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Some Southern Industrialists

ISSUE:  Winter 1929

Falling Creek where it enters the James River seven miles below Richmond, Virginia, is “a place of old emprise.” Here the London Company, in 1620, promoted iron works. It would seem from the number of men engaged in the erection and the length of time they were about it that a blast furnace, a finery and a chafery were designed. John Berkeley and his men “made Proof of good Iron Oar, and brought the whole Work so near Perfection, that they, writ Word to the Company in London, that they did not doubt but to finish the Work, and have plentiful Provision of Iron for them by the next Easter.” However, the massacre of March 1622 put an end to the project; the Indians “fell so hard upon this . . . Place, that no Soul was saved, but a Boy and a Girl, who, with great Difficulty, hid themselves.”

At intervals of generations desultory attempts were made at revival of the works, but Falling Creek remained a wilderness. The very site of the original enterprise was covered by washings from the adjacent bank. The ore bogs were forgotten, and a nearby supply of lead was lost sight of, rediscovered and lost again. The lands of the vicinity were cropped out with three hundred years of a wasteful agriculture. The year 1928 found the spot as desolate and silent as when the English colonists first ventured there.

Now, suddenly, all is changed. A ten-million-dollar plant is being erected there for the manufacture of rayon by the viscose process. The annual output will be more than three million pounds, and upwards of two thousand workers will be employed. This is just another evidence of the South’s industrial awakening from a long sleep.

Our Industrial Revolution in the South has been as precipitate and spectacular as that in England earlier. As in the old country, we have been slow to recognize the change, slower in analyzing its consequences in the present, and tardiest of all in conjecturing what will fall out in the future. We are still in the fever heat of it, and possess no perspective. There is perhaps no single social alteration so potent in its concomitants as the widespread introduction of manufactures in a hitherto agricultural economy, unless it be possibly the abolition of a system of slavery. We are now beginning to be interested in the figures who instituted this new adventure. We scarcely know their names, let alone their thoughts, their acts, their certain significance in the pell-mell of progress.

Industrial advance in the South came first, prominently, in the cotton manufacture. The lives of the vast majority of the important enterprisers remain unwritten. A few of them left record of their thoughts in books and pamphlets, and more in speeches and reports that found their way into newspapers of the day. But in the main it is necessary to inquire in the old localities of those who knew them—their former operatives, superintendents, shareholders and business competitors. Such a search provokes a rich response of incident and anecdote, out of which a student acquainted with the march of the development may form a picture, with many allowances for error, of the place each man occupied in the evolution. It is difficult to choose types, for all were apt to overlap with the rest, and in the sketches of significant figures that follow I am aware of over-simplification.

The most interesting apostle of industrialism in the South before the Civil War was William Gregg of South Carolina. He was the one swallow that did not make a summer. He represents the link with the old legitimate period of Southern industry, if I may use that term. His advocacy owed much to the fact that when an orphan of twelve years or so he was introduced to the cotton manufacture by his uncle, Jacob Gregg, who built a small factory in Georgia. This was the period of stimulation of American manufactures incident to the War of 1812. William probably had a good start on his apprenticeship in the mill when the enterprise, with many others, was ruined by the flood of British goods which entered this country after the peace. But the boy’s education in the manual arts did not cease, for, his uncle having been a watchmaker and jeweler, he was put to learning these handicrafts.

When he accumulated a fortune and temporarily retired from business in the ‘thirties, he luckily ran across the little Vaucluse cotton factory in the upper part of South Carolina. This mill had been built by George McDuffie and others who favored nullification and wanted to show that the South could supply its own manufactures. It was in a declining way. Gregg was persuaded that if the founders had put as much energy into industrial management as they put into preaching political revolt, the mill would have succeeded. Furthermore—and this was the sovereign stroke of his thought—if the South cultivated industry and so approximated its economic pursuits to those of the North, political differences, particularly on the score of the protective tariff, would disappear. Thus to his interest in manufactures, born in an older period of national patriotism, was added a philosophy of industry very pertinent to a later day of economic degeneration in the South.

Gregg put the Vaucluse mill on its feet, but did not buy it. This might have been the limit of his services had he not, in the late ‘thirties, moved to Charleston. Here he found two main elements in the public life: planters or men dependent upon the planting interest seething with political animosity against the North, and an economically more active group of commercial men who invested their surplus funds at low interest in bank stock or public securities. This was a combination ready to his hand. He was stirred to new enterprise. Having visited the textile districts of the North, he published a series of articles in the Charleston Courier in 1844-5, in which he read sermons to both the elements in his audience. To the planter dissenters he declared that their political idols could never answer the prayer for economic plentitude—that exclusive devotion to agriculture must be the ruin of any people. To the rich merchants he argued that their future lay not in forwarding impracticable projects of linking their port with the Ohio valley by railroads built with state subsidies, but rather in developing South Carolina by investment of their relatively idle funds in industrial enterprise. Their promised land lay not beyond the Appalachians, but at home. He wanted farms to be balanced by factories, and they would be if Charleston traders, instead of scowling at their desolate back country while they cast bright glances upon Cincinnati, would join with him to initiate cotton manufacturing.

Be it said to Charleston’s credit, the city listened to Gregg with a degree of enthusiasm, and within a short time a third of a million dollars was subscribed for a large cotton factory in the up-country. All of Gregg’s bold effort was needed to persuade the legislature to grant a charter, but once the Graniteville factory was under way, in 1848, it promptly began to justify his predictions. Others followed his lead here and there throughout the South, though their mills met with indifferent success in operation. Graniteville continued to be an oasis.

About the mill Gregg built a tasteful village in which the Poor Whites of the district, who were the special object of his solicitude, found asylum. Here instead of the old illiteracy on the land they found a day school for all children up to twelve, upon which attendance was compulsory, and night classes for adults. The workers were paid cash wages, low and for long hours it is true, but marking a grateful release from the vassalage of the credit system in the country. He knew that he was dealing with people in their economic infancy, and he was not afraid to play the despot. Graniteville was a temperance town. He contrived not to limit their self-respect, but to increase it.

Gregg had antecedents in the South in village welfare work and doubtless in his philosophy of manufactures as well, but his thought was so clear, his voice so resonant, his achievement so brilliant that others must shine in his reflection. Graniteville prospered in panic and depression and weathered the war, to be completely refitted before Gregg’s death in 1867 for a new course of accomplishment. But for the section as a whole, the war was the end of an epoch in manufactures in the South. Gregg had essayed the impossible, and had succeeded for himself and his immediate locality only. Reliance upon the black hand on the hoe had been victorious over espousal of the white hand transferred to the spindle. The onrush toward civil war was not to be gainsaid. Graniteville and its concomitants were the swan song of the first South of industry mixed with agriculture.

The war left time and money for only the immediates. Every man was for himself. What collective effort there was took form in bitter insurgency against the Reconstruction. Economic convalescence required fifteen years before, about 1880, there was an outburst of industrial upbuilding. But in the interval of collapse two men demand notice. They were both of South Carolina, H. P. Hammett and F. W. Dawson.

Hammett was much like Gregg, whom he knew and by whom he must have been influenced. In his personal history, his arguments for manufactures, the management of his mill and in his courage he more nearly resembled the master of Graniteville than any other Southern industrial enterpriser known to me. He was born in Greenville county in 1822. He derived from Samuel Slater, “the father of American manufactures,” for he learned the business from William Bates, who had worked in the celebrated little Pawtucket factory. In 1819 Bates, an orphan boy, walked from Rhode Island to seek his fortune in the South. After working in several tiny mills in North and South Carolina, he bought a water power site on Rocky Creek near Greenville and built a wooden mill of hardly more than 1000 spindles, the yarn being bartered in “bunches,” by wagon, all the way over into Tennessee.

Hammett picked up what education he could in a country school and began teaching, clerking in a store at Hamburg in vacations. He drifted to the school at Batesville, married the eldest daughter of William Bates, and was taken into partnership in the mill, having charge of the office work. He remained at Batesville fifteen years, until the mill was sold in 1862. He purchased Garrison Shoals on the Saluda River, but did not utilize the site for a decade, for he entered the army, being detailed for duty in the Confederate tax office. In 1866 he became president of the run-down Greenville and Columbia Railroad, which he much improved.

Resigning from the railroad in 1870, he determined to build a great cotton mill. There was a little grist mill at the Shoals, with just one log to throw the water to the Greenville side of the stream. The spot was desolate. It required imagination and hardihood to foresee a great industry, there, and to conjure the means of its construction out of the beaten South. In April of 1873 the Piedmont Company was organized, with $75,000 capital subscribed from Greenville and Charleston. The following February a charter was obtained and the capital fixed at $200,000, some being taken by a Northern machinery maker. Scarcely had construction commenced when the panic of 1873 crushed the enterprise. Subscribers refused to pay their instalments, or sold out at what they could get for their stock. But Hammett was indomitable. In 1875 building was resumed, the workers being paid not in money but in grocery orders for which Hammett pledged his personal credit. In March of the following year the machinery was started—5000 spindles and 112 looms.

A principal idea of Hammett in building the mill was to make it of service to the Poor Whites of the region. They poured in as soon as the village was up. Two large families, the Grovers and Thackers from the neighborhood of the old Saluda factory, were almost sufficient in themselves for running the looms. Hammett will be longest remembered for his wise paternalism at Piedmont. His village became the pattern from which scores of others copied. He insisted on making the community decent and orderly. Mountain wagons would come into the town peddling corn whiskey at five cents for a tin cup full. These Hammett drove out; drunkenness was cause for dismissal from employment. His physical stature assisted his discipline. He was so large that he had a special buggy constructed for his use. He was dignified and generally wore a silk hat and Prince Albert coat. He spoke little and always with deliberation. Though his grandchildren, brought to see him on Sunday afternoons, remember him as stern, his workers of every station came to him freely. When in his last illness he talked to one of his superintendents about the Piedmont villagers he wept like a child, and refused to be led away from the subject.

The first mill was more than doubled in capacity and two others were built before his death, making Piedmont, with almost 50,000 spindles and 1300 looms, one of the great cotton mills of the world, and particularly well known in the China trade for its three-yard sheetings. Piedmont was the nursery of the Industrial Revolution in the South. In a quarter of a century it sent out forty superintendents to manage half a million spindles.

The Industrial Revolution in the South, as in England, passed through several stages. It was born without attracting much notice, was discountenanced, grew despite disapproval, was recognized and earnestly espoused, was glorified, and lastly was modified. F. W. Dawson is a good representative of the period of recognition and advocacy. He had an advantage over some others mentioned in this paper in that, being a foreigner, he possessed a detachment from the scene about him. Dawson was born and educated in London, wrote for the stage, and read history. With the fall of Sumter his ardent, romantic nature led him to enlist on the Confederate cruiser Nashville at Southampton in November, 1861. In June of the next year, desiring more active service in the Southern cause, he transferred, as a private, to Purcell’s Battery, Hill’s Division, Army of Northern Virginia. Promoted for valiant action at Mechanicsville, May of 1864 found him a captain and ordnance officer of Fitzhugh Lee’s Division. He was three times wounded, and imprisoned at Fort Delaware.

After the surrender, he had only a three-cent postage stamp in his uniform. He weathered a succession of failures and drifted into newspapering in Richmond, shifting in 1866 to the Charleston Mercury. In 1873 he was editor and part owner of the combined News and Courier. He was a large, athletic, handsome man, imperious and sudden, tenderhearted and generous, and above all devoted to the social recovery of the South. He applied the lesson of England’s progress to the stricken Southern States—he preached industrialism, crop diversification, immigration of agricultural workers from Europe and artisans from the North. When a new factory in the South came to his notice he dramatized it for the public. More than anyone else he was the apostle who cried up the “cotton mill campaign” which resulted in a boom for spinning the staple at home. He pictured the true economic reconstruction, vivid and pulsing. Henry W. Grady worked much to the same purpose, but he splashed color on his canvas, Turnerlike; Dawson on the other hand etched his picture in distinct, incisive lines, and he won not passing applause, but a loyal, growing, instructed following.

Dawson led the fight against duelling in South Carolina, and was honored for it by the Pope. A wretched fate overtook him, more than ordinarily unforgivable because he was so fair and courageous. He was shot down in cold blood for resenting an affront to a Swiss girl who was governess to his children.

A young Southerner went North in the early, ‘eighties to buy machinery for another man’s cotton mill. “Where are you from?” he was asked. “Pinnook,” he answered. “Pinnook? What the devil kind of a name is that for a place?” If George A. Gray’s pronunciation had been more exact, he would have made it clear that his home town in North Carolina was called Pinhook, but that probably would not have helped any. His father, a Mecklenburg County farmer, died suddenly, leaving a wife and seven children. George, the youngest, worked in the Pinhook cotton factory of Caleb Lineberger near what is now Gastonia, at the age of ten earning ten cents a day. Soon after he started to work, his arm was broken in three places in a pulley. Narrowly escaping an amputation, he was eight months in getting well. The proprietor of the factory persuaded him to go to the country school during convalescence, and this was his only formal education.

The Pinhook factory is reduced now to ruined foundations overgrown with vines; the little wooden dam on the south fork of the Catawba is long since washed away; the village of wooden shanties has been dismantled. And yet in the great trees and the lawn grass that has successfully contended against the weeds all these years, there is about the spot the indubitable memory of long habitation that clings to the most neglected of such places. Some day it will be remembered only because George Gray came from there. He got to be superintendent of the factory, and used to cut ice from the old breast wheel to make a day’s run in the mill. He loved machinery, and learned every minutest trifle in its skilful operation. He was engaged to equip and start other, modern, mills. He saved his money. When he was nineteen he had never received more than seventy-five cents a day, yet he had accumulated nine hundred dollars.

In 1888 he started his own mill at the junction of two railroads in Gaston County. The place had only a dozen families, but he predicted a great future for it in cotton manufacturing. Others have contributed importantly to the result which he foretold, but he was the father of the development. Now Gaston County must be mentioned in the same breath with the Manchester and New Bedford districts. Its hundred mills with more than a million producing spindles turn out annually goods worth over $50,000,000.

Gray was a dynamo of nervous energy. Touch him, and sparks came off. He lived his life on tiptoes. An objective once in his mind, he drove at it incessantly. He went to his mills at 5:30 on summer mornings, and at 6 o’clock in winter, and was the last man to leave. He had a passion for economical contrivance. Condemning the old awkward poor work at little Pinhook, he insisted on installing the latest improvements in every plant under his care. He is said to have been the first man to run an electrically driven mill in the South. At their very outset he welcomed the development of hydro-electric stations. At his death he was president of sixteen mills, and he visited every one every day. His ear was so attuned that if something was amiss in a remote corner of a great room resounding with machinery, he would detect it. His foremost contribution to the Industrial Revolution in the South was that of technical proficiency.

Gray regimented his life—his rising and retiring were on the dot, he drank water at certain times during the day, if he said “wait two minutes” he meant exactly that. But his eye twinkled, and people liked to call him by his first name. He insisted upon having associates he could rely upon. He used to say of his negro stable man, befriended after his hand had been cut off in a saw mill, that he would be willing to convert all he had into cash and put the money with Joe with instructions to keep it, and he believed not a penny would be missing after twenty years. That was no greater tribute to Joe than to his employer.

Thus far I have spoken of Gregg, who first woke the public mind to industry; Hammett, who ventured upon factory, building in the darkest days of Reconstruction; Dawson, the publicist who popularized the experiment in economic diversification; and Gray, the expert technician who helped make every former hope reality. These borrowed in experience and spirit from the Old South or from the industrial background of England. The last figure in my gallery, D. A. Tompkins, belongs distinctly to the post-war South. While his career rounded up the advocacies of his predecessors, he represents the emergence in Southern industry of a new type, the engineer.

Ten years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, Tompkins was familiar with the routine of a large South Carolina cotton plantation, and afterwards came to understand the limitations of this agricultural system. After two years in the State university he decided that the South of his day would need fewer men of literary culture than of mechanical proficiency, so he transferred to a technical school in the North. A long apprenticeship in the iron industry followed, with erection of plants in Germany. He did not forget his belief in the possibilities of the South, and in 1882 established himself in Charlotte, North Carolina, in a tiny shop as “engineer, machinist, and contractor.” He was among the first trained men in Southern industry—trained not only in mechanical skill, but in the faculty of social analysis. He began with small repair jobs—threading pipes for steam laundries, mending cotton gins. He got the agency for an engine, and proved himself an able salesman. His business grew. He was a promoter of parts. He would single out an alert man in a nearby town, get to know him, and propose that the community needed a cotton mill to increase the value of its raw material. A meeting of citizens would be convinced by him not only of the value of his project, but of its practicability through instalment payments on locally subscribed shares. He would design and erect the factory and persuade machinery makers to take payment in stock.

He was probably directly responsible for the building of more cotton mills than any other one man. He organized and built within a few months a chain of efficient cotton seed oil mills. As gifted as any who had gone before him in bold conception, he was better equipped than his predecessors in capacity for thorough execution of his plans on a broad scale. He was in no sense local. His patriotism was that of an American. He insisted that the South, through industry, must take its place in the life of the nation. As an industrialist he shook off old sectional prejudices, and ardently espoused the protective tariff. He thought in economic terms. He foresaw and forwarded a self-contained textile industry in the South, with varied products, means for their finishing, and the manufacture as well as the repair of mill machinery.

Tompkins’ career may be taken as closing the long period of argument for manufactures and the setting up of a physical plant to carry plans into execution. Since have come two other stages in the evolution—the glorification of the industry, in which profit has been set forth in the guise of patriotism, and the answer to this in attempts to curb capitalism in protection of labor and preserve social rights. The figures in these later periods have only defined an inevitable quarrel. The members of the older company, instead of apportioning benefits, created out of hand the means for Southern progress.


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