Southern Underwear: The Cotton Mills of Franklin(s)ville, NC

Deep River

In our earlier blogpost dated 12/28/14 about the Crenshaw Woolen Mills mention was made of the reciprocal manufacturing arrangement that developed between the Richmond, VA based Crenshaw facility and the cotton mills at Franklinsville, NC along Deep River. Regimental member Dennis Brooks of Siler City kindly brought to my attention much additional information on the Randolph County mills and the vital textile manufacturing support they provided to both the State of North Carolina and the Confederacy. Further research on the subject soon proved this to be a little known story well worth the telling. Read on.

Quaker Levi Coffin, founder of the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company

Quaker Levi Coffin, founder of the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company

Deep River has its headwaters in northwestern Guilford County and flows in a generally southeastwardly direction. Along its 125 mile length the often rocky tributary passes through High Point, Ashboro, Franklinville and Haywood. There it joins the Haw River to form the Cape Fear River which thence flows onward to the sea. Beginning in the early 1800s numerous artisians and manufacturers harnessed the stream’s swift current for various business enterprises. One of these entrepreneurs was a dour, disenfranchised Quaker [he dared marry a Presbyterian!] named Levi Coffin who in 1838 established a Randolph County mill he christened the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company, named for a former governor. Coffin and his initial investors were strong abolitionists but as the years passed profit motives and business pragmatics seemed to temper their idealism.

The little community grew rapidly. A large brick “Factory House” was completed in 1840 that was the largest structure in Randolph County at the time. Dwelling houses for workers sprung up around the mill. Coffin’s initial success prompted him to organize another manufacturing company one-half mile further north, including his sons in the venture. The second factory was similar in appearance to the first but had a fourth floor lighted by a clerestory roof, a feature widely used in English and New England factories. These two facilities came to be known as the “upper” and “lower” mills, a distinction that still exists. The more than 40 worker dwellings supporting these enterprises soon merged together resulting in the incorporation of Franklinsville by the state legislature 1847.

The 1850s were a tumultuous time for the Franklinsville mills due to economic downturns, management changes, acquisitions, labor unrest, mergers, residual political differences over slavery, and even a major fire. By the end of the decade the upper mill was incorporated into the nearby Cedar Falls Manufacturing Company and the lower mill was named Randolph manufacturing Company. Coffin soon turned operational management of the companies over to a skilled textile expert named George Makepeace. The Massachusetts-born Makepeace had worked for Coffin since 1839. By that time the corporation had over 70 employees including many women. Its capital stock was valued at $30,000. Thanks to Makepeace’s guidance the revitalized manufacturing facilities were well positioned to provide high quality spun cotton goods to supply enthusiastic volunteers when sectional hostilities began in 1861.

Cotton undergarments such as this were manufactured by the tens of thousands in Franklinsville

Cotton undergarments such as this were manufactured by the tens of thousands in Franklinsville

The Franklinsville factories quickly emerged as North Carolina’s chief supplier of shirts and drawers to the Confederate States quartermaster. The cotton was spun and woven into sheeting and then cut and sewn by local seamstresses in piece goods fashion with material, thread, and buttons being supplied. The completed clothing items were then baled and transported by ox cart to nearby High Point on the North Carolina Railroad. From there they were shipped to Raleigh where government authorities distributed these garments to the troops. In 1862 Makepeace reported the factories “have been furnishing the State Government for the past year with a large amount of its manufactures for the use of the Army and is now under contract to supply fifty thousand shirts and drawers for the army.”

The Franklinsville mills furnished more than cloth to the Confederate war effort even though Randolph County was predominantly Union in sentiment. Directors of the Cedar Falls Company sponsored, organized, and equipped a company of infantry from the surrounding area. Known as the “Randolph Hornets,” the eager volunteers drilled at Middleton Academy, a local college preparatory school near Franklinsville. Both mills declared a holiday when the “Hornets” marched off to war on July 10, 1861. They became Company “M” of the 22nd North Carolina Troops and served throughout the conflict in the excellent Pender/Scales brigade of the Army of Northern Virginia. A unit of Home Guards was also formed early on to protect the valuable mills from the “Abolitionists and Lincolnites among us.” Threats had been made to burn the Cedar Falls complex once the first volunteers left the county although this did not happen.

A yarn bundle label from the Randolph "lower" mill

A yarn bundle label from the Randolph “lower” mill

As the war progressed the Federal naval blockade of Southern ports soon put a squeeze on spare machine parts, oil, and other specialty materials required for textile production. Blockade running efforts by intrepid sea captains only partially alleviated these shortages. Here is where reciprocal arrangements such as those with Richmond’s Crenshaw Mills proved valuable and necessary to maintain production demands. As cotton warp previously obtained from England became more difficult to procure, Richmond turned to the Franklinsville mills where an “ample supply, nearly as excellent in quality as British warps” was obtained. Likewise, the Cedar Falls Company obtained “woolen warps necessary for their business” from the Crenshaw firm. This would seem to indicate that Franklinsville included woven jeans uniform cloth among its products. The conscription of military age males also caused labor shortages that were in part alleviated by shifts, longer working hours, and an increased number of female workers.

Because of the value of the Franklinsville mills to the Southern war material production they were prime targets for Federal raids, roving bands of deserters, and saboteurs. As a result, the facilities were usually guarded by various Home Guard units. While many of the factories along Deep River were destroyed during the final weeks of the war by either Stoneman’s raiders or Sherman’s advancing armies the Cedar Falls and Randolph installations fortunately escaped overt military mayhem.

Ruins of the Cedar Falls manufacturing Company, also called the "upper mill."

Ruins of the Cedar Falls manufacturing Company, also called the “upper mill.”

Another view of the "upper mill" ruins

Another view of the “upper mill” ruins

Nonetheless, the Civil War left the factories, resources, and population of Randolph County in a sadly depleted state. Like much of the Old South the area soon rebounded with a new spirit of growth and the mills managed to soldier on until finally shutting down in 1977. As if to go with the changing times, Franklinsville officially changed its name to Franklinville in 1917. Fortunately for posterity Franklinville has preserved more of its manufacturing environment and structures than any comparable mill town in the state. Since 1984 its historic district has been officially listed on the national Register of Historic Places. A visit to this nearly forgotten mill town is truly like passing through a time warp (pun intended) for a look into North Carolina’s rich textile manufacturing history.

Thanks again to Dennis Brooks for bringing this fascinating subject to the fore and for his valuable input to this article. Kindly left click on images for larger views. All modern photos of Franklinville used here taken by author February 2015.

by Bob Williams

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Bartering in the Civil War South

Faced with frequent fluctuation of commodities prices and unstable currency values,  Southern businesses out of necessity chose to barter with civilians for “operating capital” rather than shut down. The Orange County (N.C.) Factory Cotton Mill at one time refused Confederate script and would accept only wool or cotton in exchange for yarn, which poorer women did not have. Citizens needed the yarn to make socks and other garments which could be sold to earn money to purchase food. The mill later also bartered for bacon, tallow, or lard in exchange for cotton yarn. Always in short supply, raw wool was also requested by many mills from individuals.

barteringFrancis Fries, owner of the Fries Woolen Mills in Salem, N.C., offered to trade cotton yarn for corn. One citizen father writing to his soldier son informed him: “I hauled my butter…to the factory and bartered for thread and cloth…they paid fifty cents per pound in cash for the balance. They gave me one bunch of thread for ten pounds of butter, one yard of cloth for a pound of butter…they paid me thirty cents per pound of cheese, two dollars per bushel of chestnuts…”

People of Watauga County, N. C. cut hickory saplings, bundled them, and traveled to Saltville, Va. to trade wood for salt. The hickory was used to make barrel hoops. Notices desiring barter appeared in nearly all newspapers. “I will exchange fruit trees, roses, grapevines, and other nursery stock for cotton, at market prices,” advertised Thomas Carter. “The North Carolina Rail Road wants persons to deliver 100-200 cords of wood. This newspaper will pay 20 cents a pound for clean cotton and linen rags, delivered to this office.”

Another publisher posted this announcement: “For the use of the hands in our office, we desire to obtain bacon, meal, potatoes, and any other article of food which can be spared. In exchange we will give envelopes, paper, pens, ink, books, power, caps, tobacco, shoe tacks, and many other useful goods; or will pay cash as may be preferred. We want these necessities of like for the use of our employees only . . .”

There are many interesting examples of various barter mediums. One lady employed by the commissary department received tobacco in place of currency. Women working at the Arsenal in Fayetteville took home Alpaca cloth in lieu of money. A female diarist penned that she send some lard to a merchant in exchange for spun thread. The Richmond Dispatch noted that ten-penny nails were being passed in the Upper Piedmont of Virginia as equal to five cents each. Families combed old out buildings for these nails to trade. Proprietors of boarding houses and hotels sometimes demanded food instead of rent money. “Our landlords will not board except for provisions, putting board and provisions both at old prices, or what will buy them, which runs board up to $150 per month . . .”

Even the North Carolina quartermaster general was willing to barter with civilians. The state had plenty of factory-made cotton yarn but lacked wool. A notice appeared in one newspaper from H.A. Dowd, AQM, that he was prepared to exchange cotton yarn for wool at one bunch of yarn for three pounds of washed wool and one bunch for four pounds of unwashed wool. One bunch was considered equal to five pounds of factory cloth which could be made into fifteen yards. A hank was 840 yards of cotton thread, which weighed one pound. One pound of yarn cost 75 cents to one dollar and would make four pairs of socks.

Agents were appointed to make exchanges at Oxford, Tarboro, Catherine Lake, Kinston, Concord, Rockingham, Pittsboro, Asheville, Hendersonville, Louisburg, Fayetteville, Statesville, and Colerain. In 1860 according to the Agricultural Census, the state raised just over one-half million sheep with Randolph County the highest number and Carteret County the lowest. Sheep had become a necessary animal just like the mule.

00747vApproximately 80 percent of the southern cotton supply was sent to Great Britain in the decade before the war. In 1850, England bought nearly two million bales of cotton from the South. King Cotton provided four to five million jobs to them. When the South first seceded, they initially withheld cotton from England which at that time had a stockpile. After two years of Federal blockade, shipments permanently decreased and 40 percent of English mill workers lost their jobs. This became known as the cotton famine.

Antebellum North Carolina had thirty-nine cotton mills and seven woolen mills. In November of 1861 Governor Henry T. Clark asked proprietors of these cotton mills to make an exclusive contract with the state, break existing contracts with private individuals, and sell only to the government. The mills were to receive no more than a 75 percent profit. Agents roamed in and out of the state to buy wool and raw materials. It was at this point that civilians had to revert to making their own cloth if they could not afford the high prices for fabric. This homemade cloth was known as “homespun.” It could be made of only cotton, only wool, only linen, or a mixture. The “jeans” cloth known in the war era was generally a weave of both cotton and wool.

By Brenda McKean, author of  Blood and War at my Doorstep: North Carolina Civilians in the War Between the States.


Soldiers’ Aid Societies

Even before North Carolina officially left the Union,  the state had already begun making uniforms, accouterments, hospital clothing, etc. for its volunteers. Their goal was to outfit entire companies before they left for the front. Unlike the Northern Sanitary Commission which was expertly organized and initially headed by men, the South’s effort was instead composed of small groups in local communities. Women mostly were in charge.

SAIAid Societies were immediately formed to carry out their task in homes, churches, community centers and the state capital. Ladies and students met in the actual capital building with their sewing machines. Others knitted neck comforts, gloves, and socks. These “clubs” endured competition from other schools to see who could fill the greatest number of boxes sent to the camps. The students from the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind School in Raleigh added to the war effort by making cartridges and sewing.

Called by similar names (Ladies Aid Society, Christ Church Sick Soldiers’ Society, Military Sewing Company, Soldiers’ Relief Society, etc.) some chose to meet daily while others gathered two or three times a week. The average club met weekly. Even children volunteered their time knitting socks, rolling bandages, and writing letters or poems for the soldiers. If living near a hospital, the youngsters often visited patients bringing flowers, straw, water, or singing. This patriotic frenzy spread throughout the South. Though the intensity of such efforts later declined, aid societies continued in North Carolina throughout the war. Research has found the last benefit performed on behalf of the troops was on March 27, 1865 in Raleigh.

Those men too old or unfit for service contributed by making donations of uniforms, food, money, and labor including hauling boxes to camp, hospital work, and help with bazaars/benefits. It was also not unusual for slaves to donate to the aid of soldiers. A slave woman from Richmond County named Hattie gave freely of a linen blanket, gloves, and bandages. The donations of women, children, men, and slaves were printed in local newspapers, perhaps to garner up competition. When supplies grew short newspaper editors made appeals in their papers for people to come forward and give a blanket, a pair of shoes, or whatever was needed. Usually an officer acknowledged the women’s generosity by writing a thank you letter that was often printed in the newspaper.

From the mountains of North Carolina a soldier named Alfred Martin wrote to his wife on February 17th, 1862:

. . .the people are very kind to us & they bring into camp to sell chickens . . . they sell them at very moderate prices. The ladys have a soldiers aid society here & have some clothing on hand that they had not sent off. They called on me & other officers to know if we had any very needy men that had not a change of clothing…they distributed in proportion to our wants . . .This is Southernism in true Dixie . . .”

Aid Societies in the state sought not just to clothe the troops but to care for their spiritual needs as well. Army colportage was considered essential by ministers and their families as a means to fight vice in the military. Thousands of religious tracts as well as testaments circulated in camps.

General P. G. T. Beauregard called for church bells to be melted for war armaments. The state complied. The four cannons comprising the famous Edenton Bell Battery cannons were made from church bells. A few hotels donated their bells as well. Women collected money to be used especially for a gunboat fund. Citizens of Martin County contributed to the building of the iron-clad steamer “Old North State.” Whether any of the funds collected actually went toward the construction of iron-clads is not known. Research indicates that part of the fund was diverted to hospital relief use.

Minstrel shows, concerts, plays, and tableaux (a mute scene on stage) took place to raise money for the war effort. Although it was considered scandalous for women to be on stage at that period of history, it seems society turned a blind eye for the benefit of the troops. Ladies, teens, and even children stepped on the stage many times. One particular popular entertainer was William Gus Reich/Rich. He was a magician, comedian, ventriloquist, and musician with the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band, also known as the Salem Brass Band. A portion of Reich’s performances added to the coffers for the war effort.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn eighty-year old colored man Frank Johnson and his sons played for recruiting officers. It was said that their band’s patriotic performances threw erstwhile recruits into paroxysms of revelry. Before they knew it the recruits had signed their names to muster rolls. Another unique performer was Thomas Bethune, also known as “Blind Tom.” Born a slave to a Georgia family, he played the piano throughout the state and the South raising money for soldiers. “Blind Tom” was an autistic savant. He could play one tune with his left hand and a different song with his right.

The YMCA was active in raising funds for the troops in addition to helping at the hospitals both at home and out of state. Other benevolent organizations included the Raleigh Mutual Relief and Charitable Association, the Cumberland County War Association, the Cumberland County Hospital Association, and the Raleigh Ambulance Committee. Lastly nearly all churches donated money and church members went wherever they were most needed.

The Confederate Congress passed a vote of thanks to the women of the South “for their ardent and cheerful patriotism and well do they deserve, for they have indeed done nobly and upheld the hands and strengthened the hearts of the soldiers.

by Brenda McKean [Adapted from her two volume work: Blood and War at My Doorstep: North Carolina Civilians in the War Between the States]