Alamance Mill Village Historic District
The Alamance Mill Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. Adaptation copyright © 2012, The Gombach Group.
The Alamance Mill Village Historic District meets criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places in the areas of Industry and Social History for its strong association with the development of the textile industry in Alamance County and for its association with the dramatic shift in North Carolina's social history as many people left their farms in the nineteenth century to work in textile mills and live in mill villages owned by the mills. The Alamance Mill Village Historic District also meets criteria for its architectural significance in embodying the distinctive characteristics of the residential section of a mill village with three different types of mill houses representing three different periods of construction. Two other houses in the Alamance Mill Village Historic District are also architecturally significant in representing distinctive features from the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, and the mill dam is significant as an impressive and well-preserved example of nineteenth-century engineering. The Alamance Mill Village Historic District is significant at the local level, and its period of significance spans the years from ca.1840, the date of the oldest house in the district, to 1947, the year in which Standard Hosiery Mill closed and the unity of mill and village began to wane.
Historical Background and Industry, Social History, and Architecture Contexts
Although the textile industry in North Carolina began in the early nineteenth century, its early progress was slow. Only four mills were built prior to 1830. The state's first cotton mill was erected in 1813 by Michael Schenck in Lincoln County; Joel Battle built the Rocky Mount Mills in 1818; and George McNeil followed in 1825 with a yarn mill near Fayetteville. In the central Piedmont, Henry Humphries's Mount Hecla Mill first operated on a stream outside Greensboro from 1818 to around 1825. It was reorganized and enlarged between 1828 and 1830, becoming the first steam-powered mill in the state (Glass, Textile Industry, 8, 10; Standard and Griffin, "Origin and Growth to 1830," 27, 34).
The presence of good water power, the absence of a sizeable planter class, the emergence of a market economy, and, by the mid-nineteenth century, rail transportation, made the Piedmont region the ideal location for textile development in the state. Over time, Alamance County became one of the most significant of North Carolina's textile-producing counties, helping the state emerge in the twentieth century as the leading manufacturer of textile products in the United States (Glass, Textile Industry, 1, 7). John Trollinger built the first textile mill in the county in 1832 at the site of his grandfather's grist mill on the Haw River. Within five years, Trollinger's Mill had 1,000 spindles spinning yarn for the local market. In 1836 the Cane Creek Manufacturing Company was established by twenty community shareholders who subscribed a capital of $10,000. The mill was located about twelve miles south of Trollinger's mill. Unfortunately, that mill's capital proved insufficient, and it suffered numerous adversities until it was sold in 1857 to E.M. Holt, a manufacturer who, by that time, had a proven record (Troxler and Vincent, 344-345).
Edwin Michael Holt (1807-1884) played a pivotal role in the development of textile manufacturing in Alamance County and North Carolina from the late 1830s until his death and then through his descendents who followed his calling. E.M. Holt grew up on the large farm of his father, Michael Holt III, around the site of the Alamance Battlefield and the present village of Alamance. After his marriage in 1828, he took over the operation of his father's store, but soon became interested in manufacturing. Through the business of the store and other connections, Holt became acquainted with several influential manufacturers in the state, including Charles Mallet, Francis Fries, John Motley Morehead, and Henry Humphries, who provided him with good counsel, support, and friendship. In 1836 he traveled to Fayetteville to visit Mallet, whose Phoenix Mill was the largest in antebellum North Carolina. The same year he journeyed to Forsyth County to visit Francis Fries, whose Salem Cotton Manufacturing Company was proving to be a success. Within a couple of years, John Motley Morehead had built a factory in Rockingham County; during his tenure as governor (1841-1845), he was a strong advocate for industrialization. However, it was Holt's more frequent visits with Henry Humphries and his steam-powered Mount Hecla Mill near Greensboro that influenced him most and made Holt decide that owning a cotton factory was what he most wanted to do (Troxler and Vincent, 345; Whitaker, 99-100; Stockard, 89).
Much about E.M. Holt's entry into cotton manufacturing and his first mill is known through an article written in the late nineteenth century by his son, Governor Thomas M. Holt, and published in 1900 in S.W. Stockard's History of Alamance. Other sources, including E.M. Holt's own diary, flesh out the picture of Holt's first mill and the village that surrounded it. Having determined to go into textile manufacturing, Holt approached his father, from whom he had hoped to gain approval. He also hoped that his father would join him in the enterprise and erect a small cotton factory on a site on Great Alamance Creek about a mile from the homes of the two men where Michael Holt III already had a grist mill. The water power of the creek would be sufficient to operate both undertakings. However, the elder Holt strongly opposed the idea and tried to dissuade his son from his intended venture. E.M. Holt then approached his brother-in-law, William A. Carrigan, about going into partnership with him. After much consideration, Carrigan still could not decide what to do. While Carrigan was trying to make up his mind, Holt, set in his course, headed to Paterson, New Jersey, to place an order for mill machinery. Whether out of justified confidence or the foolishness of youth, Holt forged ahead with his plan, although neither funding for the project nor a site for the mill was in hand. On his return south, Holt stopped in Philadelphia to meet with Chief Justice Thomas Ruffin, who at the time owned "a water power and grist mill" on the Haw River (Stockard, 90). Ruffin was highly supportive of the young Holt, offering him a location for his mill on the Haw River and himself as a partner or a loan for as much as he needed, if he preferred that rather than having a partner. Upon returning home and hearing of the conversation with Chief Justice Ruffin, William Carrigan finally agreed to enter into partnership with Holt. They bought the water power on Great Alamance Creek from E.M. Holt's father for a nominal price, erected the necessary buildings, and started the factory during the financial panic of 1837. The name of the firm was Holt and Carrigan, and it remained so until 1851, during which time Holt oversaw the mill's daily operations, and Carrigan ran the company store and kept the mill books. In 1851, with Carrigan's wife (Holt's sister) having recently died, Carrigan decided to move to Arkansas with his two older sons, and sold his interest in the factory to Holt (Stockard, 89-91; Troxler and Vincent, 346).
When the Holt and Carrigan mill machinery arrived in 1837 from the makers, Godwin, Clark and Company of Paterson, New Jersey, it was accompanied by a mechanic who set up the machinery and then remained for about eighteen months to operate it and to instruct Holt in its operation until Holt became competent to supervise the running of the mill himself. Thereafter, in the early years of the mill, Holt oversaw the hands-on operation of the mill's twelve-hour days. As soon as the mill was paid for, however, he hired a bright young man from the country and instructed him in the running of the mill. After the new hire had been adequately trained, the mill was turned over to him to manage under Holt's supervision. This allowed Holt to spend much less time in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the mill and more time related to other matters of concern relative to textile production (Stockard, 93-94; Beatty, 18, 20).
Holt and Carrigan's Alamance Cotton Mill began with 528 spindles. For the first eight years, the mill produced only undyed yarn, which was packed in five-pound bundles and sold in the company store, commissioned to peddlers, or taken by wagon for sale in other parts of the state for use as weaving yarn. During these years, the factory operated off the same old water wheel and dam that provided power for Michael Holt's grist mill and sawmill. This changed, however, in the mid 1840s, when E.M. Holt expanded his textile operations, doubling the number of the mill's spindles and adding power looms so that the mill could produce cloth as well as yarn. This necessitated the enlargement of both the water wheel and the dam (Troxler and Vincent, 347; Beatty, 18, 20).
In the 1840s, antiquarian Benson Lossing traveled throughout the eastern United States to locate and describe places associated with the American Revolution. In January 1849, after visiting the nearby site where the Regulators had fought Governor Tryon's militia in 1771, he passed by the Holt and Carrigan Cotton Factory and stopped to inspect this example of Southern industry. Lossing's comments on the rural industrial scene, published in the second volume of his Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution, touched on two important and interrelated factors in the operation of a Southern textile mill: the workers and the workers' housing. According to Lossing: "Around this mill quite a village of neat log houses, occupied by the operatives, were collected, and everything had the appearance of thrift. I went in and was pleased to see the hands of intelligent white females employed in a useful occupation" (Lounsbury, 36).
There was no town, or even village, where E.M. Holt had built his mill. Instead, like most early mill sites in piedmont North Carolina, it was located on a waterway in a very rural area. There was no ready labor pool from which to draw employees for the mill. Instead, the surrounding area was filled with farms and the families and laborers who lived and worked on the farms. Many of these farms, however, were struggling, so that other income-producing options appeared attractive. As a result, here and elsewhere in piedmont North Carolina, many left the farm environment they knew to take "public work" in a mill that paid a wage, hoping that it would bring them the security and stability they lacked (Glass, Textile Industry, 19). For simple economic reasons — they could be paid less than men — the majority of people working in North Carolina mills throughout the nineteenth century were young unmarried white women and children. Yet, the minority of adult male workers held the most highly skilled and supervisory positions (Beatty, 55). These trends are well illustrated by the Holt and Carrigan Cotton Factory listing in the 1850 census. Of sixty-one total employees, fifty-three were female. However, the male employees were paid almost twice as much as the females (1850 Census).
In order to attract workers, mill owners had to provide housing and a desirable place to live. In piedmont North Carolina where workers were leaving farms to work at the mill, this meant building a mill village that would adapt rural living patterns and regional house forms — in particular, detached houses on large lots with room for house gardens and a few animals. The houses were not unlike the farmhouses from which the workers came. Edwin Holt recruited families to live in the houses he built and expected them to furnish several hands apiece to work in the mill (Glass, Textile Industry, 18; Beatty, 54; Bishir, 433).
In its village and in its housing, Alamance Mill Village followed typical patterns of development seen elsewhere in the textile-manufacturing areas of North Carolina. Mill villages varied in size and evolved over time, as new houses replaced older houses or increased the total number of houses. However, the basic form of the village remained the same. That form dictated that the mill, warehouse, office, company store, and supervisor's house — all those elements providing manufacturing and management functions — were located at the lower end of the village. From there, a single road or several roads rose uphill, lined with identical mill houses and any social elements of the village, such as a church, school, or lodge that existed (Glass, "Southern Mill Hills," 139). Later, when mills no longer depended on water power and thus could be built in more urban areas, the topography might be more level and the roads curving, but the various elements that made up the village remained the same. Over time, mill villages became tight-knit communities of families and neighbors who worked and lived together, sometimes for generations.
The general character of workers' housing in mill villages evolved slowly from the 1830s through the first quarter of the twentieth century. Although houses varied in size and plan based on need from mill to mill throughout the nineteenth century, they were all simple vernacular dwellings that reflected the character of basic farmhouses during those decades. The earliest houses, dating from the 1830s and 1840s, were one-story log structures. Like their farmhouse counterparts, they were replaced within a couple of decades with one, one-and-a-half, or two-story frame dwellings with gable roofs, gable-end chimneys, and either hall-and-parlor or center-hall plans. These houses often had separate kitchens and sometimes rear ells or rear shed rooms. Through much of the nineteenth century, local carpenters built identical houses within a certain mill village. Later, area builders followed standardized plans to achieve uniformity. During the last decades of the nineteenth century, the earlier house forms continued to be built, but sometimes with central chimneys and sometimes as duplexes with a pair of front doors. The turn of the twentieth century brought a little more variety in the type of dwellings used for mill housing. While two-story houses remained popular, many one-story, L- or T-plan houses, or one-story houses with triple-A gable roofs joined the mill village landscape. In 1899, Daniel A. Tompkins, a Charlotte engineer and mill operator, published a book, Cotton Mill: Commercial Features, that provided plans for a typical range of mill houses that were widely used. Tompkins still urged mill owners to preserve the general conditions of rural life in their mill housing. After World War I, firms such as Aladdin Readi-Cut Houses came out with publications like The Aladdin Plan of Industrial Housing (1918) that could provide mill owners with all the ready-to-build mill housing they needed in the sizes and types they wanted in a standardized and efficient manner. Most of these houses were bungalows, reflecting the wide popularity of this house type at that time (Bishir, 433-436, 503; Whatley, 34-35, 37). In the Alamance Mill Village, housing was built during three distinct periods that reflected the broader development of mill housing in North Carolina from the mid-nineteenth century through the first quarter of the twentieth century.
Judging from Benson Lossing's 1849 comments on the workers' housing at Alamance Mill Village, "neat log houses" apparently made up the first of the workers' houses there and were what was in use in 1849. None of these houses survive. Other early factories, such as the Cane Creek factory in Alamance County and the Cedar Falls factory in neighboring Randolph County, also had log mill houses. All of these have also been demolished (Lounsbury, 38; Whatley, 34-35). However, one early house that does survive in the Alamance Mill Village Historic District appears to have been built ca.1840, predating the log houses. Its position in the village suggests that it may have been used as the supervisor's house. Located at the north end of the district (now 3927 NC Hwy 62 S) near where the mill and combined mill store and office once stood, the weatherboarded mortise-and-tenon frame house is two stories tall, three bays wide, and one room deep with a side-gable roof, a gable-end chimney, and a hall-and-parlor plan. The added rear ell probably replaced a separate kitchen. While the house has a vernacular form common to much of the nineteenth century, it also exhibits stylistic refinements — such as the cornice moldings and the first-floor mantel — that reflect the Federal style that was in fashion before the Greek Revival style became omnipresent closer to mid century and continuing in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Another individual house in the Alamance Mill Village Historic District that appears to date from the 1850s, or more likely ca.1860, but is not a part of any group of identical workers' houses that is present now is the one-story house at 3956 NC Hwy 62 S, halfway up the hill on the single road of houses. It is four bays wide and one-room deep with a side-gable roof. Eaves are tight to the gable-end walls, and boxed cornices carry across the front and rear of the house. Behind the house stands the once-detached kitchen.
In 1851, when William Carrigan sold his interest in the Alamance Cotton Mill to Edwin M. Holt, ownership of the mill changed to E.M. Holt and Company, which it remained for the next fifteen years. Holt called his son Thomas M., who was then living in Philadelphia, home to help him with the mill. Thomas Holt remained with his father at the mill for ten years. In 1853 a Frenchman, who was a dyer, came by the mill proposing to teach Thomas Holt how to dye cotton yarn in exchange for $100 and board. The Frenchman remained until Holt had mastered the skill of dyeing cloth various colors, except for indigo blue. For this Holt hired an expert dyer from Philadelphia to come teach him the art of dyeing indigo blue. For eight years, future governor Thomas Holt worked side-by-side with two of his father's male slaves in the dye tubs perfecting the method. Finally they set up some four-box looms and began the manufacture of a class of goods, known as "Alamance Plaids," that quickly became popular throughout the South as well as in the Philadelphia market and bestowed on the Holts a national reputation. Thomas Holt's Alamance Plaids were the first colored cotton goods manufactured in the South (Stockard, 91-92; Troxler and Vincent, 350). It is for this distinction and for being the first of the many mills in the Holt family textile empire that the Alamance Cotton Mill was so important.
The 1860s and 1870s brought a variety of events that affected the Alamance Cotton Mill. Flush with his success, Thomas Holt left the Alamance Cotton Mill in 1861 to take charge of the Cane Creek Factory, which he and his father had purchased in 1857 (Stockard, 94). Between 1861 and 1865, the Civil War brought privation to many citizens of Alamance County, but great profits to the Alamance Cotton Mill and the Holts. The work force was not diminished significantly by the war, since most workers were young women. At the same time, the need by the Confederacy for the cloth produced by this and other mills was great (Beatty, 80, 85, 105). After the war, in 1866, with his northern contacts and markets back in place, Edwin M. Holt retired from active control of the Alamance Cotton Mill. In doing so, he created a family partnership to run the mill. E.M. Holt and Sons was made up of sons James, William, and Banks, as well as his nephew and son-in-law, James Williamson, with a fifth partnership reserved for his son Lawrence when he turned twenty-one in 1872. On April 24, 1872, fire destroyed the Alamance Factory. The Holts were in a financial position to rebuild immediately, and the new factory was larger than the original and had the most modern equipment (Beatty, 123-126).
During the 1860s and 1870s the second group of workers' housing was built in Alamance Mill Village, perhaps adding to initially but ultimately replacing the log houses. These second-period houses were similar in form to the ca.1840 house, but later in their detailing. The two-story frame dwellings were three-bays wide and one-room deep, with a side-gable roof, a gable-end chimney, an offset rear ell, and a hall-and-parlor plan. One still exhibits a late Greek Revival style vernacular mantel and another retains, although altered, a Greek Revival two-panel door. Five of these survive in the district; in 1948 there were nine (Sanborn Map, 1948). The actual construction date of the above-described houses is not certain, but they have been assigned a likely construction date of ca.1860-ca.1880. The houses are of a vernacular type that was built throughout much of the nineteenth century. While they are very similar to the 1848 Union Factory houses in Randolph County, they are even more similar in their construction and detailing to the houses at the 1879 Bellemont Mill [see Bellemont Mill Village Historic District] — another Holt mill — in Alamance County (Whatley, 34).
As the decades progressed, the capacity of the Alamance Cotton Mill progressed. In 1886 the mill had 1,200 spindles and 94 looms, and barely twenty years later, in 1905, there were 2,500 spindles and 120 looms (Troxler and Vincent, 351). All this expansion necessitated more workers, which necessitated more housing. Consequently, around 1900 the company undertook the construction of another small group of workers' houses. These houses were one-story, weatherboarded frame dwellings with a three-gable roof and a one-story rear ell. The distinctive decorative feature of each gable is a diamond-shaped vent whose wood panel is pierced with either a snowflake or a pinwheel design. This type of house was common for the period and could be seen throughout North Carolina. Four of this type of house remain in the Alamance Mill Village Historic District.
On May 14, 1884, Edwin Michael Holt died. One of the wealthiest men in North Carolina, he left an estate valued at nearly $2 million. His legacy in the textile industry continued as the Holt family continued to build and acquire more mills. From three mills in the late 1870s to over twenty-five by the end of the century, the Holts continued to dominate the field. By 1919 the family controlled twenty-three of twenty-seven textile mills in Alamance County, seventy-eight percent of the spindles, and eighty-three percent of the looms. As the family empire expanded, the original Alamance Cotton Mill closed in November 1926 after 89 long years in operation (Beatty, 126, 142-143; Troxler and Vincent, 351; Whitaker, 103).
Although the mill was no longer in Holt ownership, it did not stand idle for long. Instead, it became part of the Standard Hosiery Mills, whose president was John Shoffner. John Shoffner's background was totally different from that of Edwin M. Holt. Born in 1888, he moved with his parents to Alamance village as a boy. He began work at the mill at fifteen cents a day, and after ten years he was making nine dollars a week. As he grew older, he continued to work at the mill, but held other jobs as well and saved his money. In 1917 Shoffner invested in some hosiery knitting machines, bought a frame building south of and uphill from the cotton mill, and formed Standard Hosiery Mills in partnership with his brother-in-law, John T. Black, and Clarence Fogleman. There he produced hosiery "in the gray" — undyed and unfinished — to be sent to other finishing plants. In 1927 Shoffner bought the entire village of Alamance from the Holts, and the following year Standard Hosiery Mills was incorporated, with John Shoffner as president. The purchase of the old Holt mill, which became known as the lower mill, with its dyeing facilities allowed Shoffner to take his hosiery to the next level of production — from in the gray products to dyed and finished hosiery (Whitaker, 103, 164, 169; Alamance County: The Legacy, 402).
When John Shoffner bought the village of Alamance, he immediately began making improvements and expanding the workers' housing. He installed a modern water plant, enlarged his upper mill facility, built seventy-five or eighty mill houses, and a thirty-six room brick boarding house. He was also involved in the organization of the Alamance Lutheran Church (Whitaker, 164; Sanborn Map, 1924, 1929; Alamance County: The Legacy, 402). It was during this period that the last of the houses in the Alamance Mill Village Historic District were built.
All are simple, one-story frame bungalows, but three were built ca.1927 and are (or were when built) identical. These houses are two bays wide and three bays deep and are characterized primarily by their broad front-gable roof that encompasses an engaged front porch. The fourth house, built in 1929, is also a simple bungalow form, but has a side-gable roof that breaks in front to cover a porch and in back to cover shed rooms. All four of these houses are located on the west side of the Alamance Mill Village Historic District's single road. When built, they filled in spaces on the road that were vacant as of 1924, the first year in which a Sanborn insurance map recorded the road.
In the mid 1930s, Standard Hosiery Mills sold their workers' houses at nominal prices to those employees who were currently renting them (Sykes Interview, January 18, 2007). Why the houses were sold at that time is not clear, but the Depression was likely a factor. Over time, the new owners of the mill houses began to individualize their homes in various ways to make them seem more personal. This trend was repeated countless times throughout North Carolina as one by one, mills sold their housing to the workers who occupied them. Nevertheless, the original forms of the houses and often much of the detailing remained true to the original, so that the houses still can be understood clearly as the company-built mill housing that they were.
John Shoffner died on March 3, 1944 (Alamance County: The Legacy of Its People and Places, 402). The village lost in him a beloved benefactor and friend. Although Shoffner was the head of Standard Hosiery Mills, to the workers, he was one of them. After all, his background was like theirs, they knew his family, and many of them had worked alongside him in the old Alamance Cotton Mill. In 1947, Standard Hosiery Mills closed this location. By 1948 the main Alamance Cotton Mill building had been demolished, and what had been the dye house was used for mill storage (Sanborn Map, 1929, 1948; Whitaker, 169). Today, the site on which the mill once stood has reverted to a partially wooded flood plain. At the north end of the site, at ground level, are scattered remnants of brick foundations. Closer to the road are a mid-twentieth century concrete-block building and the ruins of what may have been part of the water filtering basins for the dyeing process.
The death of John Shoffner and the closing of the Standard Hosiery Mills plant in Alamance brought to a close the period of significance in the long history of one of piedmont North Carolina's oldest mill villages. The Standard Hosiery Mills plant was soon taken over by the Kayser-Roth firm. Some of the former Standard Hosiery workers went to work for Kayser-Roth. Others, however, took jobs in other textile mills in the county. Although ties with the mill had been broken, family ties with the mill village remained strong. Even now, more than half a century later, several homeowners in the Alamance Mill Village Historic District were born or grew up in the village and worked with their families in the mill. Several others who did not work in the mill themselves are descendents of those who did (Sykes Interviews, January 18 and February 25, 2007; Gaines Interview; Slaughter Interview; Mata Interview). Although the mill and the company store have been long gone from the landscape of the village, an impressive dam and a tightly knit group of workers' houses from at least three periods of building remains along either side of NC Hwy 62 S to tell the story of this important mill village in North Carolina's textile history.
Beatty, Bess. Alamance: The Holt Family and Industrialization in a North Carolina County, 1837-1900. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.
Bishir, Catherine W. North Carolina Architecture. Portable Edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press for The Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, Inc., 2005.
Euliss, Elinor Samons, ed. Alamance County: The Legacy of Its People and Places. Greensboro: Legacy Publications, 1984.
Glass, Brent. "Southern Mill Hills: Design in a 'Public' Place," in Carolina Dwelling: Towards Preservation of Place, In Celebration of the North Carolina Vernacular Landscape, edited by Doug Swaim. Raleigh: School of Design, North Carolina State University, 1978, 138-149.
Glass, Brent D. The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, 1992.
Interviews by Laura A. W. Phillips.
Lounsbury, Carl. Alamance County Architectural Heritage. Graham, N.C.: Alamance County Historical Properties Commission, 1980.
Sanborn Map Company. Maps for Alamance, North Carolina, 1904, 1908, 1913, 1918, 1924, 1929, 1948.
Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, Alamance County, North Carolina, Industrial Schedule.
Standard, Diffee W. and Richard W. Griffin. "The Cotton Textile Industry in Antebellum North Carolina, Part I: Origin and Growth to 1830." The North Carolina Historical Review XXXIV (January 1957): 15-35.
Stockard, S.W. The History of Alamance. Raleigh: Capital Printing Company, 1900. Reprinted by Alamance County Historical Museum, Inc., Burlington, 1986.
Troxler, Carole Watterson and William Murray Vincent. Shuttle and Plow: A History of Alamance County, North Carolina. n.p.: Alamance County Historical Association, Inc., 1999.
Whatley, Lowell McKay Jr. The Architectural History of Randolph County North Carolina. Asheboro, N.C.: City of Asheboro and County of Randolph, 1985.
Whitaker, Walter. Centennial History of Alamance County, 1849-1949. Burlington, N.C.: Burlington Chamber of Commerce, n.d.