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White Oak Cotton Mills
[Greensboro, N.C.]: White Oak Cotton Mills, 1909.


White Oak Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, has been one of the largest denim manufacturing plants in the world for about a century. Brothers Moses H. and Cesar Cone, natives of Greensboro, opened White Oak Mills in 1905 as a major addition to their growing Proximity Manufacturing Company, and White Oak and Proximity Mills became the twin pillars of the Cone empire. Built on the outskirts of Greensboro, White Oak Mills housed 3,000 looms, each delivering more than fifty yards of denim a day. The mill had two mill villages for employees and their families: a separate "[N]egro village" for African American employees and White Oak village for white employees. The Cones maintained that "[t]he welfare of the operatives and their families is a consideration that is always put ahead of volume or profits" (p. 8) Along with worker homes, the White Oak village included a company-sponsored school for children and adults, a gymnasium and swimming pool, churches, and a welfare department that supervised various recreational and educational activities, such as the contest announced in this "Notice!" from 1909.

The "Notice!" was posted in White Oak village to advertise the cash prizes the Cones would award for the best-kept yards in front of their mill houses. Front yards and small vegetable plots were a common feature of the mill village, as mill hands, usually first-generation migrants from farm communities, strove to hold on to as many rural traditions as possible within their new environments.

This seemingly innocuous contest also reveals something about the relationship between management and labor in turn-of-the-century textile mills. On one hand, in sponsoring the contest and providing necessary seeds, bulbs, and plowing services, it is clear that the owners wanted mill hands to take pride in their homes and feel like part of a larger "mill family," with the owner in the role of a caring parent. On the other hand, the "Notice!" takes care to point out that the contest is not intended "to take the control or arrangement of the front yards away from the occupant," suggesting that there may have been previous conflicts over limits on how much influence mill owners should exercise over village homes.

Works Consulted: World Leadership in Denims Through Thirty Years of Progress, Proximity, NC: Proximity Manufacturing Co., 1925.

Michael Sistrom

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