Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District
The Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. 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 Glen Royall Mill Village is the principal historic textile mill village in Wake County, North Carolina outside the city limits of Raleigh. The village was established in 1900 adjacent to the town of Wake Forest to provide housing for the operatives of the Royall Cotton Mill, which commenced operations during a period of unprecedented textile industry expansion in North Carolina and other southern states, and which grew to become one of the state's premiere textile concerns. In order to attract dependable employees the mill management understood that it would need to provide adequate housing, and in 1900 it hired contractor Benjamin Thomas Hicks to construct a range of house types — including pyramidal and "triple-A" cottages and shotguns — according to plans and specifications prepared by mill superintendent John D. Briggs. In many ways the village was self-contained; operatives shopped at the 1900 Royall Cotton Mill Commissary (now rehabilitated as apartments) and worshipped at a church in the village, and their children and younger siblings were educated at village schools. The mill village more or less achieved its final form in the 1920s, shortly before the Great Depression disrupted production at the mill and created hardship for the adult and teenaged operatives who lived in the village. The cotton mill closed in 1976 and the following year the village was annexed by the town of Wake Forest. Today the Glen Royall Mill Village is experiencing a rebirth as an attractive and affordable enclave on the fringes of North Carolina's dynamic Triangle region.
The Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District is listed in the National Register of Historic Places significant in the area of industry as a relatively intact early-twentieth century cotton mill village associated with one of the state's leading historic industries. In addition to the mill housing, which dates largely to the first decade of the twentieth century, the Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District includes churches, stores, several modern residences, the Queen Anne-Colonial Revival Powell-White House, and the Royall Cotton Mill Commissary, which was listed individually in the National Register in 1991. The Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District is also significant in the area of commerce and in the area of architecture owing to the inclusion of the commissary, which was previously listed in those areas. The Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District's period of significance extends from 1900, the year construction of the mill houses and commissary began, until 1949 (the National Register fifty-year criterion), embracing the formative years of the village's development and historical associations.
Historical Background and Industrial Context
The Royall Cotton Mill and the Glen Royall Mill Village were established during a period of major expansion in North Carolina's textile industry. Originating in the early nineteenth century, the state's industry remained relatively quiescent until after the Reconstruction era when textiles took central place in the "New South" credo of Southern industrial development. Advancements in textile technology, the expansion of rail networks, and the spread of cotton agriculture contributed to the rise of the industry in the South, but the chief factor was — as an industry analyst of the period put it bluntly — the Southern "supply of cheap and tractable labor." The modest but steady wages offered by mill owners proved attractive to poor white tenant farmers who eked out a living on the hardscrabble farms of the North Carolina Piedmont. As a class, these farmers were reluctant to surrender what they regarded as the independence of an agricultural livelihood, but falling prices for cotton and tobacco — especially during the depression of the 1890s — forced many to seek an alternative.
Industrialists in North Carolina and neighboring states were quick to exploit the situation, which gave the region an advantage over Northeastern states where the industry was more highly developed but where higher wage rates prevailed. Mill construction rose steadily after 1880 with the most rapid development occurring between 1900 and 1905. The number of mills in the state increased from 49 in 1880 to 91 in 1890, 177 in 1900, and 281 in 1910. Textiles rose to become the leading industry in the state in the early twentieth century and North Carolina surpassed all other states in the manufacture of cotton goods. At the local level, business leaders saw cotton mills as an important stimulus to the economy of a town or county. "The mill became a rallying point for community pride," noted one observer, "and every town felt it must have a mill." Local business leaders were often motivated by a desire to provide employment to poor whites, but combined with this benevolence was the practical realization that they would benefit directly from profits and indirectly by encouraging the growth of a wage-earning consumer class in communities.
In 1899 the mill-building fever reached Wake Forest, a small college town located approximately fifteen miles north of the state capital at Raleigh. In October of that year the Royall Cotton Mill was incorporated by businessmen W.C. Powell, Robert E. Royall, and Thomas E. Holding. Powell had interests in naval stores, banking and railroads; Royall, who listed himself as a "capitalist" in the 1900 federal census, ran a business in Wake Forest and was also involved in the naval stores trade; and Holding operated a drug store in town. Powell and Holding were brothers-in-law of Royall, and all three were graduates and later contributors and trustees of Wake Forest College. None of the men are thought to have had prior experience in textile manufacturing. Powell served as the mill's first president, Royall as vice-president, and Holding as secretary. J.B. Carlyle and B.F. Bullard served with the other three men as the first board of directors.
Survey of the mill site and a spur track to the Seaboard Air Line Railroad (now CSX) commenced in October 1899, the month of incorporation, and initial work on the mill may have begun in December, although most construction occurred the following year. The corporation tapped Providence, Rhode Island "architects and mill engineers" C.R. Makepeace & Co. to design its three-story brick facility, which was built by John D. Briggs. By September 1900 the corporation had acquired forty-seven acres as a site for a mill village and the construction of housing was underway. The mill began operations with 5,000 spindles; by 1908 the mill had been enlarged and the number of spindles increased to 16,000, which according to Royall Cotton Mill historian Don P. Johnston Jr. made the mill one of the largest in the state. The mill was incorporated to spin and weave cotton, and its main product was muslin sheeting and skein yarn, but in the early years it experimented with printed cloth and other products.
The mill village constructed at the same time as the Royall Cotton Mill — romantically named Glen Royall — was an important adjunct of the undertaking. The practice of housing mill operatives in company-owned residential enclaves developed in the late nineteenth century as a practical response to the geographic and economic contexts of the state's textile industry. Prior to the common use of steam power, it was necessary to locate mills at prime water-power sites that were sometimes remote from existing communities; hence the need to create "artificial communities" in close proximity to the mills. Also, newly-hired impoverished operatives could not afford to build their own housing, leaving the mills to fill the breach. Housing supplied by the company — usually at better rents than that provided off the mill property — became one of the enticements mill owners and their agents used to recruit operatives. Glen Royall's early work force is said to have come principally from a nearby area of Wake County known as "The Hurricanes," an area known for its hard-scrabble farms and moonshining, but some operatives came from other mill communities.
The Royall Cotton Mill's own treasurer reported in 1901 that "Having a good location and exceptionally attractive and comfortable houses for our operatives, we are finding [it] no trouble to get labor, and that, too, of a class better than the average." But despite the best of intentions, with company-owned stores and company scrip, company-financed schools and churches, and company-operated recreational facilities, the state's mill villages came to be regarded as the definition of mill owner paternalism. The Glen Royall Mill Village, for example, was incorporated as the town of Royall Cotton Mills in 1907 with the mill directors serving as the town commissioners. Apparently the principal motivation behind incorporation was a desire by the mill management to avoid annexation by Wake Forest, an action that would have doubled the mill's tax burden. (The town's charter was repealed in 1945 and the village was absorbed into the Town of Wake Forest in 1977.) A company-owned church and school — now incorporated into the Glen Royall Baptist Church at the corner of Elizabeth Street and East Chestnut Avenue — was erected during the first decade of the twentieth century, and a separate public graded school (no longer extant) was built on an adjoining site by 1926.
The Royal Cotton Mill Company Papers at Duke University provide detailed information on the planning and construction of the mill village. Prof. L.R. Mills (presumably of Wake Forest College) surveyed the company's property and laid out a simple grid of streets in the triangle of land bounded by the mill, the railroad, and the extension of Wake Forest's North Main Street. In March 1900 the company contracted with Franklin County builder Benjamin Thomas Hicks to erect housing for the operatives and their families. Superintendent John D. Briggs, builder of the company's mill building, provided Hicks with plans and specifications for five different types of houses — one five-room plan, two four-room plans, and two three-room plans. According to the contract, the "plans and specifications for the erection of said houses [were] prepared by said John D. Briggs." A letter written by R.E. Royall in 1929 relates a different arrangement: "For about eighteen months...I employed at $100.00 per month a Raleigh man (presumably Briggs), whom I then considered and whom I now consider one of the best builders in the State. By the way, he has for a number of years now been employed by the American Tobacco Co. to supervise the construction of all their building operations, in Durham and other cities. Well, he and I together, having the elaborate plans and specifications of a good Mill Architect, built this mill and mill village."
It may be that Briggs modified house designs provided by C.R. Makepeace & Co. for use at Glen Royall.
The Hicks contract called for the erection of an initial fifteen houses and payment of from $75 to $125 per house. Wake Forest brick mason Willis Johnson and a team of lumber haulers and other workmen assisted Hicks, and the Cary Lumber Company and the firm of Allen Brothers provided materials for the framing and weatherboarding of the houses. The first thirty operative houses were completed by September 1901 and an additional twenty were completed by September 1902. By 1908 the total stood at about seventy-five, and by 1927 the number had increased to eighty-nine. Each group of four or so houses was provided with a single four-compartment privy; the last of these was damaged during Hurricane Fran in 1996 and was subsequently torn down.
The pyramidal, "triple-A," and shotgun houses erected at Glen Royall were representative of a new architectural approach to the mill house building type. As late as about 1880, North Carolina mill owners provided housing for their operatives that was traditional in form and construction. The two-story hall-parlor plan dwellings erected after 1879 in Alamance County's Bellemont Mill Village, for example, were of a type that had prevailed in rural areas of the state since the beginning of the century. New house types appeared in neighboring Durham County by the mid-1890s; the village that developed in connection with the Erwin Cotton Mills (established in 1893) contained houses with triple-A and pyramidal roofs not unlike the houses built at Glen Royall. How-to manuals for mill owners such as Daniel A. Tompkins's Cotton Mill, Commercial Features of 1899 featured mill house designs and likely contributed to the popularity of the new forms.
Glen Royall's housing illustrates trends in mill housing design analyzed by University of North Carolina sociologist Harriet L. Herring in her 1929 study Welfare Work in Mill Villages, The Story of Extra-Mill Activities in North Carolina. Herring outlined the transition from traditional forms to the pyramidal cottages and other later forms, a transition she dated to about 1900. She referred to the pyramidal forms as "square-topped" houses, and she conjectured that their appearance "resulted from the beginning of the bungalow influence." True bungalows became dominant after about 1915 and "ready-cut houses" came into vogue during World War I. Mill owners were careful to build a mix of houses of different room numbers so as to accommodate the needs of their renters. Three-room houses were "popular with newly married couples and small families who do not want to take boarders," whereas the larger houses permitted "doubling up" of families and the taking in of boarders during periods of peak production and employment. The evidence suggests that Glen Royall families took in boarders even if their particular house model was small. The Horton family at 724 Mill Street, for example, boarded five single men one winter during World War II. The men slept on cots in one of the home's three rooms.
Glen Royall displays the mix of house sizes described by Herring, as well as both triple-A and pyramidal houses with double front doors suggesting the potential for conversion into duplexes. The dominant triple-A and pyramidal forms alternate along the principal north-south streets of Elizabeth and Mill, with one type facing its mirror image across the street but flanked on each side by the other type. Mill villages where "no two adjoining houses are alike" were declared by some industry analysts to be a sign of social health, but in her interviews with mill workers Herring noted that few seemed to care whether their dwellings looked the same or different from adjoining houses. Another pattern can be traced in the placement of Glen Royall's houses. The largest of the company houses — 105 E. Chestnut Avenue — the home of the mill superintendent, is located at the entrance to the village on the corner of North Main Street and East Chestnut Avenue, and the first houses appear to have been built nearest to the North Main approaches to the village and along the roads connecting North Main to the mill. Jack Horton, a resident of the village since 1922, recalls being told that the first houses were built along East Chestnut Avenue. The mill owners presumably hoped to create a positive impression or "curb-side appeal" with prospective employees and perhaps others by building houses first at the most visible locations. Virtually all houses built after 1907 were at the east end of the village nearest to the railroad and farthest from North Main Street.
The population of the Glen Royall mill village after its first decade of development is described in the 1910 federal census population schedules for Wake County. Approximately one hundred individuals in and about Wake Forest listed the mill as their employer; some of these, particularly the managerial class, probably lived outside the village, but the remainder were apparently residents. Both women and men, girls and boys were employed. Three or more individuals in a typical household worked at the mill — often the father and his teenaged offspring. This arrangement reflected the "family labor system" that prevailed in North Carolina textile mills during the era. Mill owners and their agents "purchased family labor as a package," as one observer has put it, thereby acquiring young workers who possessed the nimbleness and keen eyesight required for optimal loom operation, and adult parents who also worked but who — just as importantly — provided a family support framework for the younger workers.
Teenagers comprised approximately half of the mill workforce, the youngest aged twelve and thirteen. Child labor was considered by some the "greatest evil" in the industry. The mill itself refused to hire children under twelve years of age, and in 1917 federal legislation prohibited the employment of children under the age of fourteen. Restrictions on child labor in the textile industry arose partly as a result of public outcry and partly because of a realization among mill owners that child labor was unprofitable. Despite restrictions, under-aged children were often permitted to work as unpaid and officially unacknowledged helpers for their parents and older siblings, and it is likely that some of the Glen Royall children listed as without occupation in the census actually worked in the mill.
The 1910 census indicates that the mill workforce was predominately white, and that the operatives who tended the machinery were exclusively white. Blacks were permitted jobs such as fireman, yard hand, driver, cook, and laundress. The segregationist attitudes of the time were largely responsible for this division; mill owners claimed that whites would not accept blacks working in the same room as white women. Exclusion of blacks was also justified by the paternalistic rationale that textile mills were created to provide employment for needy whites, and the corresponding attitude among the white elite that blacks should be encouraged to remain in the agricultural sector. In the census population schedules whites were listed more or less as a group — suggesting a household-by-household enumeration within the village — whereas black mill employees were scattered among Wake Forest's general populace or lived in the African-American community located to the east of the mill village.
By all accounts the first two decades of the twentieth century were prosperous years for the mill and its employees. The mill instituted a voluntary health plan about 1909 whereby ten cents per family member was deducted weekly from employee paychecks to purchase health care from a local doctor. The mill flourished during World War I, but after 1920 economic conditions deteriorated and rancor developed between mill labor and management. Threatened with receivership in 1927, the mill failed two years later and was transferred to new ownership in a temporarily successful attempt to keep it running. In 1931, however, as the Great Depression deepened, a "voluntary temporary operating receivership was requested" by then mill owner Don P. Johnston Sr., as his son Don Jr. carefully phrased it. As part of the 1931 reorganization the company's name was changed from "Royall" to "Royal." The mill made an effort to assist its employees during the period but it was eventually forced to lower wages and curtail benefits. In 1933 a writer to the Raleigh News and Observer described the "frozen frowns" that had been on the faces of unemployed mill workers in the village since the late 1920s.
In 1938 Federal Writers Project reporter Ida L. Moore investigated socioeconomic conditions in the mill village as part of a statewide study of the textile industry. She discovered poorly maintained housing and unsanitary living conditions as well as despair and resentment on the part of the operatives. One laid-off worker told Moore, "I keep hopin' the mill'll need me agin, but when I let myself do real clear thinkin' I know it won't." Mary Branch, another operative who had managed to keep her job, gave Moore a poem she had written entitled "Textile Life" that "[put] down on paper what plenty of us feel." Branch described unrealistic production quotas, docking of pay, and the adverse health effects of over-work. "Our troubles and trials are many," she wrote, "Our dollars and cents are few/The Butcher, the Doctor, the Merchant we owe/And sometimes the undertaker too."
Relations were sometimes strained between mill operatives and the citizens of the adjoining town of Wake Forest. Don P. Johnston Jr. noted that "Though the designation 'lint-head' was not commonly used against mill children in Wake Forest, they were referred to as 'cotton-mill-boys' or '-girls.' And much later, when a pool was built in Wake Forest for the whole community, there was vocal ill ease in certain sections of the town community because mill children could use the same water." But developments in the 1930s later served to strengthen ties between the two communities. Since 1900 the operatives had shopped at the mill commissary, located at the corner of Brewer and Brick avenues. The commissary closed in 1934, and although small convenience stores were operated in the village in later years by Aubrey and Ida Davis, Morton Harding, and Jesse Wall, mill workers likely did more of their shopping in town. In 1941 the mill sold its housing to private parties, mostly mill workers. Similar sell-offs occurred throughout the state during the period for a variety of reasons, according to sociologist Harriet Herring: cost savings for the mill, a desire to counteract paternalism, and a belief that home ownership would improve community life. Herring claimed that the sell-offs would lead to a "new experiment in democracy in the South," and home ownership in Glen Royall has been a positive experience for both the mill village and Wake Forest.
In 1945 the cotton mill was acquired by B. Everett Jordan and Willis Smith — both of whom went on to become U.S. Senators representing North Carolina — and the mill and other Jordan and Smith interests were consolidated as the Sellers Dyeing Company in 1951. The mill experimented with the production of nylon during this period, and it produced the "Royal Egyptian" yarn brand from long-staple Egyptian cotton. The mill was unionized by the Textile Workers Union of America in 1950 and in March 1951 a majority of the operatives went on strike, an action related to a Southern-wide series of textile strikes. The strikers — many of them women — picketed outside the mill gates, singing hymns and popular ballads "reworded to fit the occasion," according to one account, while other mill employees continued to work. The strike grew violent in April; dynamitings and a "pitched rifle and shotgun battle" between strikers and non-strikers the night of April 27 left three injured and prompted Governor Kerr Scott to send in the highway patrol to restore order. The strike took a toll on strikers and non-strikers alike. Carrie Tilley recalls that one of her sisters continued to work, because her husband was dead and she had a family to support, but "things got so rough" that she moved out of the community. "Times like that you don't know what they might do to your house," Tilley recalls. The strikers were apparently unable to win concessions from management and the strike ended, according to local historian R. James Cox Jr. According to longtime village resident Jack Horton, "They didn't get nothing here [and they] all decided to go back to work."
"Steady, regular" times prevailed after 1951, according to Cox, but by the 1960s there were indications of trouble for the mill and for the community it supported. At mid-decade a Sellers executive reported that the Royal Cotton Mill was "not modern and [had] no prospects of becoming a really new mill. " In the 1970s the shift from cotton to synthetics in clothing cut into the mill's market, and in April, 1976 the mill was closed. A year later the Town of Wake Forest forcibly annexed the mill village. In more recent years the village has experienced something of a renaissance as the Wake Forest area has benefitted from its proximity to Research Triangle Park and the burgeoning cities of North Carolina's Triangle. Newcomers find the neighborhood an attractive and relatively affordable place to live in the regional context. Increased interest in the heritage of the village and in its economic potential has led to the redevelopment of the mill and its commissary as housing and the placement of the commissary in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1994 properties in the village were featured for the first time in the Wake Forest Historic Preservation Commission's Christmas homes tour. These and other private- and public-sector initiatives will continue to enhance the character of the Glen Royall Mill Village.
A number of individuals and organizations assisted the author in the preparation of this nomination. Foremost among them were the Town of Wake Forest and the Wake Forest Historic Preservation Commission, represented by commission member Franklin Drake. Glen Royall Mill Village residents and former residents who provided information or access to properties included Mary Hayes, Jack Horton, Amy Pierce, Carrie Tilley, and Velma Tingen. Others who provided assistance included Wake Forest Planning Director Chip Russell; Duke University Perkins Library Special Collections librarian William R. Erwin Jr.; and North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources staff members Heather Barrett, Chandrea Burch, Melinda Coleman, Bill Garrett, and Jennifer Martin.
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† J. Daniel Pezzoni, Landmark Preservation Associates, Glen Royall Mill Village Historic District, Wake County, NC, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.