Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Early Years of Proximity Mills

Aerial from early 1940's. Looking south towards downtown Greensboro

Just three years later, the Cones opened Revolution Mills, a modern facility to weave soft cotton flannel. In 1902, a second denim plant was under construction. Called White Oak, it was named for the enormous tree that grew on its site. With ten different warehouses for cotton and its own power plant, the mill began turning out indigo blue denim by 1905. Moses Cone died at age 51 in 1908, and his brother carried on the company, opening a fourth mill, the Proximity Print Works, in 1912. This facility was designed to "finish" or print cotton with multiple colors, creating a type of cotton product new to the South.

More than just a workplace, the Cone mills became an entire world for their employees, who were cared for in a paternalistic, and some would say totalitarian, system by the mill owners. The Cones built housing near their mills, both boarding houses and single family homes, which made up segregated Cone villages. Stores sold dairy products and meat produced on company farms. For each village, the company built a school and donated land for churches. Two mill YMCAs were built to provide outlets for recreation, and the company also instituted a Welfare Office, with social workers and nurses to look after its employees.

By 1913, the Proximity Manufacturing Company owned all or half interests in seven cotton production facilities. During the following year, the company paid both its first dividend, and its first income taxes. In 1915, the company began to produce denim fabric for Levi's jeans, opening up an important new market. With the coming of World War I in 1914, Cone products continued to be in demand, both by the allies overseas, and then, after 1917, by the American armed forces. In March of that year, Caesar Cone, the company's only living founder, died after a brief illness, and leadership of the company was turned over to his younger brothers, Julius and Bernard.

With the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the Cones refrained from any further expansion throughout most of the 1930s. The company did introduce two new cotton fabrics, a light-weight flannel called "flannelette," and a crepe called "Proximity Plisse." Despite the popularity these products enjoyed, the company was forced to curtail production at its plants as the Depression wore on. In a move that would bode well for the future, however, Cone introduced "deeptone" denim in 1936, a smoother, darker indigo fabric that was designed to appeal to wearers more than the earlier, rougher fabrics.

By 1941, Cone was on more secure financial footing, and the company acquired the Florence Mills and its subsidiary, the American Spinning Company. Further expansion was halted with the American entry into World War II, when wartime production goals were implemented. In addition to an accelerated output of denim, Cone found itself producing such unfamiliar items as camouflage cloth, tent cloth, and osnaburg, for use in sandbags.

Seventy percent of the output of the fabric mills of North Carolina was diverted to the defense effort during the war, and at its end, it was clear that the Cones' operations needed to undergo a reorganization to thrive in the newly competitive civilian market. Accordingly, in 1945, the company merged all its separate mill properties into the Proximity Manufacturing Company, and also dissolved the old Cone Export and Commission Company, replacing it with a similar entity under the control of Proximity.

Proximity Mill, early 1950's

And here is an aerial from Bing maps of the same area. As you can see, just one warehouse is left from the Proximity Mills site (White Oak Mill is shown in at the bottom and is the only mill still manufacturing denim). 

New houses have been built on part of the site (upper left corner) and from looking at Register of Deeds website, Proximity was sold to a local salvage/demolition company during Cone Mills' bankruptcy back in 2004. They razed the mills, warehouses and office buildings and then sold the land to the real estate developer. My guess is that the reason the last remaining buildings haven't met the same fate is due to the extreme depressed state of real estate here in North Carolina.


Carolina said...

That is quite a change. I wonder how life in the houses surrounding the factory used to be.

SteveinSC said...

A subject very near to me. My mother was born in one of those, back when my grandfather still carted. His own father ran the mill store for years and was known far and wide for it. They both died from cotton dust inhalation years after the mill closed. Lintheads, they were generally called. The mill was their life.

Karen said...

Carolina: I'll find some old photos and post them for you.

Steve: I guess this my homage to a way of life that has disappeared in large part.

Cone Mills is just a shadow of itself, bought in bankruptcy by Wilbur Ross and now part of International Textile Group as is Guilford Mills, which also went bankrupt. And Burlington Industries - poof! Even the headquarters here in Greensboro was demolished and replaced with a shopping center.

Brown lung is a huge problem here in Greensboro.