From the Blue Ridges to the Sandhills: The History of 4 North Carolina Families

Reba Grace Oakley, Textile Worker of Surry County, North Carolina

Reba Oakley with friends in Surry County NCReba Grace Oakley was born in Surry County in 1912. She was one of many female textile workers in the area, going to work as a teenager. She stayed in Mt. Airy when her family moved to the Sandhills region in about 1936. After she developed tuberculosis, she joined her father and step-mother, Ed and Fannie Oakley, in Cameron and was treated for several years at the McCain sanatorium near Aberdeen.

Statistics from the 1920 census show that North Carolina had become the second-most industrialized state in the South, with an output of a billion dollars per year in textiles, tobacco products, and furniture. By 1930, North Carolina was first in the nation in producing cotton textiles and first of the southern states in knitted textiles.

In 1929, when Reba was seventeen years old, she was employed at Argonne Hosiery Mill in Mount Airy. The 1930 census gives her occupation as button machine operator. During the years of the Great Depression, many people started work at age fifteen, some as young as thirteen. They could expect to work until they were about sixty.

Ad for female mill workers in Mt. Airy News, 1920.At Spencer knitting mill of Mt. Airy, in 1930, a female employee made 75 cents a day. Men were paid a higher wage. Most textile workers in North Carolina earned about $10 a week. They worked shifts of up to twelve hours, as many as 6 days a week. Half of all textile workers were female.

One unfortunate consequence of work in the textile mills was lung disease from contact with cotton dust and fibers. The irritation could lead directly to a disease commonly called "brown lung," and indirectly to tuberculosis. Reba's grandfather, Tyson Snow, died of tuberculosis in 1906, and in 1915, her mother, Maggie Snow Oakley, also died of the disease. By 1935, tuberculosis was one of the five leading causes of death in Surry County. In 1936, there were 38 recorded cases in Mt. Airy.

Tuberculosis has been documented as far back as ancient Egyptian times, found in the remains of mummies. In old times it was often called phthisis or consumption and was a common illness, usually fatal. Edgar Allen Poe, Andrew Jackson, Eleanor Roosevelt and many other famous figures suffered from the disease.

Tuberculosis is spread from person to person by simply breathing in bacteria when an infected person coughs. However, people who are in close contact with a sick person over a long period of time are most likely to become infected. Babies easily acquire the disease from an infected mother. Individuals can carry the disease in their bodies without becoming sick or contagious. When their immunity is compromised by other illnesses or continuous exposure to irritants like dust, they are more likely to become ill.

McCain Sanatorium, Aberdeen, NC; North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. McCain Sanatorium, pictured at left, opened in Aberdeen, North Carolina, in 1908, the state's first sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. The location was chosen for its isolation as well as the climate of the Sandhills. The concept of the sanatorium was that rest, a healthy climate, and good nutrition could aid recovery, while isolation of patients prevented spreading the disease. By 1950 sanatoria in the United States offered over one hundred thousand beds to TB sufferers.

Surgical techniques which collapsed the diseased lung, including removal of the ribs, also seemed to aid healing. This procedure, called Thoracoplasty, was used to treat Reba Oakley, who went to McCain around 1944. At that time, antibiotics like streptomycin were being created, which were effective in curing the disease and would later result in the closure of many sanatoria.

Reba Oakley and sister.

Unfortunately, the cure came too late for Reba Oakley, who died March 18, 1947 at the age of 34, at her parents' home in Cameron, North Carolina. For many years afterward, her family were required to have yearly chest x-rays to screen for the disease. Mobile units sponsored by the American Lung Association were used to reach the many people in rural areas who needed the service. The ALA funded the mobile units by selling Christmas Seals. Reba's sister Hazel was a dedicated purchaser of Christmas Seals, which she placed on her Christmas cards.

McCain was the last tuberculosis sanatorium in the country to close, in 1983.

Sources: American Lung Association Christmas seal

Photograph of McCain Sanatorium from North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ad from Mt. Airy News, Feb. 26, 1920.

Delaware Health and Social Services, "Famous People Diagnosed With Tuberculosis," (Jan 02, 2004), accessed August 30, 2006.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, "Tuberculosis Control," (January 19, 2006), accessed August 30, 2006.

Surry County Health and Nutrition Center, "History," (2005), accessed August 30, 2006.

North Carolina Museum of History, "History Highlights/Twentieth-Century North Carolina," August 25, 2006,, accessed Aug. 29, 2006.

"The History of International Working Women's Day: Ella Mae Wiggins," no date,, accessed August 29, 2006.

Ernest H. Miller, Miller's Mount Airy, N.C. City Directory, Vol. 1, 1928-1929 (Asheville NC: Southern Directory Co., 1929), p. 198.

Alice B. Hatcher, Spencers, (Dobson NC: published by the authors, 1988) p. 11.

1930 U.S. Census, North Carolina, Surry County, Franklin Township; sheet 2-B, line 65.

Gravestone at Rocky Fork Church.

Family Bible of Hazel Oakley Alexander.

"Reba G. Oakley," Raleigh News and Observer, (Raleigh, N.C.) March 19, 1947.

"Maggie J. Oakley," Death Certificate Vol. 92, p. 131: Surry County; North Carolina Dept of Archivesand History, Raleigh.

Agnes Wells Records of Moody Funeral Services, 1906, p. 13, line 289.

"North Carolina Lung History: Three Centuries of 'Firsts,'" American Lung Association of North Carolina Newsletter, Vol. 3, Issue 3, January-March 2007, p. 1; accessed Feb. 8, 2008,

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From the Blue Ridges to the Sandhills: The History of 4 NC Families/Reba Grace Oakley, Textile Worker
© 2001 by Glenda Alexander, updated February 2008        Standard copyright restrictions apply.