Popular history says that the New South was born after the War Between the States, that it was an economic resolution by the defeated South to rise from the financial ashes of defeat and build an economy diversified enough to compete toe to toe with the victorious North. Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady coined the term “The New South” in a famous speech to a New York gentleman’s club in 1886.
But popular history has a way of bending real history. The “New” South, it could be argued, and quite forcefully, got its start in Augusta, Ga., and Graniteville, S.C., between 1845 and 1849, when visionaries in both towns built major cotton mills-mills that competed in yardage produced with most any Northern mill-and closed the economic circle, at least in a small-scale way, that would ultimately lead to the diversified manufacturing economy we enjoy today.
While Augusta’s business community gets most of the credit for that small leap forward, it can be argued that South Carolinian William W. Gregg, founder of the Graniteville Mill, truly got the ball rolling. Today, the original Graniteville Mill is hidden in a vast redbrick industrial complex owned by Avondale Mills. But the mills Gregg pioneered, first in Vaucluse and then in Graniteville, continue to provide jobs to hundreds of Midland Valley workers.
And had it not been for political intrigues and economic opportunism on the part of Augusta business and political leaders, Gregg could very well have built the first major cotton mill here as well.
Notice the term “major cotton mill.” Since the Revolution and, even before, the South had pockets of manufacturing, from cotton to paper to iron products to name a few. But most of the goods turned out were for the local market, some of it cheap, some of it of high quality. The idea of mass output of any Southern factory, however, was pretty much beyond the imagination of the Southern entrepreneur. Manufacturing was just another way to make a living and the South’s planter society, which had built wealth beyond the imagination of most successful Northern manufacturers, not only didn’t like manufacturing but were outspoken enemies of it.
Yet while the planters were doing well, the small cities of the South, and especially commercial towns like Augusta, were not doing so well during the early 1840s. Cotton prices were not only somewhat depressed, but since the 1820s the number of towns that competed for the wholesaling of the cotton crop had grown by a factor of three, with Columbus, Macon and Albany siphoning off the cotton market from once dominant Augusta. So concerned were local business leaders, mostly merchants and bankers, some questioned whether Augusta could survive the downturn as a town, much less a vibrant and proud city.
Meanwhile, over in South Carolina, William W. Gregg had invested in and helped run a small cotton mill in Vaucluse and quickly discovered that, under traditional Southern-style management and capacity, one could not be a successful manufacturer. Gregg was not a manufacturer by trade, but a successful and retired silversmith (he was 39 in 1839) who, at the time, lived much of the year in Charleston. But he could see potential in the cotton trade and, in 1845, he and a group of investors petitioned the South Carolina government for a charter to build a new, bigger factory near Vaucluse that would be run in a Northern manner, with professional managers and well-trained workers that had, for the day, a superior social support system (housing, stores, churches, all provided by the mill).
While Gregg was planning his Graniteville enterprise, Augusta’s canal boosters asked him to come and discuss an even bigger mill on their planned canal. Gregg was beyond just a little interested. He was also one of the few Southerners with meaningful experience in the cotton mill business and had some regional fame with his tract Essays on Domestic Industry, which with his breadth of experience captivated business leaders across the South. His plans in Graniteville called for a half-mile-long millrace from a local millpond to his new mill and mostly his money for the building and capitalization of the mill. The Augusta folks would provide (pretty much free of charge, except for the water he used) hydropower far beyond what his planned millrace could provide, a deep-pockets group of investors to help capitalize and operate the mill and theoretically a much larger pool of potential workers.
And so it came to pass the South Carolina entrepreneur went to Augusta and began selling his services as an already experienced cotton manufacturer, spoke of the problems he faced with a cotton mill, how he was correcting them, what he would do different and how he would operate the new Augusta mill. And the business leaders soaked up every word. Gregg’s informative meetings were not so much sales pitches as consultations and once the Augusta investors had heard enough they also decided that they could hire professional managers, they could provide the proper labor pool, they could provide the social support services for the workers and, well, they could also make all the money from the mill project. So Mr. Gregg’s offer to build and run the new mill was declined and he went back to the Midland Valley to build his own mill.
Had it not been for the negotiations with the Augusta investors, Gregg’s Graniteville Mill would most likely have been the first of the two to be completed and operational. But he put his own mill plans on hold while consulting with the Augusta Mill investors and it was the Augusta Mill that came on-line first.
But once his negotiations ended, Gregg threw all his energy and most of his money into the Graniteville complex. He quarried nearby blue granite seams as his primary building material for the mill itself and at the same time constructed housing for workers. He also decided to run the mill himself, building a home just above the mill site so he could give it day-to-day supervision, not only during construction, but also during the spinning and weaving of cotton products, not to mention the sales of those products nationwide. Whether he continued to practice, even as an avocation, his silver smith trade is not mentioned in the research. He did throw himself with passion into the cotton business, working 12 to 15 hour days on a regular basis.
And he never forgot the “slight” the Augustans had given him-turning down his offer to build and run their mill. It was as if he wanted to show the Augustans a thing or two as much as he wanted to build a successful mill.
It was not an easy task, building a successful cotton mill, but Gregg had the energy the corporate boys in Augusta did not. When problems arose, he was there to fix them personally; in Augusta professional managers answered to a board of directors. Even so, both operations prospered as competitors. By 1860, Graniteville was turning out some 4,000,000 yards of cloth annually, making it a potential prize for Union forces. But Gregg was not doing well financially during the war, with most of his production paid for in Secesh specie. Shortages were rampant and while he looked after his workers best he could, he was often criticized, even in the press, for turning down others in need. Gregg, who had sacrificed so much for his mill, and at times his workers, considered this criticism, and most likely rightly so, the cruelest blow of all.
One goal of Billy Sherman’s well-lighted march through South Carolina was to destroy the Horsecreek Valley mills and, if possible, the Augusta mills as well. Those plans were thwarted by the skirmish at Aiken when Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry defeated a Union cavalry attack. After the war, Gregg had to invest an additional $120,000 in the plant for upgrades, but his vision and energy helped it through the post-war era, though, ironically, he died of pneumonia in 1867 after helping stave off a flood in the millrace.
His company passed under control of his son James, who went on to head up the investment group that built the Enterprise Mill on the Augusta Canal in 1878 (that’s the one with the big Graniteville neon sign on its roof. Makes me think of William the Conqueror). While the old Augusta Mill was demolished as part of an urban renewal project in 1960, both the Graniteville mills have survived-the Graniteville as a working mill and the Enterprise Mill in Augusta as luxury condominiums. William W. Gregg was honored in 1985 by induction into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame.
An important postscript: One of the black marks on all the Victorian manufacturers was the use of child labor. At the Canal Museum at the Graniteville complex in Augusta you can see the old black-and-white photographs of barefoot children posing either with their machines or in front of the mill itself. W.W. Gregg, however, had a somewhat different vision, enforcing one of the first compulsory education rules in the history of the United States. He built a school for children five through 12 and fined parents five cents a day for every day the children did not attend.
Augusta turned its nose to William W. Gregg. It became, some could argue, a poorer town for it. But out in Horse Creek Valley, it was his vision and energy that set forth a political, economic and, yes, social revolution. It could truly be said that while Henry Grady coined the term “The New South,” William W. Gregg set it in motion.
Source — Augusta Magazine