Abbeville Cotton Mill was organized when a group of local investors met early in 1895. The New South message of D. A. Tompkins was proving to be good business advice for many southern towns. The objective was “to build a factory for the manufacturing of coarse cotton cloth.” Officers selected were: Judge J. C. Klugh, president; G. A. Visanska, a banker, vice-president; and W. H. Parker, treasurer. Six directors were also selected. The sale of stock was not an immediate success. However, with $40,000 capital raised, a calculated decision was made to push on. A tract of 80 acres of land, along Blue Hill Creek, just south and east of town was purchased at a cost of $46 per acre. (1)
One of the noted engineering firms in the country, Lockwood, Greene and Co. of Boston was selected to design the mill. For the plans and needed directions, they charged a fee of $2500, or 25 cents per spindle. The building was designed to be three-stories high with a footprint 102 feet x 244 feet with a basement at one end. The factory smokestack was to be 150 feet tall and would require some 250,000 bricks. Clay in the Carolinas is never too far away, and sure enough, a site was selected close to Blue Hill Creek and an agreement made with local men. The brick makers were commissioned to make one million bricks to measure 4 inches x 2 ¾ inches x 8 inches. Two-thirds were to be “hard-burned” brick for extra durability and weathering. The remaining could be “pale” brick. The price: $3.33 per thousand. By mid-June 1896, the posts for the second floor were placed into position. In late October the roof was underway. The factory was finally ready for the installation of equipment by December 1896. It was noted that 100 rail cars or five trains were required to haul the equipment from northern factories. Machinery began arriving in March 1897. Pickers arrived along with 42 carding machines. Each card was designed to process 165 pounds of cotton per day (compared to the industry average at that time of 80 pounds per day). (1)
Forty-five spinning frames were installed. Each frame contained 224 spindles for a total of 10,800 spindles. For weaving, 304 Northrop looms of the Draper patent were purchased at a cost of $95.38 for a total cost of $29,000. The looms promised to require one-third less labor than most looms at the time. Each was to produce 60-62 yards per day. As an added productivity factor, the looms would run un-attended for thirty minutes during the weavers’ lunch and for 30 minutes after quitting time! Efficiency would be increased by some 10-15 per cent to give a productivity of 70 yards per day. (1)
Power to run the mill was furnished by a huge steam engine manufactured by the Green Company of Massachusetts. It was a compound condensing double engine purchased at a cost of $21,000. It was guaranteed to produce 450 horsepower and indeed, it produced a reported 600 horsepower. Some idea of the immense size: the drive pulley alone weighed 15 tons. To establish a stable bed, the drive was mounted on a bed of granite from the W. R. Welsh Quarry, Elberton, GA. Two months were needed to install and set the machine. Power throughout the mall was through “an intricate system of drive shafts, belts, and pulleys” as was common in the days before electricity. (1)
The factory “showed its first signs of life on March 4, 1897.” Water was added to the boiler, a fire was kindled and at exactly 5:00 PM, “the steam engine’s great drive pulley began to turn.” Throughout the summer and fall of 1897, machinery was installed and readied. As soon as practical, trial runs were made. In December 1897, the mill was in full production, about nine months after machinery began arriving. Only one style of goods was produced – a coarse cotton cloth known as “three-yard sheeting.” The fabric was 36 inches wide, and as the name implied, weighed three yards to the pound. Each piece was stamped with the mill’s new trademark – the outline of three rabbits, one large, two small. Cloth was shipped in bales tied with rope. (1)
The first addition to the mill was begun in January 1899 and was completed in May 1900. The addition was 104 feet by 249 feet. This is approximately the same footprint as the original building, but this was a single- story with a temporary roof. As conditions mandated, more stories could be added. Three hundred and thirty- six Northrop looms were installed. In order to run these looms, the yarn mill had to run both a day and a night shift. (1) Draper records show 940 looms installed by 1900. The numbers remained until at least 1916 (2)
In December 1899, a group of northern mill men and investors including Seth Milliken and his son, Gerrish, of New York, and Stephen Greene of Massachusetts, toured the mill. These men traveled south looking after their investments. Ferguson reported (and probably quoted from the local newspaper) that “They traveled in a special railway car which was professionally equipped to serve their business needs and was described as being rather plush.” This was not at all uncommon in those days as George Pullman furnished railway cars for traveling executives who spent a lot of time traveling across the country. In a stockholder’s meeting held in the mill office, a new Board of Directors was elected that included Seth Milliken. J. W. Danielson of Providence, Rhode Island, also a mill owner; Wm. H. Rent of Massachusetts; J. D. Cloudman, southern agent for the Draper Company of Massachusetts; and Stephen Greene, Boston Massachusetts, the mill architect of Lockwood, Greene and Co., were also elected to the Board. The local press gave favorable reports regarding the visitors and why not. The paper stated that Mr. Greene built only first-class mills and of Mr. Milliken, “not one of his mills had ever been known to fail.” Also in reference to Mr. Milliken: “he was a great believer in the South as a location for textile factories.” How prophetic! (1)
Davison’s Blue Book for 1901-1902 lists 108 cards, 940 narrow looms and 28,336 ring spindles. B.F. Bailey was Pes. and Treas. Deering & MIlliken were listed as Sales Agents.
Time passed. In its issue of October 28, 1908, The Abbeville Press and Banner carried a note that the Abbeville Cotton Mill had just sold 30 “cars” of goods for export to China. (1)
Another cotton mill to be built
Clipping from August 20, 1909
Courtesy Peter Metzke
In the same year ( 1909 ) the Abbeville Power & Mfg Co are reported to start building a 20,000 spindle mill in Abbeville, my thoughts are that this and the advert above are one and the same. (2) The Press and Banner editorial for June 9, 1909, called for support for the new mill. A follow-up column on June 30 said ” Time is precious and Abbeville has none to lose.” However, the new mill was never built. (4)
The company provided a death benefit to the family of one of the workers. From the February 1918 Press and banner, ” Mr. Samuel A. Willis died at his home at the Abbeville Cotton Mills … (village). …Mr. Willis’ family is the first to be benefited by the insurance recently presented to the mill operatives by the Abbeville Cotton Mill for a Christmas present. The family will receive twelve monthly installments of $26 each.(4)
In 1927, Deering, Milliken & Co. was the Sales agent for Abbeville. Harold A. Hatch of Deering-Milliken & Co., New York, was the President, J.F. Barnwell was Sec, Treas., and Buyer. W.M. Langley was Supt. . The major product was sheeting. (5)
The Great Depression in the 1930’s was a difficult time for all. Abbeville did not escape unscathed. Business slowed and in 1931, the mill completely closed for approximately three months. Help for the employees came from the Red Cross and from management. Seth Milliken may have become a majority stock-holder at this time. (1)
In 1934, struggling with the Depression and looking for a way to distinguish their product from others, management decide to try the new wonder fiber “rayon.” With increasing success of this new product, the mill came back to life and gradually eliminated cotton as the fiber in production. In 1937, the name of the company was changed to Abbeville Mills. (1)
Clipping from August 1935
Courtesy Peter Metzke
In 1943, Deering-Milliken & Co. purchased the Abbeville Mill in its entirety from the stock holders. In several other locations Deering Milliken & Co. had controlling interest but did not own all the stock, but operated the facility.
The Mill’s president was H. A. Hatch and the general manager was Allan B. Sibley. This was in the middle of war production when the mill produced fabrics for artillery powder bags, raincoat fabric, uniform fabrics for the Navy’s Waves, and parachute fabric. By the late 1940’s the plant used synthetic fibers and, in some fabrics, blended with wool (worsted tops). (1)
In the early 1950’s a popular product at Abbeville was an 80/20 blend of rayon and wool for the womenswear and menswear suiting market. A 50/50 rayon/acetate blend which was plied, packaged dyed and woven for the womenswear sportswear market was very popular. It was a mixture of 3.0 and 1.5 denier bright and semi-dull fibers. Home Sewing was also a major market for these finished fabrics sold through retail stores. These fabrics were often brushed and calendered to achieve special finish effects. An 85/15 rayon/acetate blend was also popular in the 1950’s for the menswear market. What helped make these and other blends so attractive tacticity and performance wise was Abbeville’s pioneering along with Dow Chemical in the use of Dow’s silicone water repellant Decetex 104 when properly emulsified with Pluramine S-100. Stress the word properly! When done correctly the result was water repellancy and a silky hand. When done incorrectly the result was the same but all of the fabric had to be sold at a loss as seconds because of “silicone spots.” (3)
Already well-known for trying new things with synthetic blends, Abbeville was one of the first to experiment with DuPont’s Dacron staple. A 65/35 blend of Dacron and rayon run in singles and plied yarns for packaged dyed fabrics or piece dyes was produced primarily for the menswear market. Converters made mens washable suiting from the fabric. And the suit really looked very good upon washing. Some of the employees even got to wear test such suits before they were marketed. (3)
By 1958 Abbeville had built a reputation for innovation and built successful programs: menswear; womenswear, both for sport and dress; retail over the counter; automotive; drapery; and upholstery. At that time and perhaps at any time, this was an incredible mix of market products.
- Lester W. Ferguson. 1993. “The Abbeville Cotton Mill; The Town’s Textile Beginnings” in Abbeville County: Southern Life-Styles Lost in Time, The Reprint Co., Spartanburg, SC.
- Peter Metzke. Draper Production Records.
- Charles B. Palmer, personal communication, September 2010.
- Susie New, personal communication, October 2010.
- Davison’s Textile Blue Book 40th Annual July 1927. Davison Publishing Co., New York.