Captain Ellison Adger Smyth

Pelzer and Greenville, SC

Captain Ellison Adger Smyth, known as The Pioneer to many in the early 20th Century for his willingness to take on new technology (1847 – ­1942)


Ellison Adger Smyth was born in Charleston, S.C. on October 26, 1847, the son of the Rev. Thomas Smyth and Margaret M. (Adger) Smyth. His great­grandfather came to America from County Antrim, Ireland, in 1741. Another great­grandfather, Robert Ellison, was a major in the Continental Army, and later a state senator and one of the founders of the Mt. Zion Society, afterwards merged with South Carolina College, now the University of South Carolina. Ellison was educated in private schools in Charleston, and later at the S. C. Military Academy (The Citadel), and entered the Confederate Army in 1864 at age 16, and remained until the surrender of General Johnston in 1865.

Ellison Adger Smyth, entered the field of business in 1865, and was a junior clerk in the wholesale hardware business of J.E. Adger & Co., Charleston. The firm later went bankrupt due to upstate competition; Smyth settled accounts and looked for other opportunities. Perhaps his inspiration to enter manufacturing came from his ancestors, a James Adger, had a bleaching green and owned and operated a linen mill at Dunean, Ireland, and Samuel Smyth, who operated a mill at Brandon, near Belfast. Ellison Adger engaged in the development of an ill­fated Coosaw Phosphate Business, a phosphate mining company on the Coosaw River. 3
Another who had an influence on Smyth was William Gregg, formerly a jeweler in Charleston who bought the Graniteville Cotton Mill in 1844. Gregg published numerous addresses and pamphlets urging the establishment of cotton mills in the South. In 1881, W.C. Langley purchased the building that had been used to print money for the Confederate Government and turned it into a cotton mill with great financial success.

Also, the Piedmont Manufacturing Company, the first built by Colonel H.P. Hammett of Greenville, SC in 1873, also had remarkable success and great influence over the decision of Captain Smyth to enter the cotton mill business. At about the same time, D.E. Converse, who was employed by the Little Glendale Mill, organized the Clifton Manufacturing Company and captain John H. Montgomery of Spartanburg organized the Pacolet Manufacturing Company. Smyth decided to organize his first mill at Pelzer. These four men: Hammett, Converse, Montgomery and Smyth, were all tall men, and when they appeared together at meetings, were referred to as the “Big Four.” Later, Colonel R.L. McCaughrin of Newberry, SC, organized the Newberry Cotton Mill and became associated with the “Big Four.”

Smyth moved to Pelzer and with the help of F.J. Pelzer, began erection of the Pelzer Manufacturing Company and its village. For some time, he lived in one of the mill houses. The capital stock of the Pelzer mill originally was $400,000. The mill was located near the Saluda River. The first mill was built in 1881­2 with 10,000 spindles and a number of firsts (to be mentioned later). The other mills at Pelzer were added later, making a total of 136,000 spindles with a capitalization of $1,000,000. Smyth was the first president and treasurer – offices he held for 43 years.

Smyth pioneered in several ways. He was one of the first to build cotton mills; he opened the first mill with incandescent lights (Pelzer #1); and he pushed for education. In 1890, the South Carolina Cotton Manufacturers Association of which Smyth was president for 14 years, appointed a committee to urge the legislature to enact three important laws:

A compulsory school law;
A marriage license law; and
A birth registration law.

It was impossible to enforce labor laws properly unless the age of minors could be authenticated.

The difficulties of pioneering in industry are too numerous to mention but perhaps the most serious problem Smyth encountered was the uncertainty of electrification. He installed incandescent lighting in his first mill in 1882. In 1896, it was decided to build mill number 4, equal in size to the three already built. Land was acquired for an additional village and mill site four miles below Pelzer, on another shoal on the Saluda River. Later, with input from Stephen Green, it was decided to build the new mill and village at Pelzer and build the dam and power generation downriver. This involved carrying the electric current four miles by transmission lines – a radical, new departure. Other mill men freely predicted failure to the point that Pelzer stock was depressed on the Charleston stock market. General Electric used Mill 4 as an experiment ground, testing various kinds and forms of electric motor, much to the dismay of Smyth and actual loss to the mill. Success eventually followed.

Similarly, with the same pioneering spirit, Smyth purchased the first 1,000 Draper Automatic looms ever sold and installed them at Pelzer. They were inferior to later looms as most first generation machines are, and were replaced in a few years. Many managers came to Pelzer to see the new developments and went home to copy. In later times, Roger Milliken often took the lead in buying new equipment and tearing out the old.

Another forward step was the purchase of automatic tying­in machines, which he purchased from Mr. Coleman. The record shows he was the purchaser of the second, third and fourth ever sold. Two were installed at Pelzer and one at Belton, SC.

Other ventures. In 1886, he realized the need for a savings bank for the citizens at Pelzer. He organized The Chicora Savings Bank, independent of the mill operation. Later, he sold the entire capital stock to Lockwood, Green and Co., when they purchased the Pelzer Mill in 1923. He became 75% owner of the Greenville, SC News. In 1899, the people of Belton, SC, a few miles from Pelzer, asked him to organize the Belton Mills. He also organized the Bank of Belton and, later, the Belton Savings and Trust.

Other Mills and Directorships. He worked with other mills as board member. Grendel Mills, Greenwood, SC; Ninety­Six Cotton Mills, Ninety­Six, SC; Riverside Mfg. Co., Anderson; Toxaway Mills, Anderson; Anderson Phosphate and Oil Co.; Dunean Mills, Greenville, Belton Power Co.; Brandon Mills, Monaghan Mills; Woodruff Mills; Williamston Mills; Watts Mill; Saxon Mill; Victor Mill; Union Bleachery; Alice Mfg.; Moneynick Oil Mills; and Conestee (formerly known as Reedy River Mills).
He retired in 1925, sold all his real estate in South Carolina, and moved to his summer home in Flat Rock, NC. He could not stand still and organized the Balfour Mills.

His life was one full of public service not only in the textile business but also for the various levels of government all the way to serving on national boards for the US government in Washington. He was awarded the L.L.D. from The Citadel and the Lit. D. from Presbyterian College. “However, no matter how frequently honored he may have been, and how many titles and degrees may have been added to his name, there is no title so endearing or so familiar to his thousands of friends as the simple, well­earned and beautifully worn title of “The Captain.” As The Captain he has been known and beloved through the many years.” He reached the age of 87 (in 1934) when the book was written.
Smyth lived on in his home, Connemara, until 1942 and died there just short of his 95th birthday. 2


Family in Textiles 

  • Son, Ellison Adger Smyth, Jr. B 6/18/1889, D 11/10/1895
  • Son, James Adger Smyth died at age 52 in 1928
  • Daughter, Mrs. Margaret S. McKissick
  • Wife of Foster McKissick, professor of engineering, Auburn; then president of Grendel and Ninety­Six Mills, Vice President, and with son Ellison McKissick, director of Alice Manufacturing, Easley, SC.
  • Daughter, Mrs. Annie Pierce Blake Wife of Lewis D. Blake, President and Treasurer, Belton Mills
  • Daughter, Mrs. Sue Smyth Hudgens.



  1. Jacobs, William Plumer.1935. The Pioneer. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs & Co. Press.
  2. Bill Moss, Times­News, Hendersonville, NC http://www.blueridgenow. com/article/20080217/NEWS/802170353/1105/COLUMNISTS Smyth died in 1942
  3. E. Adger Smyth, VII June 6, 2008, personal communication.