Greenville history, development entwined with mill villages

business historic

Greenville’s history and development is intertwined with 30 mill villages (10 in the Greenville city limits) that once were landmarks and community-defining workplaces.

Within Greenville, the communities that were built around the mills of American Spinning, Brandon, City View, Dunean, Judson, Mills Mill, Monaghan, Poe, Poinsett, Union Bleachery, and Woodside formed the lifeblood of the city – although each community was a self-reliant city in itself.

American Spinning

In 1891, Boston selling agent Oscar Sampson, one of the founders of Camperdown Mill, purchased more than 100 acres of farmland extending from Buncombe Road east past Langston Creek and the Southern Railway tracks from the estate of Henry P. Hammett, the former president of Piedmont and Camperdown Mills.

The mill opened in September 1895, as American Spinning Company. Among the officers were Sampson and Jacob Cagle, who was constructing the mill and the rental houses surrounding it.

The mill Cagle was building was unusual, and cheap. Rather than the 4-story brick structures that F.P. Poe and O.P. Mills were erecting at the same time, Sampson Mill (the name stuck even though it was officially American Spinning) was a 2-story wooden building, a “greenhouse” with huge windows providing natural light on all sides. The “Little Mill,” as it was later called, may have been cheap, but it lasted until well into the 1960s.

The first village houses, painted French gray and olive green, were duplexes built on three streets west of the mill toward Buncombe Road to house the 250 men, women and children who initially worked in the yarn mill. A cow pasture was convenient to Langston Creek.

A huge new brick building for cotton weaving was added in 1901, and other expansions followed in 1903 and in 1909. By then the village consisted of 225 houses for its 700 “operatives” and boasted a primary school, complete with community hall (later the gymnasium), library, barbershop and showers. The company supported Methodist and Baptist churches, both formed in 1895, sponsored a baseball team, and provided “a large and beautiful wooded park for the pleasure of the employees.”

American Spinning prospered under Morgan, producing 5 million pounds of cotton cloth annually, earning substantial profits, and in the early 1920s spending $200,000 on community improvements. Streets were paved and guttered, and sidewalks, a swimming pool and an enclosed baseball park enhanced the oak-shaded village. After 1923, the “mill hill” children rode the beltline trolley to Parker High School.

The Great Depression hit American Spinning hard. In 1936 the mill and all its property, which included more than 180 acres and a cemetery and supervisors' handsome homes along the west side of Buncombe Road, were sold in 1940 to Florence Mills of Forest City, N.C., a subsidiary of Cone Mills. Cone Mills took over opeations in ’53.

Bob Duke, who grew up there in the 1940s and '50s, remembers the tight-knit mill village as a remarkably pleasant place to live. The school was a center of activity and its Harvest Festival an anticipated annual event. Bethel Methodist and Morgan Memorial Baptist had full pews. Sports -- baseball, basketball, golf and football -- engaged the children and adults alike. Along Buncombe Road, the Wayside Inn, an ice plant, Evans Drug Store and Joe “Baity's” (Beattie's?) Place did good business.

Greenville was then, briefly, the Textile Center of the World; by the 1960s, though, foreign competition created increasing pressures on profits. Management faced questions of what to do with its aging village. The school, its upper floors condemned, had been razed in 1959 after Cone Elementary School opened west of Buncombe Road. Some houses were sold to employees. But unlike other Greenville mills, Cone demolished most of its village and abandoned six streets, probably to sell the vacant land more profitably.

The mill, though, continued on. It wasn't until midnight on June 27, 1990, that American Spinning closed. Today much of its land is desolate; twisted trees have swallowed up the sites of homes, school, playgrounds and neat mill office. Its century-old brick building, only partially occupied now, and its tall smokestack are among the few reminders of a once-flourishing mill and village.

Brandon Mill

As Captain J.O. Cagle, Greenville's premier contractor, began digging the foundation of Brandon Mill late in February 1900, Greenville was flourishing. Poe Mill and American Spinning Co. were expanding; a site for Monaghan Mill had been chosen; an opera house was planned; and elegant homes – some costing nearly $5,000 – were planned on Broadus Street.

J. Irving Westervelt first met with a group of Greenville businessmen to plan for a mill with 10,000 spindles and 400 looms on June 20, 1899. Seven months later the community with a village of 66 cottages was nearly complete. Construction then began on the mill.

Brandon's first cloth was produced on Feb. 8, 1901. Westervelt raised $220,000 to begin the mill, which he initially named “Quentin.” Director Ellison Smyth, president of Pelzer Manufacturing Co., suggested that Westervelt change the name to “Brandon,” for a town near Belfast, Ireland, where textiles had long been produced by Scots-Irish weavers.

The surrounding community grew with the mill's expansion. Employing 150 “operatives” at its opening, by 1907 Brandon employed 420 men, women, and children, and 900 people lived in the village. Between 1900 and 1903, 450 homes were built in the Brandon village.

The village they moved into had far more “luxuries” than their Tennessee mountain home: space for a large garden and pasture for their cow; an elementary school; a church financed by the mill; electric lighting (one outlet per house) supplied by the company; a bank; a social worker; and, below the first line of mill houses, the field where the great hitter and controversial player “Shoeless” Joe Jackson began his baseball career.

The mill produced print cloth and fine sheeting; Smith built the Brandon Duck Mill (for heavy cotton fabric), and added a steam power plant and warehouse, designed by J. E. Sirrine, in 1920.

By 1925 the Brandon village had a population of more than 2,000 people. They shopped in busy nearby West Greenville, which was considering changing its name to “Branwood,” to indicate its important location between the Brandon and Woodside Mills. Mill workers boarded the beltline trolley at its Brandon Mill terminus and, for 5 cents, rode around Greenville, sometimes taking in a movie (later a “talkie”). On Sunday they worshipped at Brandon's Baptist and Methodist churches. Workers had access to a grove for public meetings, a day nursery, a laundry, mill store (“the store of the masses and classes”) and, of course, the ballpark.

Brandon's annual Community Day was the great event of the year; the mill shut down and the “day given to entertainment,” with speeches, a picnic dinner and sports. But mill village life was active throughout the year: In September 1925, for example, there were girls' sewing and cooking classes, a mill village beauty contest, regular visits from the Greenville Library System's traveling collection, examinations by a roving dentist, and baseball, basketball and soccer games. Children who attended Brandon School could further their education at newly opened Parker High School.

But in the late 1920s it became an unhappy world. Mill owners, facing falling prices for their goods, instituted the “stretch-out,” forcing fewer operatives to work more looms, and at the same time lowered wages and dismissed older workers. The increased work load, lack of job security and falling wages led to a series of strikes and a “walkout” at the mill in March 1929.

Without salaries during the strike, many workers' families went hungry. John Wrenn, the pastor of Brandon Baptist Church, urged a strike settlement and helped to start a relief fund. On May 15, an organizer for the United Textile Workers Union arrived in town, and 1,500 workers, many from Brandon, filled out applications for membership. The next day, a compromise was announced: a few more looms were added, new workers were hired, and pay was raised slightly.

As Greenville and the rest of the nation sank deep into economic depression, the Brandon Corporation teetered on the edge of bankruptcy.

Work hours were reduced to 40 a week; salaries and profits fell. Aug W. Smith went to New York to raise money to keep the mills open. His former backers refused help; they told him to close. “I will resign as president of Brandon Corporation,” the mill president is said to have responded, “before I will shut down a mill. Thousands are depending on these mills for a living, and I will not allow any one of them to suffer while I am president.” Brandon remained open throughout the depression years. And Smith's loyalty to his workers was matched by theirs to him.

In 1934 the “General Textile Strike” was called by the United Textile Workers, and the “Flying Squadron” of union workers arrived in Greenville to shut down all mills. They were successful at Dunean, but when they arrived at Brandon, they were met by a hostile crowd of loyal workers.

Brandon, like most Greenville's mills, slowly recovered from the Depression, but then burst into war production in 1940. In 1946, Abney Mills acquired control and in 1949 merged with the Brandon Corporation, soon selling houses in the Brandon village to mill workers.

Individual ownership ended the mill's responsibility, which had included roads, police protection and recreation. Few new families moved into the village; many older ones did not have the funds to maintain their old homes.

In March 1977, with companies increasingly looking beyond U.S. boundaries for inexpensive labor, Abney Mills closed Brandon. They soon sold the 77-year old mill to Clarkson Brothers for use as a warehouse.

The Greenville County Redevelopment Authority began working in the Brandon Mill Village in 1978. A stable neighborhood, with nearly 70 percent of the homes occupied by owners, surrounds the old mill building, now the KM Fabrics operation, and Joe Jackson's “Field of Dreams.”

Mills Mill

One of the oldest of the communities is Mills Mill, built by Otis P. Mills in 1897. Mills owned more than 300 acres from Augusta Road to Brushy Creek, and he raised more revenue by selling his interest in the Cotton Oil Factory on Vardry Street two years earlier.

When the mill opened in the spring of 1897, its 200 operatives, primarily former tenant farmers lured by promises of a steady job and regular salary, had no school, no church and no store. The mill doubled in size in 1900, added houses on the south side of Guess Street, and asked J.E. Sirrine to design a brick YMCA building that was used as a company store until 1913.

The village expanded in the 1920s into streets south of the mill, and children attended the new Dunean-Mills school located between the two communities.

The mill's major annual events included a week-long Fourth of July vacation, Christmas parties and firecrackers on Christmas Day, winter hog-killing and sausage-making, cheering the Mills Mill Millers on to victory and dreaming of defeating Woodside Mill at the annual Southern Textile Basketball tournament at Textile Hall.

Life didn't change much in the late '40s and early '50s: Wives still handed lunches and Mason jars of iced tea through the fence around the mill; deliverymen brought milk and ice; expert ball players still got easy jobs in exchange for home runs against Poe and Dunean mill teams.

Talk of foreign competition and the impact of textile imports hit home in 1977, with the dismissal of 200 workers. A year later the work force was reduced to 136 employees. Then it closed.

But the mill's location, convenient to the hospital and the bypass, and its elegant design attracted developers. In 1979, Mills Centre Limited Partnership attempted an outlet mall there; it lasted until 1986. In 1997, the former cotton mill was renovated into condominiums.

Southern Bleachery in Taylors

Built in 1924, the mill on Main Street in Taylors was known for decades as Southern Bleachery and Printworks. At one point, it employed more than 1,000 workers.

The site was home to a school, which burned down in 1945, and also a nine-hole golf course exclusively for mill workers. The golf course is now under a housing complex.

The mill closed in 1975, the last owner being textile conglomerate J. P. Stevens, who used the plant to dye and finish sheets and pillowcases.

Renfew community in Travelers Rest

The Great Depression came early in Greenville. By 1927, two years of devastating drought, boll weevil infestations, and falling cotton prices made it hard for farmers in northern Greenville County to feed their families. Many could not afford fertilizer for the 1928 crop.

So when Aug W. Smith, the president of Brandon Mill, announced in mid-1927 that his company would build a new mill in “virgin industrial territory” north of Travelers Rest, local residents were jubilant. The Greenville News reported that the new $750,000 mill would manufacture several types of gingham with the Renfrew trademark. The new mill would also include bleaching and dyeing operations.

When it was completed, Greenville County had 30 textile manufacturing plants with an assessed valuation of $35 million. Renfrew was the last new mill built in Greenville before the Great Depression, and the community surrounding it became the county's last mill village.

The mill opened in December 1928 with 200 workers. Renfrew was located on 280 acres of former farmland opened to development when the still unpaved “Geer Highway,” (now U.S. Highway 276) leading to Caesars Head, was completed in 1925.

In October 1929, the stock market crashed; the Brandon Corporation soon teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Renfrew's night shift was eliminated, and in the summer of 1930 weaving operations also closed down, since only the bleaching facility was profitable.

Throughout the Depression, the men and women of Renfrew worked, played, and struggled together to make do. Families shared garden produce, cheered on Renfrew athletic teams, listened together to favorite radio programs; they were “like a family.” When they were sick, they visited the company doctor, Dr. T.E. Coleman, who charged minimal fees.

The high points of the year were the weeklong Fourth of July holiday, celebrated always with a double-header against Slater; trick or treating at Halloween; and holiday baskets of fruit from the mill at Christmas.

After Dec. 7, 1941, Renfrew, like mills and bleacheries throughout the nation, plunged into a wartime economy. The bleachery dyed and finished olive drab military fabric. The mill instituted three shifts with 7-day-a-week operations.

The army-mandated chemicals and dyes were emptied, with minimal treatment, into the Reedy River.

After the war, giant Abney Mills of Greenwood acquired a controlling interest in the Brandon Corporation; in 1949 the two companies merged. Becoming a part of a much larger corporation did not cause major changes at the bleachery until 1961, when Abney sold all mill village houses to residents. Priced at 85 percent of their appraised value, most sold for about $4,500; the most expensive was $11,450.

In May 1979, Abney Mills sold Renfrew Bleachery to Allied Products' Kerr Finishing Division. The mill closed in 1988.

Judith Bainbridge