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Building an Empire: The Textile Center of the World

Spinning in an unidentified Greenville mill

Spinning in an unidentified Greenville mill | Photo provided by Greenville County Historical Society

When we asked y’all what history pieces you wanted us to cover, the number of you who said you wanted to hear more about Greenville’s textile history was huge. It’s no secret textiles played a major role in Greenville’s history – we were the textile capital of the world at one point, after all.

The good news for those of us that love history, especially Greenville history, is that there’s a new documentary all about Greenville’s textile history. It’s called: Building an Empire, the Textile Center of the World.

The cover of Building An Empire, the Textile Center of the World

The cover of Building An Empire, the Textile Center of the World

The Greenville Historical Society was kind enough to give us a copy of it, and while you should definitely be sure to check it out when it shows on PBS (we’ll be sure to let y’all know when that airs), here’s the rundown of the story, Greenville’s story.

“The story of Greenville’s textile crescent is the story of audacious men.” The narrator explains that this meant that the textile industry in Greenville was made up of people who didn’t know much about it, but were fascinated by the potential. All different kinds of people – bankers to farmers, but all entrepreneurs – who all worked together to build an empire.

By the mid 1880s, industrial factories dominated the North. The South, was a different story, where agriculture was still dominant. The South’s cotton industry was booming, but then they shipped large amounts of their cotton up North, where it was used to make fabric in the factories. Eventually, a Charleston man named William Gregg realized – if we grow cotton here, why would we ship it all the way up North when we could just grow it and spin it here?

Gregg thought cotton manufacturing had huge potential, plus could provide much needed jobs to poor South Carolinians – this became especially true after the Civil War. He opened a textile mill in Aiken, S.C. and traveled around to tell people about the potential of this industry.

Camperdown Mill

Camperdown Mill | Photo provided by Greenville County Historical Society

Gregg wasn’t alone in this thinking. Three men from Boston came down to open a cotton spinning operation in an old saw mill that sat on the Reedy River (right in the middle of where downtown is now). It was so successful, they opened another mill across the river – the Camperdown mill. The mills had a rough start. There were fires (as cotton + cotton dust are, ya know, highly flammable) and as the economy was not doing so great, business fluctuated badly. Despite these setbacks, they knew the potential for this industry in the Upstate was too good to ignore, so they kept looking.

Then, another Charleston man named Ellison Adger Smyth, along with his friends, opened Pelzer Manufacturing Company along the Saluda River in Pelzer in Anderson County, S.C. Smyth’s $4,000 investment into his Anderson mill turned into $9 million. Smyth also was the one who founded The Poinsett Club + become the first president of Chicora College. He was the personification of the growth of the industry in Greenville.

Spinning in an unidentified Greenville mill

Spinning in an unidentified Greenville mill | Photo provided by Greenville County Historical Society

As more mills opened, most of the men operating them, like Smyth, had no experience in textile mills. They were all men interested in the industry + had the money to make the investment. Huguenot Mill was one of the many new mills that opened and was the first mill in the South to make gingham. Even though more mills were popping up, they were still struggling, and a few mills had to close.

Then things changed. Poe Mill was constructed and became very successful, and new mills began popping up what seemed like everywhere. Construction of the mills became almost as important of a business as the operation of the mills. Then came Woodside Mill, which became the largest textile mill under one roof in the world.

Brandon mill plant, houses + ballpark

Brandon mill plant, houses + ballpark | Photo provided by Greenville County Historical Society

By 1903, Greenville had eight cotton mills and one bleachery + finishing company, forming Greenville’s textile crescent. The industry continued to flourish + increase their capacity. The men who owned + operated the mills were competitors, but also friends who shared experience + business strategy. There was a sense of trust among these men, they were truly all in this together.

This is only the beginning...Greenville’s textile story is so full of cool history like mill villages, S.C.’s first boy scout troop, the Textile Baseball League (helloooo Shoeless Joe Jackson), the stock market crash, and so much more. To see the rest of the story, you can watch the documentary online here.