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Cotton Mills, Overview

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Presented from Narvell Strickland's book 'A History of Mississippi Cotton Mills and Mill Villages', 1995, This book contains considerable information about the history of Wesson. You may contact Narvell Strickland here.

The Bankston textile mill is regarded as Mississippi's first successful mechanically powered textile mill and became "famous throughout the Old Southwest as a model of industrial efficiency and profitability." Colonel James M. Wesson, its founder, was associated with a textile firm in Columbus, Georgia, the "Lowell of the South," which in 1847 decided to build a cotton and woolen mill in the back country of northern Mississippi. In January 1847 he, together with David L. Booker, John P. Nance, Richard Ector and Thomas J. Stanford, organized and chartered the Mississippi Manufacturing Company and, before the end of the year, began moving machinery and equipment to the new site on the west side of McCurtain's Creek, a tributary to the Big Black River in Choctaw County.

It was difficult at the time to find native white workers for industrial work, and thus several experienced mill families were imported from Georgia to do the skilled work. The use of Negro slaves was thought to be too expensive, but a few were employed to operate the steam engine and perform other unpleasant assignments. A Semple steam engine, manufactured in Providence, Rhode Island, was brought in to power the mill. It was transported from Rhode Island to Greenwood by water and then drawn over land to the mill site by several oxen, a distance of sixty-five miles, several miles of which were through the Yazoo swamp. The eighty-horsepower engine actually provided too much power for the textile mill, and the enterprising Colonel Wesson added a flour mill and a gristmill to the textile equipment to utilize the surplus power.

The Bankston textile mill began operations in December 1848 with twelve workers. It prospered and quickly expanded to include a tannery, a shoe factory, a machine shop, along with other enterprises. By June 1849, the textile mill operated 500 cotton spindles and spun 300 pounds of cotton into yarn and thread daily. During the first few years, the mill operated at a financial loss in the production of cloth but made a small profit on cotton yarn. During this period, Colonel Wesson left the looms idle and concentrated on the production of yarn and thread, along with his other enterprises such as the milling of corn and wheat, until conditions improved in the cloth market.

By 1855, the difficult years were over and the manufacturing company began to make substantial profits; reporting that year a net profit of $22,000 on a capitalization of $60,000. Over the next three years or by 1858, Historian John Hebron Moore noted that the company's "investment in cotton and woolen machinery alone had reached the sum of $80,000, and an additional $15,500 of the firm's capital was represented by such assets as a gristmill, a flour mill, and numerous buildings comprising the company-owned village of Bankston."

The critical period came two years later with the nationwide panic of 1857. The Bankston manufacturing company not only survived but prospered during the panic; and then for several years in succession, it paid annual dividends of 37 percent while building up a large reserve fund. In addition to the investors, some eighty-five workers enjoyed the prosperity. While wages were low, the company provided housing and made sure the workers were supplied with products of its several enterprises, shoes, cloth, meat, and flour. Alcoholic beverages, however, were forbidden. Like William Gregg, founder of the famous antebellum mill at Graniteville, South Carolina, Colonel Wesson vehemently opposed the drinking of alcoholic beverages and successfully promoted a law prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquor within the corporate limits.

On June 4, 1850, Colonel Wesson wrote to De Bow's Review indicating his opposition to the sale of alcoholic beverages and proceeded to describe his manufacturing enterprises.

Our mill is located ten miles south of Greensboro, in a healthy neighborhood; fine water, good society, churches, schools, &e. We have but one grog-shop within seven miles of us, and that will probably not last long. Our building is made of wood, 108 feet long, 48 wide, three stories high. We are now running about 800 spindles, 10 cards, 12 looms, and all the accompanying necessary machinery for spinning and weaving. Owing to the high price of cotton we have stopped our looms. We have 500 spindles and five cards more, not finished; we shall probably get them in operation for the next crop. We carry on a machine shop in which we make every variety of machinery for carding and spinning. Our looms are built by Messrs. Rogers, Kechum & Grovanon, of Paterson, N. J.

They are heavy and substantial, and are built for making heavy Linsey and Osnaburgs, such as are most used in the South. I think that companies in this state intending to embark in the manufacturing business, would do well to call to see our machinery before buying elsewhere. We have just completed the finest flour mill in this state, or equal to any in the South. We will show flour with the St. Louis or any other mill North or South.

We use a large fine Semple Engine, made by Messrs. Thurston, Green & Co., Providence. It is admired by all visitors for its great capacity and simplicity. It is run by a Negro engineer, who also serves as fireman, who had no acquaintance with engines until he took hold of this. We have a double cylinder wool card that cards the wool twice as well as most of the country cards that have only one, and will turn off two hundred pounds of rolls a day,for which we charge a 8 c. a pound.

The Bankston cotton mill became famous as it continued to grow and prosper. By 1860, it had expanded to operate 1,000 cotton spindles, 500 wool spindles, and 20 power looms; indeed, it operated the latest in textile machinery and was regarded as the forerunner in modern cotton manufacturing in the state. Except for the few slaves employed to operate the steam engine, the workers were white; Colonel Wesson, however, recognized that slaves were capable, but he "believed that hired whites were less expensive than either bought or hired slaves."

Wesson also believed, along with William Gregg and other prominent Southern cotton manufacturers, that the South, in addition to agriculture, desperately needed to devote itself to manufacturing. On August 11, 1858, he wrote John F. H. Claiborne asserting that the South stands in the same relation to New England now, that we as a nation did to Old England fifty years ago. . if it was good policy for us then, as a nation, to adopt and support a general system of manufacturing the same policy is equally good now when applied to the South.

However small, the thriving community of Bankston was a step in that direction. The community, moreover, was in every regard a model company town and Mississippi's first cotton mill village.

The Mississippi Penitentiary Textile Mill enjoyed a success story comparable to that of the Bankston mill. As early as 1840, the penitentiary produced clothing for convicts with the use of manually-operated spinning machines and hand looms. By 1847, the prison population had increased to the point that the primitive machinery could no longer manufacture sufficient clothing, and the state legislature responded by authorizing the superintendent to purchase power-driven equipment.

Spinning machinery and power looms were purchased and brought in from Patterson, New Jersey, and in October 1849, the upgraded penitentiary textile mill went "into full production, turning out cotton and woolen cloth and yarns at the rate of 1,700 yards of cotton osnaburgs, 300 yards of woolen linseys, and 400 pounds of yarn per week." Osnaburgs had excellent wearing qualities and toughness; it could be made into overalls, other durable work clothes, and was occasionally substituted for canvas or duck requiring rough usage. No doubt, this was the reason for its extensive production.

It was an impressive start, and the legislature, at its next session in 1850, authorized the purchase of additional machinery to increase the production of cloth from 1,700 yards per week to 1,000 per day. Production soon exceeded the penitentiary needs, and the state began competing with private enterprise by selling the surplus to wholesale dealers in cities as distant from Jackson as Mobile, New Orleans, and St. Louis. The venture became very profitable, and by 1853 the penitentiary textile mill had become one of the state's most valuable assets, returning a small profit to the state after paying the entire cost of the prison system.

In 1857, the mill was destroyed by fire, but without any delay, the legislature decided to rebuild on a much larger scale. In late 1858, a vastly enlarged mill was completed; it reopened with 150 convicts to operate "2,304 spindles for spinning cotton, twenty-four cotton carding machines, seventy-six looms for weaving osnaburgs, four mills for producing cotton twills, and a full complement of machinery for making woolen linseys and cotton batting." It proved to be a great success story for the state, although its critics were quick to assert that its success was attributable to the obvious advantages the venture had over private enterprise, including free labor and state financial support.

The Wilkinson Manufacturing Company was the third large cotton textile mill to be built in the state. It was organized in 1850 by Judge Edward McGehee, a noted planter and railroad entrepreneur, who decided to expand his business interests. After visiting Lowell, Massachusetts to familiarize himself with the operation of a cotton mill, he employed Colonel James Woodworth, a skilled textile mechanic, to construct the mill in the small village of Woodville about twenty-five miles south of Natchez.

McGehee's mill was completed and began operations in March 1851, powered by a wood-burning steam engine of eighty-horsepower, and initially employed a force of 125 white Mississippians and New Englanders to operate 3,500 spindles and ninety looms. As at Bankston, apartment houses and a large boarding house were constructed to provide living quarters for the mill workers. Hence, Mississippi's second cotton mill village.

In 1852, Judge McGehee dismissed Superintendent Woodworth, assumed management of the mill himself, and replaced the 125 white workers with slaves. Just three years later, in 1855, he bought out the other co-owners and proceeded to operate it as a family enterprise for the next several years, producing shirting, lowells, linsey, and kerseys. Unlike Colonel Wesson's openness regarding his mill, Judge McGehee was very secretive about the Woodville mill and, as a result, not much is known about its operations except that the mill was apparently very successful. In 1860 the value of its finished products was reported to be $102,000 in comparison with $72,000 for the Bankston mill.

The Thomas Green Cotton Mill was the last and largest mill to be built in Mississippi before the Civil War. In June 1858, the banking firm of Joshua and Thomas Green constructed the mill on Pearl River in Jackson, and, with a capitalization of $100,000, began operations with Samuel Poole as superintendent and some two hundred white employees. Although short-lived because of the Civil War, it was a financial success from the start. By 1860, it employed more than two hundred workers to produce 450,000 yards of cloth annually which was valued at $151,000, the highest figure reported by any Mississippi cotton mill.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Mississippi lagged far behind in becoming industrialized but it had made some progress. It had four large cotton mills, the Bankston mill, the Edward McGehee mill, the Penitentiary mill, the Thomas Green mill, along with two small, insignificant mills--one in Columbus and the other in Tishomingo County. The value of the cloth produced annually by the four large mills was not insignificant; it ranged from $72,000 for the Bankston mill to $151,000 for the Green mill before production was interrupted by the war. Professor John Bettersworth concluded that Mississippi, though far from having become industrialized, was showing gains. The Bankston mill was able to declare a 29 per cent dividend in that year, and the entire cotton industry of the state could boast that the value of its product in 1860 was $261,000 as compared with only $22,135 in 1850.

The modest gains showed that antebellum Mississippi simply was not ready for industrialization. The people preferred to continued to concentrate nearly all of their resources in the cotton plantation system which, unfortunately, left the state ill-prepared for the impending Civil War and the Radical Reconstruction years that followed. Its small textile industry, however, proved that it could "survive and prosper in Mississippi as well as in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, despite economic depressions, competition from northern manufacturers, and opposition from agrarian critics of southern industrialization."

The Civil War, unfortunately, was to destroy the state's four textile mills along with most of its other small industry. In 1863, General Grant and his troops destroyed the Woodville, Jackson, and Penitentiary mills; but because of its isolated location, the Bankston mill survived a while longer. Federal troops later learned of the Bankston mill, and on December 30, 1864, a foraging party, under the command of General Benjamin H. Grierson, raided the defenseless village and burned the cotton and wool mill, the shoe factory, and the flour mill while the inhabitants slept and without a shot being fired.

Much of Bankston was a legitimate military target, for its mills were producing 1,000 yards of cloth and 150 pairs of shoes daily for military purposes. But unfortunately, the foraging party did not restrict its activities to legitimate targets; it not only destroyed the 5,000 yards of cloth, 10,000 pounds of wool, 125 bales of cotton on hand but, in addition, destroyed 10,000 pounds of flour and took the farm animals, horses, cows, pigs, and chickens, leaving the town's people hard pressed to escape starvation.

Fortunately, Colonel Wesson, before the raiders arrived, anticipated the apparent danger of a raid and distributed much of the cloth among surrounding inhabitants. At the time, the need for clothing was so great that one woman, J. P. Coleman notes in his Choctaw County Chronicle, rode horseback forty miles, round trip, a few days before the raid to get a single bolt of cloth.

With the destruction of the four cotton mills, Mississippi's emerging textile industry was devastated, and except for a small mill in Columbus, cotton manufacturing in the state returned to cabin or household spinning and weaving. Thus the four mills, including Mississippi's first successful steam powered cotton mill and its first mill village, took their places in history, and, as we will see, cotton mill building in the state was painfully slow for the next three decades. Colonel Wesson, however, survived to pick up the pieces and build the first phase of Mississippi's most famous post Civil War manufacturing plant of any type. Of the prewar cotton textile manufacturers in Mississippi, he was the only one to continue in the textile business in the postwar era.

Our review will take us next to Colonel Wesson's new mill, the state's first post Civil War mill, which eventually gained national and international fame for its efficient operations and production of high quality fabrics.

Chapter III

Post Civil War Mills: 1865-1898

Soon after his mill was destroyed by fire, Colonel Wesson set out to establish another. Before the war was over, he and two associates, W. H. Hallam and James Hamilton, selected a wilderness site about forty miles south of Jackson, and in March 1865 the site was incorporated as the town of Wesson. Three years later, the construction of a cotton mill, the Mississippi Manufacturing Company, and seventy-five houses for workers was completed. It was Mississippi's first large mill village; and replacing a wilderness, it was built out of necessity to provide housing for the influx of workers from nearby farms and towns, rather than for the paternalistic reasons later associated with company-owned mill villages in the South.

Colonel Wesson donated land for three church sites, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist, and the town of Wesson began to develop around the mill. It was patterned after the South's first mill town established by William Gregg at Graniteville, South Carolina. The village houses were very similar and most were built to accommodate two families, and each family was provided with sufficient land for a vegetable garden, a cow, a pig, and a few chickens. But as at Bankston, no alcoholic beverages were permitted; Colonel Wesson was successful in having the charter prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages within the corporate limits. The new town prospered and grew rapidly from a wilderness to the largest town on the Illinois Central Railroad between Jackson and New Orleans--a distance of approximately two hundred miles.

The Wesson mill was to become Mississippi's most famous postwar manufacturing plant of any type. Unfortunately, however, abusive practices during the Radical Reconstruction era created major financial problems for Colonel Wesson, and he was forced to step aside before the mill reached its summit. Early in 1871, Mississippi Manufacturing Company went into bankruptcy and receivership, and on February 23, 1871, the company was sold by the receivers to Captain William Oliver and John T. Hardy, New Orleans businessmen. After paying all of his debts, Colonel Wesson, the father of the Mississippi cotton textile industry, quietly retired to nearby Bogue Chitto. Earlier that year, his wife died, and it is likely, some believe, that her death may have influenced his decision to sell out and retire.

Captain William Oliver, after being named general manager, moved to Wesson with his family to manage the operations. Just two years later, disaster struck again. The mill was destroyed by fire, and Oliver, as Colonel Wesson had done after the Bankston fire, was determined to rebuild. He persuaded Edmund Richardson, one of the largest cotton growers in the world with 25,000 acres in cultivation and known as the "Cotton King," to purchase Hardy's share and controlling interests in the operations. Together with Richardson, as president, and Oliver, as general manager, they made immediate plans to not only rebuild the company but to do it on a much larger scale. The first of four mills was completed in late 1873, Mill No. 2 in 1876, Mill No. 3 in 1890, and Mill No. 4 in 1894.

The mills, renamed Mississippi Mills, consisted of four large brick buildings when completed, one of which was five stories high with a seven-story tower, and covered several city blocks. From the beginning they were powered by steam engines and very early illuminated by electricity. As unlikely as it seems, the electric lights were installed by 1882, within three years after Thomas Edison perfected his electric lighting plant and bulb, and before either New York or Chicago had adopted the new lighting system. This was not, however, unusual as several small towns and plants throughout the country were able to install the new electric lights before politicians in major cities like New York and Chicago could adopt, rip up their streets, and install the new lighting system.

In any event, a giant, five-story, electrically illuminated plant in the small town must have been an unexpected and unique sight. The Wesson Enterprise indicates that people came from miles around to see the "little lights in bottles" and that passengers on the Illinois Central Railroad must have been amazed at the sight as they passed through Wesson--a small hamlet in the midst of the state's famous piney woods region.

The Wesson mill grew into a gargantuan textile plant at a time when most Mississippians were still openly hostile to industry. In the late 1880s, Mississippi Mills employed 1,200 workers to operate 25,000 cotton spindles, 26 sets of woolen machinery, and 800 looms in the production of 4,000,000 yards of cotton goods, 2,000,000 yards of woolen goods and 320,000 pounds of yarn and twine annually. The mills produced a variety of high quality and award-winning fabrics--including cassimirs, plaids, jeans, stripes, tweeds, doeskins, and several others--with a reputation "for excellence not surpassed by the product of any mills in the world...[and sold in] almost every state and territory in the Union." In 1876, its products won first prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial, and in the eighties, one of its cotton fabrics used for dress goods was of such handsome finish that it was called "Mississippi silk."

By 1890, the Wesson mill was the largest manufacturing enterprise of any type in Mississippi and reputed to be the largest in the South. Senator L. Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi proudly noted that the mill had become "the subject of a great deal of pride and interest to the citizens of the state." It also attracted national and international attention, luring President William McKinley and industry leaders from as far as England to Wesson just to see the operations.

William Oliver, as general manager, was given credit for the phenomenal growth and success which brought the nation-wide fame. Under his leadership from 1873 to 1891, most of the profits were reinvested to finance growth, but much of his managerial success can be attributed to his special interest in the mill workers and community affairs. It was said that

He took interest in the affairs of the community, the public school, the municipal government, or whatever was of interest to the people. He was especially interested in the welfare of the operatives in the mill; he considered them people.

This attitude earned him the support of both the community and workers. Workers, when treated fairly, generally strive to do their best; for as we all know, fair treatment is a valuable benefit and a good reason for workers to be concerned about the success and general welfare of the company providing them employment.

Like Colonel Wesson, Captain Oliver was also a devout believer in the proposition that whiskey and manufacturing did not mix. He insisted that land conveyances by Mississippi Mills, which owned most of the land in and near Wesson, include a clause providing that if alcoholic liquor were ever sold on the premises illegally, the title to the property would revert to the grantors or Mississippi Mills. No evidence surfaced indicating that title to property actually reverted under such a clause.

After his death in 1891, a series of events--including absentee management, the panic of 1893, and increased transportation costs--began to bring Mississippi's largest manufacturing venture and greatest industrial success story to a close. John Richardson, who had succeeded his father as president, unwittingly started the decline when he moved to New Orleans in the midst of the difficult times and brought in a general manager from the North to replace Oliver. Labor unrest was the immediate result, followed in 1906, by forced receivership. Then, in January 1910, the price of cotton plummeted to a low of $5.85 a bale and delivered the coup de grace as mills throughout the country, including the Wesson and four other Mississippi mills, were forced to liquidate their assets.

Three years before liquidation, the Directory Southern Cotton Mills, Edition 1907, reported Mississippi Mills' assets at $344,000 and listed some of its key officers and employees: R. L. Saunders, president; Frederick Abbott, superintendent; J. S. Rae, secretary and treasurer; Frank Reed, overseer cotton department; W. D. Ross, overseer woolen department; George W. Watson, dyer; J. R. Cannon, engineer; John Thompson, electrician; S. J. Sasser, cotton weaving supervisor; P. B. Raiford, wool weaving and finishing supervisor; Z. C. Rushing, cotton carding supervisor; James Barnes, spinning supervisor; and W. H. Stevens, spooling, warping, and slashing supervisor.

Within a year of the liquidation Wesson, the largest town on the Illinois Central Railroad between Jackson and New Orleans, decreased in population from 5,000 to 1,000. The Wesson mill never reopened. Part of one of the brick mill buildings and several of the village houses still stand as a reminder. One of the houses is protected as a historical site.

04/25/08 was the last day I modified this page.

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