Chapter 9 "E. M. Holt And The Cotton Mill"

Chapter 9


The production of cotton textiles, which ranks today as the oldest and one of the largest industries of Alamance County, owes its beginning to a tall, modest country storekeeper and farmer who became king of a cotton empire. Edwin Michael Holt built this county's first cotton mill on the bank of Alamance Creek in 1837, and there produced the first colored cotton fabrics to be manufactured in the South.

BORN in 1807, E. M. Holt was one of a family of six children. His father, Michael Holt III, operated a large farm, kept a machine shop, and ran a general store near the village that is now Alamance. In addition, he found time to serve in the State Legislature. Edwin's mother, Rachel Rainey Holt, was the daughter of the Reverend Benjamin Rainey, pioneer minister and educator.

Young Edwin grew up in a mixed environment of agriculture, mechanics, merchandising, politics and religion. From his father he inherited an insatiable curiosity and from his mother a keen intellect. He attended the log-cabin village school in winter and helped his father on the farm or in the store in summer. Whenever he could, the boy slipped away to his father's machine shop to watch the making of wheels for one of the farm wagons or the shaping of some part for the grist mill on the Creek. Mechanical things fascinated him.

Shortly after his twenty-first birthday, the handsome, dark-eyed Edwin married Miss Emily Farish, the daughter of a prosperous Chatham County farmer, and built for her a home, "Locust Grove," on the plantation where his ancestors had fought the Battle of Alamance. Mrs. Holt bore him ten children, one of whom,



Thomas M. Holt, was destined to become Governor of North Carolina.

Following his marriage, Edwin settled down to the job of running his father's store. Occasionally, he made trips to Greensboro, where he became acquainted with a man named Humphries, and soon the two men became good friends.

Humphries had recently started a small cotton yarn factory, and Edwin frequently stopped by to watch the machinery transform raw cotton into long, coarse threads of cotton yarn. There were only three other cotton factories in the State in those days, and most staple growers had to ship their cotton crops to northern manufacturers, and, in exchange, pay high prices for the cotton yarn which they bought. Edwin quickly realized the advantages which the South had over the North in cotton manufacturing. Here were raw material close at hand, low freight rates to factories, numerous streams for water power, and abundant labor which could become skilled labor. Why not manufacture the South's cotton in the South?

Inspired by what he had seen in Humphries' mill, Edwin determined to start his own factory. He felt certain that his father would agree to let him erect a cotton mill near the family grist mill on Alamance Creek. The plan, however, did not appeal to the senior Mr. Holt. A conservative businessman, Michael Holt was dubious about any investment in the cotton mill business. Undaunted, however, by his father's refusal, Edwin took his plan to his brother-in-law, William Carrigan, and invited Carrigan to become his partner. Without waiting for Carrigan to make up his mind, Edwin then set out eagerly for Paterson, New Jersey, to purchase machinery for a mill which he did not know where he would build.

On his return by way of Philadelphia, he ran into an old friend of the Holt family, Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin, a fellow North Carolinian. It was not long before Judge Ruffin was fully acquainted with Edwin's plans and problems. He advised the ambitious young man to return home and to inform his father that Judge Ruffin had faith in cotton mills, and that it Michael Holt would not support his son's plans, Edwin might build his cotton factory on Haw River beside Judge Ruffin's grist mill. Furthermore, the



Judge was willing to become Edwin's partner, himself, and to lend the younger man any money which he needed. With a light heart and new hope, Edwin hurried back to the farm.

Michael Holt greatly admired Judge Ruffin and had much confidence in the Judge's wisdom and common sense. After Edwin had related in detail his conversation with the Judge, the elder Mr. Holt relented and offered his son the use of water power on Alamance Creek for his mill, and, if he wished, his father as a partner. Edwin refused his father's offer to become a partner in the business because of the financial risk involved; but, by this time, William Carrigan had made up his mind.

Edwin Michael Holt established the first cotton mill in Alamance County, and one of the first in the State, in 1837. At the original mill on Alamance Creek, shown above, were manufactured the first Alamance plaids, a cotton goods which became nationally famous.

Holt and Carrigan erected the necessary buildings and opened their cotton mill in 1837-right in the face of a national panic. Nevertheless, the business survived. The machinery arrived from New Jersey and was hauled by wagon from Petersburg, Virginia, to the Alamance Mill. With it came an expert machinist who spent the next eighteen months teaching the new mill owners to make cotton yarns. The Holt-Carrigan factory was located at the end of the bridge which today connects Burlington with Alamance



village. Its first product was not the finished cotton fabrics of later times, but five-pound bundles of "bunch yarn," which were sold to peddlers for resale throughout the country side, or were hauled to various towns for sale as hand-knitting yarns or weaving yarns for hand looms. Some yarns were shipped to such distant markets as Philadelphia.

The mill operated 528 spindles during a twelve to fourteen hour work day. In winter, work stopped at seven in the evening. Edwin Holt arose by daylight in summer and before dawn in winter, ate his breakfast by candlelight, and was at the factory by six-thirty to start the machinery. During the winter, he always remained a half hour longer in the evening to see that all the lamps were out and that the stoves offered no danger of fire. The mill was lighted by whale-oil lamps and was heated by wood-burning stoves.

Women were employed at the factory and were paid twenty-five cents a day for their labor, while men received forty cents a day, and children worked for ten to twenty cents. As machinery improved, the working week was set at seventy-two hours, then sixty-six, sixty and fifty-five hours. Men later ran four looms for wages of $4.80 a week-80 cents a day.

The original Holt Cotton Mill at Alamance was replaced by this building, a portion of which served until 1948 as the finishing plant of Standard Hosiery Mills.



A traveler through this section in January 1849, left the following description of the Holt-Carrigan factory:

"I left the place of Pyle's Defeat toward noon, and, following a sinuous and seldom-traveled road through a forest of wild crab trees and black jacks, crossed the Alamance at the cotton factory of Holt and Carrigan . . . This factory, in the midst of a cotton-growing country, and upon a never-failing stream, cannot be otherwise than a source of great profit to the owners. The machinery is chiefly employed in the manufacture of cotton yarn. Thirteen hundred and fifty spindles were in operation. Twelve looms were employed in the manufacture of coarse cotton goods . . . " *

The factory ran successfully under the firm name of Holt and Carrigan until 1851. Mr. Carrigan's wife, Nancy Holt Carrigan, who was Edwin's sister, died in that year, and shortly afterwards the former partner sold his interest to Edwin and moved with his family to Arkansas.

Edwin then wrote to his son Thomas, who was living in Philadelphia, and asked him to come to Alamance to help manage the factory.

"In 1853," Thomas Holt later recalled, "there came to our place of business on Alamance Creek, a Frenchman, who was a dyer, and was 'hard up' and out of money, without friends. He proposed to teach me how to color cotton yarns if I would pay him the sum of one hundred dollars and give him his board. I persuaded my father to allow me to accept the proposition and immediately went to work with such appliances as we could scrape up, an eighty gallon copper boiler which my grandfather used for purpose of boiling potatoes and turnips for his hogs; a large cast-iron wash-pot which happened to be in the store on sale at the time. With these implements I learned my A.B.C.'s in dyeing.

"As speedily as possible we built a dye-house and acquired the necessary utensils for dyeing. The Frenchman remained with me until I thought I could manage by myself. I got along very well, with the exception of dyeing indigo blue. Afterwards an expert dyer in blue came from Philadelphia who taught me the art of dyeing in that color. He then put two negro men to work with me,

* Beecher, George. Science and Chance in Alamance County Life, Elon College, 1938. There is optimism in this account, for Mr. Holt frequently noted in his diary that the factory was "stopped for want of water," when the Creek was low.



and side by side I worked with them at the dye tubs for over eight years.

"We then put in some four-box looms and commenced the manufacture of the class of goods . . . known as 'Alamance Plaids'

Following the addition of dye works to the Holt factory, looms were installed and weaving was begun. Mr. Holt filled his diary during this period with notes on the factory. Transportation between Alamance County and northern cities in the mid-1800s is also interestingly pictured in this diary:

"Mond (March 17, 1845) . . . Started to New York to purchase machinery & goods . . . Tues.-Arrived at Hillsboro . . . Wed,-left Hillsboro in company with Stephan Moore . . . Thurs. -Arrived at Oxford; took the Rail Road at Henderson & arrived at Petersburg 3 o'clock in the morning . . . Sat.-Left Petersburg at 5 o'clock breakfasted in Richmond; dined on board the Steam Boat on the Potomac; passed through Washington City about 5 o'clock; Baltimore 8 o'clock . . .

"Sund.-Arrived in Philadelphia at 3 1/2 o'clock; went to Church . . . Wed.-Arrived in N. Y.; went to Paterson (New Jersey) . . . Thurs.-Bought of C. Danforth 528 spindles & Preparation & returned to N. Y. in the morning . . . Sund.-Went to church in the morning . . . Mond.-Returned to Philadelphia at night . . . Sat. (April 5)-Arrived at home; found all well."1

General Benjamin Trollinger built the older part of the Granite Cotton Mills on Haw River in 1844. It was started with the same number of spindles as Holt's, 528. In 1858 the failure of another investment caused the owners of this mill to lose it, and Thomas M. Holt took charge. The mill at Saxapahaw was built in 1849.

By the beginning of the War Between the States, the Holt factory in Alamance was operating 1200 spindles and ninety-six looms. Three of Edwin Holt's sons, James Henry, William Edwin and Lynn Banks, enlisted in the Confederate service and the factory supplied the Confederate Armies with much material aid.

* Beecher. op. cit.

1. E. M. Holt's Diary: typewritten manuscript in University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill.



A year after his "boys" returned from the War, Mr. Holt retired from the active management of the factory. For many years he was an associate judge of the county court, and he also was influential in the founding of the North Carolina Railroad; yet he was much more interested in business than in politics. With his sons, he established the Commercial National Bank of Charlotte. Honesty and industry made for him a fortune, which was estimated at the time of his death to be the largest in the State.

Death came to the aged industrialist on May 14, 1884, at his "Locust Grove" home. The cotton mill empire which he had built lived after him, however. Five of his sons established their own mills in Alamance and adjoining counties, and the Holt family still maintains interests in the cotton mill business of this State. Near the home in which he lived, the E. M. Holt School, one of the larger of the Alamance County Schools, stands today as a monument to the achievements of Edwin Michael Holt.

Fire destroyed part of the original Holt factory building in 1871, but the damage was repaired and the mill continued to operate until November, 1926. The E. M. Holt Plaid Mills in West Burlington and other mills manufactured the world-famous "Alamance Plaids" until recent years.

The Holt factory building was sold to Standard Hosiery Mills and was used until 1947 as a part of the hosiery-finishing plant. The dilapidated structure was then dismantled and part of its timbers used in reconstruction of the old Stafford grist mill near Kimesville. Most of the mill houses were sold by Standard Hosiery Mills to company employees.

The expansion of the cotton industry in Alamance County in later years will be explained in a later chapter.



Chapter 5

Chapter 11

Chapter 16

Chapter 21

Chapter 1

Chapter 6

Chapter 12

Chapter 17


Chapter 2

Chapter 7

Chapter 13

Chapter 18

Book Index

Chapter 3

Chapter 8

Chapter 14

Chapter 19

Chapter 4

Chapter 10

Chapter 15

Chapter 20