CHARLOTTE'S TEXTILE HERITAGE
by Dr. Thomas W. Hanchett
Mecklenburg County's location in the Piedmont of the Southeastern United
States was a key factor in its eventual industrial development, but the
county had been no pioneer in the creation of the textile industry. English
native Samuel Slater had built America's first textile mill at Pawtucket,
Rhode Island, in 1793, sparking the rapid rise of the industry in New
England. 1 Mills did not appear in the South until two decades
later, a by-product of the hostilities with England that led to the War of
1812. President Thomas Jefferson's embargo of 1807 forbade most U.S. trade
with England, and indirectly encouraged investors in the South and elsewhere
to try to develop American manufacturing. 2 North Carolina
investors Absolom Warlick and Michael Schenk built the state's first cotton
mill near Lincolnton in 1813. 3 By 1840, according to North
Carolina historians Hugh Lefler and Albert Newsome, "there were twenty-five
mills in fifteen counties, thirteen of them in the Piedmont." 4
This number increased to thirty-nine by the eve of the Civil War. 5
The Piedmont was the logical place for the textile industry to start in
the South. It was a productive cotton-growing area, and its rolling hills
provided water power for the first factories. But the industry grew slowly
before the Civil War because Southern investors tended to put their
resources into agriculture and export trade. Most southern factories were
small, and often short-lived. The majority were spinning mills, which
transformed the raw cotton into thread (known as "yarn" in the textile
trade, no matter what its thickness). As late as 1860 the average North
Carolina mill had barely a thousand spindles and only three employed as many
as one hundred workers. 6 A handful of plants had power looms to
weave their yarn into cloth. Notable among these was Edwin M. Holt's
Alamance Mill near present-day Burlington, North Carolina, which introduced
the use of textile dyes in the state in 1853, and produced the South's first
machine-woven colored cloth. 7
Mecklenburg showed scant interest in the textile industry before the
Civil War, despite its location in the heart of the Piedmont. In 1848 cotton
farmer William Henry Neel constructed a modest factory on the banks of the
Catawba River under the direction of a Rhode Island expert named George
Brown. 8 The same year, Charlotte investors Carson, Young and
Grier founded the Rock Island Manufacturing Company to produce both cotton
and woolen yarn and cloth. 9 Both mills apparently closed before
the Civil War, though there is a record of a Grier-owned factory called the
Glenroy Cotton Mill which operated for less than a year in 1874 near the
community of Matthews. 10
After the Civil War, the Southern attitude toward industry changed
radically. The end of slavery crippled plantation agriculture, and the
region's investors began to work toward a "New South" based instead on
industrial development. 11 Under the slogan "Bring the Mills to
the Cotton!" North Carolina emerged as the South's leading textile producer
by the 1920s. 12
Mecklenburg County did not immediately join the post-bellum industrial
rush. The county had been one of the state's most productive cotton growing
counties before the conflict, with many medium-sized farmers rather than a
few large plantations as was common elsewhere in the state. 13
Such farms weathered the end of slavery well, and continued to be
profitable. There is evidence that Mecklenburg farmers invested their
proceeds first in cotton trading rather than manufacturing. The opening of
railroads in the 1850s had made the city a major cotton trading hub for
farmers throughout the state's southern Piedmont. 14 The city and
its rail connections were barely touched by the Civil War, and after the
close of the conflict the city experienced a trading boom. 15 The
county's farmers and shopkeepers put their modest profits into the cotton
trade, and eventually accumulated the substantial amounts of capital needed
for industrial development.
By the 1880s the city had a number of "capitalists" looking for new ways
to invest their cotton profits. The first to enter the textile business was
R.M. Oates. Raised on a farm, Oates had come to Charlotte with the opening
of the railroads to work in a grocery store, and had risen to become one of
the city's wealthiest cotton traders. In 1881 he opened the
Charlotte Cotton Mill in the city's
Fourth Ward, Mecklenburg's first successful textile concern. 16
Once Oates showed the way, Mecklenburg's industrial growth was nothing
short of meteoric. Thirteen years after the first mill, Mecklenburg County
ranked third in number of spindles in the state, close behind leading Gaston
and Alamance counties. 17 The build-up seems to have been
accomplished by local capital with little help from outside investors.
"Charlotte is essentially a home-made city," stated Charlotte publisher Wade
Harris in 1899. "All the cotton mills and clothing factories...were built
mainly by Charlotte people." 18 By 1900 Mecklenburg County
boasted sixteen mills with a combined total of 94,392 spindles and 1,456
looms. l9 It was now North Carolina's second most important
textile manufacturing county. 20
TOP COTTON GROWING COUNTIES IN NORTH CAROLINA
Source: U.S. Agricultural Census data Compiled by Thomas W. Hanchett
Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission
TOP TEXTILE MANUFACTURING COUNTIES IN NORTH CAROLINA RANKED BY NUMBER
1900 figures are for "Cotton and Woolen Mills, etc." and presumably
include all types of textile factories.
1910 figures are for "Cotton, Woolen, and Silk and Knitting Mills."
1919-1920 figures are for "Cotton, Woolen, Cordage and Silk Mills."
They do not include knitting mills.
Figures for number of mills in 1910 and 1919-1920 include mills listed as
"under construction" and "not in operation," but do not include proposed
Source: Annual Reports of the Bureau of Labor and Printing of the
State of North Carolina.
1 Encyclopedia of Textiles, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs,
N. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1980), p. 75.
2 Richard Griffin, "North Carolina Cotton Manufacturers,
1808-1960," in Marjorie Young, ea., Textile Leaders of the South
(Columbia, S.C.: James R. Young, 1963), p. 462.
3 Ibid. There is evidently some uncertainty as to the date.
The year 1815 is used in Hugh Lefler and Albert Newsome, The History of a
Southern State: North Carolina, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University
of North Carolina Press, 1973), pp. 396-397.
4 Lefler and Newsome, p. 397.
5 Ibid., pp. 398-399.
7 Ibid., p. 399. Griffin, p. 466.
8 Dan L. Morrill, "A
Survey of Cotton Mills in Charlotte, North Carolina..." (Charlotte:
Charlotte Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission, 1981). Griffin, p.
468. The Catawba factory's output evidently had a high reputation despite
the factory's short life, according to Griffin: "equipped with new and
improved Northern machinery ... it quickly acquired a reputation 'that made
all its products sell easily....' General Neal [sic] employed as agents two
brothers, H.B. and L.L. Williams, who traveled over the State taking orders
for the Catawba products. When these orders were received at the mills, the
company's wagons would deliver the cotton yarn and cloth directly to the
merchants. Such merchandising paid ample reward, and General Neal was widely
respected as a 'pioneer industrialist.' See also Dan L. Morrill, "The Neel
House: Survey and Research Report" (Charlotte: Charlotte Mecklenburg
Historic Properties Commission, 1976).
9 Griffin, p. 468.
10 Morrill, "A Survey of Cotton Mills...."
11 For discussion of this era in general see Paul M. Gaston,
The New South Creed: a Study in Southern Mythmaking (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1970); C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South,
1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1951); and Broadus
Mitchell, The Rise of Cotton Mills in the South (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins Press, 1930), among others. A study of the New South era in a
particular state is David Carlton, Mill and Town in South Carolina,
1880-1920 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982).
12 Thirty Fourth Report of the Bureau of Labor and Printing of
the State of North Carolina, 1923-24, p. 3. Table based on U.S. census data
shows that North Carolina surpassed South Carolina in spindles in 1921. See
also Lefler and Newsome, p. 581; Southern Textile Bulletin, November
22, 1923, Section 2, p. 2.
13 United States Bureau of the Census, Eighth Census: 1860
-Agriculture, North Carolina section pp. 235-236, 106-111.
14 When the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad opened to
Columbia in 1852, it was the first railroad in the western part of North
Carolina. By 1860 lines converged on Charlotte from four directions. The
resulting competition kept freight prices low and allowed cotton brokers to
pay farmers the highest possible prices. For more discussion see the chapter
of this manuscript entitled "The Growth of Charlotte: a History." A good
contemporary description may be found in Beasley and Emerson's Charlotte
Directory for 1875-76..., pp. 131-141, in the city directory collection of
the Carolina Room at the Charlotte Public Library.
15 This was partly fueled by the astronomical price of cotton
immediately after the war. In 1866 and 1867 the staple sold for more than a
dollar per pound, a price which has not been equalled since even with
inflation. The Charlotte market handled 12,000 bales (four to five hundred
pounds each) in 1866 alone, bringing huge amounts of cash into the city. For
information on Charlotte's postwar surge see LeGette Blythe and Charles R.
Brockman, Hornets' Nest: The Story of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County
(Charlotte: McNally of Charlotte, 1961), p. 123. For data on cotton prices
nationally see Gilbert R. Merrill, et al., American Cotton Handbook...,
2nd rev. ed. (New York: Textile Book Publishers, 1949), p. 50. For
information on the Charlotte market see Beasley and Emerson's Charlotte
Directory for 1875-76..., p. 141.
16 Morrill, "A Survey of Cotton Mills ..." William H. Huffman,
"Charlotte Cotton Mill: Survey and Research Report" (Charlotte: Charlotte
Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission, 1984).
17 Eighth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and Printing
for the State of North Carolina, 1894, pp. 33-36.
18 Wade Hampton Harris, Sketches of Charlotte
(Charlotte: Observer Printing House, 1899), p. 4.
19 Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and
Printing for the State of North Carolina, 1900, p. 177. See also Harris, p.
3, for some data on South Carolina mill towns.
20 Fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of Labor and
Printing for the State of North Carolina, 1900, pp. 176-181.