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A Brief History of Mecklenburg County

Part IV: Industrialization

At the turn of the century, industrialization brought an easier life for many farmers and a way out for many more. The Charlotte Cotton Mill, Charlotte's first mill, opened in 1881. This was followed in 1883 by the arrival of Mr. D.A. Tompkins.

D. A. Tompkins

Tompkins became a spokesman for the so-called New South through his new mill designs, mill construction and engineering firm. In books such as Cotton Mills: Commercial Features, and by the example of his own Atherton Mill, which opened in 1893, Tompkins influenced an entire generation of cotton mill owners. Following the prosperous cotton mills, clothing manufacturers, foundries, ginneries, and a cotton seed oil (a product developed by Tompkins) mill opened in Charlotte in the late 1800's. In 1873, only thirty-three mills existed in the entire state of North Carolina; by 1902, however, three hundred mills had been built within one hundred miles of Charlotte. This number was more than one-half of the looms and spindles in the entire South. While this growth was centered in Charlotte, the impact of industrialization reached onto the county's farms as well.

Atherton Cotton Mill

The first years of the twentieth century were "electrified" with change. Industrialist James B. Duke began developing hydroelectric plants that would forever change Mecklenburg County. Founded by Duke and other entrepreneurs, the Southern Power Company began producing electricity in 1904. Slowly, cotton mills began to convert from steam power to electric power. One of Duke's other contributions to the growth of Mecklenburg County was the establishment of the Piedmont and Northern Electric Railway in 1911; the city's seventh rail line. Connecting Charlotte and Gastonia with a separate line from Spartanburg to Greenwood, South Carolina, the P & N symbolized the dominant position Charlotte was assuming over the surrounding countryside. Industrialists were now able to commute out to their mills from the city. And as mills began to be constructed farther from Charlotte, the impact on the rural areas of Mecklenburg County was tremendous.

New communities were developed around mills located in the countryside. This is easily seen at Thrift. Growing with the construction of Thrift Mill and the P & N Depot in 1912, the curved streets of the Thrift Mill Village were laid out around 1913. While Thrift may be the best example of the type of rural community spawned by mill development, there are other small Mecklenburg County towns that owe their existence to late nineteenth century railroad and mill development. The college village of Davidson grew into a mill town; as did Cornelius, Matthews, Pineville, and Huntersville, which were all incorporated in the 1870s. Derita, Newell, and Mint Hill emerged as prosperous communities in the late nineteenth century. This growth meant that Mecklenburg County farmers could buy goods and sell their cotton crop in small towns closer to their farms. The existence of these outlying communities changed the patterns of rural life, both on the farm and off. People were linked more closely to each other and became more dependent upon their immediate community for trade.

Go to part 5...
Adapted by Bruce R. Schulman from Historic Rural Resources in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina by Sherry J. Joines and Dr. Dan L. Morrill