Atherton Mill Superintendent's House
Dr. William H. Huffman
The Atherton Mill Superintendent's House was built about 1892-3 when the mill, Charlotte's sixth and the first to be owned by influential New South entrepreneur D. A. Tompkins, was under construction. Tompkins was a leading advocate and practitioner of New South industrialization of the Piedmont region following Reconstruction, and locating his Atherton Mill at the edge of Dilworth, the city's first suburb, helped ensure the latter's success.
In 1880, the Piedmont was slowly emerging from the prolonged effects of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Charlotte was a cotton trading center with a population of 7,094, just one of a number of small towns in North Carolina, but it was strategically located on good rain transportation. When Daniel Augustus Tompkins (1852-1914) first came to town in 1882 as a representative of the Westinghouse Corporation, he found that the first cotton mill had been built in Charlotte the year before, and that despite Northern skepticism, he saw great industrial potential for his native region. 1 A native of Edgefield County, SC, Tompkins graduated from South Carolina College in Columbia and went on to earn a degree in engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, NY in 1873. His subsequent practical experience in manufacturing was acquired through jobs as an apprentice machinist, draftsman, journeyman machinist, and master mechanic prior to signing on with Westinghouse in 1882. 2
By 1887, Tompkins decided to go into business for himself, so he formed the D. A. Tompkins Company, described in the incorporation papers as "consulting and contracting engineers, and dealers in machinery," which eventually designed and built numerous cotton mills and other factories throughout the Piedmont. 3 Two years later, Tompkins' company built three cotton mills in Charlotte alone, the Alpha, Ada, and Victor Mills, and he also organized the Charlotte Supply Company, a cotton mill supplier, or "mill finisher," which sold supplies throughout the region. 4 The degree of contribution by the D. A. Tompkins Company to the region's New South industrialization is clear: from its inception until Tompkins' death in 1914, it built over one hundred cotton mills and numerous fertilizer plants, electric light works, and ginneries. Cotton oil was a waste product when Tompkins first arrived, but he transformed it into a profitable industry by building over two hundred processing plants, which included his own, the Southern Oil Company. 5
Typically for most of his enterprises, Tompkins bought the failing Charlotte Chronicle in 1892 and sold a large stake to an able editor, J. P. Caldwell, who ran the renamed Charlotte Daily Observer and made it into a leading regional daily. Tompkins himself liked to be free to be a consulting engineer and write books, which were mostly on cotton mill and millhouse construction (he also wrote a two-volume work on the history of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County). 6 The mill publications were reputed to be the leading influential monographs on the topic at the time in the region. 7 To further aid in the establishment of a Southern textile industry, Tompkins was active in the establishment of textile schools at N. C. State University, South Carolina, and Mississippi. Eventually his national reputation led to an appointment by President McKinley to the national Industrial Commission, and former President Grover Cleveland insisted on Tompkins being made a member of the board of Equitable Life in 1905 to assist in keeping it from bankruptcy. 8
In July 1892, Tompkins wanted to build a model mill of his own, so with R. M. Miller, Jr. and E. A. Smith, he organized the Atherton Mills (the same three organized the Charlotte Supply Company three years earlier). 9 R. M. Miller, Jr. (1856-1925) was a Davidson College graduate and secretary-treasurer of the D. A. Tompkins Company. He later headed the city's tenth mill, the Elizabeth (named after his daughter), in 1901. 10 Edward Arthur Smith (1862-1933) first came to Charlotte from his native Baltimore as a "drummer" for a Northern industrial supply firm. He went on to organize the Chadwick and Hoskins mills, and by 1908 headed the Chadwick-Hoskins Company, which owned five of Charlotte's mills and was the largest textile company in the state. 11
Groundbreaking for the Atherton Mill took place on August 8, 1892, and by October, the building was under roof. 12 The following month, a reporter visited the site and wrote that:
Few locations have a prettier site that the Atherton Mills. The building is in the southern part of the city, just beyond the old fair grounds, a few minutes walk off the car lines, and a short distance from the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad, which has built a side track to the mill... As seen yesterday afternoon for the first time, it was a revelation, when the short time since the work began was considered. The building is completed excepting only part of the painting... 13
The reporter found "a large force of hands" busily at work putting in double flooring, placing machinery and doing masonry work in the engine and boiler rooms, so that "in a few short weeks the Atherton would be foremost in the list of hummers." Clearly Tompkins was trying to build his model mill in record time. He also reported that
The management of the business of the mills will devolve upon Mr. R. M. Miller, Jr., vice president and treasurer. Mr. A. M. Price will be superintendent.
The company has commenced the construction of houses for the operatives to live in, one cottage being already completed. There will be built about twelve four-room houses, six three-room cottages and four two-room cottages.
The mill will be started up with 5,000 spindles, with floor space in the present building for all preparatory machinery for 10,000 spindles.
The water supply for the mill is taken from the old Summit Hill gold mine. 14
On January 17, 1893, the first cotton was run through the mill; but only two years later, the capacity was doubled to 10,000 spindles, and then it employed about 300 hands and a mill village of fifty houses. 15 The village school, called the Atherton Lyceum, served a number of purposes, including as a general store, town hall, day and Sunday school room. When the original burned in November, 1896, it was rebuilt by the following April. 16
As indicated previously, the Atherton mill and village were Tompkins' models that he used to illustrate his books and use as examples of what he could design and build. His view of mill hands was typically paternalistic, however, and the mill itself could be a dangerous, noisy place to work. Newspaper items refer to picking room fires, mangled fingers, and even the death of an overseer in the carding room who got caught in the belting apparatus. 17 None of the mill houses had toilets, closets, or hot water, which Tompkins explained by the rural character of the hands, who were not used to such "modern improvements." 18 However that may be, the Atherton Mill and village was a model used throughout the region, and with two others he owned later in High Shoals, NC and Edgefield, SC helped shape his social and political philosophy. 19
The Atherton Mill settlement lay just to the southwest of Dilworth, the city's first suburb, between what became South Boulevard and the C. C. & A. (now Southern) Railway tracks. Some other factories located along the same corridor, which, along with the Atherton, made Dilworth a successful suburban venture. 20 The latter was an enterprise of Edward Dilworth Latta (1851-1925), who headed the organization of the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company (known then as the 4 C's) in 1890 to develop a 422-acre site to the southwest of the city center. Latta, a Princeton-educated South Carolina native who had already been successful with a clothing store (1876) and the Charlotte Trouser Company (1883) in the city, originally laid out the new settlement in a grid fashion. The great boulevards came to have many large homes on them, including Latta's, and the remainder of the houses were smaller middle-class houses, many of them bungalows. To get people out of the city to the suburb, the 4 C's built the first electric trolley line from the Square (opened in 1891) out to its main attraction, Latta Park, which was developed into a major amusement park with concert and dance hall, a pavilion that hosted traveling road shows (including Buffalo Bill), greenhouses, and a large lake for boating. Lots were sold on easy credit terms. 21
In October, 1982, when the Atherton Mill was well on its way to completion, the mill bought two building lots (50' front by 150' deep) at the corner of "The Boulevard" and Worthington Avenue from the 4 C's for a mill superintendent's house, and it is reasonable to assume that it was completed a few months later, probably in early 1893. 22 In the press notice quoted above, the first superintendent is named as A. M. Price, but the existing records do not help in further identification. In 1907, they first year that the house is directly listed, the superintendent is shown as Edward L. Sargent.
In the ensuing years, the house was variously rented to the superintendent and occasionally others, but the mill lost the property and went out of business from massive foreclosures on deeds of trust throughout the city in 1933 during the worst days of the Great Depression. 23 Under the subsequent ownership of an investment company, the Independence Corporation, the house was moved back on its lot and turned to face Worthington Avenue in late 1936 or early 1937, so that a commercial building could be put up facing South Boulevard. 24
The Atherton Mill Superintendent's House is an extant part of a complex of buildings that remain of D. A. Tompkins' New South industrial legacy in Dilworth. Across South Boulevard from the house the D. A. Tompkins Company built a new foundry (1902) and machine shop (1905), and along with the mill and remaining mill houses, constitute an important industrial heritage that in large part shaped and built the city, economically, socially, and physically, and in a similar way strongly shaped New South industrialization in the Piedmont Carolinas.
1 Dan L. Morrill, "A Survey of Cotton Mills in Charlotte," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 1979, Charlotte Observer, October 19, 1914, p. 1.
2 Charlotte Observer, October 19, 1914, p. 1.
3 Mecklenburg County Record of Corporations, Book A, p. 60.
4 Morrill, "Survey," cited above.
5 Charlotte Observer, cited above.
6 Ibid.; Dan L. Morrill, "A Historical Sketch of the Atherton Mill House," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 1981.
7 Morrill, "Atherton Mill House," cited above.
8 Charlotte Observer, cited above.
9 Mecklenburg County Record of Corporations, Book A, p. 258; William H. Huffman, "A Historical Sketch of the Charlotte Supply Company," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 1983.
10 Huffman, " Charlotte Supply Company," cited above.
11 William H. Huffman, "A Historical Sketch of the Hoskins Mill," Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, 1987.
12 Charlotte Observer, August 8, 1892, p. 4; August 21, 1892, p. 4; October 4, 1892, p. 4.
13 Ibid., November 27, 1892, p. 4.
15 Ibid., January 18, 1892, p. 4, May 20, 1896, p. 4.
16 Ibid., April 3, 1897, p. 1.
17 Ibid., June 28, 1893, p. 4; October 14, 1902, p. 4.
18 Morrill, "Atherton Mill House," cited above.
21 Dan L. Morrill, "Edward Dilworth Latta and the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company (1890-1925): Builders of a New South City," The North Carolina Historical Review 42 (1985), 293-316.
22 Mecklenburg County Deed Book 84, p. 265, 22 October 1892.
23 Ibid., Book 846, p. 84, 18 October 1933; Charlotte City Directories, 1907-present.
24 Ibid, Book 870, p. 309, 17 July 1935; Charlotte City Directories, 1936, p. 735 & 894; 1937, p. 780 & 944.