White Oak New Town Historic District
The White Oak New Town Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright, © 2011, The Gombach Group.
The White Oak New Town Historic District is exceptionally intact. All of the one hundred hollow-tile walled, one- and two-story, stuccoed houses built there by the Cone family's Proximity Manufacturing Company about 1920 survive. Sixty-four car sheds, erected by the company in the late 1920s, continue to bracket the alleys that parallel the district's regular grid of streets. All of these buildings contribute to the integrity of the White Oak New Town Historic District. Only three small, frame, one-story classroom buildings (erected at 2507 and 2509 Hubbard Street and 2504 Cypress Street), removed after the 1935 construction of the Ceasar Cone Public School just west of the district, are no longer extant. The houses still stand on the same small lots in the same relationship to the car sheds, streets, alleys, and each other as they always have. All but two are still stuccoed and their exteriors have been little altered.
The mill village was laid out and constructed by the company around 1920 to serve the White Oak textile mill, a half-mile to the east. It was organized around a small isolated grid of streets which do not continue past 11th Street and 12th Street at the south, 14th Street and 16th Street at the north, North Church Street at the west, and the former Southern Railway tracks at the east. All of the houses were regularly spaced along the four north-south streets: North Church Street, Spruce Street, Hubbard Street, and Cypress Street. These streets originally had been named Cherry, Spruce, Peach, and Cypress, respectively, by the North Carolina Steel and Iron Company in plat maps filed in 1895. It was left to the Proximity Manufacturing Company, however, to actually extend the paper grid of the plat maps this far north and to build White Oak New Town (Guilford County Plat Book 2, Pages 1, 2, 3, and 4).
The different house types were constructed in the village. Eighty of the houses are one-story tall, two rooms deep, and have gable-front roofs. The other twenty are two rooms deep, two stories tall, and topped by gable-end roofs. Their forms notwithstanding, all of the houses were built of hollow-tile walls covered with stucco.
The exposed rafter ends, gable-front roofs, and off-center, gable-front porches of the one-story houses mark them as Bungalows. They further display a hint of the Mediterranean and Tudor Revival styles at their stuccoed walls and half-timbered gables. Beneath these restrained nods to the popular styles of the teens and twenties, the houses are basic, functional structures. Three bays cross their front facades, lighting their two front rooms. Porches supported by square posts with plain plinths and capitals shade two of these bays.
Although no longer heated by coal, the houses retain two interior brick chimney stacks. Small structures of about 1,100 square feet, they were built with four rooms divided by plastered partition walls. At almost all of the houses, additional space has been gained through enclosing the small porches that were originally notched into the corners of their rear elevations. The most notable alterations of the houses are the removal or covering up with modern materials of most of the half-timbering and the alteration through new posts, railings, or screening of many front porches. The metal pipe railings of many of the front porches date from renovations made to the houses by the company in the early 1950s (personal communications with longtime residents Bill Dixon and Carrie Owen, June 12, 1991). These changes and alterations have not diminished the historic character of the village, which is dependent on the repetition of forms and uniform setbacks and siting, rather than on architectural detail.
The village's two-story houses all stand facing each other on the 2400 block of Hubbard Street, ten on either side of the street. They were built as single-family dwellings for large families, their approximately 1,700 square feet of space holding six rather than four rooms. More plainly finished than their smaller neighbors, they had neither half-timbering nor the bungalow style play of porch and gable at their front facades. Exposed rafter ends do underpin their gable-end roofs, however, which are broken at their ridges by single, off-center, brick chimney stacks. Their shed-roofed, attached porches stretch from end to end of their front facades, which are pierced by an entry to one side and paired windows to the other. Supporting the porches are square posts identical to those of the one-story houses. Many of the porches have been altered in a fashion similar to that of the one-story houses.
All of the White Oak New Town Historic District's houses are set on lots that are generally sixty or sixty-five feet wide and between 150 and 170 feet deep. Their front yards, about half as deep as those to the rear, are marked by shrubs and small shade trees. Shade trees, fruit trees, and gardens enliven many backyards. Many of the trees and shrubs were planted or provided by the company. The gardens as well are in part a legacy of the company, which encouraged employees to raise their own fruits and vegetables.
The alleys laid out parallel to the rears of the houses had, by 1925, a few sheds and garages along them, built by the community's more enterprising residents (personal communication with Bill Dixon, June 12, 1991; Sanborn Map Company 1925). They also had numerous tiny unpainted outhouses, visible in photos of the village in the possession of the Cone Mills Corporation in Greensboro, none of which still stand. By the late 1920s the company had raised a number of frame garages, aptly called "car sheds" by the residents; of frame construction, they were barely large enough to hold a car. Functional structures, they feature gable-front roofs with exposed rafter ends and double doors, reminiscent of barn doors, that have rails set into "X" shapes across their bottom two-thirds. Interspersed among the early car sheds are small, unobtrusive sheds, car sheds, and other modern outbuildings. The alleys the outbuildings face are narrow and unpaved, unlike the former dirt streets, which are now paved and edged with concrete curbs.
The houses of White Oak New Town Historic District were considered at the time of their construction to be better than contemporary mill houses. Longtime resident Carrie Owen remembers calling the neighborhood "Snob Hill" as a child, until she moved there (personal communication with Carrie Owen, June 12, 1991). The houses had a suggestion of style to them. They also had bathrooms, albeit empty bathrooms for their first ten years. They did not look like the worn sharecropper and tenant houses that many mill workers had fled, which cannot be said for the one-story, one-room deep houses that filled most of the other mill villages. As they did in the 1920s, they continue to form a well maintained and coherent neighborhood.
White Oak New Town, built by the Cone family's Proximity Manufacturing Company about 1920, is the most intact of the many mill villages that characterize northeast Greensboro. Its small well-maintained houses, car sheds, and lots illuminate the day to day lives of the city's thousands of textile employees and their families in the 1920s and 1930s. More broadly, the village reflects the power and importance of the textile industry in twentieth century Greensboro and the physical impression it made upon the city's landscape. Continuing to form a separate distinct community, White Oak New Town Historic District's little-altered houses retain their integrity of location, association, feeling, and setting, as well as their attributes of form and style. Cut from two molds, they stand on their original lots in the same relationship to streets and alleys, car sheds and each other, as they have since the 1920s. The altered White Oak Mill, their reason for being, still stands less than a half-mile walk to their east.
White Oak New Town Historic District's period of significance stretches from its circa 1920 construction until the onset of World War II.
The White Oak textile mill was erected by Moses and Ceasar Cone, the founders of the Cone Mills textile empire. The two brothers had established their first textile works in Greensboro, the Southern Finishing and Warehouse Company, in 1892. By the close of the century, they had built the Proximity Cotton Mill, and Emanuel and Herman Sternberger had built the Revolution Cotton Mill, which the Cones were later to acquire (Arnett 1955:17:-172; Half-Century Book 1941; Balliett 1925; Fripp 1982:57-58.) Between 1902 and 1905 they constructed their largest textile mill, White Oak, on a tract of wooded land outside of the city limits, about two-and-a-half miles northeast of the courthouse. It was named for a large, old white oak that was used as a starting point in surveying the property ("White Oak Plant'' 1980). Opened in 1905 with 700 looms, the mill was designed for 2,000. Initially referred to as the "White Elephant" according to Herman Cone, it was expanded to 3,000 looms in 1922 (American Jewish Times, March 1937). By 1925 White Oak was producing 160,000 yards of denim a day (Balliett 1925). By the end of the 1930s it was the largest denim mill in the world (Half-Century Book 1941; Arnett 1955:173).
White Oak New Town was built all at once, about 1920, by the Proximity Manufacturing Company, under which name the Cone family cotton mills were operating at the time. Its addresses first appear in the 1921 Greensboro city directory, although the community was not actually encompassed by city limits until 1923. (Company records are largely inaccessible, so precise construction dates and other early information is not available.) The need for additional housing — the White Oak Mill already had hundreds of houses arrayed in regular rows in villages around it — was probably necessitated by the 1,000-loom expansion of the mill in the early 1920s. One hundred hollow-tile walled, stuccoed houses, all of which still stand, were built, along with three no longer extant small, frame classroom buildings (Greensboro City Directories; Sanborn Map Company 1925).
White Oak New Town is in many ways typical of all of the Cone Mills company villages, which by 1925, according to the company, housed 15,000 textile workers and their families (Balliett 1925). (The name "New Town" indicates that other White Oak mill villages preceded it.) Its houses are small but sturdy, laid out in a regular grid, close to the street. Inexpensive to rent, they were located within walking distance of the mill, shopping, school, churches, and the YMCA, all of which were built or subsidized by the company. In fact, the village had its own classrooms, contained in the three frame buildings at Hubbard and Cypress streets which no longer stand and at 2500, 2501, 2502, and 2503 Hubbard Street. With the construction of the Ceasar Cone Public School in 1935 just to the west of the village on North Church Street, the frame buildings were removed and the others converted into dwellings (Sanborn Map Company 1925; Balliett 1925).
The job list of the village's first male household heads reads like a primer on the various stages of textile production. (Although most of the women in the village, and many of the children, worked in the mills, their occupations are rarely given in the city directories.) There were speeder operators, dolphers, slubbers, card holders, card grinders, warpers, spoolers, lapper operators, beamers, and slashers. Ten were loom fixers, fifteen weavers, and about a third were simply identified in city directories as mill hands. Jobs beyond the mill floor were represented as well. Three residents worked as clerks, another as a traveling salesman, and yet another as a draftsman. Emery Pegram of 2400 North Church Street laid bricks for the mills, J.R. Weaver of 2409 Cypress Street was employed as a watchman, and Flake Redmond, who moved into 2500 Hubbard Street when it ceased to be a schoolhouse, patrolled the mills as a company sheriff (Greensboro City Directories).
Two different house types were built in the village. On the 2400 block of Hubbard Street, twenty two-story, six-room houses were built. The remaining eighty houses were a single-story tall and held four rooms each. The larger houses were rented out to individuals with large families (personal communication with Bill Dixon, June 12, 1991). The exact weekly rental is unclear, but it was cheap, around $1.00 a week for the four-room houses. Carrie Owen, who first moved to the community with her family in 1924, believes that rentals in that year were ninety-eight cents a week. Bill Dixon, who moved to the neighborhood with his family in 1925, recalls that rentals were $1.25 a week from the 1920s through the early 1950s, when the company remodelled the houses and raised the rent to $10.00 a week (personal communications with Bill Dixon and Carrie Owen, June 12, 1991). These figures jibe with a 1925 company publication that put rentals at $1.00 per room per month, and the comments of a local historian of the mills, Norman Pinkelton, who states that rental of a four-room house during the Depression was ninety-two cents a week and an additional twenty-five cents if a garage was included (Balliett 1925; Greensboro New & Record, May 19, 1991).
Rentals had to be cheap, for wages were low. When Bill Dixon started working at White Oak in the mid-1920s, at the age of fourteen, he made $10.75 a week. Carrie Owen's first husband, Moss Varner, who worked in the spool room, was making $9.00 a week when they married in 1933 (personal communications with Bill Dixon and Carrie Owen, June 12, 1991).
The houses had electricity, which was included in the rent, but initially no running water or plumbing. They were built with bathrooms that throughout the twenties remained empty, necessitating the use of outhouses and of water spigots set between pairs of houses. In 1931 the company let contracts for bringing sewer lines to the villages and began to install toilets and kitchen sinks (Greensboro News-Record, March 25, 1931) All of the outhouses were subsequently removed.
The lives of Bill Dixon and Carrie Owen are typical of many early residents of White Oak New Town and other Cone Mills villages. Owen first lived in the neighborhood on North Church Street (then Poplar Street) in 1924, sharing a house with her family and another family until the company could find them their own. The family had moved to Greensboro from Danville, Virginia. Her father, James Crum, pushed the Coca Cola truck through the mill and her mother, Leonie Crum, was a spinner and also took care of the "kitchen" or commissary. Carrie Owen attended school at one of the schoolhouses on Hubbard Street and went to work at the mill at the age of fourteen as a spinner (personal communication with Carrie Owen, June 12, 1991).
Bill Dixon came to Greensboro with his family in 1923, at the age of thirteen. He had been raised on a farm near Star, a small town in Randolph County, North Carolina, located about fifty miles south of Greensboro. His father was a sharecropper who almost starved in a failed effort to make a living off the land. A photo of the family's Starr house pictures a one-story, one-room deep, gable-end house that looks like much of the early Cone Mills housing, although not like the New Town bungalows. With his parents and seven of his siblings, Dixon moved to a house on North Church Street in 1925. His father, Franklin Dixon, worked as a filling hauler and his mother, Chaddie, as a weaver. He attended school on Hubbard Street and at the age of fourteen went to work for the mill. His first job was hauling water to workers. He carried two buckets and two ladles, one for the black workers and one for whites. He later worked as a weaver and retired from the company with a fifty-year commemorative watch in his possession. He worked fifty-five hours a week for his $10.75 starting wages, of which his father let him keep seventy-five cents, the rest going towards the support of the family (personal communication with Bill Dixon, June 12, 1991).
The quality of life in White Oak New Town and the mills remains open to question. According to Bill Dixon, every worker in a company house had to be employed by the mills or the family would be put out. In addition, wages were low, prompting Dixon, Carrie Owen, and many others to start working after a limited amount of schooling. Together these factors restricted the opportunity of the young to move beyond the small, hard world of the mill. As historian Samuel M. Kipp III has written, the mill schools "ensured a continuous supply of modestly educated, reasonably efficient workers, but failed to open significant new avenues of upward mobility for workers" (Kipp 1974:306). Historian William H. Chafe characterized working conditions and pay as poor and the social efforts of the owners as paternalistic and opportunistic (Chafe 1980:20).
Cone Mills did not deny their paternalism. Rather, they chose to cast it in a positive light. They provided social services — they were the first in the state, in 1903, to hire a social worker (Herring 1929:114) — schools, recreational opportunities, subsidized fuel and food, and nominal rents, and declaimed that the "welfare of the operatives and their families is a consideration that is always put ahead of volume or profits." They also bluntly stated, however, that "The management has always realized that it is upon the physical, spiritual and mental well-being of the operatives and their families that steady, economical production and a resultant profit depend." (Balliett 1925)
Whether economically exploited or not, Carrie Owen and Bill Dixon fondly remember a tight-knit community of people who looked out for each other. They talk of neighbors keeping cows and horses, chickens and goats, and the company providing fruit trees and shrubs and encouraging gardens. Both happily recall free hams on Christmas. In 1958, when the company offered to sell the houses of White Oak New Town to their occupants for about $5,000.00, they bought their homes, as did many of their neighbors (personal communications with Bill Dixon and Carrie Owen, June 12, 1991).
American Jewish Times. March, 1937. Clipping of an article by Herman Cone entitled "A Short History of the Cone Textile Enterprises" located in the vertical files of the Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Arnett, Ethel Stephens. 1955. Greensboro, North Carolina, the County Seat of Guilford. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. Located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
Balliett, Carl J. 1925. World Leadership in Denims, Through Thirty Years of Progress. Baltimore: Privately printed by the Thomsen-Ellis Co. for the Proximity Manufacturing Company. Company publication located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
Baylin, Jonathan F. 1968. "An Historical Study of Residential Development in Greensboro, 1808-1965." Master's thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
Fripp, Gayle Hicks. 1982. Greensboro, A Chosen Center. Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications. Located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
Greensboro City Directories, 1920-1941. Located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
Greensboro News & Record. May 19, 1991. Clipping of article, from advertising supplement, entitled "Mill Village Way of Life is Bygone Era" located in the vertical files of the Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Greensboro News-Record. March 25, 1931. Clipping of article entitled "$200,000 to be Spent by Cone Interests to Improve Mill Houses" located in the vertical files of the Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Greensboro Record. February 26, 1948. Clipping of article entitled "Many Southern Mills Selling their Villages" located in the vertical files of the Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Guilford County Deed Books. Located at Guilford County Courthouse, Greensboro, North Carolina.
Guilford County Plat Books. Located at Guilford County Courthouse, Greensboro, North Carolina.
Half Century Book, 1891-1941. 1941. Greensboro: Cone Export & Commission Co. Company publication located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
Herring, Harriet L. 1929. Welfare Work in Mill Villages, the Story of Extra-Mill Activities in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.
Kipp, Samuel Millard III. 1974. "Urban Growth and Social Change in the South, 1870-:1.920: Greensboro, North Carolina, as a Case Study." Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University. Located at the Jackson Library, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Personal communication. .June 12, 1991. Bill Dixon, longtime resident of White Oak New Town.
________. June 12, 1991. Carrie Owen, longtime resident of White Oak New Town.
Sanborn Map and Publishing Co. 1885, 1888, 1891, and 1396. "Greensboro, North Carolina." Fire insurance maps located at Greensboro Planning Department, Greensboro Municipal Building.
Sanborn Map Company. 1902, 1913, 1919, and 1925. "Greensboro, North Carolina." Fire insurance maps located at Greensboro Planning Department, Greensboro Municipal Building.
"White Oak Plant, Cone Mills Corporation, Greensboro, N.C., 75 Years of Progress, 1905-1980." 1980. Pamphlet located at the Greensboro Public Library, Caldwell-Jones Room.
† Marvin A. Brown, Greensboro Preservation Society, White Oak New Town Historic District, Guilford County, NC, nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.