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A heartbreaking loss for generations

Lintheads like myself are heartbroken this morning.

A piece of everyone of us with connections to Bibb Mill went up in flames in early morning hours today when the mill burned to the ground.

More than a century of history and the finest monument to working people of this town is gone.

I grew up in Bibb City. I went to Bibb City Elementary.

My father, Herman Coker, worked as a weaver/loom fixer for almost 40 years. My mother, Louise Peters, worked as a weaver and cloth inspector for 10 years.

If you have to ask what a loom fixer is, you should probably stop reading this now.

As I stood on 38th Street this morning and looked at the smoke coming out of the rumble more than 10 hours after the fire started, my heart sank.

Hundreds of memories rushed back. I may be 54, but I was a kid again for a few minutes.

I could hear the old steam whistle that used to wake me in the morning and put me to sleep at night. I could smell the cotton.

As an adult, I now understand my parents and thousands of others lived by that whistle. People set their clocks by what sounded like an old train.I hope that whistle survived the fire.

Like most everybody else who worked in that mill in the '30s, 40s, 50s and 60s, my family came off the farm — "down home," they called it.

My dad was from the Florida panhandle and my mom was raised in nearby South Alabama. My home was Bibb City. As a boy, it was the best playground you could have. Johnny Herring and I played around the mill and in the river. We lived a Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer lifestyle.

There are thousands of people linked to that mill. They worked there. Or in my case, their parents worked there.

My dad was determined that his children would not work in the mill.

He wanted us to get an education, and never look back.

I have always looked back. Part of that has been easy because most of adult life has been spent in Columbus. There is not a time I drive down Second Avenue that I don't look over at that mill.

I am proud of my linthead heritage.

As I was looking at the burning mill Thursday morning, I was hoping to smell the cotton. The smell just wasn't there. All that was in the air was the thick smell of burning wood, a century-old heart pine.

What a waste.

I saw others just like me there. We all shared a sadness, you could see it the eyes.

People from more affluent parts of Columbus called us lintheads. It was not a term of endearment.

But we wore it with pride -- or least I did. I actually loved being called a linthead.

I know it's just a building. But it was a monument to the people who built this city. Columbus was built on the backs and with the sweat of lintheads.

With all due respect, TSYS didn't build this town. Aflac didn't build this town. As a matter of fact many children and grandchildren of mill workers work in those places.

People like my parents -- thousands of people just like my parents from "down home" -- built this town.

Columbus would not be what it is today without lintheads.

And all of us are hurting right now.

Don Coker is a senior designer/artist who has worked at the Ledger-Enquirer for more than 30 years.

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