The early 1900s were high times for Gainesville and Hall County.
There was some light industry operating in those days, shoe and leather manufacturing, a buggy and wagon company and some other companies that employed perhaps dozens of people.
So it was big news when Pacolet Manufacturing Co. announced it would build a cotton mill and village on the former Limestone Springs/New Holland Springs property just outside Gainesville. That would certainly boost the local economy.
A second shot in the economic arm came just months later when Vesta Mills of Charleston, S.C., announced it was moving its cotton mill to Gainesville. Vesta, curiously enough, had been operating the South Carolina mill as an experiment, focusing primarily on black employment. For whatever reason, the experiment didn’t work out, and the owners selected Gainesville as the site for its operation.
While New Holland was a-building, excitement grew even more as Vesta broke ground March 20, 1901, on property just off what we now know as Industrial Boulevard near the Norfolk-Southern Railway depot. Vesta would become Gainesville Cotton Mill and employ 700 men, women and children.
Today one might wonder how the little community of Gainesville-Hall County could supply labor for two such massive mills at that time. However, one local newspaper boasted, “Labor is plentiful and cheap.”
Gainesville Cotton Mill, which in later years became known simply as Gainesville Mill, would have 25,000 spindles, 748 looms and a payroll of $2,500 weekly or $130,000 annually. Its target date for full operation was February 1902, however it would be March that year before the mill would start humming.
“It should tingle the blood veins and tickle the pride of every Gainesville citizen to know that the product of this plant will be shipped to all parts of the world,” the local paper wrote.
By fall of 1901, all the machinery had been moved from Charleston to Gainesville, yet to be installed. Eighty cottages near the mill were under construction, some ready to be occupied. The lake site had been graded, and construction on a stand-pipe reservoir and smokestack behind the building was under way. The main building would be four stories on a 130 feet by 400 feet floor plan.
Mill executives said Gainesville Cotton Mill would use only superior raw material and produce the highest quality 385 sheeting and 3-yard drilling, consuming about 20,000 bales of cotton annually.
Incentives to attract industry aren’t new. When Vesta announced it wanted to move to Gainesville, it said it would build a $500,000 mill if local citizens would cough up $100,000 of the amount. That’s not pocket change today, but imagine what that would be like back in the early 1900s.
Nevertheless, within 72 hours, Gainesville and Hall County residents had subscribed $102,800 to help pay for Gainesville Cotton Mill. They were so excited about the mill they asked that it be named Montgomery Mill in honor of John H. Montgomery, the South Carolina mill magnate apparently responsible for the move. He must have refused. Montgomery was one of the principals of Vesta, as were Seth Milliken of New York and S.D. Green of Boston. Montgomery also was part of Pacolet Manufacturing, which would open New Holland Mill, Pacolet No. 4, on Feb. 15, 1902.
The village also would eventually include a school, health clinic and company store. Churches grew up in the community.
Disaster struck the mill the following year. A tornado hit the top floors of the building, killing more than 50 in the mill and another 50 elsewhere in Gainesville. Because the storm killed so many children working in the mill, it brought attention to child labor laws, which in later years would be strengthened.
The same tornado hit New Holland Mill village, leveling many homes and killing more than 30. The mill itself wasn’t as seriously damaged as the Gainesville Mill. Both mills would be rebuilt. In all, the tornado killed more than 100 throughout Hall County.
In 1927 Gainesville Mill added 20,000 spindles in a $500,000 addition on the west side of the building.
Pacolet Manufacturing Co. bought Gainesville Mill in 1943, making it Pacolet No. 6. Pacolet became part of the Milliken Co., which ceased operations there in 1985. Milliken gave the property to the city of Gainesville in 1986, and Adams Transfer and Storage bought it in July 1992.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.