Fort Mill, SC
The Springs Mills Story
Company histories are created from information derived from many sources. “The Springs Story” (1) is an extensive 256-page, folio-size book that records the first 100 years while including many photos and company documents. The author, Louise Pettus, could not have done her job without the 75-year history by Marshall Doswell and the support of the Communications Office and Bob Thompson. The Fabrics.net website developed by the late Joan Kiplinger provides an outstanding abstract of the book. (2)
The Early Years
Springs Cotton Mill traces its beginnings to Samuel Elliot White, the Fort Mill plantation and an influential publisher of the Charlotte Observer, Daniel Augustus (D.A.) Tompkins. Tompkins traveled throughout the south and talked to all who would listen about his vision for a “New South.” Raising cotton and selling it to mills in the north and in Great Britain would not lift the post-Civil War south. There was money to be made and towns full of idle labor to be motivated. Railroads were coming and could carry cotton to the mills and finished goods anywhere in the nation. Textile mills were the answer and the by-product cotton seed oil would nourish the population.
Samuel Elliot White
Fort Mill Manufacturing Co.
Fort Mill Manufacturing Company, a “joint-stock” company, was incorporated in October 1887 with capital stock of “at least 400 shares having a value of $100 each.” Similar companies were growing throughout the south and notably along the Piedmont where water provided power. Soon, a large brick building was built that would house 220 looms driven by a 75-hp steam engine. That engine soon proved to be inadequate. A Corliss 200- hp engine arrived in December 1888. The pickers were Atherton, cards were Whitin, the drawing frames Mason, the roving Woonsocket and Providence and the spooling Draper. All were provided by northern builders. Yarn was spun at the Catawba Manufacturing Company. These mills merged very early in the story. Employees came from near and far. Farmers found a steady employment that would feed their impoverished families. The “Panic of 1893” slowed production to one-third of capacity. The company limped along for four long years before returning to full employment. Soon, a second plant called Millfort, then White, and finally, Fort Mill No. 2, was built. Investment money was at a premium, a “good buy” anywhere was taken seriously. Second- hand looms (from1848 Graniteville Mills!) ran until 1917, when they were eventually melted down for the World War effort.
The Next Generation
Leroy Springs was born at Springfield Plantation near Fort Mill on November 12, 1861. He became a cotton buyer, a banker and eventually an entrepreneur who invested in textile mills in the area. On December 28, 1892, he married Grace Allison White, the daughter of Samuel Elliot White. The marriage foretold of an even bigger merger when White passed away in 1911. His company assumes control of the Fort Mill Manufacturing Company in 1914.
Left: Leroy Springs 1907
Right: Leroy Springs late 1920s
The Lancaster Cotton Mills, organized 1895 by Leroy Springs and others grew. A major expansion began in 1901 and was completed in the summer of 1903 (Architect W. B. Smith Whaley of Columbia). The addition was 360 by 123 feet. The new four-story building had three times the floor space of the original building. This “Million-Dollar Mill” cemented Leroy Springs’s reputation as a mover and shaker of the day.
Million Dollar Mill left Further expansion right
Postcards courtesy Bill Wornall textile postcard collection
Upon completion of Lancaster’s expansion, labor was in short supply. A flood on the Pacolet River in nearby Spartanburg County, SC in June literally swept away a number of mills perched along the river banks. Many men were suddenly without work. The Lancaster superintendent secured “car loads of mill hands” and brought them to Lancaster to work. Leroy traveled to New York City and learned that window shade fabric was in short supply; soon the mill was “The Shade Cloth Capital.”
In 1916, Millfort, now called Mill No. 2 ran colored goods, is converted into a 20,000-spindle greige goods plant with the addition of a weave room with 600 Draper looms. At the end of the decade, Springs operated five textile mills in South Carolina as separate companies – Fort Mill Plant, White Plant, Lancaster Plant, Kershaw Plant and Eureka Plant.
Left: Springsteen Mill, Chester, SC . Writer of postcard thought Chester was pretty quiet
Right: Baldwin became the Gayle Plant after Elliot purchased it in 1933
Leroy’s son, Elliott, joined the company in 1919 after distinguished service as a pilot in the World War. Dad ordered his son to learn the textile business without pay. Elliott was more interested in writing and his social life than in learning the business. Elliott’s War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator was well-received. Leroy began losing interest in the business during the 1920s. After he was shot in the head by an unhappy cotton buyer in 1928, he recovered physically but withdrew to New York and allowed Elliot to begin running the company.
The Third Generation
Leroy Springs died April 9, 1931, and was buried, at his request, on the front lawn of the Lancaster Cotton Mill No. 3. Elliott White Springs inherited six cotton mills with 5,000 employees, 7,500 looms, and 300,000 spindles valued at $7,250,000.
Elliott White Springs1931 with one of the antique Draper looms he inherited. This design dates to 1913.
He brought new energy to the company but first he had to save it from unscrupulous New York investment bankers.
Finally, in 1933 with the Depression underway, he consolidated and created Springs Cotton Mills. He purchased the Chester Plant of Aragon-Baldwin, a subsidiary of J. P. Stevens and re-named it the Gayle Plant in honor of Walter Gayle who helped Springs buy equipment from bankrupt northern mills. He reportedly paid about five cents on the dollar. The machine shops in the mills renovated all equipment that was salvageable. He fought repeatedly against the New Deal that wanted him to shut mills and curtail production. He fought against roving bands of men sent south to stir up trouble. At one point, the mill men heard from the unionizers, “Go on strike.” Springs said, “Fine, Go on strike. I’ll close the mills and take my family to Europe. I have enough money.” The mill men voted to stay on the job.
Left:Chester Plant of Aragon-Baldwin
Right: Gayle Plant of Springs.
Courtesy of Bill Wornall Postcard Collection
As the winds of war blew stronger, in 1940, Elliott volunteered for active military duty. In the spring of 1941, the mills received an army contract to make Type Four Army Uniform Twill. During the war, it is believed they made more than any other company in the U.S. By 1943 Springs was turning out all kinds of fabrics for the war: Fabric for summer wear, army raincoats, bandoleers, decontamination cloth, gas masks, herringbone twills, shirtings, mattress covers for the navy, and on and on.
One year after the war ended, despite being told it would be a mistake to begin finishing his own goods, Elliott decided to fulfill his decade-long dream and build a bleachery. On a 1000-acre site on the Catawba River known as Grace’s Station, named for his mother, he built a huge finishing plant he named Grace Bleachery. Geographically, it was central to all the greige mills. When completed, the building covered eleven acres.
With finished goods to sell, he also embarked on a wholly new advertising campaign that would set the industry in shock. The advertising industry found it hard to respond. Elliott took a personal interest and essentially ran the ad campaign himself.(10) Noted illustrators of the day were invited to submit their impressions of the new Springmaid.
The demure Dutch maid shown above and in the insets represented Springs for several years. Illustrators of the day submitted these ads run in Woman’s Day magazine in October and November 1946.
Courtesy of TJS-Labs
New York-based Springs Mills, Inc. is established as the textile-selling house for the Springs Cotton Mills. (7)
Continued in Part 2
- Louise Pettus. 1987. The Springs Story, Springs Industries, Fort Mill, SC 256 pages
- Joan Kiplinger, http://www.fabrics.net/joan204.asp The Indian Head Connection. Accessed August 26, 2010.
- http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/Springs-Industries-Inc-Company-History.html Accessed August 27, 2010.
- “A Buck Well Spent” Number 69 of Top 100 Advertising Campaigns http://adage.com/century/campaigns.html
- http://www.snopes.com/business/market/springmaid.asp accessed January 5, 2008
- http://www.answers.com/topic/springs-industries-inc?cat=biz-fin Feb 5, 2008
- Burke Davis. 1987. War Bird. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. 267 pages.
- See part 2
- See Part 2
- Elliott White Springs. 1949. Clothes Make The Man, J.J. Little & Ives Co., New York 446 pages