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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Establishment of the cotton textile industry in the South

Mitchell describes at length the process by which the cotton textile industry was established in the South following the Civil War. In particular, Mitchell was intent upon charting the South's transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society and the impact of that transition on southern people. Based on his graduate research while at the University of South Carolina around 1915, his assessment here outlines his travels throughout the South—primarily North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—focusing on particular industrial centers, such as Gastonia, North Carolina. His comments here emphasize the connections between business men, local peoples, and politicians as the center of the cotton textile industry shifted from New England to the South.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Broadus Mitchell, August 14 and 15, 1977. Interview B-0024. 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

MARY FREDERICKSON:
When you were at the University of South Carolina, did you have any contact with manufacturers then or with the people who were going to work in the mills?
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Only by hearsay. There were two worlds there in Columbia. There was the town, and then there were the mills. Columbia had at that time the largest cotton factory in the world, the Olympia Mill. I think it had something like 100,000 spindles. But the factory population had almost no connection with the life of the community. That was characteristic of the industry at that time in the South. It was a matter of remark when two boys from the cotton mill village entered the University. They were the Brandenburg brothers. I knew them well, and they both were excellent students. How they had come into the University I don't know. I suppose their native capacity and curiosity had marked them as promising students in the schools. But that was my only contact with actual factory workers or conditions while I was in college. But this experience of having been in a textile community in New England and then in South Carolina suggested to me when I went to Johns Hopkins for graduate work in what we termed at that time political economy (now that term is less used) that I would like to inquire into the circumstances of the transformation of an agricultural and slave society into an industrial society with free labor and wages and all the problems. So Father said, "Well, what you want to do is to go down the line of the Southern Railway and stop off at all the different places such as Charlotte and Salisbury and Greenville and Spartanburg and Anderson and Augusta." So he gave me the money, and I bought what you could get at that time for twenty dollars, a ticket that permitted you to ride, I think, a thousand miles at two cents a mile or something like that. And I went. This must have been about 1915 or '16. I had spent the summer before working in the Library of Congress on southern newspapers that would give accounts of the establishment of cotton factories not very long after the Civil War. I came to feel that while there had been some pioneers who had braved the depression of '73, that the development really commenced about 1880 or shortly after that. I read the North Carolina newspapers and South Carolina, Georgia, and so on. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
JOHN BROADUS MITCHELL:
Warrington Dawson was an Englishman who espoused the Confederate cause; he contrived to conceal himself, I think, on a Confederate warship, the "Shenandoah" or some such name, that was in an English harbor. He got over here and joined the Confederate Navy, later he shifted from the Navy to the Army and fought through the War. And having been acquainted with the economy of England, he more clearly than most people saw the need for changing the productive habits of the South, and he made his News and Courier an engine for encouraging the establishment of cotton factories, It was called the Cotton Mill Campaign, which continued for several years. He would publicize every project for starting a factory in Kannapolis, North Carolina, or Gastonia or Columbia or wherever. So I had some little background by the time I went down to talk with the people who had built the mills. It was my good fortune to be able to interview a number of those who had been in on the development from the very start. For example, Mr. Cannon, Sr. had been a merchant in China Grove, North Carolina, I think, a little town. And when it was proposed to establish a cotton factory there or nearby, he was chosen President. He had no industrial experience, but he was a businessman of ability and he had some credit, and he was deputed to rally capital, to induce local people to subscribe, often in the form of their work on the factory itself, brickmasons or carpenters, and a farmer would give his field and take stock in the mill. And then Mr. Cannon would post off to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the machinery was made, and offer stock in the factory in return for machinery. He would engage an experienced superintendent in New England, and he managed it. His efforts succeeded, and at the time I talked to him, when he was an elderly man, he already had a group of mills, the Cannon Mills. It has since developed much beyond that. But he was more or less typical of those with whom I talked who had gone from a local merchant or banker to be cotton mill president and a great industrialist. I remember people in Greenville and Gastonia and Augusta and other places. Sometimes they were people who had come into the industry a little later; they were younger. Sometimes they were New Englanders who had come down as superintendents of the mills, supplying the technical knowledge and experience. But sometimes they were just public people. I remember one in Greensboro, North Carolina, who was, I think, a local judge or had been a judge or something, and he knew the whole community and what its resources were and how they were gathered to start this adventure in industry. Sometimes they were politicians. I talked to Cotton Ed Smith, for instance, who was a senator from South Carolina and a very prejudiced man who traded on white supremacy and that kind of thing. I remember joining him on a train somewhere in the upcountry of South Carolina. He was very busy but said that if I would join him, say, at Greenville and ride with him to Spartanburg or whatever, and we would talk in the smoking car, and I had a very pleasant meeting with him. And he knew a lot, though he wasn't an industrialist himself. He was aware of everything that was happening in the community. And so with others. One of those who had come into the industry a little later was a Mr. Separk at Gastonia, North Carolina. He had been, I think, the principal of the local school and married the daughter of Mr. George A. Gray, if I'm not mistaken, who was the promoter of several cotton mills in Gastonia. And Mr. Separk had then left teaching for the position of superintendent of the Gray Mills after Mr. Gray's death. I talked with him and with Mr. Gray's son, who helped me very much, a young man. I was sorry I couldn't have met Mr. Gray, because he was one of those who came from the typical southern small mill and was able to develop a great complex of factories. Maybe it's worth saying a word about him. George A. Gray very early went to work in a small cotton factory. I think he was only ten years old. His father was killed, and he had to help to support his mother. And he worked in this little mill, a primitive sort of affair, and was told that on winter mornings he'd have to go out and cut the ice from the water wheel to get a day's run in the factory. By the time he was seventeen or eighteen, his extraordinary mechanical faculties were apparent to people of some means around there. And when they wanted to establish a cotton factory, they sent this young fellow, not more than a youth, up to New England to buy machinery. And when he went up, these men with whom he talked couldn't believe that he was properly deputed or that he knew what he was about. They said to him, "Mr. Gray, where do you come from in North Carolina?" "Pinhook," he said. They said, "What the hell kind of name is that for a town?" "Well," he said, "that's the name of our town, Pinhook." [Laughter] I guess it was where he'd worked in this little mill. But he knew all about it, and he got the machinery, and before his death I think he had five mills. The largest, 50,000 spindles, was the Lo-Ray Mill at Gastonia. He was the man who started Gastonia, town and Gaston County, as a great southern industrial center. It became and still is, I think, in many ways, the Pawtucket of the South, so to speak. And it has drained much from New England.