I have become very interested in textile mills in 19th century north Georgia. What were the working conditions in the mills. What did the mill workers earn? What kind of hours did they work? Was there a school for the children?
The past two weeks I wrote about the deportation of the Roswell mill women and the story of one of those women and her family. The series culminates today with the history of the Roswell Manufacturing Co., the Ivy Mills and Laurel Mills, the mill workers, the King family who owned the mills, and how they ran their mills.
The founding of Roswell
Roswell King had a son named Barrington King. Together they founded the town of Roswell, Georgia, in the 1830s. The founding families of Roswell were aristocrats. The rest of the citizens were mill workers and their families.
The founding families organized Roswell Presbyterian Church in 1839 and the sanctuary was completed in 1840. Rev. Nathaniel A. Pratt, the first minister of Roswell Presbyterian, married Catherine Barrington King in March 1830. Catherine was the daughter of Roswell King, for whom the town was named.
In the mid 1830s, after homes were built for the families, Roswell and Barrington King established Roswell Manufacturing Co. Comprised of two cotton mills, construction began in 1836. The founding families were all owners and stockholders. Roswell Manufacturing Co. was incorporated by the Georgia General Assembly in 1839.
Mill hands migrated from the countryside’s sharecropping and tenant farming families. Many of those mill workers were farmers who, facing bleak economic conditions, moved to mill villages and went to work with their families in the mills.
Hundreds of workers went into the mills every morning. They ran the spindles and looms. The wages were low. When their shifts ended, they went home to mill owned housing they rented for $6 a month.
When they went shopping, they bought groceries from The Roswell Store, which was started by the Roswell Manufacturing Co. It sold its own manufactured products and general merchandise. Mill workers were initially paid with company scrip, which could be redeemed at the Roswell Store. Mill workers watched movies in theatres built by the Roswell Manufacturing Co.
Working in the mills was hot, rough and dangerous. Lint floated through the air and stuck to workers’ skin and hair. Mill hands breathed in the lint and many of them suffered poor health effects.
To survive, most of the family worked in the mills. Women and children generally could be found in the spinning rooms, while men handled the carding and weaving. The average day began with the factory morning whistle. Shifts typically ran 10 to 12 hours, and the work week was six days. When God said he needed the seventh day for rest, the millworker understood why.
Mill workers took care of each other’s children when parents had to work. When there was a death or illness, mill workers cleaned their neighbor’s house and cooked their meals. They comforted the families of their bereaved neighbors. They celebrated holidays and birthdays together. The Roswell Mill community was a closely bonded group.
In the 1850s, Barrington King’s grandsons, Thomas Edward King and his brother, James Roswell King, established Ivy Mills and Laurel Mills Manufacturing Co. Laurel woolen mill was built after the cotton mills were up and running. Those mills became the largest in northern Georgia. The mills turned out woolen and cotton goods.
Initially there was no school for the children of the mill workers. Roswell Presbyterian Church formed Roswell Academy, which was a private school for the children of the Roswell elite. In the late 1890s, that academy transitioned into the Roswell public school system, which provided free education to children of residents.
It only stands to reason that the Roswell Mills would thrive as they did. The Kings were wealthy New England businessmen. They knew that with the demand for cotton, if they established the mills to manufacture goods, they would become even more wealthy. The mills were very successful. More than one generation of Roswell citizens worked in those mills while they raised their families and lived fairly happy lives.
These days Roswell is a bustling, white-collar suburb in Atlanta’s Fulton County that bears little resemblance to the small mill town that it was in the mid-19th century.
It is exceedingly fitting that the history of Roswell, the Roswell Manufacturing Co. and the deported millhands is talked about and preserved. To that end, in 1973, the National Park Service listed the Roswell Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.