and given very little guidance, which caused many to write what they learned in any form they desired. Many writers were very focused on recording things exactly as they heard them. However, others focused on making the life histories into a good story. The writers often asked leading questions and edited a person’s words to make it more readable for others during the time. Benjamin Franklin Cates’ life history does not have many of these problems. It appears that the interviewer did not lead Cates with questions and was genuinely curious about his life. Also, the dialect of Cates depicted in the interview seems to be very accurate for a man of his age and with his level of education.