In 1893 Benjamin Franklin Mebane, industrial tycoon, developed an ambitious plan for a textile company manufacturing terry cloth towels. Mebane purchased 600 acres of land in and around the small towns of Leaksville, Spray, and Draper, Rockingham County along the Virginia border in central North Carolina. The area is known today as Eden, NC.
From 1898 to 1905 Frank Mebane executed his plan and built a mill each year on his 600 acres. But times were not always easy, and in 1910 a recession led Mebane to sell his mills to Marshall Field and Company, a Chicagobased department store.
By 1910 Field had gained voting control of Mebane’s Spray Water Power & Land Co. and had installed new managers; by 1912 the takeover was complete and the company had become a subsidiary of Marshall Field & Co. Field renamed the facilities Fieldcrest Mills and headquartered the Company in Eden. Field invested in improvements and expansion projects for the subsidiary, which was renamed the Thread Mills Company. In 1919, Mr. Field continued to expand operations and built a mill in the town of Fieldale, VA, just west of Martinsville. The community was centered on the mill, and houses were built for employees.
Spray Woolen Mill, Spray, N. C. 1908
Source: UNC Archives Postcard Collection
Karastan Carpets and Rugs. Cotton processing was not the only expertise in the area. A woolen mill operated in Spray. In the 1920s, the Marshall Field Company also saw a need for massproduced oriental rugs. Beginning in 1926, a modified Axminster loom was built which was capable of recreating the detailed craftsmanship of a handwoven rug. From the moment the first Karastan came off the loom (2:02 p.m., April 8, 1928), Karastan became synonymous with elegant machinemade rugs that rivaled their handmade counterparts.
So far advanced was the new manufacturing process that the trade press referred to these rugs as “Mystery Rugs.” To share the “mystery” of these rugs with the public, Karastan created a large version of its Kirman pattern for the 193334 World’s Fair in Chicago. But instead of putting it on display so visitors could simply admire its beauty, Karastan management invited the world to walk on it. And so the world did. More than 5 million people left their footprints, spills and groundin food stains all over the rug. Then it was time for cleanup. They cleaned half the rug so people could see how well the rugs would recover. The rug still exists in the same state today—one side almost unrecognizably filthy, the other returned to its original beauty and luster.
Karastan Wool Rug Before and After Cleaning. Over 5 Million people walked on this rug at the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair. Source: Karastan Web site
To prove that the demonstration was no fluke, they did it again. This time more than 9 million visitors walked on the rugs at the New York World’s Trade Fair of 193940. It’s no wonder the Karastan rugs became known as “The Wonder Rugs of America.”
Fieldcrest Mills. In 1935 the mills were reorganized again. Previously part of Marshall Field’s wholesale division, they became part of the manufacturing division, and sales departments distributed their products nationally at both wholesale and retail levels.
Fieldcrest Mills Ad 1948 with mill locations
NC State Agromeck
Courtesy Peter Metzke
During World War II shortages hampered the mills’ ability to meet consumer demand. Nevertheless, they did produce a variety of goods for the armed services, including silk cartridge cloth, camouflage net, parachute cloth, and mosquito netting. In 1947 the division’s name was changed to Fieldcrest Mills, to clearly identify them with the nationally advertised products that it manufactured.
By 1953 Marshall Field & Co. was eager to expand its stores, especially in the emerging suburban landscape. To raise enough capital, the company sold its mill operations (including its carpet mills, including Karastan carpets) to Amoskeag Co. Fieldcrest Mills, Inc., was incorporated in September 1953; its sales were $39 million. Fieldcrest grew through the mid1960s via a series of acquisitions and improvements, and by 1967 those costs totaled $82.3 million. At that time the Fieldcrest division, which produced blankets, bedspreads, sheets, and towels, comprised 65 percent of the company’s sales, while the Karastan division, which produced Karastan and Laurelcrest carpets, contributed 20 percent. Sales that year were $175.3 million.
Fieldcrest produced goods under its own name as well as private labels, with customers Sears, Roebuck & Co. and J.C. Penney accounting for almost 15 percent of total sales. Fieldcrest’s strength came from strong showing of its medium and upperpriced lines, which made up almost twothirds of total sales. These lines, carrying the Fieldcrest label, appeared primarily in department stores; its Royal Velvet towels, introduced in 1954, were known for their luxury. The lower priced St. Marys brand was sold through mass merchandisers. The 20th anniversary of Fieldcrest Mills, Inc., in 1973, saw sales reach $290 million and annual growth since 1961. By 1977 volume had grown to $417 million. Profits had generally followed this upward trend as well. During this time, Fieldcrest tried to meet the growing consumer demand for more fashionable styles for bed and bath products, entering the ‘designer’ sweepstakes. In 1976 it introduced its first designer line, the Halston collection, and the following year a Geoffrey Beene line was introduced, as well as the Carleton Varney line for the St Marys brand. The market responded favorably, and Fieldcrest saw a 43 percent gain in its bed and bath products in 197677. Carpet sales also increased, due to a boom in housing as well as an aggressive promotional program and a successful entry in the contract carpeting market. Halston rugs were introduced in 1977.
That year the company formed a 50 percent joint venture with the Bank of Ireland and P.J. Carroll & Co. Ltd. Fieldcrest Ireland, Ltd. to build and operate a Fieldcrest towel plant in Kelkenney, Ireland, in an attempt to penetrate the European market.
Profits Crest. Profits crested at $24.8 million on sales of $517.7 million in 1979. Thereafter profits began to slide, falling to $10.4 million in 1982 on sales of $492 million. The recession had affected the company’s performance, but other mills proved able to sustain earnings during that period. Market analysts pointed to ill-
conceived and expensive expansion attempts; Fieldcrest had spent $100 million expanding or updating its facilities between 1978 and 1981. Furthermore, Fieldcrest had responded to a surge in blanket sales in 1977 and 1978 due to unusually cold winters and high energy costs by modernizing its blanket mill in Eden for $40 million, but blanket sales had begun declining after 1978. The plant in Ireland closed in 1982 after high inflation in that country priced the towels out of the European market, and Fieldcrest lost $8 million. Most troubling for Fieldcrest were attempts by other manufacturers to encroach upon its ensconced and lucrative position at the head of the premium towel market. Fieldcrest had decided aggressively to expand its St. Marys line, and this triggered attempts by J.P. Stevens, West PointPepperell, and most notably Cannon Mills to move into the upper end of the market as well. Cannon added a Royal Touch towel to its Royal Family line that directly competed with Fieldcrest’s Royal Velvet. Fieldcrest found itself defending its territory at the top, where the profits were highest, while trying to advance farther at the other end of the market. As the recession took hold, rounds of discounting began and inventory was reduced.
Amoskeag Co., whose earnings were largely sustained by those of Fieldcrest, grew concerned, and in 1982 the chief executive of Amoskeag, Joseph Ely II, was brought in to head Fieldcrest, for which he had served as a board member since 1976. In December of that year, Fieldcrest wrote off its half of a Canadian joint venture, Crossley Karastan Carpet Mills, Ltd., which had lost $1.2 million in 1981.
Emphasize “Fieldcrest.” Soon, Fieldcrest shifted its marketing strategy. Instead of trying to increase profits through high volume of its lower end products, it sought to broaden its range of items built around the Fieldcrest name. By reemphasizing the Fieldcrest lines, which it had neglected to update while the effort had been on the designer lines, the company chose to retain profits and avoid price cuts at the expense of expanding its market share. Fieldcrest was the only towel maker that continued to use its name solely with its premium products; Cannon Mills, for example, sewed its name into all of its towels, regardless of the price category. Fieldcrest promised department stores carrying its line that they had the protected use of its name, thereby hoping to seal their loyalty and expand its carriage trade. Fieldcrest also hoped to grow its privatebrand business, of which Sears was its biggest customer, contributing $75 million in sales in 1983.
Fieldcrest Cannon, Inc. In 1986 Fieldcrest took the bold step of acquiring Cannon Mills, which it purchased for $321 million. With that acquisition, Fieldcrest, which became Fieldcrest Cannon, Inc., gained 12,900 employees, 12 plants, and 14 sales offices, thus doubling its size and becoming the country’s fifth largest publicly held textile company.
- Karastan web site. Accessed February 6, 2008.
- http://www.textilenews.com/archives/080303.html Accessed February 6, 2008
- http://www.karastan.com/theJourneyHistory_rug.asp Accessed February 6, 2008
- http://www.fundinguniverse.com/companyhistories/FieldcrestCannonIncCompanyHistory.html Accessed February 6, 2008
- http://eprints.law.duke.edu/archive/00001587/01/Richmanbookchapter.pdf B. Frank Mebane bio in a book chapter. Accessed February 6, 2008.