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Weaving History: Charlotte & The Textile Industry

 

 

 

Charlotte emerged as a major textile center between 1880 and 1914. Mills with names like Ada, Alpha, Victor, Louise, and Elizabeth began to dot the local landscape. That past is largely forgotten now, even though many of Charlotte's textile buildings have been adapted to other uses, including housing and retail. All of the photographs in this exhibit are from a single, remarkable book -- Cotton Mills, Commerical Features, published 1899. The author was Daniel Augustus Tompkins. Born in Edgefield County, South Carolina in 1851, Tompkins came to Charlotte from the North in 1883 and became an untiring champion of New South industrialization.

 

 

 

Charlotte's Prominent Mills

 

Postcard featuring four Charlotte mills in their heyday: the Hoskins, the Mecklenburg, the Elizabeth, and the Chadwick mills.

 

Atherton Cotton Mill

 

 

 

 

In the distance stands the Atherton Cotton Mill which opened just outside Dilworth in 1893. It was a spinning mill, and Tompkins ran it with an iron fist. He provided housing in the nearby Atherton Mill Village but insisted that his workers toe the line. This was one of only three spinning mills that Tompkins owned. Note that black hands picked white cotton almost up to the walls of the mill itself. Cotton was the real gold of Mecklenburg County at the turn of the century.This view of the Atherton Cotton Mill, which has recently been turned into condominiums, was taken in the late 1890's. Its ivy-covered walls hide the harsh realities of life in a cotton mill. The workers, including children, labored for 12 to 14 hours a day, their ears ringing with the slamming and banging of the spinning machines.

 

 

D. A. Tompkins (1851-1911)

 

 

Mill Workers

 

This photograph of mill workers, probably at the Atherton Mill, speaks volumes. All the workers were white. That was company policy. Look how young they were. The boys in the front row, all but one barefooted, look like they were 11 or 12 at the most. The man in the back row on the left must be the overseer.

 

 

 

 

Cotton was the economic kingpin of Mecklenburg County for over a hundred years. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 made raising short staple cotton profitable in the Piedmont. This elderly man and woman are standing outside the log home that they had occupied as slaves. There were once hundreds of these in rural Mecklenburg. They are no more.

 

 

Cotton Platform

 

One of the most important places in any town, including Charlotte, was the cotton platform. Farmers would bring their crop to be weighed, bought, and prepared for shipment. Trains leading north out of Charlotte were made up mostly of boxcars filled with the white gold of the South -- King Cotton.

 

 

Atherton Lyceum

 

This Queen Anne style building with its corner tower was the Atherton Lyceum. Tompkins, who opposed compulsory school attendance laws, brought his sister from Edgefield, S.C. to teach in this school. The students also labored in the Atherton Mill. Tompkins wanted it that way.

 

 

Highland Park Mill

 

This was Highland Park Mill No 2. It opened in 1893 and produced gingham. Part of the building still stands on North Brevard St. It is a lonely reminder of an age when Charlotte was one of the textile centers of the country.

The Louise Mills and Mill Village

 

The Louise Mills and its mill village, from a 1911 postcard.

Chadwick Mills' Mill Village

Chadwick Mills' mill village, as shown on a 1914 postcard.

Taking Cotton To Market

 

John Cross, a Mecklenburg County farmer, takes his cotton to the Charlotte Cotton market in this 1907 photo.