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Monday, April 11, 2022

Piedmont Manufacturing: More than Just a Textile Mill

 By Joe Hursey

The Archives Center possesses an incredible set of architectural drawings of late 19th-century textile mills, known as the Lockwood-Greene Records. At first glance, these drawings seem nothing more than well-drafted images of factory buildings on heavy linen material. But to the people who worked in the mills built from these drawings, they represent the beginning of numerous communities throughout South Carolina. The most impressive of these mills was the flagship mill, Piedmont Manufacturing Company.

Between 1862 and 1863, Henry Pickney Hammett and his partner and father-in-law, William Bates, purchased a total of 415 acres at Garrison Shoals along the Saluda River. On this river their textile mill would be built and named Piedmont Manufacturing. The town would also take the name, to be known as Piedmont, South Carolina. Unlike the previous style of smaller mills in upstate South Carolina, Hammett's grand mill would be based on larger New England-style mill designs. After completion, the mill stood as the largest mill in the United States until 1900.

Despite their best efforts, the ongoing Civil War delayed the project, and later Bates died in 1872. Not one to be deterred by challenges, Hammett continued the project. He began raising money toward building his mill, but due to the financial after-effects of the Civil War and the economic panic of 1873, Hammett struggled with obtaining investment capital. In order to stay on budget, Hammett reduced building costs by constructing onsite brick-making and ironworks, obtaining construction material from local forests, and bringing in architects, craftsmen, and workers to Piedmont.  

By 1876 the first stage of the plant, Mill #1, was fully operating 5,000 spindles and 112 looms.  Hammett continued to add additional buildings for a total of four mill buildings to the textile manufacturing plant in Piedmont. Hammett's mill would usher in the industrial revolution to the upstate. But in order to meet the needs of the growing mill, Hammett needed increased power for it.

Architectural Drawing of the Piedmont Mill, later renamed J.P. Stevens & Company, from the Lockwood-Greene Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

Hammett built a dam that provided the necessary structure for the mill's hydropower system. The dam, built in 1889, designed with a main span and a central overflow section, had a large raceway at each end, serving mills on both sides of the river. As one of the few hydropower mills in the upstate area, Piedmont mill machinery operated by a belt-driven hydro-powered system. This was later updated to a hydroelectric system. Spanning the central overflow portion of the dam, a metal truss footbridge supported by columns anchored to the dam allowed workers to move quickly between the mills. The footbridge was destroyed in 2020 during a high-water event when a dislodged boat dock went over the dam, dragging the steel bridge with it. The Piedmont dam stands as the oldest continually power- producing dam in the state.   

As the mill grew and required more power to operate, it also required increases in labor. The Great Migration provided much-needed labor to the mill industry, which came in two waves. Between the 1880s and 1890s, cotton prices fell, driving farm laborers from the field to the factory. And by 1900 when cotton prices rose, additional buildings were built and workers were recruited. In order to recruit workers for Piedmont Manufacturing, housing planning became an important factor. One method was naming streets, such as Transylvania Street, after the location of where many workers were recruited from, such as Transylvania County, North Carolina. These workers from Transylvania settled on Transylvania Street, knowing that they would live amongst similar people coming from the same place.   

Not only did Piedmont Manufacturing Company build homes for the workers to live in, they built the community infrastructure that provided for every need of the mill's workers: churches, schools, mercantile shops, community buildings, hotel, gymnasium, YMCA and YWCA, and a library.  

Eventually Piedmont Manufacturing led South Carolina to become the largest textile producer in the world. The mills were sold to J.P. Stevens and Company in 1946 and subsequently updated to include modern features such as air conditioning. New buildings were added to the mill campus and the mill houses, which had belonged to the company and were leased to employees. But as competition from foreign mills increased, Piedmont Manufacturing Company's hold on the title of king of textiles started to slide. In 1977 the mill ceased most of its operations and completely closed in 1983.

While Piedmont Manufacturing is no longer in business, it stood as an important facet of America's Reconstruction period and the New South Movement, transforming a mostly agrarian society into an industrial community. And  it was more than just a factory. To the local people and their community, it was the center of the universe. Hammett's dream of a grand textile plant will remain an important part of American history. 

Joe Hursey is the head of reference services for the National Museum of American History Archives Center through Friday, April 15, 2022. His Archives Center colleagues thank him for his years of service and for this contribution to the SI Collections Blog.

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