Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Alester G. Furman Jr., January 6, 1976. Interview B-0019. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Land development and the beginnings of the textile industry in Greenville, South Carolina

Furman explains how his father, Alester Furman Sr., participated in the establishment of the textile industry in Greenville, South Carolina, around the turn of the twentieth century. While studying for the bar, Furman Sr. began to buy local farm land in order to build housing for workers. Later, he began to insure the housing. In this regard, Furman Jr. recalls his father as having an integral role in the development of Greenville from a farming community to a working community oriented around the textile industry.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Alester G. Furman Jr., January 6, 1976. Interview B-0019. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BRENT GLASS:
Were there people starting to move into Greenville? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well, you've asked me something there that I couldn't tell you.
BRENT GLASS:
I'm just curious about why this was occurring at this particular time? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well, we'll have to go back a little bit on that. There were people, children of families that were able to build a newer house and they bought the lots. The lots themselves were five or six or seven hundred dollars. I mean, it wasn't any great big thing. Father told me very often that Mr. Stone would say, "Alester, I need a little more money." So, he would ask him to sell a lot and he would sell it for five or six or seven hundred dollars and Father would make ten percent or something like that on it. I know that he told me that in 1893 he had a partner named Mr. John F. Mitchell and they divided twelve hundred dollars as their income for that year, six hundred dollars apiece. That was when the big depression came in 1893. Well, as I say, Father started in that and then he started insuring houses by corporate insurance. Of course, around in New England and other places, Philadelphia and all, they used to have these mutual insurance aid things where they just paid so much in and they all had a little plaque on the door saying that they were insured by a mutual insurance company. Then, the corporate insurance companies started up back in those days and he wrote insurance for these people. He was doing that to make money while he was reading law. Well, when he got through reading law and was admitted to the bar, he looked around and saw that his father hadn't done very well in the law, there wasn't much law business at that time, so he just decided not to practice law and to stay in the real estate and insurance business. Then, we get into the question of how the industry had to be brought down here because we had so many people living here up in the foothills of the mountains . . . I laugh and say many times that these people who are talking about aristocracy in this country, there wasn't anything like aristocracy. Most of the people who came over here from Europe came because they were getting away from aristocracy, if you want to know the truth of the matter, and some of them had just gotten out of debtor's prison. Whenever they landed on that coast, they went just as far away from that coast as they possibly could and they went back up here in the mountains and they hunted and scratched a little land for a little corn and they lived and built log cabins. You go out in those mountains that you can see from here and they are just full of them. Well, they had no education, they couldn't read or write and they had begun to drift down into communities to try and get a job. So, at the same time, the textile business in New England was having troubles, as most all fully developed industrial areas do have. And some of those textile people realized that here were a bunch of workers that had plenty of common ability but no education and they came down here and started building mills. They all built them on the rivers.
BRENT GLASS:
For power. ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: For power. They would build them four stories high, just like they did in New England. They didn't think about the one storey things we got today. They built them four stories high and they used direct drive power from water wheels. There were hand run looms for years, people ran them just by hand. They had to build these villages then around textile mills because the people had no place else to live. Around every mill, they built enough houses for the workers to live in.
BRENT GLASS:
Was your father involved in planning these industrial communities? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well no, there wasn't much planning done. I'll have to be fair. But what Father did was, he got very much interested in water power and he developed two water concerns on the Saluda River outside of Greenville and he developed a power plant down outside of Columbia. He sold this one to Duke and sold that one to South Carolina Gas and Electric Company in 1910 and 1912. But going back, he got interested in organizing a group here that would work to get these industries started and he was the first unpaid secretary of the Board of Trade in Greenville, which was what we call the Chamber of Commerce today.