Documenting the American South Logo
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 >>

Economic cycles during the 1920s and 1930s in the Greenville, South Carolina, textile industry

Furman describes economic cycles in the Greenville, South Carolina, textile industry during the 1920s and 1930s. Ultimately, Furman argues that the textile industry had always struggled economically because of debt and he describes ways in which he and his father strategized to survive in that environment. In particular, Furman explains the decision of textile mills to begin selling off company housing to workers during the late 1920s and 1930s. Furman explains that this was one way for textile mills to stay afloat economically and that it also gave workers greater incentive by making them feel that they had a greater stake in the community and in the industry itself.

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

There was a cotton depression in 1921, wasn't there? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well, there was a . . .
Not a depression, perhaps. ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Not a depression, no, but in May of 1920, we had begun to feel a real depression coming in. I mean, business was getting poor. The textile business was getting poor and all that kind of business. Then, it picked up after '21, '22 and began to get back on its feet again. The textile business has always been a sick business. It does this way always. That's the reason that the textile business has no business having a lot of debt. It's got no business having any debt at all. When you get them expanding on equity, financing . . . well, it just shouldn't be that way.
Did the discussion ever come up in these early years of perhaps a city like Greenville, or the South in general, becoming too dependent on one industry? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well of course, there was a lot of discussion and of course, it's only changed in the last few years as we have had a tremendous influx of other industries in here. As a matter of fact, I was on the board of a good many textile mills at one time. I'm on the board of one now, which is a little mill up in North Carolina that I pulled out of the Depression in 1939 and rehabilitated it and the man who I got to go there and run it for us, Mr. A.G. Heinsohn, Jr., is now my age and we'll be 81 our next birthdays and . . .
Where is that? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Spindale, North Carolina. Charlie Reynolds is the head of it now, an able boy . . . man, I should say. I call him a boy because he worked there when he was very young. They thanked me the other day in a board meeting because they had plenty of money and wanted to buy another mill and I said, "That's the worst thing that we could ever do. This is no time to buy anything, keep that money in the bank." As a result of that, we have been in fine financial shape and we can continue to pay our dividends to the stockholders. Not only that, we kept people on payrolls and kept it running when we couldn't have done it, and that's what textile mills ought to all do. No question about that. But going back to the twenties, you were talking about that, we had a pretty good boom . . . well, I wouldn't call it a boom, but we had a good business atmosphere here from '22 until about '28. Then, this thing started going, the stock market had gone clear out of the world and then in April of 1929, I just said to my father, "This is time for us to get out, get out of everything." He didn't like it, he was never a speculator, but he liked to buy things and he liked to stay with them. We stayed with them and we saw stuff that was worth $100 a share go down to $10. That's the kind of thing that happened and after a while, it gets kind of low in the box, you know. Well anyway, it was a very, very difficult period, there's no question about that. So, we started out again right after that and it wasn't long before we helped build these mills, we helped finance these mills and I came to the conclusion that this was the time to sell those houses in those mills. It would make better help because they would be homeowners, they would have an interest in it. I finally persuaded the Judson Mills to sell their houses in '39.
At this point, you were maybe on the board of directors of this? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: No, I wasn't on the board of directors of Judson.
Well, what kind of influence could you have to . . . ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: Well, the influence was simply an economic influence. They needed new machinery and instead of selling more stock or borrowing more money, if they would sell those houses and finance it, they would have money to put in new machinery.
I see. So, you made the suggestion to them? ALESTER G. FURMAN, Jr.: I sold it to Mr. Milliken, Roger Milliken's father. He's the man that I first started working with and we sold the houses at Judson No. 2, sold them cheap and immediately, those owners begun to fix those places up instead of acting like a tenant and tearing them apart, they would go in there and paint them and they put a lot of these asbestos shingles on the outside and it made them look like different houses. Then, of course, along came the Second World War pretty soon after that and the textile business got good. They were selling like nobody's business and then after the war, we started again.