Daniel Augustus (D.A.) Tompkins

1851 – 1914
Charlotte, NC

Daniel Augustus (D.A.) Tompkins

 

“No brief sketch can do justice to the manifold activities of Daniel Augustus Tompkins and his work as a builder of the New South. Few men in the United States had a more diversified career or better exemplified in their lives the constructive spirit. Unlike most of the successful men of the South, Mr. Tompkins possessed little of the characteristics of the merchant. He was essentially a pioneer, a man of far­sighted vision who saw clearly the possibilities of the future and who fortunately possessed the talents of an executive and an organizer which enabled him to practicalize his ideas.”

It was more in what he did for others in the way of enabling them to help themselves than in what he did for himself that made the life of D.A. Tompkins an example to his community.”

A broad outline of his activities is impressive even at a casual glance. He was among the first to recognize the possibilities of the cotton oil industry and make it one of the leading enterprises of the South. He was a builder of cotton mills. He designed and furnished machinery to industrial plants in his territory. He was a publicist, a journalist, a writer, a promoter of education and a pioneer in the establishment of trade schools that have equipped so many able men for the conduct of the South’s textile industry.”

He did so much to instill in the South a spirit of thrift that had become almost a lost virtue among American people. He strove untiringly for the establishment of building and loan associations in Southern communities. His fine philosophy with respect to the social qualities, which make men valuable citizens, had much of the flavor of Benjamin Franklin. Never posing as a philanthropist, he was at all times a friend of his fellow men. He did more than help them. He helped them to help themselves. He succeeded Captain Smyth as a member of the United States Industrial Commission. This body, as is probably well known, was formed to consider the problems presented by the growing complexities of our modern industrial life. The report of this commission, presented in nineteen volumes, covered a vast field involving almost every phase of American business activities – industry, agriculture, transportation, labor and kindred questions.”

Mr. Tompkins was a product of the old South. He was born on a plantation in Edgefield County, S.C. in 1851, and with an exception of a few years spent as a student at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, NY, an apprenticeship served under old John Fritz at the Bethlehem Iron Works at Bethlehem, Pa., and a year in Germany in the introduction of American machinery, his life was passed chiefly in the South until his death in 1917 (sic 1914). It probably is not going too far to say he was then the foremost citizen of Charlotte, N.C.”

It was in 1882, after Mr. Tompkins finished his studies, served his apprenticeship and developed his talents abroad that he settled in Charlotte and hung out his sign as an engineer, machinist and contractor. He obtained the agency for the leading machinery manufacturers, and became very active in the building and installation of mills and power plants of various sorts.”

An ad from 1896 and DA Tompkins from Ragan

The first shining example of the use of his vision came in his activities in building the South’s infant cotton oil industry. He saw its possibilities, and he set to work to realize them. Ever since the invention of Whitney’s gin, cotton seed had been the South’s most objectionable waste product, the bane of the planter’s life. Mr. Tompkins saw that it was a real economic waste, and for several years his activities were devoted to the building and financing of cotton oil mills. He lived to see the industry one of the most prosperous in the South, backed by capital amounting to hundreds of millions, and a product also running into hundreds of millions annually. He not only strove to make the cotton oil industry profitable, but he fought to make it clean, to insist upon a superior product, one that would be highly acceptable to the world as a food.”

The larger activities of Mr. Tompkins, if any distinction can be made, probably were devoted to the up building of the Southern Textile industry. Here also he displayed the extraordinary vision of a Franklin. ‘Help establish manufactures at home,” he said, “and help to get foreign markets and ships to bring back three dollars and upwards where we now bring back one.’”

Mr. Tompkins always felt that the South never would become really great so long as it contented itself merely with producing cotton, the raw material. He used to point out that a crop of 10,000,000 bales at six cents per pound was worth only $300,000,000, whereas in its manufactured state, half of it could be easily worth several times that amount. In one of his speeches he said:

‘In order to manufacture the entire cotton crop of the South into plain white and coarse colored goods, there would be required something like 30,000,000 spindles and 1,000,000 operatives. The population of the Southern States may be ranked at 20,000,000. Does anybody doubt that out of this 20,000,000 there is enough idle time wasted, even by those willing to work, to furnish 1,000,000 operatives in cotton factories? Go into ordinary cotton market towns where no cotton factories have yet been built, and at any time from 7 a.m. to 10 p. m. count the people who are loafing, the number found would more than make up the quota of people for its share of the workers necessary to manufacture the cotton crop.’”

Again he said:

‘ Practically all native people in the South are farmers. The manufacturing now being done by Southern people furnishes evidence of the facility with which the Southern farmer extends his operations. Almost every Southern man who has gone into manufacturing is still a farmer and will continue to be so. The escape of the cotton farmer from approaching poverty is not in trying to curtail production and increase price, but in devising means to keep the cheap cotton at home and in utilizing surplus time in turning it into cloth worth 18 cents and upwards per pound.’”

D.A. Tompkins did not stop with preaching the gospel of industrial expansion. He did not stop with urging capital to build mills or confine himself to providing the new plants with machinery. He strove with all his might to create a new industrial spirit among his people. He used several agencies in his missionary task. He did all he could to promote liberal education, but the phase that was dearest to his heart was the establishment of trade schools. For more than twenty years he served as a member of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, and he saw this institution work its way out of the handicap of poverty and discouragement into an agency of tremendous value to the South.”

His work did not stop here. He saw that if the South was ever to develop textile skill that could compare favorably with that possessed by Lancashire, Leel (sic), Chemnitz, Fall River or New Bedford, it would have to develop not only its own operatives but managerial ability equipped with technical skill and scientific knowledge of a world­old industry. It was with this end in view that he interested himself in the establishment of textile schools. One of the most notable of these is the Clemson Textile School affiliated with the Clemson College in South Carolina. Another result of his efforts was the provision for the textile department in the N. C. State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. Encouraged by the work and enthusiasm of Mr. Tompkins, the States of Mississippi and Texas followed suit and established textile training schools.”

No summary of the life of Mr. Tompkins would be complete without reference to his activities as a journalist and publicist. He was active in shaping the thought and sentiment of the South through the medium of the Charlotte Observer, which he developed into one of the most influential newspapers of the country. He was untiring in his work among his fellowmen. He was a fine speaker, although making no pretense to florid oratory. His manner in making an address bespoke clarity and force without flamboyant ornamentation. He had the social qualities of an industrial missionary, and one of his biographers sums up his splendid life in the following words:

‘He built a New South – of mills and factories, of skilled labor and machinery, of diversified and intensified agriculture, of improved railways and highways, of savings banks and loan associations – a New South also of public schools, technical colleges and expanded universities, of independent journalism and independent thought, a New South of universal education and democracy.’”

A quote attributed to Tompkins: (2)

“I attended a funeral once in Pickens County, Georgia. It was a poor “one gallus” fellow. They buried him in the midst of a marble quarry; they cut through solid marble to make his grave; and yet a little tombstone put above him was from Vermont. They buried him in a heart of a pine forest, and the pine coffin was imported from Cincinnati. They buried him within touch of an iron mine, and yet the nails in his coffin and the iron in the shovel that dug his grave were imported from Pittsburg (sic). They buried him beside the best sheepgrazing country on earth, and the coffin bands themselves were imported from the North. The South didn’t furnish a thing on earth for that funeral but the corpse and the hole in the ground.” This quote was surely used to motivate the men he encountered and constantly encouraged to form the new South.

He was the president of The High Shoals Company in Gaston County; Atherton Cotton Mills and Elizabeth Mills, Inc., Charlotte; and the Edgefield Manufacturing Co., South Carolina. He was the founder and second president of the Southern Cotton Spinners Association which became the American Cotton Manufacturers Association. He died on October 18, 1914 at his home in Montreat, NC after a three year period of declining health. He was 62. 2

 

Sources:

  1. Jacobs, William Plumer.1935. The Pioneer Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs & Co. Press.
  2. Ragan, Robert Allison. 2001. The Textile Heritage of Gaston County North Carolina 1848 – ­2000. Charlotte: R.A. Ragan & Co.
  3. North Carolina State Highway Marker http://www.stoppingpoints.com/north­carolina/sights.cgi?marker=D.+A.+Tompkins+1851­1914&cnty=Mecklenburg