Loray Mills (1900) to Jenckes to Manville-Jenckes to Firestone Cotton Mills (1935) 1
In 1900, the Loray Mills in Gastonia brought the town to national prominence. When finished, this complex was the largest mill (50,000 spindles and 1,600 looms) under one roof in the South and competed in size with anything operating in New England. The total square footage was in excess of 350,000 square feet. In many ways, it announced that the South had arrived. This was the 25th mill built in Gaston County and at one swoop doubled the number of spindles and looms operating in Gastonia and increased the production of cotton goods in the county by 40%. Loray, named after the two principals, John F. Love and George A. Gray, was also known as the ”Million Dollar Mill.” It was an imposing six-story mill with an eight-story Italianate “bell tower” reminiscent of those in town squares in Italy. The actual investors and amounts supplied were never known. Possibly the Draper and Whitin machinery suppliers were major investors. Reportedly, no one in Gastonia had that kind of money. Electric motors were used throughout with a 2,500 horsepower cross-compound and condensing steam engine from C&G Cooper Company of Mount Vernon, Ohio to supply the power.
2500 HP Cooper Corliss Cross-Compound Steam Engine
Courtesy Peter Metzke
The mill took a while to build and eventually operate at anything like full capacity. It was March 1902 before any cloth was produced. Huge orders could be booked. In September 1903, the mill began shipment of a bed sheeting for Shanghai, China that required 26 train cars.
Postcards showing the evolution of the Loray Mills Courtesy of Bill Wornall
Such a mill drew the attention of everyone everywhere. It is not surprising that union agents would choose the Loray as a target. Ragan reports that the first strike in Gaston County occurred in August 1907 at Loray. The China market was not as prosperous as one had hoped due to the Boxer Rebellion and boycotts. The mill was not a total success if profit was the objective. Finally, in May 1919, the mill was sold to Jenckes Spinning Company of Providence, Rhode Island. A strike soon ensued. When 750 workers walked out in October 1919, the workers went back to work in November with nothing resolved.
A big expansion was announced in 1921. A new addition totaling 84,000 square feet was built on the west end of the original mill and was connected to it. At this time the main product was changed from sheeting to tire cord fabric for the rapidly expanding automotive industry. New houses, a dormitory for unmarried workers and a cafeteria were built also. The expansion brought the total spindles to 107, 507 and 273 looms. A further merger of Jenckes with Manville Mills also located in Rhode Island occurred in 1924. The new name was Manville-Jenckes until 1935. Pressure was brought on by the new managers to “stretch-out” the production. In other words, get more work out of each employee while increasing production. It is an age-old story. In the spring and summer of 1929, the American Communist Party targeted the mills. The workers should be unionized. A bitter strike followed which brought national attention mainly because of the shooting death of Police Chief Aderholt and murder of Ella May Wiggins and nine other workers. Cooler heads finally prevailed and public sentiment turned against the union. The company filed for bankruptcy early in 1930 as orders tailed off with the onset of the depression. A new owner was announced in 1935. Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. of Akron, Ohio would operate the plant.
The mill closed forever when Firestone built a new one-story plant near Kings Mountain in 1992. The Big Million Dollar Mill had run its course.
- Ragan, Robert Allison, The Textile Heritage of Gaston County North Carolina 1848-2000. Charlotte: R.A. Ragan & Co., 2001.
- Bill Wornall Textile Mill Postcard Collection.