A century ago, if you were to ask anyone in Burlington, Alamance County, NC the name of the most famous or most influential person or family in the county or in the state for that matter, you would undoubtedly be told “E.M. Holt” or “The Holt Family.” From 1837 to 1900, the family founded, bought or partnered with others to operate over 20 textile mills. The first factory-dyed yarn south of the Potomac River led to the development of “Alamance Plaids” – famous throughout the United States. This was a monumental accomplishment in the development of the textile industry in North Carolina and in the area surrounding Burlington. However, the family just sort of fell apart and lost interest in the mills. The grandchildren of E.M. Holt “who had run the old plaid cotton mills. And they had let them go down. …A lot of them closed, some of them bankrupt, the others just took their money and got out and quit,” Reid Maynard, a prominent hosiery manufacturer in Alamance County in the mid-20th century. Today, hardly anyone remembers the impact this family had. … They just gave them (the mills) up.” That was the day Spencer Love came to town.
If you were to ask the same question in the late 20th century, you probably would be told “Spencer Love” or “Burlington Industries.” Love came to town by way of Cambridge, MA and Gastonia, NC. This was no Yankee carpetbagger come south. Love’s family history is reminiscent of the Holts. The Loves were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, who migrated into the North Carolina Piedmont about the time the Holts came south, however, they moved into Gaston County, west of Charlotte. The Loves and the Rhynes were active textile men. Love’s father, Lee, was more attracted to teaching and left the family business to teach math at Harvard University. After 20 years, he returned to North Carolina and began investing in textile businesses. His son, Spencer grew up in Cambridge but returned often to Gaston County during his youth. After army service in World War I, Spencer at age 27 “Came home and worked to get in the textile business. In 1919, he joined relatives at the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company (1887). Spencer became paymaster. Seven months later, he and his father bought the run down mill and took the plunge as mill owners. With run-down totally out of date equipment, it soon became clear that things had to change. In 1923, Spencer, the Secretary-Treasurer, gave up and looked elsewhere to apply his business training. The town of Burlington called.
Burlington was looking for a knight on a white horse to come to town and pick up the pieces left behind as the Holt family lost interest in the textile mills. The town fathers offered a $250,000 loan underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce. In 1924, after liquidating the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company, Spencer moved the best of his remaining equipment to Burlington and started over. Rayon was a new fiber – they called it artificial silk and Spencer hung his hat on the fiber. And began making bedspreads.. Success! A second mill opened in 1926 and by 1929, Burlington Mills had a New York sales office. He had arrived.
Opportunities came right and left and even extended into the depression. In 1937, he incorporated 22 plants into Burlington Mills Corporation (in 1955 the name changed to Burlington Industries). The diversification was incredible: ribbons, hosiery, carpets, and fabrics of all sorts.
Died, January 20, 1962 Palm Beach, Fla. Burlington Industries was the largest textile company in the world, and the 48th largest U.S. corporation: one that operated in 18 states and 7 foreign countries.
James Spencer Love
Highway Marker erected N. Church Street (US 70) and Beaumont Ave. by State of North Carolina 2008
After consulting with readers and scholars, Business North Carolina published a list of the 20 most-influential business figures in the history of North Carolina. The individuals selected were tagged the titans of 20th- century Tar Heel business. James Spencer Love was ranked first on the list. Quoting from the March 1999 issue of Business North Carolina: Love was responsible for “an unparalleled textile corporation in the creation of Burlington Industries.” While others continued to rely on commission houses to move their merchandise, Love opened his own New York sales office to create a brand that both the domestic and international markets would demand. He was a fierce competitor, taking awesome risks, diversifying, investing heavily in new technology and new methods to make his mills more efficient and productive — all to keep a half step ahead of a pack in a business that was constantly changing.
Spencer Love was inducted into the North Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1989.
- http://www.lib.unc.edu/mss/inv/l/Love,James_Spencer.html Spencer Love papers UNC Chapel Hill. January 3, 2008
- http://historync.org/laureate%20-%20James%20S.%20Love.htm NC Business Hall of Fame. January 3, 2008.
- http://www.elon.edu/e-web/academics/business/love.xhtml Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, Elon University. January 3, 2008