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 The Alpha Cotton Mills Village

Typical Frame Cottages in the Alpha Mill Village.

     Charlotte’s industrial development in the second half of the nineteenth century was intimately bound up with textiles.  Beginning with the opening of the Charlotte Cotton Mills in December 1880, Charlotte was transformed into a major industrial center in a single generation.[1]  A moving force in this process was Daniel Augustus Tompkins (1852-1914), a New South industrialist and philanthropist who moved to Charlotte in March 1883.

Daniel Augustus Tompkins (1852-1914)

    A native of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Tompkins had earned a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  in Troy, New York in 1873, had been a chief machinist for the Bethlehem Iron Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and had decided to return to his native region so that he might encourage and assist the development of industry and the diversification of agriculture.  In 1884, Tompkins founded the D. A. Tompkins Co. with R. M. Miller, Sr. to build and supply machinery for cotton mills.  The D. A. Tompkins Co. was directly responsible for the construction of over one hundred cotton mills and two hundred cotton oil plants in the Piedmont over a thirty-year period, including the Alpha Mill.

The upper half of this map shows the Alpha Cotton Mill and the Alpha Cotton Mill Village across North Brevard Street from the Mill.

     D. A. Tompkins built and equipped three cotton mills in Charlotte in 1889 – the Victor, the Ada , and the Alpha . Two of the three buildings survive, the Ada  and the Alpha. Called “hummers” because of the noise produced by the spinning and weaving machines, the new mills appeared at the edges of town along railroad lines.  Tompkins did not like sites in the hearts of cities. “The proximity of lawyers . . . promotes law suits,” he declared, and a “mill in the country can operate its own store and thereby get back some of money paid for wages.”  It is important to note that Northern capital played no role in financing the great majority of Charlotte's first cotton mills.  They were home-owned and operated.  

      Tompkins published books, most notably Cotton Mills, Commerical Features, which provided practical advice to prospective owners of textile mills, including advice as to how they should construct houses for mill workers (see above).  A collection of houses of this type were built on  C Street, and North Caldwell Street for the workers at the Alpha Cotton Mill. They are the only remnant of textile housing that survives in Center City Charlotte and, therefore, possess a high degree of historic significance. 

Illustration

This is Tompkins's design that survives in the Alpha Mill Village.

     The Alpha Cotton Mill company was formally incorporated on January 23, 1888.  Opening in 1889, the complex consisted of a one-story brick mill building with basement (housing carding, spinning, reeling and warping operations), a cotton warehouse, and a waste house, plus the collection of one-story frame houses for “operatives.”  It was decided that there would be a novel public subscription of the stock as follows:

It was moved that on Saturday, the 7th day of January, 1888, from four to eight o'clock p.m., the subscribers to the capital stock of the company be requested to call at the store of C. Scott, on College Street, and sign the constitution and by-laws, and pay in fifty cents per share on their stock, of which twenty-five cents is the initiation fee and twenty-five cents is the first installment of dues, and the weekly payments will be made at the same place from four to eight o'clock each Saturday.

So far as is known, this was the first mill in the region to offer its stock on a weekly installment plan.

This photograph is taken looking north.  The Alpha Mill is in the upper right hand corner of the photograph.  The mill village is barely visible through the trees to the right of the mill.

         



[1]   The material for this essay is taken from the following sources:  Dan L. Morrill, “Survey and Research Report on the Alpha Mill,” 6 June, 1984 (http://landmarkscommission.org/surveys&ralphamill.htm).  Dan L. Morrill, “Dilworth’s Early History, 1890-1911,” n.d. (http://landmarkscommission.org/educationneighhistdilworth1.htm).