A Timeline of Mill History & the People of Burke County
“ I never heard Dad tell me many stories about the furniture work inside the factory, just about mostly the people that worked there and where they’d come from...there was a lot of manual skilled labor involved, and I would hope people will look back and see that people really had to work hard back then to make this nation great''.
--Turner Snipes, former furniture worker
Time-traveling through family history. Can you trace your geographic roots?
Inhabitants of the lands that became Burke County when English, Scotch-Irish, and German settlers first moved into the area. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many of these settlers
came from Pennsylvania, having traveled south through the Shenandoah Valley along what
came to be known as the Great Wagon Road. After the Civil War, the development of the
Southern Railroad through Burke County led to increased contact with the rest of the
state and region and brought industrial development to Morganton and the county's
Photo Courtesy of the North Carolina Room of the Burke County Public Library
Mill Events in Burke County
Towards Building Successful
The Schenck-Warlick Mill
The first cotton textile mill in Lincolnton sets the stage for what will become a
thriving textile industry in the state.
After the Civil War, 1861-1865, with farming providing a less reliable income for many North Carolina families, migration from rural to factory life begins. The transition is challenging, especially for children.
Textile factory workers had 12 hour plus workdays under very poor working conditions. Underage children were overworked. Factory wages during this industrial revolution were about $2 dollars a day.
Manufacturing comes to Morganton, NC
The Morganton Trading Co. built a Hosiery Mill, now the site of the Morganton City Hall.
The Dunavant Cotton Manufacturing Co. is built, Morganton’s oldest cotton mill is
built by Sam Dunavant, near the railroad he has built connecting Morganton to Asheville.
The location of the Dunavant Mill, now Alpine Mill No. 7, a renovated mixed-use complex,
is located across from Morganton’s Train Depot.
Photo Courtesy of Picture Burke, the North Carolina Room
of the Burke County Public Library
Drexel Furniture Company
Formally organized in 1903, Drexel opened near Morganton, and in time, acquired other furniture plants. Drexel Heritage in 1986 became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Masco Corporation. After buying several other leading North Carolina furniture makers, Masco by the late 1980s became the largest U.S. furniture manufacturer.
By the beginning of this century, with a boom in textile manufacturing, North Carolina establishes a legitimate textile industry, The emerging furniture industry, which had origins in the manufacture of wooden spindles used in area textile mills, urban life began to displace farm life and an agrarian economy.
About 25% of all southern mill workers were between the ages of 10 and 16. Some workers were even younger, as families needed the income, and as the factory owners wanted least costly labor.
Lewis Hine became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC).
He documented the use of child labor in Piedmont North Carolina and his documentation
aided the NCLC lobbying efforts to end the practice.
Henry River Mill Village
From cotton yarn manufacturer to being filmed as District 12 in the movie “The Hunger
Games”. As industrialization prospered at Valdese and in Morganton in the first two
decades of the twentieth century, similar activity was occurring in other parts of Burke
County, where a water-powered cotton mill, a mill village, and a mill store on Henry River
in eastern Burke were built by the Rudisill brothers.
1914-1918 WWI The war helped the southern cotton mills prosper, with new jobs made
plentiful in North Carolina mills as the government ordered a variety of war materials such as
tents and uniforms.
Before the 1920s, hosiery mills focused on the production of underwear, socks, and hosiery. Conditions of trench warfare led to a shortage of socks in particular...and the mills were encouraged to support the troops.
(1917-1918 U.S. World War I poster: "Our boys need sox - knit your bit / American Red Cross" Sox was Teddy Roosevelt spelling.)
Garrou-Morganton Full-Fashioned Hosiery Mills also known as Premier Hosiery Mills
and Morgantown Hosiery Mills, is a historic hosiery mill complex located at Morganton,
Burke County, North Carolina.
Nylon Hosiery introduced at the NY World’s Fair amid great excitement! In 1942, during
WWII, nylon products were diverted to the war effort making parachutes, tents, aircraft fuel tanks, mosquito netting and more...
The second World War period was a boom for the mills.
After 1945 a major growth trend developed again. Continuous expansion occurred in the existing furniture and textile companies with the formation of several additional furniture-manufacturing corporations, notably Henredon and Crestline. There was also an extensive proliferation of small hosiery mills, particularly in the Hildebran area.
By the 1960s & 1970s
Burke County’s textile boom continued through World War II, when war production peaked. By the 1960s and ‘70s, however, the tide was turning. Aging plants and intensifying competition led to the closing of mill after mill. As industry relocated, the mill town became less and less useful. The Henry River Mill shut down in 1973.
The changes proved painful for employees, who lost jobs and sometimes benefits such as company pensions.
The communities built around textile operations suffered as well. Between 1975 and 1985, more than 800 mills closed nationwide, and employment in North Carolina's textile mills fell from an all-time high of 293,600 in 1973 to 211,300 in 1986. Many former textile mills were renovated for housing, offices and retail shops.
Highpoint acquired the nickname Furniture Capital of the World
During this time North Carolina produced approximately one half of the furniture sold in
the United States. Furniture manufacturing remained a key segment of the state’s
economy through the early 1990s. The industry peaked at more than 600 furniture
manufacturers and employing nearly 70,000 people.
A significant downsizing of the industry commenced in the late 1990s when the reputation of North Carolina as the foremost center of furniture manufacturing was increasingly challenged. New customers were not willing to buy higher-priced domestically-produced furniture, and the economics did not work anymore. Imports from Asia, namely China, were simply too cheap.
With respect to textile manufacturing as the 21st Century commenced, free trade regulations and stiff price competition from global developing countries triggered a steady relocation of this industry from the Carolinas to overseas production.
Late 20th Century
The City of Morganton purchased the Premier Hosiery Mills from bankruptcy court when the building was advertised for sale. The property was restored and Morganton agreed to relocate its City Hall to the repurposed buildings as the anchor tenant. The property now includes 43 residential loft apartments and commercial space with an attractive outdoor courtyard.
Renovation of the old Premier Hosiery Mill into the Morganton Trading Company was completed in 2007. Moreover, the current redevelopment of the old Drexel Plant #7 into a mixed-use development known as Alpine #7 is underway.
Photo Courtesy of the North Carolina Room of the Burke County Public Library
Photo Courtesy of Picture Burke, the North Carolina Room of the Burke County Public Library-John T. Oxford, Jr.'s Walt Greene Collection
Pilot Full Fashion Mills Valdese, NC Credit: Picture Burke, History Museum of Burke County and NC room John T. Oxford, Jr.'s Walt Ggreene Collection