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Cotton Mills In New South Charlotte  

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

    The Democrats delivered on their promise of improving the economy of  Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.   The 1870s and 1880s witnessed vigorous commercial and industrial growth in Charlotte, so much so that the town began to eclipse the rest of Mecklenburg County in terms of economic importance.  “Everything about Charlotte seems to be on a big boom,” observed a visitor in the 1880s, “and everybody seems to be in good spirits at the prospects.” Charlotte became known as the “Queen City,” a nickname more in keeping with its aspirations for economic prowess than its earlier monikers of  “Hornet’s Nest” or “Cradle of Independence.”  As in the 1850s, effective leadership was fundamental to this process.  During the final quarter of the nineteenth century a talented assortment of ambitious entrepreneurs moved to Charlotte to join local businesspeople in taking advantage of the town’s strategic location and its excellent railroad connections.   

Daniel Augustus Tompkins

Edward Dilworth Latta

     Two South Carolinians were paramount in making Charlotte the major commercial and industrial center of the two Carolinas.  They were Edward Dilworth  Latta  and Daniel Augustus Tompkins.  David Ovens , a native of Kingston, Ontario who came to Charlotte in 1903 as manager of the local shop operated by the S. H. Kress Co., singled out New South industrialist D. A. Tompkins  as the principal reason for Charlotte's impressive rate of growth in the late 1800s, calling him a "brilliant engineer." "It was he," Ovens insisted, "who led the way in persuading people from distant points to come here and invest capital in the establishment of factories and mills." "Then there was Mr. E. D. Latta," Ovens continued, "who gave us our first electric street railway, gas and electric lights." 

      Edward Dilworth  Latta   moved from New York City to Charlotte and established E. D. Latta and Brothers, a men's clothing store, in October 1876. No doubt the enterprising haberdasher was attracted by the vigorous economic climate in Charlotte and the prospects for making money. Latta's impact on this community, however, was to go far beyond that engendered by his clothing business. Until his departure in May 1923, when he moved to Asheville, Latta played a pivotal role in the transformation of the city from a modest commercial center of 7,094 inhabitants in 1880 into an industrial and financial metropolis of the Piedmont in 1920, boasting a population of 46,338. In large measure, Latta was typical of the new class of investors, industrialists, and businessmen who arose in North Carolina and the South following the Civil War. As exponents of a "New South," such men became convinced that future wealth in the region lay not in traditional farming methods but in industrialization, urbanization, and scientific agriculture; and they took advantage of the new economic opportunities afforded by the growth of manufacturing and the rise of sizable urban areas.

     Daniel Augustus Tompkins was an ardent participant in the New South movement of the post-bellum era.  He arrived in Charlotte in March 1883.  A native of Edgefield County, South Carolina, Tompkins had earned a degree in civil engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  in Troy, New York in 1873, had been a chief machinist for the Bethlehem Iron Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and had decided to return to his native region so that he might encourage and assist the development of industry and the diversification of agriculture.

      Having secured a franchise from the Westinghouse Machine Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the selling and installing of steam engines and other machinery, Tompkins selected Charlotte as the location of his enterprise, which opened on March 27, 1883.  He considered moving to Columbia, South Carolina, but chose Charlotte instead because of its central location in the two Carolinas and because of its superior railroad connections.

     On May 17, 1873, the Carolina Central Railroad Company  had acquired the right of way and had undertaken the task of completing a continuous track from Wilmington to Rutherfordton. This job had been completed on December 15, 1874.  By 1873, the Atlanta and Charlotte Airline Railroad  had finished laying track between Charlotte and Spartanburg, South Carolina and on to Atlanta.   In 1884, Tompkins established the D. A. Tompkins  Company.  This enterprise was "at the forefront" of machinery manufacturing for the southern textile mills, offering mills "a local alternative to their dependence upon northern suppliers," writes historian Brent Glass.  The Augusta Chronicle described Tompkins as “the man that put Charlotte on the map for cotton mill machinery.”

     D. A. Tompkins  remained in Charlotte until his death in 1914 and helped build a virtual cotton mill empire in the Tar Heel State. He became a director of A. and M. College (now North Carolina State University) at Raleigh and was instrumental in establishing the textile department there. He was the author of a number of works on cotton mills and textiles, most notably Cotton Mill: Commercial Features, as well as a two-volume history of Mecklenburg County. He also owned three North Carolina newspapers, including the Charlotte Observer , which he purchased in 1892. “The one thing I wanted the paper for was to preach the doctrines of industrial development,” said Tompkins.   In July 1894, Tompkins joined with other wealthy businessmen in Charlotte in establishing the Southern Manufacturers' Club .  Puffing on cigars and drinking fine brandy whiskey, he and  the other members of the town's privileged elite would gather in their opulent headquarters building on West Trade Street and "do business."   As were the other powerful industrialists of his type and time, Tompkins was committed to laissez-faire capitalism and opposed public reforms for better industrial working conditions including the regulation of child labor.  He was also a devoted defender of what he called “Anglo Saxon values,” a code name for White Supremacy .

Cotton was brought to the Charlotte Cotton Platform for shipment to others cities.

      In keeping with cotton being its principal cash crop, Mecklenburg County did become a major center of textile manufacturing in the second half of the nineteenth century.  “New ideas of life have taken firm hold of the South,” Tompkins proclaimed, “and to succeed and prosper, we must spin cotton.”  Mecklenburg County had two cotton mills before the Civil War.  The Catawba Manufacturing Company opened in 1848 in the Steele Creek community of southwestern Mecklenburg.    Its owner, William Henry Neel , was a prominent citizen, having been a County Commissioner, a member of the Steele Creek Presbyterian Church , an officer in the local militia, and a successful cotton farmer.  Neel's imposing Federal style  home still sits atop a hillside just west of Shopton Road.   Neel operated a grist mill near what is now Withers Cove on Lake Wylie and placed some spindles in this facility and produced yarn. The output was modest. The plant closed before the end of the Civil War. No physical remains survive.  The other and more important ante-bellum textile mill was the Rock Island Mill , established in 1848 by Charlotte businessmen R. C. Carson , John A. Young , and Z. A. Grier .  It too is gone.

    The first facility in Mecklenburg County devoted exclusively to the spinning of cotton fiber was the Glenroy Cotton Mill . Founded by E. C. Grier  and his son, G. S. Grier , the mill was located about half way between Matthews and Providence Presbyterian Church , in southeastern Mecklenburg County. It contained 350 spindles and produced bale yarn. It was established in 1874 and operated for approximately eighteen months. The building was demolished in 1899.

The Charlotte Cotton Mills covered an entire block.

     The founder of the initial cotton mill in Charlotte was  Robert Marcus Oates , a native of Cleveland County and a Confederate veteran who also served on both the County Commission and the Charlotte Board of Aldermen. “He was strong in his convictions, conservative in his ideas, and these two characteristics together with his mental ability and correctness of life made him a tower of strength to the community,” declared a Charlotte newspaper. Named the Charlotte Cotton Mills , the plant opened in December 1880 and went into full operation the next year.   The Charlotte Observer , an ardent backer of industrialization even before Tompkins bought it, anticipated that the mill would “add much to Charlotte's material prosperity . . . . and some predict that it will be the means of bringing similar enterprises into operation.”  Most of the workers were women. "The opening of the Charlotte Cotton Mill represented the beginning of a new industrial era in Charlotte's history," writes historian Janette Greenwood.   Parts of the Charlotte Cotton Mills still stand at West Fifth and North Graham Streets.


John Cross, a Mecklenburg County farmer, takes his cotton to market in 1907.


      D. A. Tompkins  built and equipped three cotton mills in Charlotte in 1889 – the Victor , the Ada , and the Alpha . Two of the three buildings survive, the Ada  and the Alpha . Called “hummers” because of the noise produced by the spinning and weaving machines, the new mills appeared at the edges of town along railroad lines.  Tompkins did not like sites in the hearts of cities. “The proximity of lawyers . . . promotes law suits,” he declared, and a “mill in the country can operate its own store and thereby get back some of money paid for wages.”  It is important to note that Northern capital played no role in financing the great majority of Charlotte's first cotton mills.  They were home-owned and home-operated.

The Atherton Mill is in the background.

      In 1892, Tompkins joined with three other local industrialists, R. M. Miller , R. M. Miller, Jr ., and E. A. Smith , in picking the southern end of Dilworth , Charlotte’s first trolley  suburb, as the place to erect the only cotton mill in Mecklenburg County that he owned and ran, although he did operate a cottonseed oil plant nearby.  The Atherton Mills  began operations in January 1893, with 5,000 spindles manufacturing yarn goods.  “There's no doubt about it, things are ‘humming’ in the Queen City, and ‘humming’ to the tune of lively progress,” declared Tompkins’s Charlotte Observer .

Upper Left:  Hoskins Mill.  Upper Right:  Mecklenburg Mill.  Lower Left:  Elizabeth Mill.  Lower Right Chadwick Mill.  

     After 1900, entire mill villages containing more than one factory began to appear on the outskirts of Charlotte. E. A. Smith , a native of Baltimore and part owner of the Atherton Mills , organized the Chadwick and Hoskins mills  in Charlotte near Rozzelles Ferry Road, and by 1907, was head of the Chadwick, Hoskins, Calvine (formerly Alpha ), and Louise mills, and the Dover Cotton Mill in nearby Pineville. When these factories consolidated into the Chadwick-Hoskins Company in 1908, it was the largest textile firm in North Carolina. "The new Hoskins Mills, at Chadwick, a western suburb of the city, is nearing completion, and when completed will be one of the best and handsomest manufacturing plants in the South,” reported the “boosterish” Charlotte Observer  in November 1903.

     Charlotte’s largest textile mill village was North Charlotte , the centerpiece of which was the Highland Park Manufacturing Company  Plant No 3 , designed by Stuart W. Cramer , who had first come to Charlotte as an engineer for the D. A. Tompkins  Company.  Erected at the former site of the municipal water works, the imposing brick, electric-powered mill, containing 30,000 spindles, 1000 looms, and employing 800 workers, opened in 1904.  The Mecklenburg Mill  (1904) and the Johnston Manufacturing Company  (1913) were also located in North Charlotte, as were houses for the workers. All three mill buildings are still standing.

     Textile employees, mostly white yeomen farmers and their families who had migrated to the city in search of jobs, typically labored ten to twelve house a day Monday to Friday and five hours on Saturday.  One mill worker recalled a routine day’s work for her mother.

After a hard shift of breathing in cotton lint, her ears ringing from the constant "bangin" and "slappin" of the motor belts, and the eternal never ending "swishin" of the bobbins and thread, she often worked late into the night hours at our own home. Still tired from the previous day's work, she would crawl out of bed at 4:30 a.m. the next morning, cook breakfast and head out to the mill to begin another shift.

     When asked about books, one Mecklenburg mill hand answered that he had no time to read.  “We have to go to work at fifteen minutes to six and work till seven in the evening,” he explained.  A worker in neighboring Gaston County complained bitterly about the impact of mill life upon the laboring people.  “In a few years, unless we get shorter hours in cotton mills, you will see a State full of dwarfs and invalids,” he warned.   

      New South industrialists vigorously opposed any efforts by outside groups to improve the lot of textile workers.  A particularly dramatic encounter arose between Tompkins and Methodist minister J. A. Baldwin .  Baldwin visited the Atherton Mill Village in 1898 and was appalled by  the disease, malnutrition, and overall poverty that he insisted existed there  Tompkins responded by telling the preacher that the plight of textile workers was of their own making.  They are "of roving dispositions, are shiftless, and improvident," he insisted.

      D. A. Tompkins  used the so-called “rough rule” in assigning families to his mill houses, meaning that a mill worker was to be supplied for every room in the house.  Rent ranged from 75 cents to one dollar per day.  In a letter he wrote to a textile official in Patterson, New Jersey, Tompkins defended his practice of not placing closets, bathrooms or hot water in his mill houses.  He explained that the majority of his workers had grown up in rural areas, where such “modern improvements” were unknown.  “Sometimes they would object to ordinary clothes closets,” he reported, “on the pleas that they were receptacles for worn out shoes and skirts that ought to be thrown away and destroyed.” 

     On balance, the evidence suggests that the D. A. Tompkins  Company administered its workforce with a tight fist. “I heartily approve discipline and good order in my organization,” Tompkins declared. Although examples of paternalism did exist, such as awarding a prize of five hundred dollars annually for the best flower and vegetable gardens, the overall impression is that the mill families followed a daily routine dominated by hard work and long hours.  “Tompkins’ philosophy,” a biographer wrote, “was blind to the needs of humanity in a society which was being increasingly industrialized.” 

                                     Atherton Lyceum

     D. A. Tompkins  took advantage of the fact that it was not until 1903 that the General Assembly of North Carolina enacted a child labor law, prohibiting the employment of children less than twelve years of age.  He did build a school, the Atherton Lyceum , and imported his sister from Edgefield, South Carolina to teach fundamental quantitative and verbal skills to the mill children and their parents.  Despite his patriotic pronouncements, Tompkins compelled his workers to labor on the Fourth of July, at least until July 4, 1907, when he acquiesced to the suggestion advanced by the superintendent of the Atherton Mills  and sponsored a picnic at the Catawba River , where his employees were served sandwiches and lemonade.

     A series of momentous developments in the physical evolution of Charlotte occurred in 1890-91.  Edward Dilworth  Latta , native of Pendleton, South Carolina, former student at Princeton University, and owner of a clothing manufacturing plant in Charlotte since the early 1880s, joined with five associates on July 8, 1890, to create the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company , locally known as the Four C’s .  Like Tompkins, Latta was an enthusiastic advocate of what historian Paul M. Gaston has termed “the New South Creed.”  Accordingly, like many Southern leaders who attained adulthood during the decade of intense poverty that followed the Civil War, Latta insisted that his native region must discard the past and seek to emulate much of the industrial and urban society of the North.  Grounded philosophically in the tenets of Social Darwinism, Latta believed that the South should marshal its talents and resources and beat the Yankees at their own game.  “We must go forward or retrograde – there is no resting place with progress,” he contended.