For 130 years, it was the fabric of Fort Mill. Museum exhibit tells the whole story

In this photo, taken at the Elliott Plant in 1964, a man performs a roving action, the final phase of carding where fibers are untangled, cleaned and intermixed to produce a continuous string suitable for spinning.
In this photo, taken at the Elliott Plant in 1964, a man performs a roving action, the final phase of carding where fibers are untangled, cleaned and intermixed to produce a continuous string suitable for spinning. Contributed by Fort Mill History Museum

To truly love a place is to know its history, Fort Mil History Museum Director LeAnne Burnett Morse said.

The museum’s newest exhibit, “130 Years of Springs,” pays homage to the fabric of Fort Mill – cotton manufacturing.

“Prior to the incorporation of the mills, there was a farming community here. But the mill created an industry that changed the whole fabric of the town,” Morse said. “Mill villages were built around each plant. People would walk to work and to shop at grocery stores or clothing stores on Main Street.”

With $52,500 and 10 acres of land, Samuel Elliott White, known as “Capt. White” for his Civil War service, founded Fort Mill Manufacturing Company in 1887. Fort Mill #1, the Gingham Mill, was built on land that is now Walter Elisha Park on North White Street, near Main Street.

Morse said employee housing cottages were added near the plant and soon the company was the largest employer in the area, contributing to doubling the town’s population from 450 to 900 residents.

Fort Mill #2, known as the White Plant, also was built in the downtown Fort Mill area, where the building still stands today. In 1895, White’s son-in-law, Leroy Springs, added his expertise in cotton export and started the Lancaster Cotton Mills in 1895. He later became president of Fort Mill Manufacturing.

Springs operated six textile mills in three counties. When he died in 1931, his son, Elliott White Springs, took over as president and consolidated the mills under one name, Springs Cotton Mills – the precursor to Springs Industries.

Morse said under Elliott’s direction, the company moved into finished goods and developed a line that became known worldwide under the Springmaid brand.

“His fearless use of the medium of advertising made Springmaid a global brand and a household name,” she said.

The exhibit includes enlarged photos of mill employees working in the spinning room or carding the cotton – a process of untangling, cleaning and fluffing the fibers for spinning. Showing what life was like for mill employees, one display case contains employee time books. They worked six days per week and earned 56 cents to $1.68 per day.

“Most lived in three- and four-room cottages within walking distance of their plants,” Morse said.

“Rent was free for the first few years, but a weekly fee of 20 cents was eventually charged. The early cottages had outdoor privies, but indoor plumbing was added in the 1920s. Most also had space for the residents to keep a garden and one cow, a few pigs and several chickens.”

The exhibit also displays photographs of several children at work, a common practice in the late 1800s and early 1900s before child labor laws were enacted. Morse said child labor was an important element to helping families make ends meet.

Textile mills were the cornerstone of many towns in North and South Carolina in the turn of the century. And during the Great Depression, a lot of those mills decreased production or closed their doors because of the down-turned economy – but not Springs.

“They kept the mills running, on a reduced basis, so people could work and feed their families,” Morse said. “They just stockpiled the goods because they didn’t have any buyers for them. Although they weren’t sure what they were going to do with it all.”

But when World War II began, Springs had a surplus and the company became the top supplier of an Army uniform twill. Generations of Fort Mill residents never forgot the generosity of Springs for staying open during desperate times.

Though not a native, Morse has lived in Fort Mill for 17 years. She knows the area is rapidly expanding and understands the importance of remembering its history.

“People are coming in, just like I did, and they don’t really know where they’ve landed,” she said. “To differentiate Fort Mill from Charlotte and from Rock Hill, to say ‘these are the things that are special about your town’ is a mission that we take very seriously.”

Stephanie Jadrnicek: stephaniej123@gmail.com

Want to go?

The exhibit “130 Years of Springs” runs through Jan. 31

When: Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m

Where: The museum is located at 107 Clebourne Street, Fort Mill

How much: Admission is free

For more information call 803-802-3640.