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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