Soon after his mill was destroyed by fire,
Colonel Wesson set out to establish another. Before the war was over, he
and two associates, W. H. Hallam and James Hamilton, selected a wilderness site
about forty miles south of Jackson, and in March 1865 the
site was incorporated as the town of Wesson. Three years later, the construction
of a cotton mill, the Mississippi Manufacturing Company, and seventy-five houses
for workers was completed. It was Mississippi's first large mill village;
and replacing a wilderness, it was built out of necessity to provide housing for
the influx of workers from nearby farms and towns, rather than for the
paternalistic reasons often associated with company-owned mill villages.
Colonel Wesson donated land for three church sites, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist, and the town of Wesson began to develop around the mill. It was patterned after the South's first mill town established by William Gregg at Granite- ville, South Carolina. The village houses were very similar and most were built to accommodate two families, and each family was provided with sufficient land for a vegetable garden, a cow, a pig, and a few chickens. But as at Bankston, no alcoholic beverages were permitted; Colonel Wesson was successful in having the charter prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages within the corporate limits. The new town prospered and grew rapidly from a wilderness to the largest town on the Illinois Central Railroad between Jackson and New Orleans--a distance of approximately two hundred miles.
The Wesson mill was to become Mississippi's most famous postwar manufac- turing plant of any type. Unfortunately, however, abusive practices during the Radical Reconstruction era created major financial problems for Colonel Wesson, and he was forced to step aside before the mill reached its summit. Early in 1871, Mississippi Manufacturing Company went into bankruptcy and receivership, and on February 23, 1871, the company was sold by the receivers to Captain William Oliver and John T. Hardy, New Orleans businessmen. After paying all of his debts, Colonel Wesson, the father of the Mississippi cotton textile industry, quietly retired to nearby Bogue Chitto. Earlier that year, his wife died, and it is likely, some believe, that her death may have influenced his decision to sell out and retire.
Captain William Oliver, after being named general manager, moved to Wesson with his family to manage the operations. Just two years later, disaster struck again. The mill was destroyed by fire, and Oliver, as Colonel Wesson had done after the Bankston fire, was determined to rebuild. He persuaded Edmund Richardson, one of the largest cotton growers in the world with 25,000 acres in cultivation and known as the "Cotton King," to purchase Hardy's share and controlling interests in the operations. Together with Richardson, as president, and Oliver, as general manager, they made immediate plans to not only rebuild the company but to do it on a much larger scale. The first of four mills was completed in late 1873, Mill No. 2 in 1876, Mill No. 3 in 1890, and Mill No. 4 in 1894.
The mills, renamed Mississippi Mills, consisted of four large brick buildings when completed, one of which was five stories high with a seven story tower, and covered several city blocks. From the beginning they were powered by steam engines and very early illuminated by electricity. As unlikely as it seems, the electric lights were installed by 1882, within three years after Thomas Edison perfected his electric lighting plant and bulb, and before either New York or Chicago had adopted the new lighting system. This was not, however, unusual as several small towns and plants throughout the country were able to install the new electric lights before politicians in major cities like New York and Chicago could adopt, rip up their streets, and install the new lighting system.
In any event, a giant, five-story, electrically illuminated plant in the small town must have been an unexpected and unique sight. The Wesson Enterprise indicates that people came from miles around to see the "little lights in bottles" and that passengers on the Illinois Central Railroad were amazed at the sight as they passed through Wesson -- a small hamlet in the midst of the state's famous piney woods region.
The Wesson mill grew into a mammoth textile plant at a time when most Mississippians were still openly hostile to industry. In the late 1880s, Mississippi Mills employed 1,200 workers to operate 25,000 cotton spindles, 26 sets of woolen machinery, and 800 looms in the production of 4,000,000 yards of cotton goods, 2,000,000 yards of woolen goods and 320,000 pounds of yarn and twine annually. The mills produced a variety of high quality and award-winning fabrics--including cassimirs, plaids, jeans, stripes, tweeds, doeskins, and several others -- with a reputation "for excellence not surpassed by the product of any mills in the world...[and sold in] almost every state and territory in the Union." In 1876, its products won first prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial, and in the eighties, one of its cotton fabrics used for dress goods was of such handsome finish that it was called "Mississippi silk."
By 1890, the Wesson mill was the largest manufacturing enterprise of any type in Mississippi and reputed to be the largest in the South. Senator L. Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi proudly noted that the mill had become "the subject of a great deal of pride and interest to the citizens of the state." It also attracted national and international attention, luring President William McKinley and industry leaders from as far as England to Wesson just to see the operations.
William Oliver, as general manager, was given credit for the phenomenal growth and success which brought the nation-wide fame. Under his leadership from 1873 to 1891, most of the profits were reinvested to finance growth, but much of his managerial success can be attributed to his special interest in the mill workers and community affairs. It was said that "He took interest in the affairs of the community, the public school, the municipal government, or whatever was of interest to the people. He was especially interested in the welfare of the operatives in the mill; he considered them people."
This attitude earned him the support of both the community and the workers. For the workers, they recognized that his fair treatment was a valuable benefit and a good reason for them to be concerned about the success and general welfare of the company providing them employment. Thus the fair treatment also benefited the company.
Like Colonel Wesson, Captain Oliver was also a devout believer in the proposition that whiskey and manufacturing did not mix. He insisted that land convey- ances by Mississippi Mills, which owned most of the land in and near Wesson, include a clause providing that if alcoholic liquor were ever sold on the premises illegally, the title to the property would revert to the grantors or Mississippi Mills. No evidence surfaced indicating that title to property actually reverted under the clause.
After his death in 1891, a series of events -- including absentee management, the panic of 1893, and increased transportation costs -- began to bring Mississippi's largest manufacturing venture and greatest industrial success story to a close. John Richardson, who had succeeded his father as president, unwittingly started the decline when he moved to New Orleans in the midst of the difficult times and brought in a general manager from the North to replace Oliver. Labor unrest was the immediate result, followed in 1906, by forced receivership. Then, in January 1910, the price of cotton plummeted to a low of $5.85 a bale and delivered the coup de grace as mills throughout the country, including the Wesson and four other Mississippi mills, were forced to liquidate their assets.
Three years before liquidation, the Directory of Southern Cotton Mills, Edition 1907, reported Mississippi Mills’ assets at $344,000 and listed some of its key officers and employees: R. L. Saunders, president; Frederick Abbott, superin- tendent; J. S. Rae, secretary and treasurer; Frank Reed, overseer cotton depart- ment; W. D. Ross, overseer woolen department; George W. Watson, dyer; J. R. Cannon, engineer; John Thompson, electrician; S. J. Sasser, cotton weaving supervisor; P. B. Raiford, wool weaving and finishing supervisor; Z. C. Rushing, cotton carding supervisor; James Barnes, spinning supervisor; and W. H. Stevens, spooling, warping, and slashing supervisor.
Within a year of liquidation, Wesson the largest town on the Illinois Central Railroad between Jackson and New Orleans, decreased in population from 5,000 to 1,000. The Wesson mill never reopened. Part of one of the brick mill buildings and several of the village houses still stand as a reminder. One of the houses is protected as a historical site.
Wesson was a great success story for its time, but it would eventually be surpassed. In 1867, two years after the Wesson mill opened, the greatest success story for a mill in the history of Mississippi cotton manufacturing was launched. Daniel Dupree, John Harland, and M. M. Brooks, supported by ten investors in Mobile, organized and began construction of a cotton mill on land formerly a part of a plantation near Enterprise and about twenty miles south of Meridian.
The new mill, named Stonewall Manufacturing Company in honor of Stonewall Jackson, opened in late 1868 with A. P. Bush as president and W. B. Hamilton as secretary- treasurer. In the beginning, the mill was powered by a steam engine to operate 2204 spindles but used country hand looms to weave cloth. At the time, the use of hand looms was not unusual as many mills concentrated primarily on spinning thread; in fact, many of the early cotton mills were "spinning factories" and stopped short of weaving cloth. But shortly after opening, the Stonewall mill installed fifty-two power looms and began weaving sheeting.
The first few years were difficult as financial losses mounted. By 1875 the directors had lost all hope and assigned T. L. Wainwright, an enterprising young man, to run the cotton out of the machinery and prepare the plant for sale. Wainwright turned out to be the right man at the right time for, rather than closing the mill, he turned it around. Within a few months after his assignment the losses stopped, and the directors, with renewed hope, reevaluated their decision and decided to continue operations a while longer. Wainwright was promoted to plant manager and given a new charge -- make the mill profitable.
It was a fortunate decision and turning point for the struggling mill. Under Wainwright's leadership, the mill continued to prosper; by 1882, the capacity of the mill had doubled. A few years later in 1895, the directors elected to increase the capital stock to $400,000 and add a second mill at a cost of $200,000. The expanded mill operated 10,000 spindles and 300 looms, and soon began producing a variety of fabrics, including ratine goods, sheetings, drills, osnaburgs, shirtings, mattress ticking, and Turkish towels.
Continuing success earned Wainwright the presidency in 1903. Four years later in 1907, the Directory of Southern Cotton Mills reported that the mill employed 500 workers in the operation of 21,000 spindles, 500 narrow looms, and 8 boilers. It listed the key officers and employees as T. L.Wainwright, President and Treasurer; G. I. Case, Secretary; H. C. Dresser, Superintendent; W. A. Gilliland, Engineer; Overseers: carding, S. L. Adler; spinning, A. L. Askew; weaving, J. S. Crane. Wainwright retained the presidency until 1921 when the mill was sold to Crown Overall Company of Cincinnati for $1,500,000. Oscar Berman, president of Crown Overall, assumed the presidency of Stonewall Cotton Mills and his brother Israel was named general manager. Crown, a producer of overalls, pur- chased the Stonewall mill for the production of a line of denim it used in the manufacture of overalls. The new line was quickly added and soon replaced most of the other fabrics.
In the late 1930s, the mill's management, anticipating World War II, converted to the production of khaki and tenting. The conversion was timely. As it turned out, the military required great amounts of khaki and tenting, and as a result, the mill enjoyed booming prosperity throughout the war years. The prosperity attracted the attention of the textile giants, and in the end, made the mill a candidate for acquisition.
The late thirties brought the addition of new and modern buildings and machinery, giving the mill the latest in state of the art textile machinery. Most important to the workers was the attention given to their living conditions. With the installation of city water and a modern sewage disposal system in the village, sanitary conditions improved and the "out houses" disappeared. Village improve- ments were accompanied by pay increases and paid vacations; the employee benefits, including improvements in the village and housing, were at the time unique in the Mississippi textile industry. This perhaps explains, to some extent at least, the great difficulty labor unions experienced in their unsuccessful attempts to organize the Stonewall textile workers.
The Stonewall mill continued throughout the thirties and war years of the forties to enjoy success after success. After the war, Erwin Mills, later a division of Burlington Industries, purchased the mill and in 1948 initiated another five-year program to expand and upgrade the plants, the machinery, and the mill village. In 1962 Burlington Industries purchased Erwin Mills, including the Stonewall mill, and immediately implemented still another intensive upgrading and modernization program. A few years later in 1976, it initiated another large expansion program which involved spending $35 million to construct a new weave and finishing plant. Burlington not only upgraded and modernized the mill but signaled the community and the mill workers that the mill was there to stay. The signal
was important because the Stonewall mill, the last surviving cotton manufacturing mill in the state, was becoming a part of the largest textile-mill corporation in the world.
The Stonewall and Wesson mills were pioneers in the development of cotton manufacturing in Mississippi. The Wesson mill led the way and enjoyed phenomenal success and fame for a substantial number of years and then faded into oblivion. The Stonewall mill, however, enjoyed greater success in the long run. At the time of this writing, one hundred and thirty years after its founding, it is still operating and planning for the future. Very few, if any, cotton mills in the United States, and no other in Mississippi, can boast that record.
Let’s turn our attention back to the late 1860s and review two other cotton mills of significance that were established in Mississippi during that period. In 1863, W. W. Shearer established a small yarn mill, the Pioneer Cotton Manufacturing Mill, two miles east of Meridian--a hamlet of five hundred near the eastern boundary of the state. A few months after it opened, the army of General W. T. Sherman raided the mill and community, destroying the mill and leaving only three houses standing in the small community. Three years later in 1867, another mill was built on the site and began operations, under the name East Mississippi Cotton Mill, with J. W. Monette as general manager and George S. Covert as superintendent.
In 1871, J. S. Solomon, a local compress operator, purchased the East Mississippi Cotton Mill and expanded it to employ some forty workers to operate 768 spindles and twenty looms in the production of 1000 yards of sheeting daily. He later upgraded the machinery and increased the number of workers to one hundred and fifty to produce primarily yarn, rope, and osnaburgs. By the end of the decade, it was one of the largest industries in a city (Meridian) that had become known for its industrial development.
The last Mississippi mill built in the eighteen sixties was the Whitfield Cotton Mill at Corinth in 1869. The mill quickly became known for its award-winning fabrics and competed with the Wesson mill for first prizes at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial. However, the success was short-lived; two years later it fell victim to the 1873-1878 Depression and closed its doors.
In the 1870s, Mississippi was confronted with another economic depression (1873-78) and the continuing Radical Reconstruction throughout the decade. It was hardly ideal times for cotton mill building. But in spite of the Depression and harsh Reconstruction impositions, Mississippi built three more mills in the 1870s: the impressive Natchez Cotton Mill in 1878, eventually employing 300 workers to operate 12,000 spindles and 330 looms; the Yocona Mill at Water Valley in 1879, employing 100 workers to operate 5000 spindles; and a small yarn mill at Bay Saint Louis in 1874.
In the 1880s, the state established four more: the Noxubee Mill at Shuqualak in 1880, employing 50 workers to operate 1400 spindles and 40 looms; the Rosalie Cotton Mill at Natchez in 1884, employing 275 workers to operate 10,000 spindles and 300 looms; the Tomspanbee Mill at Columbus in 1887 with 200 workers to operate 8064 spindles and 252 looms; and the Port Gibson Mill in 1888 with 150 workers to operate 5000 spindles and 200 looms.
After three mill failures in the 1880s, Mississippi operated nine cotton mills at the end of the decade. The state had made very little progress, far less than the mill promoters had anticipated; indeed, the various mill campaigns of the seventies and eighties promoted by the state's most influential government leaders and planters, were span disappointments. They attracted very few mills and fell far short of bringing the much herald Industrial Revolution of the South to the state, and the ailing cotton-growing economy continued to prevail.
Before leaving the Nineteenth Century, we will review in the next chapter the mill campaigns in some detail for they reflect the clash between the proponents of industrialization and those clinging to an ailing cotton-growing economy.
Mill Campaigns: 1870s-1890s
The Gilded Age, as Mark Twain called the
thirty-five year period following the Civil War, brought rapid change to
American life as more and more people moved to the developing industrial
centers. But throughout the period, most Mississippians, in spite of the
abject poverty, had little appreciation for industrialization and were openly
hostile to it. Primarily sharecroppers and tenant farmers, they did not
appreciate the economic factors contributing to the widespread poverty; and
influenced by provincialism, many associated manufacturers with the North and
wanted nothing to do with Yankees or their industries.
Like Thomas Jefferson, who believed farmers to be God's chosen people, many feared that industrialization would bring about urbanization, accompanied by crime and corruption, and interfere with their agrarian way-of-life. The poor whites were accustomed to the difficulties in eking out an existence on small farms, and not appreciating the benefits of industrialization, were willing to endure the hardships for the freedom and independence associated with farming, hunting, and fishing.
The Civil War had devastated the state's economy, leaving the cotton plantation system in shambles, with an abundance of both cotton and surplus white labor, and a host of growing social and economic problems. Radical Reconstruction had made matters worse; rather than bringing recovery, it had augmented the chaos. It was apparent that the cotton plantation system was gone forever and that the state desperately needed an alternate economic base. Fortunately, some of Mississippi's most influential leaders realized that the state, struggling for economic independence and freedom from its colonial agrarian economy, could not break the chains of bondage unless it supplemented cotton-growing with industry.
They became spirited mill promoters and were willing to go to great lengths to promote and conduct mill campaigns in an effort to bring the cotton manufacturing industry to the state. There was good reason for confidence; in the midst of the wide-spread adversity cotton manufacturing was beginning to move southward, particularly to the Piedmont regions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Optimism and confidence grew throughout the South, especially in Mississippi, as influential Southerners began to demand that cotton mills be brought to the cotton fields, with the frequent suggestion that the mills be built in the heart of the cotton fields. Indeed, Mississippi, saturated with cotton fields and nearby water and rail transportation, seemed to be ideally situated to share in the movement.
Beginning in the 1870s, E. G. Wall, editor of the Southern Field and Factory, and W. H. Worthington, editor of Patrons of Husbandry, frequently presented articles advocating the construction of cotton mills in the state. On one occasion, Wall argued that "we must encourage home manufacturers and home markets, ... and thereby keep as far as possible the profits of labor in ourState." Unfortunately, Mississippi, having suffering through most of the devastating Radical Reconstruction epoch, was faced with still another obstacle -- the 1873-1878 Depression which continued to frustrate the movement for industrial development.
Thus the Mississippi cotton mill campaign in the 1870s, as illustrated in the previous chapter, met with very limited success; by the end of the decade the state had only eight mills, along with a few very small and insignificant mills, while the three Piedmont states had one hundred and three. The meager showing was disappointing because simple logic seemed to suggest that the state, with its capacity for producing cotton and its excellent transportation systems, should have gained a far greater share of the mills.
The 1880s brought new hope as an upturn in the business cycle re-established the cotton mill campaign. At the beginning of the decade, Mississippi was still relying on an ailing cotton growing economy, and the need to supplement cotton growing with industry was critical. No other industry was in sight, and thus the cotton textile industry still appeared to be the obvious if not the only answer. Cotton mills meant markets and profits for the planters, work and wages for the poor whites, and in time would bring related industries. Thus the clamor for cotton mills gained momentum.
Early in 1879, influential planters gathered at Vicksburg and founded the Misissippi Valley Cotton Planters' Association, later renamed the National Cotton Planters' Association, to promote multi-crop planting and cotton manufacturing in Mississippi. Frank Moorehead, the newly elected president, set the tone by urging planters to work toward the establishment of cotton mills and predicted that the profitable business of exporting cotton fabrics would reach into the billions. With great enthusiasm. the organization, through its Planters' Journal, predicted that mill towns would abound and "double the profits now possible to the farmer in the majority of localities in the Cotton Belt."
In 1882, Robert Lowry, Mississippi's newly elected governor, prodded by Moorehead, Wall, Worthington, and other prominent Mississippians, recognized the potential and implemented Mississippi's first definite industrial development program to attract cotton mills to the state. Legislation was enacted to promote the establishment of factories in the state by exempting them from taxation for the first ten years of operation. Pressing for more concessions, Moorehead complained that "ten years are too little," and argued "let it be twenty years and it will be all the better."
Later, Moorehead, together with other key members of the Planters' Association, put "pressure on the national government to open Latin American markets for the output of their cotton mills, ...[and] succeeded in 1884 in getting federal funds appropriated for an exposition to be held in New Orleans," the primary purpose of which was to acquire new markets for manufactured cotton goods.
Mississippi’s 1882 Industrial Development Program set in motion for the first time serious preparations for a movement toward industrialization. Expectations sky-rocketed as The Rural Mississippian suggested that, as a result of the new act, "the profits of planting, which used to be invested in slaves, will be invested in spindles."
Government officials, anticipating an industrial revolution in the state, established a Commission of Immigration and Agriculture, and it in turn compiled a Handbook of Facts for Immigration which was widely distributed "through-out the country and even in Europe with the hopes of attracting laborers to the state." The Commission targeted Chinese immigrants to replace the large number of Negroes who had left the state in the late 1870s to homestead in Kansas, but as we will see, the expected growth in industry and corresponding need to import labor never materialized. Thus the immigration program was left without a meaningful purpose, and except for a few Italians, it failed to attract immigrants.
The Commission's efforts, in trying to attract cotton mills to the state, were less than forthright and misleading to say the least. Its handbook claimed that Mississippi offered abundant water power, cheap fuel, and cheap labor. Cotton mills at Bay Saint Louis, Columbus, Corinth, Meridian, Natchez, Stonewall, and Wesson were cited as examples of great success stories. One contemporary booklet, citing Meridian as the Metropolis of the Southwest, argued:
"It is a well known fact that the most judicious managed mills in the New England States are frequently compelled to close their doors...owing to the conditions surrounding the business in that portion of the country. There is not a single instance where a well handled, properly capitalized business in the South has failed to make money. The manufacturer is near the raw material...has less loss of weight in transportation...and [has] cheap motive power."
While power sources may have been available, an abundant supply of water power and cheap fuel simply were not available. Mississippi had no water fall lines, no coal supply, and electrical power lines had not yet been strung.44 But it did have an abundance of cotton, surplus unskilled labor, and excellent rail and water transportation systems.
The Industrial Development Program of 1882 got off to a bad start. Within a year after its implementation, the program was faced with a major hurdle--another economic slump beginning in 1883. But in spite of the slump, the southward movement of the textile industry gained momentum in the 1880s with a prolife- ration of cotton mills in the Piedmont states to initiate the Industrial Revolution of the South. But Mississippi continued to lag behind; the concerted efforts of its most influential leaders to attract cotton mills to the state had very little impact and met with very little success. During the decade the state built four new mills and closed three, for a net gain of only one, bringing the total to nine as/compared with thirty-four in South Carolina and nine hundred and five in the United States.45 To repeat, the nine Mississippi mills at the end of the decade were at Port Gibson, Columbus, Meridian, Natchez, Bay Saint Louis, Water Valley, Shuqualak,
Stoneall, and Wesson.
Ironically, Mississippi's textile industry experienced far greater growth during the Radical Reconstruction period than it did in the 1880s--the decade during which mills were moving to the Piedmont states at a rapid pace and initiating the Industrial Revolution of the South. Mississippi constructed eight mills, utilizing 18,568 spindles, during the Reconstruction years as compared with a gain of only one new mill during the 1880s. Obviously, the state’s mill campaign in the 1880s was not only a disappointment but rather a colossal failure, especially when viewed in light of the concerted efforts of Governor Robert Lowry, Frank Moorehead, and several other prominent Mississippians.
With the phenomenal success in the Piedmont states, one must wonder what brought about the failure in Mississippi with its abundant supply of cotton, surplus unskilled labor, and the availability of excellent rail and water transportation. Let us pause here to briefly examine some of the often cited reasons.
The poor whites in Mississippi, who stood to benefit most from cotton mills, appeared to be indifferent about the failure. As noted earlier, most of them knew very little about the benefits of industry and were content with sharecrop or tenant farming, even though it often required them to rely on hunting, fishing, and gardening to supplement their food supply. Like poor whites throughout the South, their life style left an appearance of complacency and lack of industry which was to subject them to harsh criticism for years to come. New Englanders, considering themselves the epitome of excellence, were quick to lump most of the Southern white population together in the same category and brand them as backward and lazy. The indictment was widely accepted as true, and in time, as noted by Broadus Mitchell in The Industrial Revolution in the South, New Englanders were called "thrifty, hardy, active, industrious," while Southerners, often referred to as "Poor Whites, Red Necks, Lint Heads, Crackers, and Dirt Eaters, [came] down in history as lazy and improvident,... [and worse yet] degenerate."
New England mill workers in the 1880s, as cotton mills began to move southward, laughed at the thought of cotton mills moving to the South to be operated by "ignorant farmers and squirrel hunters." The laughter was premature; it would later backfire soundly. The Great Depression between 1893 and 1897 intensified the competition between New England and the South for supremacy in cotton manufacturing, and after a long and bitter struggle between the two antagonistic regions, the industry moved to the South. The squirrel hunters, together with the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, would move from the farms to the mills. Some historians, according to David Carlton in Mill and Town in South Carolina, "suggested that the rise of mills in such a backward region could have come only through the intervention of Divine Providence." Obviously, no reputable historian seriously believed the statement; its use was another example of the unfair and harsh criticism.
While skeptical of industrialization in the beginning, the poor whites of the South, including Mississippi, would finally welcomed cotton mills. They had little to loose because, as James Scherer notes in his Cotton as a World Power, they could always "return to the land if beaten, but then later nearly all of them would drift back to the mill towns again, for the sake of better housing, better food, better clothing, and, above all, better social facilities than could be found in the deadly isolation of the backwoods."
In spite of the failure of its mill campaigns, the southward movement of cotton manufacturing marked the beginning of a new era in Mississippi. It forced Mississippi along with the other cotton states, as Eugene Clyde Brooks notes in The Story of Cotton and The Development of the Cotton States, to examine its impoverished educational system and recognize the need for an improved system to produce skilled labor equal to that of the North and the rest of the world.
Most Mississippians initially opposed the public school system, first established in 1869 to provide every child with four months of free schooling each year, ostensibly because the hard times after the Civil War left little money for school expenses and taxes. But as conditions improved, the opposition began to decrease so that by 1890 Mississippi school laws had been revised to improve standards, provide uniform examinations for teachers, and increase the number of public schools. While it still lagged behind other southern states, Mississippi finally, after years of reliance on private academies available to the wealthy only, had at last accepted the public school. Although a small and cautious step, it was an essential first step if the state ever expected to break away from its dependence on a cotton-growing economy and share in the southward movement of cotton mills and other industries requiring skilled labor.
The change in attitude toward education, however, had no immediate impact in attracting industry to the state. Beginning early 1893, another severe financial panic swept the country, causing thousands of business failures and throwing several million persons out of work. Farmers suffered from heavy debts and demanded reforms; a group of unemployed men, known as "Coxey's Army," marched from Ohio to Washington on May 1, 1894, demanding a huge road improvement program to create employment; and general labor unrest mounted as cotton mill workers continued to suffer from harsh and often unsafe working conditions, including low wages and long hours. It was hardly the time for industry growth of any type at any place, and thus the Mississippi textile industry remained at a standstill until the turn of the century.
While the Mississippi mill campaigns throughout the Gilded Age, especially the seventies and eighties, fell short of their objectives, the state did take an essential first step in preparing for industrialization by improving its public school system. As the Nineteenth Century approached its end, the increased emphasis on education coupled with the enactment of more favorable tax exempt laws, placed the state in a better position to attract industry. But as the end of the 1890s approached a small lumber industry, then developing in the piney woods region of southern Mississippi, was the only immediate challenge to the cotton-growing economy. This was too little, and thus Mississippi again renewed its interest in cotton mill building.
Mississippi’s new campaign that began in 1898 was to be far more successful than the campaign failures of the seventies and eighties. It should be noted that, here too, the campaign followed an economic depression--the Great Depression of 1893-97. But this time, Mississippians were obviously better prepared emotionally, psychologically, and educationally to compete for new mill construction. They were beginning to shed the “lazy and improvident” image and become serious about supplementing their ailing cotton growing economy with the cotton mill industry; finally, a substantial improvement in the construction of cotton mills would be the result.
All rights reserved. This information may be used by
libraries, genealogical societies, and other genealogy researchers.
Commercial use of this information is strictly prohibited without prior
permission of the owner.
If copied, this copyright notice must appear with the information.