Development of Mills in the South

“The antebellum era serves as a prologue to the New South’s epic quest for economic independence and commercial empire.”  Thus begins Patrick Hearden’s book, “Independence and Empire.” Many southern planters and businessmen firmly believed Adam Smith and his theories put forth in “The Wealth of Nations.” A small quantity of manufactured produce purchases a great quantity of rude produce.  As long as the South grew agricultural products and exported to the north and to Europe, the South would never rise above colonial subservience.  Manufacture was the only solution to the problem.  It was true in 1776 when Adam Smith wrote his book, it was true in the 19th century before and after the Civil war and it is true in the 21st century.  The population of the United States is kidding itself as long as we believe we should export cotton with little value- added and buy finished textiles in return.

British interference with trade following the American Revolution and later, northern interference convinced southern businessmen that they must build mills in the south.  The first to be built in North Carolina was in Lincoln County in 1815, when Michael Schenck and his brother-in-law, Absalom Warlick, constructed Schenck’s Mill at McDaniel’s Springs, east of Lincolnton.  Within four years, after a freshet destroyed the dam, the mill was closed and relocated several miles to the south fork of the Catawba River.  The mill opened as the Lincoln or Lincolnton Cotton Factory in 1819 and operated until 1863.  (History NC) Other prospective owners in the South discussed building mills.  None are more famous for this time period than William Gregg of South Carolina.  His highly praised and widely quoted Essays on Domestic Industry, published in 1844 gave southerners something to think about. He also believed in what Adam Smith had written.  Gregg said, “No nation ever became wealthy by raising the raw material and then exchanging it for the manufactured article.   The manufacturing people always have the advantage.”  He reasoned that textiles would attract other supporting industries and all would rise as a result.  His strategy:  first concentrate on making coarse cloth and take that business away from the north, then gradually replace the coarse with finer goods and more intricate fabrics.  He later put his ideas to work in 1845 and opened the Graniteville Manufacturing Company as a model mill.  He began exporting sheeting to the China market. (Hearden)

A number of North Carolina mills operated across the NC Piedmont in the years before the Civil War.  Many mills were destroyed as the victorious Union soldiers conquered.  Some mills were spared.  The Holt family of Alamance County survived and then thrived after the war.  The South was down but not out.  As soon as the war was over, newspapers carried accounts of persons calling for Reconstruction.  “Our Northern friends only deceive themselves when they think the South is to be for them in the future what it has been in the past.”   Southern Recorder, 1865.  “We are going to work in good earnest, not only to repair the waste places of war, but to build up and improve and prosper, and to show to the world that we can be as good soldiers in peace as we are in war, and that we intend to achieve some most glorious victories on the fields of labor and in the chambers of commerce.”  A Mississippi Cotton Mill Crusader, 1866. (Hearden)  Gregg supplied large amounts of cloth to the Confederate army and sailed for Europe immediately after the war to replace worn equipment.

Mills were built and expanded across the Carolinas, Georgia and Alabama.  Boom and depressions came and went, speeding, then slowing economic expansion.  A recession between 1873 and 1878 retarded expansion.   At the end of this period, the South had about half a million spindles to over eight million in New England.  The 1880s saw the South come roaring back (see Alamance County).  South Carolina tripled the number of spindles in place; Georgia also gained.  Augusta alone added 63,000 spindles.  To slow this competition, New England politicians proposed a hike in tariff on textile equipment import.  A recession in 1884 stressed northern business.  Many were ready to shut down.  An upswing in business between 1887 and 1892 brought another burst of growth to the south.  A depression from 1893 to 1897 brought a slowdown in the north.   Industrialist DA Tompkins of Charlotte strongly advocated a New South that included electrification, building cotton mills and reclaiming cottonseeds for oil extraction and cattle feed.  The southern mill owners continued to expand as quickly as capital could be secured; spindles installed grew by 200 percent in the 1890s.  With all of this expansion, mill owners began to realize a need for professional managers.  Textile schools were begun first in the north at Lowell, MA and Philadelphia.  North Carolina State, Ga. Tech, Clemson, Auburn and other textile schools were founded in these times. (Mock)



  1. Hearden, Patrick J., 1982, Independence and Empire, Northern Illinois University Press, DeKalb, IL.
  4. Mock, Gary N., 2001, A Century of Progress, The Textile Program, North Carolina State University 1899-1999NC Textile Foundation, Raleigh, NC.