Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cotton Mill Ends the Doldrums

Over the past three weeks I've taken a look at the New South philosophy that our town fathers adhered to as they developed Douglasville. I first focused on the railroad here and here, and last week I provided a few details about Joseph S. James, Douglasville's first mayor, and the number one cheerleader for New South ideals, here.

The Georgia General Assembly approved Douglasville as our county seat about the same time New South ideals were gaining momentum across the South, so business and political leaders had a unique opportunity to set up each fact of the town to fit the New South image.

The main commercial district was positioned to run parallel along the railroad track so that it could be seen by travelers who might be looking to move to a vibrant city. The railroad was also in close proximity for moving and receiving freight.

Within a few years buildings went from being wooden structures to permanent brick buildings with all types of architectural elements that were innovative and pleasing to the eye not to mention promoting productivity and wealth. Stephanie Ayleworth, Douglasville's Main Street Manager has conducted exhaustive research into the city's New South beginnings and advises Douglasville had sixty-two buildings in 1895 and by 1911 that number had jumped to eighty-four.

So, the town fathers had a growing downtown commercial district and a railroad. The next ingredient they needed was a way to revive the devastated economy following the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is only natural they looked to the cotton fields because they knew cotton was king.

Cotton is king!!!

Isn't that what every student learns about the South as they advance through each level of American History?

Don't worry. I'm certainly not going to lead you down a path pretending some other commodity was on the throne. I'm a history teacher for goodness sake! Prior to the Civil War cotton was the major ingredient to the southern economy.

Cotton was king, but what isn't taught generally is cotton continued to be king and drove the economy for some time. Usually, most of the content that is taught after the Civil War leaves cotton behind overshadowing it with events involving Reconstruction, and moving on to into the Gilded Age. The importance of cotton is rarely mentioned in postbellum studies unless you are sitting in an eighth grade Georgia history classroom with a very content focused educator or you are in an upper level college course.

Just because the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated the slave that doesn't mean the cotton fields went fallow. In fact, one of the tenants of the New South philosophy had everything to do with cotton and reviving the southern economy.

It wasn't just about getting cotton production up. The New South philosophy was all about getting the cotton fields to the cotton mills.

Douglasville's leaders knew they had to have a cotton mill and set about raising the money. In fact, Douglasville wasn't alone in their quest for a cotton mill. Every little town across Georgia and across the South were vying to build their own mill mainly through the investments of Northern manufacturers, but it was also key for citizens of the town to invest in building a mill.

In her history of Douglas County, Fannie Mae Davis writes the town leaders called a meeting to appeal to local citizens to get Douglasville out of what they identified as "the doldrums". They discussed how to best develop the town, and committees were formed to pursue a bank, a hotel, and a cotton mill. Mrs. Davis quotes an article in The Atlanta Constitution describing how several people gave short talks. Joseph S. James concluded with an appeal to the people to open their hearts and purses in giving. One of the items everyone agreed upon at the meeting was a town slogan proclaiming, "People make the town!"

Have you ever heard the saying, "Location, location, location"? If a postbellum town was seeking to build a cotton mill the location was very important. The mill had to be close to the railroad, and it had to be near cotton warehouses.

Back in the early days of Douglasville, Church Street was known as Factory Street per Fannie Mae Davis's county history as well as early insurance maps. By the very name the town fathers hoped Factory Street would indicate to investors that the town recognized industry was important, and it was welcome.

The strategy worked because Douglasville's first cotton mill was Eden Park Mill, and it was located along Factory Street. An article published in The Atlanta Constitution indicates the capital needed to build the factory was $50,000. The majority of the stock was held by a northern investor named Simon Baer and Joseph S. James, Douglasville's first mayor and prime New South booster. The paper also advised, "about 4,000 spindles were operated and more than 100 employees secured work at the mill."

Unfortunately, the Eden Park Mill was consumed by fire around midnight on April 7, 1895, and it was a total loss.The design of the mill turned out to be the culprit.The furnace had been placed directly beneath the spinning rooms and a spark from an engine caused the fire.

The pride of Douglasville was gone.

So, James and his Yankee partner, Baer set about to build another mill. This time they chose a location one-half mile east of the central business district on a parcel of land then totaling fifty acres. This location was actually better since it was parallel to the railroad just like the central business district.

You've seen it.

You've driven past it.

It's still there.

It's the white brick abandoned and dilapidated building along U.S. 78/Bankhead Highway between Courtland and Hagin Streets.

Within two years following the New Eden fire, The New South, a paper published in Douglasville announced a contract for the construction of the Georgia Western Cotton Mill. Later the mill would be known as the New Century Cotton Mill and then the Lois Cotton Mill, named for one of Joseph S. James' daughters. The anticipated completion date for the building was January 1, 1898.

The Cawhern Building Company out of Atlanta would oversee the construction using local labor and bricks that were created right here in Douglas County. The total cost for the building and equipment would be approximately $430,000 and James and Baer anticipated 450 employees.

It would be a major force in the economy of Douglasville and Douglas County as area farmers would have a local source to purchase their cotton and to feed the 20,000 spindles the mill would spin.

The Atlanta Constitution finally announced on November 15,1908 the Douglasville mill had begun operating the day before. It had been ten years since the construction had been announced.

There were several reasons for this. First, James and Baer had not received an insurance settlement for the Eden Park fire. Second, business that supplied the Eden Park machinery had filed a law suit in 1897 indicating they had not been paid. James held off the creditors for awhile by claiming the shipment of equipment had never arrived.

Then to make matters even more complicated Simon Baer severed his business relationship with James. It wasn't until 1907 that James was able to secure a primary investor for the second mill by joining ranks with a South Carolina mill owner by the name of M.E. Geer per an article in The Atlanta Constitution dated October, 1907.

As far as cotton mills built during the New South time period go the mill in Douglasville was and still is very unique. It is only one of five mills built in the South using Charles Praray's innovative design for mills patented under the name "Praray Improved Construction for Mills" and is only one of two where the tale-tell zigzag walls are still standing.

Ayleworth's research indicates according to the patent, "Praray's striking design is best identified by the zigzag appearance of the exterior walls and windows. The mill is an excellent example of Northern architecture adapting to the New South economy. The unique architecture of the mill was a cost saving device.

"The mill was built on two separate foundations. The inner foundation housed the equipment, while the outer foundation and walls were for the vast window casings. This construction technique made the walls cheaper to construct and, in case of fire, they could be more easily removed and less costly to replace. The walls were entirely free from strain. the outer walls allowed for more windows, thus allowing more light and ventilation and facilitating longer hours of operation."

Over the years the windows were removed and bricked over as air conditioning and electric lighting was improved.

By the early 20th century, Douglasville had evolved into a modern town prophesied by New South visionaries such as Henry Grady per Fannie Mae Davis mainly due to the New Century Cotton Mill, and when it opened the mill became the greatest economic success in the history of Douglasville.

Sadly, the 104 year old structure stands abandoned, yet it remains a symbol of Douglasville's pioneering father's vision made manifest per Ayleworth, and I would have to agree with her.

Unfortunately, its unique design gives the building a deceptively modern appearance. This caused the mill to be overlooked for National Register status - a fact I will address in a future column.

1 comment:

  1. CORRECTION: In 1907, Joseph S. James secured a primary investor for the mill by the name of Major Ernest Geer or M.E. Geer....not "Greer" as I indicated in the article.

    I have been contacted by two members of his family and hope to have more information regarding Major Geer soon.


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