First American Cotton Mills
The cotton textile industry in America was launched by Samuel Slater in 1790 at Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Slater, an English textile mechanic with knowledge of the Artright spinning frame, migrated to America and reconstructed two of the famous water-powered spinning frames from memory to establish a 72-spindle mill--the first successful spinning mill in America. One of Slater's earliest mills, the Old Slater Mill completed in 1793, still stands as a cotton mill museum in Pawtucket. His emigration disguised as a farmer, along with his rare textile mechanical expertise and a gifted memory, evaded the efforts of the British government to prevent textile workers, machinery, and plans from leaving the country and thereby removed one of the major obstacles to the development of cotton manufacturing in America.
Three years later in 1793, Eli Whitney's introduction of his cotton gin removed another major obstacle by eliminating the tedious and arduous task of removing by hand the seeds from the lint. With the introduction of Slater's spinning frame and Whitney's cotton gin, cotton gained immediate commercial value, and a cotton manufacturing industry began to slowly develop in America. At first the small mills were limited, for the most part, to spinning; they simply spun the yarn and then sent it to cabin or domestic weavers to be woven into cloth.
In 1814 Francis Cabot Lowell, after observing the operation of textile machinery in England for almost two years, returned to Waltham, Massachusetts, where he, together with Paul Moody, designed the first American power loom and improved the spinning frame. The improved machinery was installed in a cotton mill, known as the Boston Manufacturing Company at Waltham, and for the first time in history, all phases of cloth manufacturing were made by power machinery under one roof--from the spinning of yarn to the weaving of cloth. The new mill, by bringing together the various functions under one roof, initiated the beginning of the American factory system and hastened the end of the cabin or domestic system in the manufacture ofcotton cloth.
Soon water-powered textile mills began to spring up on the Merrimack and other New England rivers, and by 1835 the industry was beginning to spearhead an industrial revolution. Initially, the revolution was centered in New England primarily because of the availability of water power, capital, and labor.3 New mills were built at a rapid pace; by 1834, Lowell, Massachusetts, had nineteen large cotton mills operating 4,000 weaving looms and spinning frames with more than 110,000 spindles. For the most part, the labor forces were made up of single girls from the surrounding countryside who were housed in dormitories and placed under strict moral and religious supervision; the paternalistic corporate communities, known generally as the Waltham system, became popular and spread to other mill towns in the region. The 1830s in Lowell, as noted by Victor Clark in his History of Manufacturers in the United States, was the "most remarkable decade of progress, in a single place and industry, as yet achieved in our manufacturing
For the next several decades, New England continued to enjoy a rapid growth of mill towns; this was particularly true of the Merrimack River Valley where several populous mill towns and cities sprung up along the river’s banks. Inevitably, however, the mills began to move southward to be closer to the production of cotton, and in time, initiated the Industrial Revolution of the South. They moved first to the Piedmont regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia primarily because of the availability of water power, and then with the advent of steam and electrical power, to Mississippi as they moved still closer to the cotton fields.
Early Mississippi Mills
The South, in the
beginning, was more than content to concentrate its resources on the production
of cotton. As the demand for cotton fiber skyrocketed, owners of large
plantations began to make fortunes raising cotton with slave labor. It
was an extremely costly system, but early successes of the
plantations and the mythical romance surrounding them led others to turn to
cotton- growing, leaving little capital to invest elsewhere.
Captivated by visions of riches, Southern planters by the thousands, span and small, began to convert all suitable lands to cotton fields. As the importance of cotton increased, the planters were increasingly less inclined to divert capital and labor from cotton growing to factory building. Cotton growing quickly became the South's economic base; this was particularly true of Mississippi which developed an improved variety of cotton and became the leading state in the production of cotton as well as one of the wealthiest states of the period.
Finally, in the late 1830s, a few scattered cotton mills began to appear in the South. While Mississippi lagged behind other Southern states, Dunbar Rowland in his book, A History of Mississippi: The Heart of the South, notes that "tradition says that the first cotton mill in the State, and perhaps the world was that of Sir William Dunbar, erected at or near Natchez in 1834." The statement was an inadvertent misquote; by that time (1834) cotton textile mills were firmly established in England and were spearheading the beginning of an industrial revolution in New England. The Dunbar Mill, named in honor of a noted scientist and father of the cotton-seed oil industry in Mississippi, was instead the first "cotton-seed oil mill in Mississippi, if not in the world.” While not a mechanically powered cotton mill, it may have had a few hand looms that qualified it as a small, cabin-type cotton mill.
Small mills, with hand looms, were still commonplace at the time; most of them in the South were associated with plantations and were used to produce a coarse cloth for their private use. In 1840, Mississippi, had some fifty of the small cabin-type cotton mills, which John K. Bettersworth in his book, Mississippi: A History, describes as "small affairs employing in all only eighty-four persons" with a total capital of only $6,429.
The state's first mechanically powered cotton manufacturing mill was built in 1842 on the outskirts of Natchez. John Robinson, a Scottish textile expert, came to Mississippi before the economic panic of 1837 to build a cotton textile mill for the Mississippi Cotton Company of Natchez. Before construction started, the company suffered substantial financial losses in the 1837 crash and was forced to abandoned its plans. After a similar experience with the Port Gibson Manufacturing Company, the tenacious Robinson in 1842 built a cotton and woolen mill himself, equipping it to the extent his limited financial resources permitted.
The Robinson mill occupied a small two-story building and was powered by a twelve horse-power steam engine to operate 60wool spindles and 260 cotton spindles. Because of his limited funds, Robinson was forced to start producing cloth before the mill had all of the appropriate machinery. It was a disastrous start and, within two years, he was forced to liquidate. The failure resulted from several problems which included, according to D. Clayton James in his Antebellum Natchez, "insufficient capital, inadequate machinery, shortage of skilled laborers, high cost of importing Indiana coal for fuel, and ruthless competition from New England textile producers."
In the spring of 1844, a second attempt was made to established a cotton mill at Natchez. John Robertson and associates of a Boston firm purchased the bankrupt Natchez Cotton Compress and brought in textile workers from New England and a twenty- eight-horse-power steam engine to operate 2,000 spindles and 10 power looms. The Boston firm, after upgrading the machinery, sold the mill in November 1844 to Samuel T. McAlister who, with the assistance of a Massachusetts textile expert and seventeen Negro slaves, began to manufacture rope, plantation cloth, anda heavy cloth for cotton picking sacks.
Like the Robinson mill, the Robertson mill never really got off the ground; the history of its short life was one failure after another. After struggling under several different owners, it closed in 1848 and left most cotton manufacturing in the state to household or cabin spinning and weaving. At the time of closing, it was the only mechanically powered mill in the state and employed twenty black men, six females, and four children.
The Natchez experiments were discouraging, but the failures were not sufficient to stop the establishment of three Mississippi textile mills which were at the time under construction or in the late planning stages: the Bankston textile mill in Choctaw County established in 1848; the State Penitentiary textile mill at Jackson in 1849; and the Edward McGehee mill at Woodville in 1850. The three mills were later followed by a still larger mill: the Thomas Green mill at Jackson in 1857.
The Bankston textile mill is regarded as Mississippi's first successful mechanically powered textile mill and became "famous throughout the Old Southwest as a model of industrial efficiency and profitability." Colonel James M. Wesson, its founder, was associated with a textile firm in Columbus, Georgia, the "Lowell of the South," which in 1847 decided to build a cotton and woolen mill in the back country of northern Mississippi. In January 1847 he, together with David L. Booker, John P. Nance, Richard Ector and Thomas J. Stanford, organized and chartered the Mississippi Manufacturing Company and, before the end of the year, began moving machinery and equipment to the new site on the west side of McCurtain's Creek, a tributary to the span Black River in Choctaw County.
It was difficult at the time to find native white workers for industrial work, and thus several experienced mill families were imported from Georgia to do the skilled work. The use of Negro slaves was thought to be too expensive, but a few were
employed to operate the steam engine and perform other unpleasant assignments. A Semple steam engine, manufactured in Providence, Rhode Island, was brought in to power the mill. It was transported from Rhode Island to Greenwood by water and then drawn over land to the mill site by several oxen, a distance of sixty-five miles, several miles of which were through the Yazoo swamp. The eighty- horsepower engine actually provided too much power for the textile mill, and the enterprising Colonel Wesson added a flour mill and a gristmill to the textile equipment to utilize the surplus power.
The Bankston textile mill began operations in December 1848 with twelve workers. It prospered and quickly expanded to include a tannery, a shoe factory, a machine shop, along with other enterprises. By June 1849, the textile mill operated 500 cotton spindles and spun 300 pounds of cotton into yarn and thread daily. During the first few years, the mill operated at a financial loss in the production of cloth but made a small profit on cotton yarn. During this period, Colonel Wesson left the looms idle and concentrated on the production of yarn and thread, along with his other enterprises such as the milling of corn and wheat, until conditions improved in the cloth market.
By 1855, the difficult years were over and the manufacturing company began to make substantial profits; reporting that year a net profit of $22,000 on a capitalization of $60,000. Over the next three years or by 1858, Historian John Hebron Moore noted that the company's "investment in cotton and woolen machinery alone had reached the sum of $80,000, and an additional $15,500 of the firm's capital was represented by such assets as a gristmill, a flour mill, and numerous buildings comprising the company-owned village of Bankston."
The critical period came two years later with the nationwide panic of 1857. The Bankston manufacturing company not only survived but prospered during the panic; and then for several years in succession, it paid annual dividends of 37 percent while building up a large reserve fund. In addition to the investors, some eighty-five workers enjoyed the prosperity. While wages were low, the company provided housing and made sure the workers were supplied with products of its several enterprises, shoes, cloth, meat, and flour. Alcoholic beverages, however, were forbidden. Like William Gregg, founder of the famous antebellum mill at Graniteville, South Carolina, Colonel Wesson vehemently opposed the drinking of alcoholic beverages and successfully promoted a law prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor within the corporate limits.
On June 4, 1850, Colonel Wesson wrote to De Bow's Review indicating his opposition to the sale of alcoholic beverages and proceeded to describe his manufacturing enterprises.
"Our mill is located ten miles south of Greensboro, in a healthy neighborhood; fine water, good society, churches, schools, &e. We have but one grog-shop within seven miles of us, and that will probably not last long. "Our building is made of wood, 108 feet long, 48 wide, three stories
high. We are now running about 800 spindles, 10 cards, 12 looms, and all the accompanying necessary machinery for spinning and weaving. Owing to the high price of cotton we have stopped our looms. We have 500 spindles and five cards more, not finished; we shall probably get them in operation for the next crop. We carry on a machine shop in which we make every variety of machinery for carding and spinning. Our looms are built by Messrs. Rogers, Kechum & Grovanon, of Paterson, N. J. They are heavy and substantial, and are built for making heavy Linsey and Osnaburgs, such as are most used in the South. I think that companies in this state intending to embark in the manufacturing business, would do well to call to see our machinery before buying elsewhere. We have just completed the finest flour mill in this state, or equal to any in the South. We will show flour with the St. Louis or any other mill North or South. We use a large fine Semple Engine, made by Messrs. Thurston, Green & Co., Providence. It is admired by all visitors for its great capacity and simplicity. It is run by a Negro engineer, who also serves as fireman, who had no acquaintance with engines until he took hold of this. We have a double cylinder wool card that cards the wool twice as well as most of the country cards that have only one, and will turn off two hundred pounds of rolls a day, for which we charge a 8 c. a
The Bankston cotton mill became famous as it continued to grow and prosper. By 1860, it had expanded to operate 1,000 cotton spindles, 500 wool spindles, and 20 power looms; indeed, it operated the latest in textile machinery and was regarded as the forerunner in modern cotton manufacturing in the state. Except for the few slaves employed to operate the steam engine, the workers were white; Colonel Wesson, however, recognized that slaves were capable, but he "believed that hired whites were less expensive than either bought or hired slaves."
Wesson also believed, along with William Gregg and other prominent Southern cotton manufacturers, that the South, in addition to agriculture, desperately needed to devote itself to manufacturing. On August 11, 1858, he wrote John F. H. Claiborne asserting that
"the South stands in the same relation to New England now, that we as a nation did to Old England fifty years ago . . . if it was good policy for us then, as a nation, to adopt and support a general system of manufacturing the same policy is equally good now when applied to the South."
However small, the thriving community of Bankston was a step in that direction. The community, moreover, was in every regard a model company town and Mississippi's first cotton mill village.
The Mississippi Penitentiary Textile Mill enjoyed a success story comparable to that of the Bankston mill. As early as 1840, the penitentiary produced clothing for convicts with the use of manually-operated spinning machines and hand looms. By 1847, the prison population had increased to the point that the primitive machinery could no longer manufacture sufficient clothing, and the state legislature responded by authorizing the superintendent to purchase power-driven equipment.
Spinning machinery and power looms were purchased and brought in from Patterson, New Jersey, and in October 1849, the upgraded penitentiary textile mill went "into full production, turning out cotton and woolen cloth and yarns at the rate of 1,700 yards of cotton osnaburgs, 300 yards of woolen linseys, and 400 pounds of yarn per week."22 Osnaburgs had excellent wearing qualities and toughness; it could be made into overalls, other durable work clothes, and was occasionally substituted for canvas or duck requiring rough usage. No doubt, this was the reason for its extensive production.
It was an impressive start, and the legislature, at its next session in 1850, authorized the purchase of additional machinery to increase the production of cloth from 1,700 yards per week to 1,000 per day. Production soon exceeded the penitentiary needs, and the state began competing with private enterprise by selling the surplus to wholesale dealers in cities as distant from Jackson as Mobile, New Orleans, and St. Louis. The venture became very profitable, and by 1853 the penitentiary textile mill had become one of the state's most valuable assets, returning a small profit to the state after paying the entire cost of the prison system.
In 1857, the mill was destroyed by fire, but without any delay, the legislature decided to rebuild and on a much larger scale. In late 1858, a vastly enlarged mill was completed; it reopened with 150 convicts to operate "2,304 spindles for spinning cotton, twenty-four cotton carding machines, seventy-six looms for weaving osnaburgs, four mills for producing cotton twills, and a full complement of machinery for making woolen linseys and cotton batting." It proved to be a great success story for the state, although its critics were quick to assert that its success was attributable to the obvious advantages the venture had over private enterprise, including free labor and state financial support.
The Wilkinson Manufacturing Company was the third large cotton textile mill to be built in the state. It was organized in 1850 by Judge Edward McGehee, a noted planter and railroad entrepreneur, who decided to expand his business interests. After visiting Lowell, Massachusetts to familiarize himself with the operation of a cotton mill, he employed Colonel James Woodworth, a skilled textile mechanic, to construct the mill in the small village of Woodville about twenty-five miles south of
McGehee's mill was completed and began operations in March 1851, powered by a wood-burning steam engine of eighty- horse-power, and initially employed a force of 125 white Mississippians and New Englanders to operate 3,500 spindles and ninety looms. As at Bankston, apartment houses and a large boarding house were constructed to provide living quarters for the mill workers. Hence, Mississippi's second cotton mill village.
In 1852, Judge McGehee dismissed Superintendent Woodworth, assumed management of the mill himself, and replaced the 125 white workers with slaves. Just three years later, in 1855, he bought out the other co-owners and proceeded to operate it as a family enterprise for the next several years, producing shirting, lowells, linsey, and kerseys. Unlike Colonel Wesson's openness regarding his mill, Judge McGehee was very secretive about the Woodville mill and, as a result, not much is known about its operations except that the mill was apparently very successful. In 1860 the value of its finished products was reported to be $102,000 in comparison with $72,000 for the Bankston mill.
The Thomas Green Cotton Mill was the last and largest mill to be built in Mississippi before the Civil War. In June 1858, the banking firm of Joshua and Thomas Green constructed the mill on Pearl River in Jackson, and, with a capitalization of $100,000, began operations with Samuel Poole as superintendent and some two hundred white employees. Although short-lived because of the Civil War, it was a financial success from the start. By 1860, it employed more than two hundred workers to produce 450,000 yards of cloth annually which was valued at $151,000, the highest figure reported by any Mississippi cotton mill.
At the beginning of the Civil War, Mississippi lagged far behind in becoming industralized but it had made some progress. It had four large cotton mills, the Bankston mill, the Edward McGehee mill, the Penitentiary mill, the Thomas Green mill, along with two small, insignificant mills--one in Columbus and the other in Tishomingo County. The value of the cloth produced annually by the four large mills was not insignificant; it ranged from $72,000 for the Bankston mill to $151,000 for the Green mill before production was interrupted by the war.
Professor John Bettersworth concluded that "Mississippi, though far from having become industrialized, was showing gains. The Bankston mill was able to declare a 29 per cent dividend in that year, and the entire cotton industry of the state could boast that the value of its product in 1860 was $261,000 as compared with only $22,135 in 1850."
The modest gains showed that antebellum Mississippi simply was not ready for industrialization. The people preferred to continued to concentrate nearly all of their resources in the cotton plantation system which, unfortunately, left the state
ill-prepared for the impending Civil War and the Radical Reconstruction years that followed. Its small textile industry, however, proved that it could "survive and prosper in Mississippi as well as in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, despite economic depressions, competition from northern manufacturers, and opposition from agrarian critics of southern industrialization."
The Civil War, unfortunately, was to destroy the state's four textile mills along with most of its other small industry. In 1863, General Grant and his troops destroyed the Woodville, Jackson, and Penitentiary mills; but because of its isolated location, the Bankston mill survived a while longer. Federal troops later learned of the Bankston mill, and on December 30, 1864, a foraging party, under the command of General Benjamin H. Grierson, raided the defenseless village and burned the cotton and wool mill, the shoe factory, and the flour mill while the inhabitants slept and without a shot being fired.
Much of Bankston was a legitimate military target, for its mills were producing 1,000 yards of cloth and 150 pairs of shoes daily for military purposes. But unfortunately, the foraging party did not restrict its activities to legitimate targets; it not only destroyed the 5,000 yards of cloth, 10,000 pounds of wool, 125 bales of cotton on hand but, in addition, destroyed 10,000 pounds of flour and took the farm animals, horses, cows, pigs, and chickens, leaving the town's people hard pressed to escape starvation.
Fortunately, Colonel Wesson, before the raiders arrived, anticipated the apparent danger of a raid and distributed much of the cloth among surrounding inhabitants. At the time, the need for clothing was so great that one woman, J. P. Coleman notes in his Choctaw County Chronicle, rode horseback forty miles, round trip, a few days before the raid to get a single bolt of cloth.
With the destruction of the four cotton mills, Mississippi's emerging textile industry was devastated, and except for a small mill in Columbus, cotton manu- facturing in the state returned to cabin or household spinning and weaving. Thus the four mills, including Mississippi's first successful steam powered cotton mill and its first mill village, took their places in history, and, as will be seen, cotton mill building in the state was painfully slow for the next three decades. Colonel Wesson, however, survived to pick up the pieces and build the first phase of Mississippi's most famous post Civil War manufacturing plant of any type. Of the prewar cotton textile manufacturers in Mississippi, he was the only one to continue in the textile business in the postwar era.
Our review will take us next to Colonel Wesson’s new mill, the state’s first post Civil War mill, which eventually gained national and international fame for its efficient operations and production of high quality fabrics.
III & IV
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