I come from a small southern town that serves as the halfway point between Macon and Atlanta. It was built up around cotton mills and train tracks and is not unlike other towns across America, having small populations and considerable distances between them and the big city.
There isn’t much in the way of opportunity there. Since the town's incorporation in 1843 and throughout the Industrial Revolution, the mills were arguably one of the only sources of a solid income for most. And then in the late 1990’s when industrial work started going overseas, the mills began shutting down one by one. Men who had worked loyally in the mills their whole lives were suddenly out of a livelihood, and with limited skills, many had little hope of finding one elsewhere. Time has proved that some never did.
My family were not employed by the mills, so I was largely unaware of this facet of my hometown’s history until around two years ago. I was home visiting family and had gone out for a drive with my camera. Curiosity led me to a part of town where mills dot the railroad tracks and sit in varying stages of dilapidation. I came to one built mainly of brick and blue and green glass; massive and imposing, yet possessing a strange beauty and mystery --- despite - and perhaps – because, of the poverty and disregard around it. I wanted to go inside, to learn its secrets and photograph its strange beauty. I took down the phone number from a sign posted on the fence surrounding the building.
After six months of unanswered phone calls, I found myself back at the front gate. This time, I met a man named Ronnie Stonica. He is a man I’ve come to know, not only as a friend, but as the spirit and embodiment of the Thomaston Mill.
Ronnie was born in the parking lot. As a boy, he was frequently seen bringing lunch to his father Bill, who worked at the mill for 45 years. He himself began his work there at 16, and even when the mill closed down, he was kept on as the sole caretaker of the sprawling buildings. Ownership has changed hands more than once since then, but Ronnie has remained. He cuts the grass around the 22-acre property and stops neighborhood thieves from stealing copper out of neglected machines ---. But everything else remains as it was the day the news came down, and the time cards were punched for the last time.
Ronnie is a good man. The type of man, who takes in stray neighborhood dogs, so that they aren’t poisoned by the cruel people down the road. The type of man, who turns one of the old administrative offices into a safe and comfortable place to live, for a woman left homeless by an abusive, alcoholic husband. And he is the type of man who lets a girl, who left for the big city, come and take pictures whenever she likes, not realizing that what she experiences in those damp and rusty corners is transformative, even healing and vital.
In the beginning, I wanted to tell the story of the workers who lost their jobs, realizing that it mirrored the story of thousands of people across this country in these times. But, the series has taken a different course. I wonder -- that Ronnie has remained unscathed - for the most part - by the strife all around him. I think this is testament to his heart and the man that he is.
It is Ronnie's story that I want to tell, and his story that I want to honor with my series from the Thomaston Mill.