Textile mills are part of our local heritage.

The first textile mill in America, however, was established in 1790 in Rhode Island by Samuel Slater. He had worked at mills in England and secretly copied their machine designs from memory before immigrating to America.

It was illegal in Great Britain to export such designs, so I guess Slater was guilty of what we now refer to as “theft of intellectual property.” His machinery worked well and was adopted for use across New England.

Charles Metcalfe started the first cotton mill in McMinn County around 1850 on his farm at Mt. Verd. Slaves picked and baled the cotton grown on Metcalfe’s farm for the female spinners to use at the mill. Metcalfe also operated a butter factory that employed females.

Sandra Nipper Ratledge, who researched and wrote about the Metcalfe operation, noted the unusual number of widows and single women living at Mt. Verd when the 1850 and 1860 censuses were taken. She wondered if they might have moved into the area to work at the Metcalfe factories.

In 1857, John Dixon founded Eureka Cotton Mill on Chestuee Creek. A village was built there for workers and their families that included a school, church and company store. Around 1900, the Brient Family, who then owned Eureka Mill, moved the entire operation to Tellico Junction, the spot where the Athens-Tellico Railway crossed the Knoxville Southern Railroad (later bought by Louisville & Nashville).

The new location offered distinct advantages. The mill could ship by rail instead of horse and wagon. It also eliminated any worries about creek levels. The old mill was powered by water, but the new one had a coal fired boiler.

I visited the Eureka Mill one time and saw the huge boiler there. I was told it was originally part of a steam train locomotive. Englewood attracted a number of other mills over several decades and the worker villages grew into the town we know today.

The Getty brothers built a woolen mill on Oostanaula Creek in 1875. Today, the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The old mill is still standing and can be seen from the road, but it’s not open to the public. The first time I came across it, I thought I had entered a time machine.

By the early 1900s, textile mills employed more people than most other industries in the region. Woolen mills had been established at Athens and Sweetwater. The Burns Family started a sock factory at Niota in 1902.

Inspired by the name of the Cincinnati-to-New Orleans train that ran through Niota, they named the company “Crescent.” It is still owned by the same family.

A 1912 issue of “Iron Age” reported Prendergast Lumber Company’s plan to erect a cotton mill at Prendergast (now Delano). A 1922 issue of “Industrial Development & Manufacturing” highlighted the addition of 30 knitting machines to be installed at the Etowah plant owned by Richmond Hosiery Mills.

Numerous other mills were scattered across the area. There is not enough column space to name each one, so don’t flog The Advocate & Democrat for my incomplete list.

Textile mills aided the developing economy of our area, but the industry had a dark underbelly. Between 1880 and 1910, roughly a quarter of all textile workers in America were under the age of 16. Some were younger than 12.

Reformers tried to curb the practice, but they failed until the National Child Labor Committee hired Lewis Hine to photograph children working in factories.

Hine traveled the eastern United States, documenting children laboring in factories and mines. In 1910, he visited Athens, Sweetwater and Cleveland.

In his notes, he commented that the little girls he spotted at the Athens mill before lunch were not visible when he returned, implying they were deliberately hidden. He wrote that the smallest girl at the Cleveland mill said, “I ravels and pick up.”

A boy he interviewed at a different mill commented on the Cleveland mill. The child said, “Over in Cleveland, they work’em so little, they have to stand’em on boxes to reach.”

There were other problems related to working conditions in textile mills. In 1936, a congressional committee was considering standardizing labor conditions. One speaker noted that some women in Southern states were working as much as 60 hours a week because there were no state laws governing hours for women.

Also, in 1936, during a U.S. House of Representatives proceeding, Athens Woolen Mill and Sweetwater Woolen Mill were specifically mentioned for labor violations.

Like so many industries that came and went, most of our textile mills moved to other countries in search of cheap labor and lax environmental regulations. When Don Sundquist was governor of Tennessee, he visited Etowah and Tellico Plains after the towns lost a combined 700 sewing factory jobs in one year because the companies moved to Central America.

To learn about local textile mill heritage, start with a visit to the Englewood Textile Museum. Then step into Katy’s Fabrics, located just a few steps away from the museum.

McMinn Living Heritage Museum in Athens also offers exhibits that highlight McMinn County mills. While in Athens, check out the Crescent Sock Shop on Decatur Pike, owned by our longest running, locally owned textile factory.

Suggested Reading:

“Then & Now: The Women of Englewood’s Textile Mills,” co-editors Carol Jo Evans & Helen Brown

“Englewood … The Town and Its People,” edited by Bobbie Armstrong Dixson

“From Furs to Factories,” by Betty J. Duggan

“The Most They Ever Had,” by Rick Bragg

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Linda Caldwell is the former executive director of the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association. She has served on numerous regional, state, and national boards for organizations that focus on history, preservation, community arts, and rural economic development. She can be reached at lindacaldwell1942@gmail.com

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