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Cotton Mills

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The Beginnings of the Textile Industry in Rowan County

The textile industry of North Carolina had a major impact on the history of the state.  This industry shaped every facet of life from business to cultural and political.  Cotton mills offered farmers a steady wage that was not dependent upon the whims of the weather.  Most mills were small and independently owned.  Mills also offered housing at affordable costs to its workers, and a sense of community was born that included sports teams to attract workers and inspire loyalty to the company. 

The mills employed mostly women, boys, and girls who were trained to spin, weave, and sew the cotton cloth.  The first mills were started in New England, but the Southern states eventually raised the capital resources and built their own mills along streams and rivers, which produced the power needed to run the machinery.  Also, the area’s rail system helped move finished goods to market.  By building local mills, the cost of manufacturing was reduced by lower freight costs to ship raw materials and finished goods to market.  Also, a ready source of cheap labor was available in the South especially after the Civil War.

The Salisbury Improvement Association was formed in the 1880’s to stimulate interest in manufacturing mills and attract investors to the area.  In 1887, a revival by Rev. R.G. Pearson in a tobacco warehouse addressed the problem of the needs of the poor in Salisbury.  Pearson banded together with Rev. F.J. Murdoch and other ministers along with businessmen in the area to raise money for the project.  A group of investors and merchants constructed a mill for $50,000.00, which became Salisbury Cotton Mills. (later Cone Mills).  This mill was one of the largest in the state with 15,250 spindles and 503 looms. By 1897, Rowan County was the ninth largest cotton mill county in the State of North Carolina. 

In the early days, most mills were owned by local investors.  Many had no expertise in running a mill, but the technology was relatively simple.  As technology progressed, the mills in Rowan County were bought out by larger textile operations.  And as labor trends changed, new mills were opened in places where labor was cheaper.  One by one, in the latter part of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st century, the larger mills closed in Rowan County. 


Beck, John Jacob Development in the Piedmont South: Rowan County North Carolina 1850-1900 Chapel Hill: UNC, 1984

U.S. Plant Closings Since Textile Crisis Began (1997 - 2005)