Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District
Rocky Mount Mills 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.
Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District, containing one-hundred-thirty-six well-preserved industrial and residential resources dating from 1835 to the early 1940s, remains one of the most intact mill villages in Piedmont North Carolina illustrating the social and industrial history of a locally owned Southern cotton mill and village with antebellum roots. Originally established in 1818 by local investors who sought to establish the cotton textile industry in North Carolina for the benefit of the local economy, the original Rocky Mount Mills, Great Falls Mill, was the second cotton mill constructed in the state. Relying on the experience and technical expertise of New England textile operators. Rocky Mount Mills prospered during the antebellum period, making it a target of Union attack in 1863. The mill was rebuilt in 1870 during the emergence of the "New South." After battling the typical economic hardships of the Reconstruction period, Rocky Mount Mills emerged as one of North Carolina's major manufacturers in the late nineteenth century. Rocky Mount Mills exemplifies the post-Civil War development of the textile industry that occurred along rivers and streams in the Piedmont region of North Carolina bridging the gap between an agricultural based economy and expanding industrialization. The mill village is typical of isolated mill complexes, where mills employed a paternalistic attitude by combining the social, industrial, and commercial functions of the industry into a community established for and by the mill.
The Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District is significant for its association with the prominent Battle family, who except for a two-year period in the 1880s have owned or operated the mill from its 1818 beginning. Several members of the family who were associated with the mill have achieved prominence in North Carolina's history. William Horn Battle, the oldest son of mill pioneer Joel Battle, served as State Supreme Court Justice from 1852-1867. James Smith Battle, who owned the mill from 1847 until 1854, was instrumental in the 1834 landmark case of State vs. Will, which allowed slaves the right to defend themselves when under attack. James also contracted to build and with his own slaves completed many miles of the Raleigh and Wilmington Railroad. William Smith Battle is known in history for voting for succession in the Constitutional Convention of 1861. Thomas Hall Battle organized the Bank of Rocky Mount in 1889 and as early as 1892 urged the formation of a state banking association, which was created when the North Carolina Bankers Association was organized in Morehead City in July of 1897. Kemp Davis Battle was active in business and served Rocky Mount Mills for fifty-five years in the capacities of legal counsel, vice-president, and chairman of the board of directors.
Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District is also significant for its collection of mill buildings, stylish manager houses, and uniformly designed, two-room and saddlebag frame worker houses, most dating from the late 1880s to the 1910s. The most pivotal buildings are the early mill buildings which represent the "slow burn" construction method and feature hallmark characteristics of the Italianate style employed by mills nationwide in the late nineteenth century. The mill village enjoys a degree of architectural integrity rarely seen in historic North Carolina mill districts.
Historical Background and Social History Context
In 1816 Joel Battle (1779-1829), who lived at the Shell Bank Plantation on the Tar River, a few miles below what is now Rocky Mount, bought land around the falls of the Tar River known as Great Falls at the Edgecombe County and Nash County border. Battle and his family were cotton farmers who were aware of the cotton mill development occurring in the New England states. On this newly acquired land, Battle, along with his brother-in-law Peter Evans and Henry Donaldson of Rhode Island, began efforts to build a cotton mill that would take advantage of the water power provided by the falls. Sometime between 1816 and 1817, Battle, Evans, and Donaldson constructed a four-story stone cotton mill building and named it the Great Falls Mill. Also at this time, the community of Rocky Mount was established and named for the rocky mounds and ledges near the falls.
The market for cotton products grew considerably during the antebellum period. Initially the Great Falls Mill served local areas. Planters primarily brought their cotton to the mill to be spun into yarn and then woven into cloth at home. Coarse cloth, often used to clothe the slave population of the surrounding plantations, was primarily manufactured. In addition to running the cotton mill, the partners ran the grist mill that had previously been erected at the Great Falls as well as a saw mill. The Great Falls was the second cotton mill established in North Carolina the first being the Schenck Warlick Mill established in Lincoln County in 1813. This mill no longer stands.
In 1821 a disagreement arose among the mill's original three partners, and by 1825 Joel Battle was the sole owner of the mill. Under Battle's ownership, the mill had expanded its markets outside the region and the state by the late 1820s. The Tarboro Free Press noted the mill's expansion in 1828 with a report that the Battle enterprise had recently shipped twenty bales of yarn to New York, Philadelphia and Boston which were also markets at the time.
After Joel Battle's death in 1829, the mill became the property known as "Battle & Bros." under the leadership of William Horn Battle (1802-1879), Joel Battle's oldest son who later became a North Carolina Supreme Court Justice. The mill continued to prosper in the 1830s, in part due to the hiring of a trained cotton mill superintendent from Massachusetts named John Parker. Parker, who brought new machinery to the mill, was a partner in the company from 1830 to 1833. Two years later, Benjamin Dossey Battle, the second oldest son of Joel Battle, erected the handsome two-story frame house (1151 Falls Road) near the mill. The house remains intact and has served as the general office of the company since 1917.
Joel Battles' three sons continued to operate the mill until 1847 when it was acquired by their cousin, James Smith Battle (1786-1854), and his son William Smith Battle (1823-1915). At this time the name of the mill changed to Battle Mills. James and William were two of the wealthiest planters in North Carolina. At the time of their acquisition, James Battle owned $120,000 worth of real estate and sixty slaves, while his son had $25,000 in land and ninety slaves. James S. Battle is remembered in North Carolina history for his role in the 1834 landmark case of State vs. Will which determined that a slave had a right to defend himself against attack. Battle employed attorneys to defend the slave named Will after he killed an overseer who had attacked him. Battle was probably the first slave owner in the South to defend a slave in court against the charge of murdering a white man. James also contracted to build and with his own slaves completed many miles of the Raleigh and Wilmington Railroad. The Battles operated the mill with slave and free black labor until 1851, when they were replaced with white workers.
William S. Battle gained full ownership of the mill three years after his father's 1854 death. He served as a member of the North Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1861, which voted for the secession of North Carolina from the Union. Prior to the Civil War, Battle Mills, employing twenty-eight men and twenty-two women, operated 1,716 spindles and produced $55,200 of yarn annually. William Battle's plantation supplied meat and corn to Confederate troops, and he invested heavily in Confederate bonds. This, along with the fact that the mill produced cloth for uniforms and yarn for socks for the Confederate Army, attracted the attention of Federal officials. Consequently Union Troops raided and burned the cotton factory and associated structures in July of 1863. The superintendent of the mill at the time was a northerner by the name of Crowder who was responsible for persuading the troops from not burning the 1835 Benjamin D. Battle House (1151 Falls Road). Apparently the antebellum mill superintendent's dwelling at 1107 Falls Road was also sparred. The report of the Union officer who burned the mill described it as employing over 150 white girls at its spindles and looms. These were undoubtedly recruited from the surrounding rural areas because there was no base of population at or near the mill that could have provided such a labor force.
After the Civil War, William S. Battle built a larger brick mill which was burned in 1869 by a disgruntled worker. The company lost both the building and machinery. Battle rebuilt the mill in 1870 and expanded it in 1871, accommodating the mills' 3,000 spindles and 100 looms. The first school in the village, of which there is no recollection, was a free school started in 1878 by the town, and mill children were entitled to attend. The school was discontinued in 1886 owing to the court decisions requiring equal per capita division of tax revenue between white and Negro schools.
During the Reconstruction period, the mill was slow to establish a strong financial footing. William S. Battle was forced to use the plant's capital to pay debts. Battle attempted to strengthen the mill by incorporation and selling stocks to investors, however this did not provide enough capital to revive the mill. In 1883 the bankrupt and devastated Battle relinquished control of the mill to the trustees. This marked the first time in the mill's sixty-year history that it was out of the Battle family hands.
Like most of the south, North Carolina experienced a new industrial growth in the last decades of the nineteenth century. This birth of the "New South" was reflected in the quickly reinvigorated Rocky Mount cotton mill. In 1885 the trustees of the company reorganized the mill under the name Rocky Mount Mills. Even though the Battle family no longer had ownership in the mill, the company's creditors approved an operating plan by Thomas Hall Battle (1860-1936), a lawyer, banker, industrialist and great-grandson of Joel Battle. Soon after, Thomas H. Battle was elected secretary of the mill. Thomas H. Battle is noted in North Carolina's history as the organizer of the Bank of Rocky Mount in 1889 and later as its president. He also helped in the organization of the Rocky Mount Savings and Loan Company and the Rocky Mount Insurance and Investment Company. As early as 1892, Battle promoted the formation of a state banking association, which was created when the North Carolina Bankers Association was organized at Morehead City in 1897. Battle served as the organizations first president.
In 1886, James H. Ruffin, an experienced mill operator from Lowell, Massachusetts was hired as superintendent and proved to be invaluable in restoring the mill's productivity. The mill also benefited from the help of Paul C. Cameron, a leading postwar industrialist and railway and road builder and the mill's largest stockholder. Cameron encouraged many of the stockholders to use their influence in obtaining loans for the mill, thus bolstering its capital.
The late nineteenth century marked a period of rapid expansion for Rocky Mount Mills and its village. In 1887 the mill was in full operation, running twelve hours a day. A year later, Thomas H. Battle was elected as company president, and under his direction, a second mill building (1151 Falls Road) was built in 1889. In this same year, shipping problems of the company were simplified when a spur line was completed connecting the plant with the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad (later the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad). The company bought additional equipment and increased the number of spindles from 3,500 in 1886 to 25,000 in 1892. Also in that year, a new auxiliary steam plant was added to supplement the factory's water power. A third mill building was added to the complex in 1894.
The "mill village," as it is still referred today, grew up after the Civil War when a permanent labor force became attached to the mill. Before the village was established some employees were brought to the mill by horse and wagon from the outlying areas, while some lived in company tenement houses surrounding the mill. While most of the supervisors and technicians were brought in from areas with established cotton mills like Rhode Island and Massachusetts, most of the laborers were from surrounding rural areas. As with most cotton mills in North Carolina, the work force was exclusively white during the twentieth century. It was not until whole families became permanently employed at the mill, that the mill village grew. To occupy a mill house, the head of the household had to work at the mill. Usually, two or more household members, including wives and teenage children, worked in the mill. In 1900, the mill houses were occupied by an average of four to eight persons, of which three to six worked in the mill in some capacity. Most often, houses were occupied by large families who worked in the mill for successive generations, as a repetition of names at various addresses in the village were found.
Much of the mill housing along Elm Street and Falls Road was erected between 1888 and 1892. No record of a contractor or source of design for the mill houses was found. As with most mill villages, the houses were most likely designed and built by local carpenters, some of whom might have been employed by the mill. By 1889, twenty-five one-story frame houses, generally about 16 feet by 32 feet with a rear addition, had been built along East and West Elm Street and along the 1000 block of Falls Road. Three years later, twenty-eight mill houses of the same size were erected on West Elm Street, Falls Road, and Cedar Street.
As the mill continued to boom during the late nineteenth century, like many other textile mills in North Carolina, housing increased and improved, shaping the mill village into a cohesive social unit. In 1893 Rocky Mount Mills took formal action to obtain a charter from the legislature incorporating the growing mill village inhabited by its employees as the independent town of Rocky Mount Mills. In an 1894 circular announcing a bond issue by the mill, the company is described as having three brick factories, eighty tenement houses, a brick office, store, and standard storage buildings. The town of Rocky Mount Mills, supported entirely by the company, had a full town government with a mayor, board, fire department, constable, and school. Postal service was provided by the post office in Rocky Mount. The fire department was located on the east side of the present 900 block of Falls Road.
The second mill school, serving seven grades, was built by the company for the children of employees in 1889. Non-extant, it stood at the southeast corner of Falls Road and River Drive. The school also held night classes available for the mill employees. Although the night classes taught by ladies of nearby towns or employees were voluntary, the mill encouraged the employees to attend them. The subjects were reading, writing, and later, general elementary curriculums. The early classes merged into the Moonlight School, an experimental program first started in Kentucky in 1911 which focused on the problem of illiteracy. Later the night programs at the mill school were converted to vocational classes.
Although the mill worker generally had a higher standard of living than as a tenant farmer, they were not without hardships. Mill workers suffered the strains of long hours, small wages, and disease. Malaria was a common illness in the area. "James Ruffin frequently referred to the loss of production due to malaria among the workers and observed that they often lacked 'snap and vigor.'" Poor sanitary conditions in the village assisted in spreading disease among the workers. In 1896, the unhealthful conditions began improving as running water was installed in the mill and village, and a company doctor was hired. Automatic humidifiers installed in 1899 helped to monitor the floating lint that workers breathed into their lungs. Rocky Mount Mills was one of the first mills in the state to install these.
In 1898 James Ruffin retired from Rocky Mount Mills and Thomas H. Battle was elected treasurer and took the roll of mill manager. Battle retired as President and was succeeded by R.H. Hicks, who remained president until his death in 1920. Hyman L. Battle, being the fifth generation of the Battle family, succeeded his father as treasurer-manager in 1933.
The turn of the century brought many changes which benefited the mill employees. In 1902 management abolished the company store, once located on the west side of Falls Road, and the credit system that had kept many mill hands in debt to the company. Also in that year, the mill reduced its work week from seventy-two to sixty-six hours. The work week was further reduced to sixty hours in 1912. Workers enjoyed close proximity to hardware, drug, and grocery stores that emerged in the early twentieth century at the southern edge of the mill village at the intersection of Falls Road and Ridge Street.
Beginning in 1906, the mill began building and improving worker housing in the village. In 1906, a one-story mill house was built at 22 East Elm Street and another was listed as "house in woods" in a 1923 retrospective appraisal. Ten one-story dwellings were built in 1908 on Falls Road, Cedar Street and Elm Street. Another nine houses were constructed in 1910 along West Elm Street. All mill houses were rescreened and provided with indoor plumbing in 1911. Also in 1911, the mill and entire plant was electrified by one of the first steam turbines in the state. Two years later, the houses were equipped with electric lights and gas. The mill erected three three-room houses and five new rooms were added to other houses in 1913 at a cost of $1,218. New sidewalks along Falls Road were installed in 1913. Concerning the sidewalks, the mill treasurer commented, "The cost is high, but this will be a very great help to our people. The most difficult element in manufacturing at present is the labor and it is absolutely necessary that we do everything in our power to promote the health and comfort of our operatives." Between about 1913 and 1916, the last group of mill houses was erected along River Drive. The employee housing was regularly maintained by the mill. Most often, day employees conducted the upkeep on the houses. The housing was at least equivalent in comfort and convenience to any available rentals elsewhere in Rocky Mount. In an effort to maintain a presentable village, the mill held contests for the best kept properties and yards.
As demands for cotton products increased with the arrival of World War I, the mill rapidly expanded in the early twentieth century. At this time, the mill recruited employees from around the state, especially from Lumberton in Robeson County. It is said that recruiters promised steady work and good housing and as a result, they brought back workers by the wagon load. By World War I, the number of houses in the village reached a high of 165.
In keeping with the paternalistic attitude of the mill management, Rocky Mount Mills provided its employees with amenities other than company housing. Generally, the development of these amenities coincided with times of prosperity. A large bungalow (1135 Falls Road) was constructed as a community house for the mill village during World War I. The large, front room of the house was often used for social events like dances and its smaller rooms served as the doctor's day clinic. A company baseball team, the "Fighting Skinners" was also instituted in the early 1920s. Mill employees played on a field with grandstand at the northeast corner of present day Peachtree Street extension and River Drive. The grandstand was torn down in the early 1950s after the warehouses on Falls Road were expanded. Mill employees also enjoyed movies at a theater located in the village. Torn down by 1949, the two-story frame movie theater stood east of the warehouses on Falls Road. The mill also permitted and encouraged the establishment of a mutual welfare association for the employees. This association, run by mill employees, provided financial assistance to needy mill workers during such times as death or illness. A rent free restaurant named the Canteen was set up for the association in the former brick office building. This early 1880s building is now connected with Mill No. Two. The Canteen provided the workers with good food and the substantial profits were utilized in welfare services for the employees. The mill periodically made large contributions to the "Canteen Fund" each year. The restaurant served as a social gathering place for the employees in the village into the late 1960s.
In 1927 the Town of Rocky Mount Mills and the City of Rocky Mount merged, and conditions improved even more for workers at the mill. Work week hours were cut to fifty-five hours in 1929 and forty-eight hours in 1933. The Great Depression brought a degree of hardship to both capital and labor; nevertheless, the owners of the mill supported the Federal Wage and Hour Act in 1935 which proposed an increase in the minimum wage and set maximum hours for the textile industry. In 1939 the Federal government proposed an increase in the minimum wage for the cotton textile industry, and Hyman L. Battle, treasurer and manager of Rocky Mount Mills at the time, appeared before the hearing arguing in favor of the thirty-two-and-a-half cent per hour minimum wage. He wanted to correct the idea that all Southern textile men are against the recommended rate." Rocky Mount Mills installed employee benefits, including health insurance and a mutual welfare association in the 1930s and 1940s.
World War II drastically increased production at Rocky Mount Mills. The mill devoted ninety-five percent of its output to supplying yarn to be used in the production of war supplies. In April of 1944, the War Manpower Corporation ordered all textile plants to operate on a forty-eight-hour week basis rather than the forty-hour week, demonstrating the importance of the textile industry in producing yarn during the war effort. The Battle family remained active in running the plant during the war. Kemp Davis Battle (1888-1973) served as vice president of the company at the time. Kemp D. Battle, a Rocky Mount lawyer and son of Thomas H. Battle, served for fifty-five years in the capacities of legal counsel, vice-president, or chairman of the board of directors of Rocky Mount Mills.
Mill employees who left to serve in the armed forces were guaranteed their jobs upon their return. The mill maintained contact with the soldiers by publishing the "Riverside Bulletin," a weekly newsletter for employees in the armed services. The bulletin, which ran from March 22, 1944 to September 19, 1945, provided the soldiers with local news, war updates, sport scores, as well as a weekly "pin-up" girl, which was generally a photograph of one of the younger female employees.
As a result of the mills prosperity during the war, Rocky Mount Mills village underwent significant improvements in the 1940s. Thomas Herman, an architect from Wilson and a personal friend of Mr. and Mrs. Hyman L. Battle, was hired to restore the original portico to the Benjamin D. Battle House as well as update many of the mill dwellings. After much research, Herman replaced the 1910's two-story, almost full-facade porch on the Battle House with the present portico, which is in keeping with the original house design. Herman based the design of the portico on that of the Dunbar House, a similar Greek Revival dwelling in Edgecombe County. To spruce up the mill houses, Herman redesigned the facades of the dwellings with low-cost but well-conceived lattice and "colonialized" porches, relocated porches of some houses to the side elevations, and reorganized interior plans, converting duplexes to single-family units. All of the interiors were modernized at that time. After a 1945 discussion by mill managers regarding the lack of labor force, authorization was approved to construct seventeen dwellings in the village to be sold to the employees. At the next meeting, the proposal was voted down. The houses at 22 Carr Street, 35 River Drive, and 2 East Elm Street appear to have been constructed during the 1940s. In 1945 the streets in the village were paved with asphalt. The Rocky Mount Mills school was closed in 1946 and was used as apartments until its demolition in 1949. In 1946 the mill village accommodated only thirty-two percent of the some 700 mill employees.
At the conclusion of World War II, Rocky Mount Mills expanded its facilities and produced a variety of textile products. While most Southern textile companies were selling off their mill villages, Rocky Mount Mills Village remained under company control. Life in the mill village changed very slowly. Many of the mill houses were updated in the 1950s with asbestos shingle siding, while others were destroyed.
In the 1960s, Thomas B. Battle, son of Hyman L. Battle, took over running the mill and continued until 1993 when John M. Mebane Jr., grandson of Thomas H. Battle, was elected president and chief executive officer. During the Vietnam War era, a period when demand for textiles increased, production at Rocky Mount Mills surged. Although Rocky Mount Mills continued to invest in new machinery during the 1970s and 1980s, the company operated during a period when cotton prices were volatile.
By the 1990s, Rocky Mount Mills was considered a small mill by production standards. In 1995. North Carolina cotton farmers grew their largest crop since before the Civil War. Cotton prices increased over filly percent and yarn prices decreased, forcing many textile mills to close. Rocky Mount Mills, which closed in June of 1996 was one of many North Carolina textile mills that folded during that time. Since their closure, Rocky Mount Mills has been seeking developers to redevelop the mill and mill village. Preliminary studies have been conducted for the rehabilitation of the mill and warehouse buildings into condominiums, office and retail space. A Raleigh developer has the first option to purchase the mill village with covenants. The existing housing in the village will be rehabilitated and marketed as moderate income housing.
The layout and design of the industrial and residential buildings in the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District are characteristic of similar mill villages constructed in North Carolina during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although small in comparison to mills in the Piedmont region and in Roanoke Rapids, the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District retains the standard resources associated with textile-manufacturing mills and their attendant villages: factory buildings, warehouses, early and stylish houses built for management and supervisors, and more numerous modest dwellings for workers. Owing to the long company ownership of the mill, the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District demonstrates a high level of architectural integrity unequalled by other mill villages in North Carolina.
Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District represents the trends in factory architecture and industrial housing which resulted from industrial growth in North Carolina beginning in the 1870s. Although Rocky Mount Mills history begins in 1818, the surviving industrial structures date from 1870, the year construction began after two previous fires. Two residential resources remain intact from the mill's antebellum period.
The main factory buildings, built between 1870 and 1894, exemplify the Italianate style popular in North Carolina industrial architecture during the late nineteenth century. Generally modeled after New England examples, typical North Carolina mill buildings featured thick plank floors and stout timbers which would burn slowly during a fire. Brick stair towers, often supporting a water tank for a sprinkler system, were also employed to prevent fires from spreading between the main structures. The buildings were adorned with long, regular rows of arched windows to provide air and natural light for the workers inside. The three Rocky Mount Mills factory buildings exhibit the "slow burn" construction, brick stair towers, and rows of arched windows. The buildings also feature hallmark characteristics of industrial Italianate architecture including common bond brick, exposed curved wooden purlins, low gabled roofs, and decorative brickwork.
Housing in North Carolina's mill villages followed the Rhode Island model of single-family units, rather than the Lowell, Massachusetts system of boarding-houses for workers. In order to attract workers, mill owners replicated the rural atmosphere that the families of workers from nearby farms were accustomed to. Detached houses were set on large lots with ample room for gardens and animals. Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District serves as an excellent illustration of the typical nineteenth century riverside mill village. The homogenous worker housing in the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District consists of mostly one-story dwellings accompanied by two-story dwellings, originally built as duplexes, and several more architecturally significant houses built for mill managers and superintendents.
Generally, mill houses were designed and built by local carpenters. By the late nineteenth century the designs had become standardized and were available to textile engineers in textbooks like Daniel A. Tompkins' 1899 book, Cotton Mill, Commercial Features: A Text-Book for the Use of Textile Schools and Investors. The book included examples of two-, three-, four-, and five-room one-story dwellings for workers that could be built for $250 to $450 each.
The numerous, small and simply-finished, one-story frame dwellings found in the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District are typical of similar modest dwellings erected in North Carolina mill villages and in the rural areas of Piedmont North Carolina during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The two-room houses with rear kitchen wings, most of which have saddlebag plans, were built as complete units. Both subtypes of the saddlebag form are represented in the district. Nine exhibit two exterior doors leading into each room while twenty-nine exhibit the second subtype, with a single, central door leading into a vestibule beside the chimney. The saddlebag houses with two-door, two-room arrangement provided for a small duplex plan that suited the mill's occupancy policy. Company rules stated in the early 1900s that each house had to be occupied by a minimum of two and maximum of three employees. Frame saddlebag houses, similar to those in Rocky Mount Mills village, were employed in other North Carolina mill villages such as Cedar Falls, Edna and Edenton. In the rural areas of Nash County, this house was a common dwelling for both white and black tenants and sharecroppers. A single one-story, two-room frame house with exterior-end chimney remains in the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District.
Two-story dwellings built as duplexes interrupt the rhythm of one-story houses in the district at the junction of Falls Road and Elm Street. Reflecting another common vernacular building form dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these five dwellings are two-story, single-pile dwellings, a common dwelling form for farmhouses in North Carolina during this period. The house at 1032 Falls Road features flanking exterior-end brick chimneys, while the other four have central chimneys. Four have dual entries, while 1026 Falls Road has a center-hall plan with central entrance.
Among the repetition of small one- and two-story frame mill dwellings, the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District contains three large and stylish dwellings constructed for higher-ranking mill associates. The earliest and most significant of these is the Benjamin D. Battle House (1151 Falls Road) built in 1835. Constructed for a mill owner, the house represents the antebellum establishment of the mill and is one of Nash County's earliest surviving examples of the Greek Revival style. The intact two-story, frame dwelling retains emblems of the style including a low-pitched roof, fluted window and door surrounds, and double-entry doors framed by sidelights and transom. Another of the county's earliest surviving examples of the Greek Revival style is the superintendent cottage associated with Rocky Mount Mills. Located at 1107 Falls Road, the house exhibits Greek Revival details similar to the Battle residence. The one-story, double-pile dwelling with central-hall plan features horizontal proportions well suited to the broad forms of the Greek Revival. The one-story form in the Greek Revival style was a common house type that appeared in Nash County between the 1840s and 1870s. In addition to the two Greek Revival houses, another architecturally important mill house is the late nineteenth century gable-roofed Victorian cottage at 1118 Falls Road which was a typical dwelling of the post-Civil War era in North Carolina. The decorative porch with sawnwork brackets and turned porch posts suggests that the house was built for a mill manager.
The nationally popular Craftsman style is also represented in the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District. Around 1918, when the mill was experiencing prosperity from World War I, a large Bungalow at 1135 Falls Road to be used as a community house was constructed. This intact Bungalow is the only residential example of the Craftsman style in the Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District.
Rocky Mount Mills' unique character is derived from the company's antebellum beginnings and its 178 years of operation. The long history of the mill parallels the evolution of the textile industry in North Carolina. Rocky Mount Mills was the second cotton mill in North Carolina and, at its closing in 1996, the oldest mill operating in the South.
Cotton manufacturing started in North Carolina in the Piedmont region in the early nineteenth century when mills were founded at waterpower sites. Before 1825, only three factories stood in North Carolina, one of which was the original Rocky Mount Mills, Great Falls Mill. It emerged at the eastern edge of the Piedmont under the direction of Joel Battle, a planter and merchant in Edgecombe County. In 1818, Battle positioned the mill at the falls of the Tar River, taking advantage of the excellent power source. The Schneck Warlick Mill in Lincoln County was established five years prior to Rocky Mount Mills. The third was developed by George McNeil in 1825 along the Rockfish Creek near Fayetteville.
The time of operation of Rocky Mount Mills represents the formative years of the industry in North Carolina. Like most Southern textile pioneers, Joel Battle relied upon the technology of New England and upon the technical expertise of northern engineers to assist in the building and managing of the mill. Despite assistance from experienced, mostly northern, mill supervisors, North Carolina textile pioneers were faced with complex and unique challenges which did not subside until after Reconstruction when the industry flourished. Although the 1840s brought a burst of activity in cotton mill production, the wave of expansion quickly diminished with rising cotton prices. North Carolina contained only twenty-five mills in 1840, which operated fewer than 50,000 spindles, about 700 looms, and employed only 1,200 people. The New England states had 674 mills utilizing 1,497,394 spindles and employed over 46,000 workers at the same time.
As a pioneer of the industry, Rocky Mount Mills was developing new products at a time when an industrialized South was not well supported. It was not until the Civil War that the importance of industrial growth in the South was realized. Because it supplied goods to the troops, Rocky Mount Mills' importance increased with the onset of the Civil War, making it a target of the Union Troops. It was one of approximately ten North Carolina mills destroyed by Union Troops during the war.
Following a surge in cotton prices after the Civil War, the cotton market collapsed and prices fell through the 1870s. As a result, growth in cotton manufacturing dramatically expanded. This rapid boom in the textile industry after 1880 is owed to the lure of profits and the desire to support an industry that would create jobs for poor whites, struggling in the agricultural based economy. The reorganization of Rocky Mount Mills in 1885 coincided with this boom in the industry; it expanded its operation in the early 1890s and had built a substantial mill village for its workers. The number of textile mills in North Carolina reached a high point between 1890 and 1910.
Before electrification, the textile industry emerged slowly in eastern North Carolina because there were not many waterpower sites. The industry was entrenched in the Piedmont just as eastern North Carolina towns like Tarboro, Wilson, and Edenton had just begun to establish mills. By the time the industry had a strong footing in the state, Rocky Mount Mills had been in operation for over sixty years and had expanded its operation.
Rocky Mount Mills' long ownership and maintenance of the mill village represents the typical paternalistic spirit of North Carolina's industrial elite in projecting an image of social responsibility towards its employees. Between the 1930s and the 1950s, many North Carolina textile mills sold off their mill housing to employees. Rocky Mount Mills sustained ownership of their mill village and is one of a few mills which continued to offer its employees housing.
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† Michelle Kullen, Rocky Mount Mills Village Historic District, Nash County, North Carolina, nomination document, 1998, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.