November 2017
Homeplace & Community

Woven Into the Fabric of Huntsville

A new book by Terri French explores the history of textile mills in northern Alabama.

Perhaps it was inevitable that textile mills would abound in the South. Farmers planted a wildly successful cotton crop even before the use of the first cotton gin became widespread, producing some 750,000 bales of cotton. Just 20 years later, that total was an amazing 2.85 million bales.

By 1860, the region was the source of two-thirds of the world’s cotton. Fast forward to the early 1900s. Thanks to northern investment and local money, Huntsville would eventually have 10 textile mills in operation.

 

Huntsville author Terri French, in her new book, "HUNTSVILLE Textile Mills & Villages," says that by 1925 New England no longer dominated in the number of spindles in operation. The South held that title. With the advent of the Dallas Mill, the 10th plant for Huntsville, the city ranked second in the country. No. 1 was Lowell, Massachusetts.

"It appeals to local history buffs and people whose families lived and worked in the factories and mill villages," she said. "I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response to the book. At my first book signing, held at Lowe Mill, four children of a former mill-worker, whose photo is on the cover of the book, came to have their books signed. They were so proud of their father …"

The genesis of the book came from the publisher, Arcadia Publishing – The History Press, who wanted something written on local history.

Huntsville Cotton Mills was the first operation in the city. Constructed in 1881, the spinning mill lay on Church Street near the Memphis and Charleston Depot. Joshua Coons, a trained Rhode Island cotton spinner, was instrumental in starting the facility, and it became a predecessor of other mills. The Bell Factory Mill in Madison County was Alabama’s first spinning and weaving operation.

Dallas Mill would eventually have 50,000 spindles, 1,541 looms and 1,200 employees. Opening in 1892, the mill made bleached and brown shirting, and the widest sheeting made in the United States at that time.

Mill owners took care of their employees by building villages such as the one constructed for Dallas Mill. French describes in her book how the housing and amenities such as a barber shop, churches, a school and the local YMCA made for a better life than workers’ previous circumstances.

Wages were low, however, at about $14 a month, and workers put in 12-hour shifts. Children, some as young as 7, were employed in what was often a dangerous environment.

Stopping one machine stopped all the others, so management wasn’t inclined to cut off the equipment even if an accident was imminent. It only took a second of carelessness for an employee to lose an arm, hand or finger in equipment designed to tear and shred cotton fibers. Management wasn’t entirely at fault for employing children. Often parents insisted their employers hire the entire family.

In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act spoke to improving the lot of children.

French describes in detail the revitalization of some of the mills and related buildings. For example, Lowe Mill, incorporated in 1900 to make sheeting, ginghams and romper cloth, is now the largest privately owned arts complex in the country. The buildings include studios for over 200 artists, a small theater, fine art galleries and performance venues among other features.

Lowe Mill was purchased in 1945 after World War II by General Shoe Co. /Genesco Inc. and made the majority of the combat boots for U.S. soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War.

Merrimack Mill opened in 1900. Today, the former village community center and store for the mill has been converted into a small playhouse. It offers performing arts opportunities and cultural arts to those with special needs.

The decline of textile mills in Huntsville began in the 1930s as workers’ frustration grew over the lack of progress in improving working conditions. Union membership rose and strikes became common. According to one source, the big walkout of 1934 was in Huntsville while another source says Gadsden had the first strike.

Historian John Salmond is quoted as saying that what happened wasn’t a strike at all but "a succession of individual walkouts instigated by local leadership." The walkouts or strikes, depending on which version of the story you accept, spelled bad news for Huntsville. The cotton mill industry struggled through the rest of the Depression. By 1955, the only mill still operating was Merrimack Mill.

Meanwhile, Huntsville’s economy was about to change. With the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I in 1957 and the formation of NASA in 1958, the space race began. Marshall Space Flight Center would bring the next wave of newcomers to Huntsville, a move that would dramatically alter the city once again.

 

Maureen Drost is a freelance writer who lives in Huntsville and is a retired newspaper journalist.