William Gregg, jeweler, watchsmith, champion of industry, and founder of the Graniteville Company, was known as the father of Southern cotton manufacturing.
Gregg was born February 2, 1800, in western Virginia, the son of William and Elizabeth Webb Gregg. His mother died when he was 4 years old, and he was reared by a neighbor woman until he was about 10. He was then sent to live with an uncle, Jacob Gregg, a successful watch and spinning-machine maker in Alexandria, Virginia.
A few years later, his uncle established a cotton mill in Georgia, one of the South’s first. The mill did not survive the War of 1812. In 1814, William Gregg was apprenticed to a friend of his uncle’s, a Mr. Blanchard, a watchmaker and silversmith in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1821, Gregg moved to Petersburg, Virginia, to perfect himself in his profession.
Gregg undoubtedly formed a strong friendship with Mr. Blanchard. A decade after leaving his employment, Gregg stopped at the Blanchard’s new home in Louisville, Kentucky, to pay his respects. Sitting at Blanchard’s bench, Gregg made a silver pitcher of the treasured first coins he ever earned. It became an heirloom that was handed down from first son to first son in the Gregg family.
After completing training, he moved to South Carolina and established a jewelry business in Columbia. On a sales trip, he called on Colonel Mathias Jones, who operated a store at Ridge Spring in Edgefield District. There he met Jones’ eldest daughter, Marina, and they were married in 1829.
Gregg was prosperous in Columbia, and during the 1830s, he not only traveled extensively throughout the United States, but he retired with a large amount of discretionary capital. In 1838, he bought an interest in what became Hayden, Gregg and Company, a jewelry and silversmithing firm in Charleston and moved his family to the Lowcountry.
Also in 1838, he bought into the Vaucluse Manufacturing Company, a cotton mill in Barnwell District. His experience with Vaucluse taught him two things: first, how cotton manufacturing in the South should not be conducted (the plant was a model of inefficiency), and, second, in his words, “a settled conviction . . . that manufacturing is a business that ought to engage the two Carolinas and Georgia.”
In 1844, William Gregg traveled to New England to inspect its textile districts, and the trip, coupled with the lessons of Vaucluse, prompted him to write a series of essays for the Charleston Courier that would become known as the Essays on Domestic Industry, a visionary call for the active development of mills in the South.
While corporations were not commonplace in those days, shortly after publishing the essays, Gregg and a group of mostly Charlestonians applied for and, in 1845, received a charter from the state Legislature for the Graniteville Manufacturing Company.
The Graniteville Company relied on local people to build the mill as well as operate it, employing farmers, tenant farmers, and the poor at wages commensurate with those paid to Northern mill workers. Granite quarried about a mile from the plant site was used in the construction.
Gregg provided quality housing for his workers, as well as a church and a small library. They received medical care for a small fee. They had gardens and woods from which to harvest timber.
Gregg also created what was perhaps the first compulsory education system in the United States. He built a school for children from 6 to 12 years old, furnished teachers and books, and fined parent workers five cents a day, withheld from their wages, for every day their children were absent from classes.
Gregg was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1856, and he continued to argue passionately for internal industrial development. He believed that there was little reason to look to the expanding West or the industrialized North when so much of the treasures of South Carolina, in his eyes, lay untapped.
Graniteville Manufacturing Company barely survived the Civil War. Immediately after the war ended, Gregg worked diligently toward the continued modernization of his company through travel, research, and the investment of about $120,000 in personal capital for more modern machinery.
In April 1996, Graniteville Company was sold to Avondale Mills, Inc.; it currently operates as Graniteville Fabrics.
The University of South Carolina at Aiken Library features the Gregg–Graniteville Memorial Rooms, which contain The Gregg–Graniteville Collection. The collection has proven of primary value for scholars in Southern economic, social, and labor history for the period 1845 to 1985, as well as for cultural historians of the South as it moved into the 20th century.
William and Marina Gregg were the parents of three children, Mary, William, and James.
Source — South Carolina Business Hall of Fame