“People need to feel like they belong.”
Community and Culture Define Village Life in Davidson County
By Ryan Jones
In the early 20th century, the rise of mass-manufacturing technology meant Americans had a new frontier to settle. Across the country, families participated in a mass exodus from rural farm life to an industry-centered, communal existence in growing cities.
The movement from farmland to factory in Davidson County can largely be attributed to the textile and furniture industries. Between the late 1800s and the mid-1930s, there were an estimated 25 plants processing cotton and producing hosiery or furniture in the county, and the populations of Lexington, Thomasville and Denton were ever increasing in response to the industry.
To support and retain the stable workforce they needed, many mill owners developed nearby land for employee housing and other amenities. A help-wanted listing for Erlanger Cotton Mills Co. in 1916 lists “new houses now ready, better than anything yet built in the South. These houses are furnished with water, sewerage and lights, all of which is included in house rent.” The ad also boasts a YMCA facility and a school.
“The general definition of a mill village is a settlement that developed around one or more mills or factories, usually cotton mills or factories producing textiles,” said Catherine Hoffman, curator of the Davidson County Historical Museum.
“Jewel in Thomasville and Erlanger, Nokomis and Wennonah in Lexington all offered amenities beyond housing, meaning services that addressed the welfare of the employees outside of work,” Hoffman said.
The organized recreational and religious opportunities, schools and social gatherings were intended to bolster spiritual, physical and social well-being. They also helped to ease the transition for families leaving behind support systems and extended family structures for manufacturing jobs.
“It was a great way to maintain a steady workforce, much of which was young,” said Hoffman. “Many were separated from extended family, so these services certainly filled needs that would have otherwise not been met.”
“People need to feel like they belong,” said Yvonne Charenskey, president and executive producer for VonHenry Media, based in Clearwater, FL.
Charenskey and her husband, Hank, are producing a documentary about mill life in Lexington and have been recording firsthand experiences from people who worked in area cotton mills.
“Most everyone has commented on the sense of community that they felt. They weren’t making a lot of money, but they had a sense of extended family. They felt like they were all in it together,” said Charenskey.
The couple originally intended to focus their documentary on Nokomis Cotton Mill, built in 1900 and located on North Church Street, where Yvonne Charenskey’s grandparents and mother worked. They realized they needed to widen their lens last summer after interviews and research left them short of detailed information about that particular mill and the people who lived and worked there.
Even though the scope of their project has changed, Charenskey said she’s still excited to share the stories of people who called mill communities home. “I think it’s important to recognize our heritage and see how common experiences create bonds that we never forget.”
Like Nokomis, Wennonah Cotton Mills (est. 1883), Dacotah Cotton Mill (est. 1910), and Jewel Cotton Mills (est. 1913) also had clusters of company-built employee housing, stores, churches and schools. Wennonah even had its own fire department.
Comparatively, Erlanger Mill Village stood apart from other villages in Davidson County as a model of self-contained infrastructure. In large part, the founders of local furniture factories and cotton and hosiery mills hailed from either Davidson County or from relatively nearby counties within the state.
“Among the things that set Erlanger apart is the fact that the founders (Abraham and Charles Erlanger) were recruited out of Baltimore to build a plant here to make fabric for their existing underwear factories in the north. This brought what was likely unprecedented capital to build a very large, high-volume mill in a relatively short period of time. That gave them a lot of advantages to build a model community that could incorporate what 25 years of mill villages here and elsewhere had learned. Erlanger exceeds the norm of most villages,” said Hoffman. “
As Lexington’s largest and most productive textile manufacturing operation, Erlanger over time developed a unique sense of self, driven by the people who inhabited it. In many ways the mini-city operated independently from Lexington itself. Between 1913 and 1929, over 300 homes, two churches, and a series of community buildings sprawled across 85 acres of land north of downtown Lexington. There was also a YMCA, a dairy, a communal greenhouse and livestock lots, a nursery, a kindergarten, and both primary and grammar schools.
An illustrated newsletter known as “The Erlanger Community” is further evidence of the breadth of organized activities and engagement between citizens. According to the National Register of Historic Places narrative on Erlanger, the newsletter covered topics such as home garden management and posted schedules for community sports and club meetings. There was also Erlanger Day which included the Miss Erlanger beauty pageant and a potluck picnic.
“Talk to anyone who grew up in Erlanger and you will find a beautiful and heartwarming description of a loving and caring community. No one locked their doors, children were safe wherever they went, and all the adults looked after the kids and even admonished them when necessary. Children and youth had marvelous opportunities for sports and recreation at the YMCA, the swimming pool and the baseball fields,” said the Rev. Dr. Ray Howell III, who has made it a personal mission to study and share Lexington lore, especially the lasting effects of the city’s past as a mill town.
“Lexington was a mill town for the better part of the 20th century. That definitely has an impact on who we are today in both a positive and negative way,” Howell said.
He suggested that the nostalgia surrounding life in the mill villages sometimes overshadows the fact that an overreliance on employer-provided amenities meant that many families suffered once manufacturing operations began to wane in Davidson County.
“The company had a self-perpetuating workforce. Once a child reached the age of 16 they could join their parents and grandparents working in the mill. This was a good life in many respects, but also a very restrictive life. One did not need a high school diploma to work in the mill. One of the problems we have today in Davidson County is when the mills and factories left town, they left an uneducated workforce behind.”
“As mills left town,” Howell added, “the distinction between white collar and blue collar that had essentially been concealed by creating a strong community was now visible for everyone to see. This has resulted in the post-mill-era in Lexington and Davidson County to being one of both economic and community struggle.”
Even so, most who remember the presence of mill villages remember them fondly. Charenskey suggested that this is all connected to our need for community.
“All of the social media are trying to create community. All kinds of businesses want to create community and that is what they had in mill towns. It was a different kind, but it’s relevant in any age. Quality of life changed because the economy has changed, but community remains the same,” said Charenskey.
Hosiery and Cotton Mills in Davidson County (not exhaustive)
Dacotah Cotton Mill – 1908
Erlanger – 1913
Nokomis/Barbet – 1900
Wennonah – 1886
Amazon Cotton Mills – 1909
Jewel Cotton Mills – 1913
Thomasville Hosiery Mills – 1916 (first locally-owned hosiery mill in Davidson County)
Ragan Knitting Company – 1918
Maurice Mills -1925
Fremont Hosiery Mills – 1934
Blackstone Hosiery Mills – 1935
Thomasville Hosiery Mills – 1942
Hill Hosiery Mill – 1940
Dogwood Hosiery – 1945
Variety Knitting Company – 1949
W. O. Hosiery Company – 1950
Wrenn Hosiery Company – 1935
Vann B. Stringfield Hosiery Finishing Company – 1938
Poole Knitting Company – no date
Tate Knitting Company – no date
Economy Hosiery Finishers – no date
Thornton Knitting Company – 1935
Bisher Hosiery Mill – 1938
Surratt Hosiery Mills – 1939