Article Nine, Part 1:
Rise of the Gastonia Textile Industry
When the new century dawned over Gastonia, expectations of a golden future shone brighter than it ever had. Prosperity was booming on farms and in factories. Its proud citizens – 4,610 in number, and again that number in the greater Gastonia area – were congratulating themselves on the success of its five thriving cotton mills with their recently expanded capacity of 40,325 whirling spindles, 644 clacking looms and nearly a thousand contented full-time operatives. Compared to great manufacturing centers it was still not much to boast about, but it was the beginning of a shining New South dream.
Two separate but interrelated events in early 1900 were to produce transforming changes that would define Gastonia and Gaston County in the twentieth century. The first was the introduction and adaptation of the combed yarn process for making the finest quality of cotton yarns. It set in motion a trend that would quickly and completely dominate the county economically for the next 100 years and propel it into a position of leadership. The second was a mill so large and complex that national markets could no longer dismiss Southern manufacturing as secondary to that of New England. Unparalleled growth soon followed these trends as more textile mills were built and operated here than in any other place in America.
It was George Washington Ragan who had the idea for the South's first combed yarn mill. In building Arlington Cotton Mills (1) in Gastonia in 1900, he fulfilled a dream that had begun years earlier when he was a struggling merchant in McAdenville and one which he began successfully implementing on a smaller degree at Trenton Cotton Mills in 1893. Up until this time, cotton mills in the South manufactured only carded yarn of a rather coarse quality that went into the making of heavy woven fabrics, work clothes, bagging, twine and other less refined goods. The highest quality yarns and woven fabrics were all made in New England or Great Britain, where their mills had many years of experience in the manufacture of premium cotton and woolen goods. The American consumer, particularly in the large, affluent Eastern cities, was demanding fancy dress goods by 1900. Ragan saw this trend and devoted his efforts to changing the South’s emerging manufacturing direction, just as he had devoted them to attracting the industry to the region a decade earlier.
Combed yarn goes through processes that other cotton yarns do not and requires the use of the finest long staple Sea Island, Egyptian or Delta Peeler cotton. The relatively simple process combs out waste, or short fibers, that the carding process is not capable of removing, leaving the longer fibers parallel and giving the resulting yarn a silky, lustrous appearance and a smooth feel, as well as high tensile strength. It required more detailed work and was more costly to manufacture, but the finished yarn sold at a substantial premium and in a more stable market than did carded yarn at that time, making it well worth the extra effort.
The production of combed yarn at Arlington Cotton Mills in 1900 was the first experiment with combed yarn ever made in the South. It was a delicate process in those days requiring constant operator attention, and only a few pioneering mills in the northeastern United States and England had successfully mastered it. Once the technique was perfected and more reliable equipment available, it gave impetus and direction to the emerging Gaston County textile industry. As the quality of Southern-made yarns improved, it matched and then surpassed the quality of yarns made at the older, more established mills in the North and was directly responsible for the rapid movement of the cotton industry to the South.
Soon, other manufacturers in Lincolnton and Charlotte experimented with the process. In early 1906, George Gray equipped the Gray Manufacturing Co. in Gastonia with the next generation of “trouble-free” combing machinery, and twenty months later Laban Groves put the process into practical operation at Flint Manufacturing Co., also in Gastonia. This was the beginning of the renowned Southern combed yarn industry. As more mills moved south, improved high-speed cotton spinning revolutionized the industry.
Arlington Cotton Mills was chartered under the laws of North Carolina on January 29, 1900 by G. W. Ragan (2), the moving spirit in the trailblazing enterprise, L. L. Jenkins, head of the First National Bank, Dr. C. E. Adams, a physician, J. D. Moore, a textile manufacturer, and A. A. McLean, a businessman, all of Gastonia. The original officers were: Mr. Ragan, president and treasurer, Mr. Jenkins, vice president, and L. L. Hardin, a recent college graduate, secretary and office manager. Eugene Cross of West Point, Mississippi, who had an unusual aptitude for mechanical engineering, was engaged as the first superintendent. This talented man, whom Ragan professionally encouraged, advanced to the superintendency of other mills and eventually built his own mills in Marion, North Carolina.
Named in honor of Robert E. Lee’s historic Custis-Lee mansion on the Potomac River across from Washington, D. C., Arlington was the first Gaston County mill chartered in the twentieth century and the sixth ever established in Gastonia. With a capital stock of $130,000 a two-story brick steam-powered factory of 10,000 spindles, with an impressive four-story tower, was erected three miles west of the center city on 60 acres of farmland. It bordered the south side of the Southern Railway tracks.
For the next 100 years, Arligton ran continuously as one of Gastonia’s principal combed yarn producers. After 1931 it became a plant in the Textiles-Incorporated chain of mills and was gradually increased in size to a 60,000-spindle capacity, making it the second largest individual yarn plant in Gaston County. The Arlington village grew to 150 neat frame homes, supporting a workforce of 400 and a community of perhaps 1,500. Near the mill, the highly regarded Arlington Elementary School became an integral part of the city’s educational system, subsequently serving the Arlington, Gray, Mutual and Parkdale mill communities. Along with the Loray Mills’ extensive village and retail center, it became the nucleus of what became known as West Gastonia.
While no longer in operation, a victim of the governments removal of protective tariffs in 2005, the much-altered buildings of this historic mill can be seen on West Airline Avenue at Webb Street. The distinctive tower and the huge smokestack were removed many years ago.
The Largest Mill in the South
The second of the two defining events at the turn of the twentieth century and the one that gave Gastonia its most dazzling publicity, a sense of civic pride and national recognition was the building of the mammoth Loray Mills, or as it was popularly termed at the time, the “Million Dollar Mill”.
Heralded as the largest mill under one roof in the South, Loray became a bold experiment for Gastonia. Up until this time, only small mills of three thousand, five thousand and ten thousand spindles were attempted, and they were financed by small groups of public-spirited local businessmen using their own hard-to-come-by capital – a wonderful beginning, but nothing to compare or compete with the large, often publicly-financed mills in New England, or even several large vertically integrated ones in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Gastonia would have a magnificent textile enterprise with a capacity to make a difference, and it would become a symbol of its economic achievement and influence.
Loray Mills was incorporated February 19, 1900 by the Secretary of State of North Carolina, with John F. Love (3) and George A. Gray (4), its prime movers. Frost Torrence, a druggist, Dr. J. M. Sloan, a physician, and W. T. Rankin, a merchant, all of Gastonia, acted as nominal incorporators. The capital was set at $1,000,000, by far the largest of any Gaston County mill. Mr. Love was elected its first treasurer, and the first two letters of his name formed the first syllable of Loray. Mr. Gray became president and furnished thelast syllable of the mill’s name.
Soon rising out of the ground was a vast five-story brick structure, with an impressive eight-story tower and a huge smokestack reaching to the sky. The floor space was in excess of 350,000 square feet, upon which 60,000 spindles, 1,650 looms and auxiliary equipment were placed for producing print cloth and sheeting for the China trade. Expectations soared and public excitement over the undertaking became intense.
However, problems began to develop rather early. Rumor filled the air. It had been assumed that Eastern capital would be heavily relied upon for executing a venture of this magnitude, and that was to be John Love’s job. Despite repeatedly being reported in local and national news media as fully subscribed, in fact most of the million dollars in authorized stock was never sold or even subscribed for. Love invested the most and lost it all. Gray owned only two shares or $200 in stock, enough to be an incorporator. Adding to the troubles was Love’s unsuccessful speculation for himself and the mill in the volatile New York and London cotton markets.
The machinery makers, George Draper & Sons and Whitin Machine Works in Massachusetts, and their powerful Boston and New York banks had to eventually take control of the company as principal creditor. The result was that Love was ousted and Gray was retained only temporarily by the creditors to complete the mill and get it operational. Because of additional delays, the mill was not completed until early in 1902.
Loray had been built and designed around the idea of supplying cloth to China. Unfortunately, the Boxer Rebellion began in 1900 and reached its intensity by 1901-1902 as the Chinese attempted by violence to drive all foreigners out of their country. This culminated in the Chinese Boycott in 1904, whereby that country refused to purchase American goods or deal with American trading interests. Loray was greatly crippled until new products and new markets could be developed.
It was then that Thomas E. Moore and his brother Andrew E. Moore, successful textile manufacturers in South Carolina, were asked to take over operations of the large Gastonia mill. It was run under that capable management until 1919, when the Northern creditors were finally able to find a buyer and recover part, if not all, of their “forced” investment.
Jenckes Spinning Company of Providence, Rhode Island (became Manville-Jenckes Co. in 1924, one of America’s largest publicly-owned textile firms) became the new owners. In 1921 Jenckes doubled the size of the plant to 600,000 square feet containing 110,000 spindles and 300 looms (5) (6). With 2,200 workers, it remained the largest textile factory in the South. The mill village was expanded at the same time to more than 625 homes covering over fifty city blocks, and it represented a community of between 5,000 and 6,000 people. During the recession following World War I, Loray’s production was changed from cotton sheeting to tire cord fabric to serve the rapidly expanding American automobile industry.
The Loray community became so large and self-sufficient that residents began talking about the possibility of having their own town, separate of Gastonia. At least one formal attempt was made in 1911 to incorporate Loray as a North Carolina municipality. Organized resistance by Gastonia and its textile interests stymied the attempt and it was not successful. The community, including its “greasy corner” business district, along with several other adjacent mill villages, became known as West Gastonia.
In 1929 a tragic strike occurred at Manville-Jenckes’ Loray plant, which left wounds on the city’s pride, lasting to this day. (This event will be covered in another article). After the demise of Manville-Jenckes during the Depression, Firestone Tire & Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio purchased the plant in 1935 to supplement their tire cord fabric needs and established Gastonia as its headquarters in the South for textile operations. Firestone operated the large mill successfully under the progressive managements of well-known textilists such as Richard M. Sawyer, Harold Mercer and James B. Call for another sixty years, until the aged facility on West Second Avenue was finally closed in favor a modern plant built near Kings Mountain in 1993.
Although Loray was a financial failure for its original promoters, it was, nonetheless, their vision for the future that ultimately resulted in the venture becoming a tremendous economic success for Gastonia; and it brought recognition to the entire region as a visible center for industry to locate. As for Gastonians, it provided thousands of jobs and untold millions of dollars in payrolls and bank deposits for almost 100 years (7). It was, and is today, the most recognized industrial landmark in the city.
In an effort to revitalize the western section of the city, the former five-story, 600,000-square-foot historic textile mill, including the entire neighborhood surrounding it, is in the initial process of being renovated into a major $40 to $50 million retail-residential-entertainment center. When this initiative is completed, it will help bridge the economic and cultural redevelopment gap between western Gastonia and heavily developed eastern Gastonia. “Greasy Corner,” the business district spawned by the largest mill in the South a century earlier, will make way for The Shoppes at Loray, anchors in the 480,000 square feet of up-scale offices, restaurants, retail stores, condominiums and rental apartments, a charter school, an events center, a police substation, a gymnasium and a gallery displaying the mill’s unique history. [INDEX]