Even most of us who grew up around and in
sight of the textile mills took them for granted. The huge brick
buildings, 4, 5 or 6 stories high, just seemed like part of the natural
landscape that had always been there. The mills and what went on in
them were anything but natural and simple. In reality, the workings of
a textile mill, even back to the early 1900’s, was an extremely
complicated mechanical system. Even today, there are few, if any
factories or industries that are as mechanically complicated as a
textile mill was in the 1900’s. If we look at how difficult it was to
start, build and operate a textile mill we can get a better
understanding and appreciation of them. Unfortunately, this new found
appreciation comes almost too late because most of the industry and the
big mills are gone forever.
The rural locations where most of the southern mills were built in the
late 1800’s were mostly woods or at best, farmland. The sites, back
then, were chosen to be next to a river or large creek to provide a
source of water power to drive the mill’s machinery. Once the site was
picked, the area for the mill and its foundations had to be excavated
and leveled. The area was usually several acres in size.
The steam shovel had been invented back then but was not widely
available. Probably, the great majority of the earth grading and
foundation excavation was done by men using picks and shovels and
horses and mules pulling drag pans. A drag pan was a small dirt scoop
that was pulled behind a horse or mule like a plow. It did not hold
much dirt. Thousands upon thousands of drag pan trips would have to be
made in grading the site for a typical mill.
Men and horses using drag pans. Location unknown.
Once the site had been graded, the construction of the mill could be
started. However, the design and planning for the mill had started long
before this. The mill was built as an
integrated system for the sole
purpose of making cloth on a large scale. Everything about the
of the mill was devoted to that fact. The arrangement of the floors,
the purchase and location of all the machinery, getting power from the
water - all had to be considered and precisely determined. Thousands of
details had to be decided. The company, Lockwood and Greene, which
still exists, designed some of the early buildings at Pacolet Mills.
Each mill that was built is a testimony and tribute to all those
unknown and unheralded men of every occupation that had a part of
making an idea become a reality. There were carpenters, brick masons,
stone masons, engineers, mill wrights and many, many others.
Getting the raw materials for building the mill was a huge and
expensive hurdle. First, someone had to determine just how much and
what size material would be required. Secondly, a source had to be
found for the material to buy it or else to make it onsite. Third,
after a source had been found, a method of transporting the material to
the mill site had to be found.
When the first mills were built at both Pacolet and Glendale, there
were no railroad connections to the mill site. All of the material had
to be brought in by horse and wagons over rough dirt roads. Pacolet
Mills No. 1 was built in 1883 and Bivingsville,
It is hard to visualize just how much of the two basic building
materials, lumber and bricks, were needed for one of the early large
mills. Tremendous quantities of timber were used for the mill frame and
floors. Many of the timber beams had to be huge to support the loads
they carried. The heavy textile machinery vibrated as it ran , often
clock. If the mill was not built strong enough, it could be literally
shaken apart. Probably ,much of the timber needed was from trees felled
and sawn close to the vicinity of the mills. Bricks in quantities of
hundreds of thousands or even millions were needed. At Pacolet, it
appears that the bricks were built at a location close to the village.
A newspaper advertisement exists where Dr. Bivings was soliciting brick
makers and brick masons in 1837 when he was building the first mill at
Bivingsville or what is now known as Glendale. This same ad also
solicits workers to cut and shape the timber beams used in the mill. The
Newspaper of 1837. One advertisement from April, 1837 is
solicting bricks and brick masons and other workers for constructing
the mill. The second ad from July, 1837 is announcing that the mill is
in operation and now producing yarn. Both ads can be read in detail at 1837 Newspaper Advertisements.
Construction of the mill was hard physical labor. Much of the effort
consisted of moving and lifting the tons of building material. The
foundations had to be constructed down to the bed rock. A weak
foundation could result in the mill collapsing. Some of the very early
mills were made of wood timbers and flooring placed on stone
foundations. Others had exterior walls made of many layers of brick but
used timber for the interior framing and floors.
In both cases, considerable effort was used in hoisting the materials
to the upper floors. Probably, most of the lifting was done by the use
of ropes and pulleys powered by men or horses. Mill No. 2 at Pacolet
was built in 1888 and was four stories or about 80 feet high. Even with
modern cranes and elevators, moving material to this height would be
difficult. It is amazing that the builders did this just with men and
Another aspect of building with bricks has not been mentioned. There
would be tons of mortar to be mixed, carried and used to bond the
thousands of brick together. It is possible that the mortar was made
right on the site using lime kilns. These kilns heated limestone rocks
into lime that was used in the mortar. However, it is more likely that
at Pacolet and even older Bivingsville, commercial mortar was
used that had
been obtained from Limestone Springs near Gaffney in what is now
Cherokee County. A superior grade of mortar was made commercially there
and shipped all over the South.
The brick masons building the high, multi-story mills had to be not
only skilled in their trade but also brave. Some of their work involved
standing on rudimentary scaffolding 80 or 100 feet above the ground -
or the Pacolet River.
The dam at Pacolet No. 3,
"the old mill". It was built in 1891 and is still used to generate
electric power today.
So far we have discussed building the mill. However, the all important
dam was being built at the same time or even before the mill building.
Building the dam was truly a dangerous and critical job. Without a dam
there would be no waterpower to run the mill’s machinery.
In building the dam, the river had to be first partially diverted to
one side of the channel by blocking the flow. This was probably done
with wagon loads of rocks. Once this was done, half of the dam could be
built in the “dry” part of the river bed. After half the dam was
complete, the process was repeated and the rest of the dam was built.
The first dam was built for Pacolet Mill No. 1 in 1883 and was about
100 yards long. This dam survived the great flood
of 1903 and still
Men building a dam -
location is unknown.
Water flowing over the
upper dam at Pacolet Mills.
Scout, Louise Paige,
with Pacolet Mills No. 5, " the new mill", and the upper dam in the
In the first mills, the purpose of the dams was to increase
of the water and to channel a flow to the mill’s waterwheel. The
waterwheel was the heart of the mill. There were four big waterwheels
for Pacolet Mills No. 1 and 2. The water made the big wheel rotate. The
wheel was attached to a shaft that went inside the mill. The rotating
shaft was attached to a complex system of pulleys, smaller line shafts
and flat leather belts. These parts transmitted the power from the
waterwheel to every floor in the mill. Individual machines such as
looms were connected to the belt and pulley system.
The dam at Glendale with
the old iron bridge in the background.
A waterwheel at a mill. Not at
Pacolet or Glendale.
A mill, around 1900, was a complex, noisy scene of rotating pulleys,
line shafts and flat belts. For the most part, these rotating parts
were not covered. A belt could break, come off a pulley and cause
serious injury or death to a worker.
The textile machinery used in the mills around 1900 was probably the
most elaborate and complex machines that existed anywhere at the time.
They were a mass of gears, pulleys, levers, cams and belts. All of this
was usually contained within a very heavy cast iron frame. Some of
these machines weighed several tons. Textile machinery was always in
the forefront of technology. Our modern computers and coded data
instructions can be traced back to the Jacquard Loom invented in 1801.
This machine used cards with punched holes to control the loom to weave
cloth with complex patterns.
Mill machines not only had to have skilled operators they also have
skilled maintenance and repair workers to keep them performing
properly. Keeping the machinery up and running was a full time job for
One of the unsung wonders of the Upcountry textile industry was the
recruiting and training of thousands of rural workers to operate and
maintain the truly complex machinery of a textile mill.
Overtime, waterwheels were replaced with steam engines and eventually
electric motors. However, for a long time, the system of pulleys, belts
and line shafts were still used with the new power sources. They were
in use generally until around the 1940’s when new machinery was
installed in the mills that had their own individual electric
The construction of the mill and dam was a very important part of the
project but it was not all. A place had to be provided for the workers
to live. In the era before cars, it meant that the workers had to live
close to the mill. To allow this, the owners had to build an entire
small town or village around the mill. This involved building houses
for several hundred workers, roads, a
school, a church, a post office, a store
and other facilities. In a period
of two years or so, an open
area of farmland was turned into a new town and manufacturing operation
that gave several hundred badly needed jobs.
Some of the houses and
other facilities at Pacolet Mills.
Building a textile mill like those at Pacolet and Glendale in the
1800’s was a supreme expression of faith and confidence on the part of
the owners and founders. For the most part, this meant starting a new
operation where it was unknown and not widely familiar. The following
questions loomed over the heads of the first builders. -
How will you finance the building of the mill?
Where would you find the people to design and build your mill?
Where could you find a cheap reliable supply of cotton in the quantity
In a rural area populated by farmers, where will you find the hundreds
of workers that will be needed to operate the complex, dangerous
Where will your workers live? Lack of transportation means that they
will have to live close to the mill.
Where will you find a reliable market for the cloth you make?
How will you transport the raw cotton and finished textiles to and from
the mill site that only has rough dirt roads?
These were just some of the troubling questions that had to be answered
for every one of the numerous textile mills that sprang up in the
Carolina Piedmont in the late 1800’s In spite of all these
uncertainties, the early mill builders, owners and workers pressed on,
survived and created the once booming textile industry of the Piedmont.