Chapter16 "Business And Industry"

Two of the county's early mills still stand. The factory above is the Oneida Mill at Graham which was owned and operated by L. Banks Holt. Below is the former Aurora Mill on Webb Avenue in Burlington, now a hosiery finishing plant.


Chapter 16


UNTIL the last few decades, Alamance has been known as an agricultural rather than as an industrial county, but even so, there was some industry and business here as early as the 1750's. With the expansion of the textile industry, the coming of the hosiery industry and the growth of towns and communities, the county began to turn from the farm to the factory and from the village store to the supermarket mode of life.

Among the first settlers who came to Alamance there were millers, blacksmiths, saw mill operators, tanners, carriage and harness makers and skilled men of many professions. Taverns were built at river crossings and served for many years as the only "village store" meeting places west of Haw River. The finer products and luxuries of the city still had to be hauled from the coastal settlements to the "backwoods" country of Alamance. The trials and hardships of this period are described in a preceding chapter.

The history of industry in Alamance actually began with the founding of the first cotton mill-Edwin M. Holt's factory at Alamance village in 1737. Similar mills soon appeared at Haw River, Saxapahaw, Swepsonville, Altamahaw, and at many other points along the River. With the valuable aid of water power, the textile industry became extremely important to this county, for it built many of these communities and continues to sustain several of them today.

Numerous fortunes have been made from the industry of Alamance County and the rich opportunities it has offered.

Small beginnings in modern industry are illustrated by the story of the late John Shoffner, "millionaire manufacturer of Alamance." Mr. Shoffner was born near the village of



Alamance and worked in the old Alamance Mill as a doffer boy. He began work at fifteen cents a day and after ten years was making nine dollars a week. At the end of fifteen years work he had, with the help of his father and a few friends, $4,000, which he invested in a small frame building 20x30 feet and twenty-four second-hand knitting machines.

For five or six years he worked with larger mills, getting yarn from them and returning the half hose "in the gray" (undyed and not finished) at a small commission. Five hundred dozen per week was the maximum production of the mill, in which he did most of the work himself.

In 1927 he bought the whole village of Alamance, installed a modern water plant, built seventy-five or eighty cottages and a thirty-six room brick house. By 1929 the young manufacturer had founded the Standard Hosiery Mills, and had acquired interests in several other mills in the county.


In 1879 it was reported that there were six cotton mills in Alamance County with no fewer than 15,624 spindles, 298 looms, and 594 employees. By 1886 the number had increased to thirteen factories listed with 31,236 spindles and 1,238 looms. In 1890:

"The manufacturing facilities of the county are very great and in number of cotton looms and spindles Alamance stands first of all counties in the State . . .

"The water powers, most of them, are already improved, and the hum of machinery, mostly manufacturing cotton, is heard in almost every part of the county. There are at present no less than 17 large cotton mills in operation in the county . . . "*

This same account reveals that there were 1600 operatives employed in just six of the mills and that in one mill the number of looms had been doubled since the 1886 report.

A considerable amount of the cotton staple used by these mills was produced locally prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, but the demands for cotton have decreased to the

* Beecher, Op. Cit.



point where very little is grown in Alamance County today. The present-day cotton mills use a different type of cotton from that which was grown in this vicinity, and most of their raw material is shipped in from the more southern states. Some cotton mills have converted their production to rayon or other fabrics. There are approximately six cotton manufacturing plants in the county today, some of which also manufacture other materials.

Scott-Donaldson and Company built the Oneida Cotton Mill on West Harden Street in Graham in 1881, which was purchased in 1855 by L. Banks Holt, who enlarged it and gave it the present name. The original owners then moved to north Graham where they erected the Sidney Cotton Mill in the same year, 1885.

In 1901, W. E. White, J. H. White and Madelane White formed a partnership to build the Travora Manufacturing Company, which still manufactures cotton goods. The Voorees Manufacturing Company, which was established in Graham a year later, was incorporated with Travora about 1912.

Aurora Cotton Mills, now the finishing department of Standard Hosiery Mills on Webb Avenue, was the first cotton mill established in Burlington. It was built by Lawrence Holt and his sons shortly before the name of the village was changed to Burlington. This mill, with the Lafayette Mills, established in 1881, and the E. M. Holt Plaid Mills, 1883, were the only cotton mills in this community when Burlington began in 1887.

The Plaid Mills, now a division of Burlington Mills, introduced the manufacture of the Alamance Plaids to Burlington, and continued to manufacture this goods until 1900, when the production was converted to gingham materials. Cotton plaids were heavier than ginghams and made almost entirely from colored yarns, so that bleaching was not necessary until the finer cloth and more varied patterns were demanded. The machinery at the Plaid Mills was changed in 1931 to manufacture yarn goods.

There were a number of smaller cotton factories in the county during this time, but their operations were very similar to the plants already mentioned. In 1923 the county supported twenty-two cotton mills and as late as 1938, ten mills.



Burlington and Alamance County today produce a large part of the nation's full-fashioned silk, rayon and nylon hosiery for women and men in large, modern plants like this one.



In 1923 a group of Burlington citizens organized a small rayon manufacturing company under the management of J. Spencer Love, which they named the Burlington Mills. This organization was destined to play a leading role in the rise of man-made rayon yarns to a place of major importance in the textile field.

The first Burlington Mills Plant to produce rayon dress goods was constructed in 1927. By 1935 a total of fourteen plants in nine communities were producing $20,000,000 worth of goods annually. From its 200 employees in 1924, the Burlington Mills Company has expanded until it today employs 28,000 people with eighty-three plants in fifty-eight communities of seven states and five foreign countries.

Burlington entered the foreign field with the establishment of a small rayon weaving plant in Cuba in 1944. Today it has one plant in Cuba, Mexico and Colombia, five in Canada and two in Australia. In addition, the corporation operates plants in



Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and throughout North Carolina.

J. C. Cowan, Jr., who joined Burlington Mills in 1931 as superintendent of the Ossipee plant, was elected President of the Company in 1947. J. Spencer Love serves as Chairman of the Board.

Burlington Mills now produce a great variety of textile products, including fabrics for women's lingerie and outer wear, men's wear, decorative fabrics for household and industrial use, cotton piece goods and yarns, hosiery and ribbons. These products include many types and blends of rayon, nylon and wool.

In 1938 Burlington Mills entered the hosiery field, and in 1948 the May McEwen Kaiser Company of Burlington, one of the largest hosiery corporations in the South, was merged with Burlington Mills to expand its hosiery division.

During the depression years in the early 1930's, the Burlington Mills raised its employees' wages fifteen percent. For the recent war the various plants of the corporation produced fabrics for parachutes, uniforms, tents, raincoats, airplanes, gun covers and tow targets. Mr. Love served as chairman of the Textile, Clothing and Leather Division of the War Production Board in Washington, D. C.

Alamance County plants operated by the Burlington Mills include Bellemont Weaving, Ossipee Weaving, Mayfair Weaving, Piedmont Weaving, Yarn Dyeing, Cloth Finishing and Sewing Plants.

In 1941 the Celanese Corporation of America purchased the King Cotton Mills in Burlington, and converted the Ireland Street plant to the production of Celanese rayon yarns. The plant, originally built as the Windsor Cotton Mills in 1890, was incorporated as the Celanese Lanese Corporation, a subsidiary of the national corporation. The building was modernized and floor space was doubled, in addition to the construction of lockers, showers and lunchroom facilities for employees.

During the first year of operation, the plant employed 150 workers, with a payroll of $129,000, and a production of ap-



proximately a million pounds of yarns. Currently the plant employs 300 workers, has an annual payroll of approximately $4,000,000, and produces more than three million pounds of yarn annually.

"Lanese" is a registered trade mark and is used to describe the Celanese staple fiber as distinct from its filament yarn. The local plant is the only staple yarn spinning mill owned by a major rayon yarn producer.

Other major textile producers in the county include:

Virginia Mills, Swepsonville, manufacturers of dress goods, draperies and upholstery; Travora Manufacturing Company, Graham, cotton fabrics; Sellars Manufacturing Company, Saxapahaw, cotton yarn spinning, mercerizing cotton and silk throwsters ; Tabardry Plant of Proximity Manufacturing Company, Haw River, corduroy; Glen Raven Cotton Mills, Inc., fabrics and awnings; Glen Raven Silk Mills, Inc., rayon and acetate fabrics; Glencoe Mills, shirting flannels; Mebane Yarn Mills, Inc., combed cotton yarns; Granite Plant of Cone Finishing Company, Haw River, cotton corduroys; Copland Fabrics, Inc., Hopedale, rayon and nylon curtains; Coleman Knitting Company, Burlington, cotton jersey cloth; and the United States Rubber Company plant, Burlington, lastex yarns.


Burlington claims the title today of "the hosiery center of the south", for here are produced a large part of the nation's nylon, silk and rayon hosiery for ladies and nationally-known brands of men's hosiery.

The first experiments in hosiery in Alamance County were carried out at the time when cotton factories were expanding most rapidly. Two unsuccessful attempts were made with the cylindrical type of hose on which the foot had to be shaped and added, before the Daisy Hosiery Mill was built at Burlington in 1896.

The growth of the hosiery industry was gradual in the beginning with little competition from the other industries of the county, although six hosiery mills were established in the county between 1908 and 1926.



After the first mills proved successful, others were quick to follow in their footsteps. The Daisy Mill was succeeded by Burlington Knitting Company, Whitehead Hosiery Mill, the Sellars Hosiery Mill, the May Hosiery Mill, and the McEwen Knitting Mill-The last was the first to produce full-fashioned hosiery.

Markets for locally-produced hosiery continued to grow, and a report of 1928 states that they included Sweden, Africa, Central America and other foreign countries, in addition to the home markets.

The first products were seamless hose for men and women. Since the introduction of full-fashioned machinery at McEwen's in 1927, there has been a tremendous increase in the production of men's half-hose and ladies full-fashioned hosiery. Among the local pioneers in this industry were Burton and Will H. May, R. H. Whitehead and John Shoffner.

In the early 1890s the May brothers bought a controlling interest in the Daisy Hosiery Mill, which had been near failure, and later moved the business to South Main Street, where it is now the main plant of the May-McEwen-Kaiser Corporation. In 1948 this corporation became a division of the Burlington Mills.

 Monument to John Shoffner, pioneer hosiery industrialist of Alamance village. It stands on a community playground given in Mr. Shoffner's memory.


building in downtown Burlington and has moved its dyeing and finishing processes to the old Aurora Cotton Mill Building. Standard Hosiery Mills took over the old building of the Alamance Cotton Mill in 1926 and used it until 1947 as a dyeing and finishing plant. Standard now has a large office

 The hosiery industry in this county does not end with the knitting process; silk and rayon throwing and cotton spinning for the making of the threads that go into hosiery are also carried here.




May-McEwen-Kaiser Company, which developed from the May brothers pioneer efforts in the hosiery Industry, has its headquarters in the building at right above, on South Main Street, Burlington. At left center is the Alamance Hotel. The company became a division of Burlington Mills through a merger in 1948.



Shipments of raw silk directly from Japan and of other raw materials from manufacturers in this county reach Alamance County regularly. The intricate machinery used in the manufacture of hosiery was brought to this county from as far away as Germany, and skilled experts came to this area to teach the first manufacturers how to operate it.

Graham's first hosiery mill, Esther, was established on South Main Street in 1927 by the late John Black. Scott-Baker and Company later bought the old Sidney Cotton Mill in North Graham and converted it to the manufacture of hosiery. At present Graham has six hosiery mills.

The 1948 industrial guide of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce lists fifty manufacturers of hosiery or related products within the county. Many of these are small plants which perform a certain process, such as hosiery finishing or yarn-throwing; some are divisions of the larger hosiery companies.


Oldest and most unique of Burlington's industries is the Burlington Coffin Company, which will observe its sixty-ninth year of operation in 1949.

The original frame building erected in 1884 on Maple Avenue and Tucker Street was the first coffin factory between Cincinnati and Atlanta. When fire destroyed most of the first plant in 1904, a portion of the present brick factory replaced it.

Today Burlington Coffin Company turns out all types of caskets, from the "flat-top pauper's case" to the elaborate and expensive mahogany, bronze, stainless steel or copper caskets. An average of between 7,000 and 10,000 caskets are manufactured here annually, well over 100 each week. Funeral directors from several states buy the products made here. Each year the plant uses thousands of feet of North Carolina chestnut, oak, pine and other lumber in its work.

The local company has produced coffins for pet dogs, caskets fitted with metal cylinders for burial documents and other important papers, and caskets with hermetically sealed glass



One of the first industries established in Burlington was the Burlington Coffin Company. This is the original factory building.

domes. The largest coffin ever made at Burlington was for a circus fat man who weighed more than 600 pounds.


Besides the major industries of hosiery and textiles, Alamance manufacturers building materials, brick, stone and lumber, dairy products, paper boxes, soft drinks, chemicals and drugs, electronic equipment, feeds, bakery products, mattresses, furniture, metal goods, and a variety of other items.


The Fairchild Aircraft Corporation established a plant here in 1942, greatly enlarging the old Burlington Rayon Plant on Highway 70 east of Burlington. Improvements were also made, including new hangers and a concrete runway, at the nearby Huffman Airport, which Fairchild used as a testing ground.



In May, 1943, the first Fairchild AT-21 gunner training plane was completed for the U. S. Air Force, and between that date and the fall of 1944, when operations were suspended, the plant assembly line turned out more than a hundred aircraft,

The AT-21 was a twin-engine plane with tricycle landing gear, constructed of laminated plywood and designed for the training of aerial gunners and bombardiers,

Extensive housing projects were completed near the plant while Fairchild operated there, and this area has become a new residential section for Burlington.

The former Fairchild Plant was taken over by the Western Electric Corporation in April, 1946, for the manufacture of electronic equipment. Western Electric now employs 950 local workers in the production of equipment for the Bell Telephone Company and the U. S. Government.


During the severe economic crisis of 1930-1937, Alamance County industry fought the depression and conquered it. "No town in the State has shown its ability to come back better than Burlington," declared a newspaperman from another Carolina city.

Strikes resulted in many factories when wages were cut during the early part of this period, and National Guard troops frequently went on guard duty to prevent damage to the mills. An attempt by strike promoters to dynamite some of the Burlington Mills during the latter part of 1934 resulted in state-wide publicity for the city, but those who headed the plan were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms.

Although numbers of industrial workers received aid from welfare agencies during the depression, the industrial plants of this area managed to operate longer and to pay more normal wages than similar industries in other communities.

Former Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane declared several years ago, "The region of Central North Carolina, stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains to a point about Goldsboro, is destined to become the greatest industrial area in the United States because of its great industrial advantages and economies."


An AT-21 "Gunner" trainer, built at the Fairchild Aircraft Plant in Burlington during World War II, wings its way over Alamance County in a test flight.


Fairchild AT-21 "Gunner" training planes being assembled during World War II at the Fairchild Aircraft plant, now the Western Electric Company, in Burlington.



The industrial development of Alamance County has been a steady, sound and substantial climb, not the "boom" type of other counties; and from the everincreasing expansion of industry in this section, it seems plausible that Secretary Lane's prediction might one day-in the not too distant future-become true.


C. B. Ellis, the oldest active business man in Burlington, recalled the early days in a newspaper interview in 1937:

"When I first came to Burlington the sight didn't look very promising at all. There were only a few stores compared to the number here now-the population was approximately 2500 people, including the outskirts; and if the railroad shops, the Elmira and Aurora mills were to close, there wasn't any business in the town at all...."*

Elmira Cotton Mill, above, was one of the first cotton factories erected in Burlington. It was built in West Burlington in 1886. It now is the Mayfair division of Burlington Mills.


* Times-News, July 1, 1937.



By 1933 the city's business had expanded to include five department stores, seven independent and three chain grocery stores, five furniture stores, five haberdashers, eight restaurants, five hardware stores, and a number of other businesses of various types. The population of Burlington at that time was 9,737, with 20,000 residents in the suburban area.

Burlington's retail and wholesale trade area today covers a radius of fifteen or twenty miles, including all of Alamance County and parts of the five adjoining counties, with a total population of 125,000.

The volume of retail business in Alamance County was $33,000,000 in 1947, according to Sales Management magazine, of which two-thirds was done in Burlington. Burlington ranks fourth in average sales per store among the North Carolina cities of equal population. In 1947 there were approximately six hundred retail stores in the county, including 239 stores and about 275 other businesses in Burlington itself. Burlington's twenty wholesale firms did a $15,000,000 business in 1946.




Chapter 5

Chapter 10

Chapter 15

Chapter 21

Chapter 1

Chapter 6

Chapter 11

Chapter 17


Chapter 2

Chapter 7

Chapter 12

Chapter 18

Book Index

Chapter 3

Chapter 8

Chapter 13

Chapter 19

Chapter 4

Chapter 9

Chapter 14

Chapter 20