Rotary shows Bemberg-era film highlighting plant’s historic moments
Published 7:23 am Saturday, June 6, 2015
Scenes from Elizabethton’s history were seen in a way they have never been before — in motion.
Members of the Elizabethton Rotary Club were given the chance to view a movie made by officials with Bemberg showing different events in Elizabethton in the late 1920s along with employees and activities of the factory.
The black and white video, which is part of East Tennessee State University’s archive system, was shared with the Rotary Club by member Joe Alexander, who was given a copy of the film by his brother, Ed Alexander.
The clips in the film show preparations for Hoover Day and the new Bemberg and Glanzstoff plants in 1928; the large Bemberg strike of 1929, including marching strikers and National Guardsmen; German officials visiting the plants, construction of homes and buildings associated with the businesses and employees engaged in celebrations and sporting events throughout the town.
“It is so neat to be able to see these things, and to see them in motion,” Alexander said. “I love watching the old vehicles and how the people dressed, especially the ladies. It would be very neat to see this in color.”
According to the ETSU archives, American Bemberg was an American affiliate of the German rayon manufacturer Vereingte Glanzstoff Fabriken and was constructed in Elizabethton in 1925 and began full production of cuprammonium rayon yarn by October 26, 1926. American Glanxstoff was renamed to North American Rayon in 1934.
One of the main focuses of the film is the two strikes that happened in 1929. Alexander said it was believed the plant leaders made the film to try to identify the employees that were involved in the strike.
The first strike occurred on March 12, 1929 when Margaret Bowen, a worker at American Glanzstoff led a walkout of 523 women. Other shifts joined the walkout the next day and the plant closed on March 14.
Four days later, around 1,300 Bemberg workers struck in sympathy with the Glanzstoff employees.
“The workers’ protests centered on low wages, unfair promotion policies, and discrimination against the women employees,” Alexander said.
At the time of the strike, Glanzstoff employed 1,099 men and 854 women, while Bemberg employed 886 men and 384 women. At Glanzstoff, although all employees had a fifty-six-hour week, wages for women were considerably lower than those for men.
Dr. Arthur Mothwurf, president of the rayon plants, refused to recognize the union and refused to consider wage increases. At Mothwurf’s request, the Carter County Chancery Court enjoined strikers from picketing, damaging plant property, interfering with plant workers, or assembling at the plant gates. Another injunction prohibited strike activities on roads near the plants.
Initially Mothwurf refused to sign the agreement with the workers, but three days later he pledged his support, and the plants reopened on March 26.
The second strike began on April 15, after Bemberg dismissed union members of two grievance committees. Mothwurf reopened the plants on May 6 and used 500 “new hires,” or strikebreakers, to run the plant.
With the reopening of the plant, Mothwurf persuaded the governor to dispatch 800 National Guardsmen to Elizabethton, an action that turned the strike into a violent affair.
Troops used tear gas against strikers, and in one three-day stretch, from May 14 through May 16, they arrested over 300 strikers. Two houses were dynamited; two barns, one containing plant machinery, were burned. On May 16, a water main leading into Elizabethton was dynamited.
Mothwurf reached an agreement with the employees and the strike ended on May 25. A couple of additional strikes followed in June and October.
Mothwurf left in July 1929 to return to Germany for what was supposed to be a two-month vacation. He did not return to Elizabethton, and Konsul C.W. Kumer was made acting president of the plant. Kumer committed suicide in October 1929 when he was 49.
Kumer’s funeral was held at First Baptist Church in Elizabethton, which was another feature point of the film. During the clip showing the funeral, several people walk past the videographer, including Alexander’s grandparents who had died before he was born.
“The sad thing is, you look at this and you don’t know who most of the people are,” Alexander said, watching the crowds walk past the camera. “They could be your relatives if you grew up in Elizabethton. It is unfortunate that most of the people who do know have passed on already.”
It was a joy for Alexander to be able to share the video with the Rotarians.
“This is an interesting part of Elizabethton’s history that most people have probably not seen,” he said.