BRUCETON, Tenn.—When textile companies started sending jobs overseas in the 1990s, this town wasn’t spared. Here, the Henry I. Siegel company made jeans and suits in three giant plants, employing 1,700. It started laying people off in 1995. Over time, Siegel, known locally as H.I.S., closed its wash plant, its distribution center, and its cutting center. It laid off its last 55 workers in 2000.
In the 15 years since then, this town has struggled to figure out how to survive. The three giant H.I.S. plants in town are empty, their windows broken, their paint peeling. A few new manufacturing operations have come, but they’ve also left. One by one, the businesses on the main streets of Bruceton and neighboring town Hollow Rock have closed, leaving modern-day ghost towns. In downtown Bruceton, the bank is gone, the supermarket and the fashion store have closed, and there’s a parking lot where there used to be another supermarket. All that’s left is a pharmacy where seniors come to get their prescriptions filled.
“What we say here about NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] is, I cannot tell you if it’s good for the country, but I can tell you that it’s not good for Carroll County,” said Brad Hurley, who grew up in Bruceton and is now the president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce, as he drove me down the mostly abandoned main street of Bruceton. He’s lived in town all his life and worked at the H.I.S. plant some summers; his mother and brother worked there for decades. But the town he sees now is a shadow of what it once was, and other towns in Carroll County, and indeed much of rural Tennessee, are struggling too.
Of course, NAFTA isn’t the only reason manufacturing left Carroll County and the South. Companies moved to Asia to take advantage of lower costs, afraid that they wouldn’t be able to compete if they kept operations in the United States. Automation made it easier for companies to make just as many products with fewer employees.