The copper bell that now sits toppled within the wooden cupola of the Graniteville Mill once summoned employees to work. Graniteville dates to 1845 when visionary William Gregg purchased 7,952 acres near Horse Creek in Aiken County and received his charter for the Graniteville Manufacturing Company, more commonly known as Graniteville Mill. The following year, Gregg began construction on both his factory and the surrounding town – soon developing the South’s first large-scale textile village.
According to historian Clement Eaton, William Gregg was the “most significant figure in the development of cotton-mills in the South.” His road to manufacturing was indirect, however. Orphaned at age four, Gregg eventually went to live with his father’s brother, Jacob Gregg, in Alexandria, Virginia. Trained as a watchmaker, the elder Gregg used his mechanical talent to create a machine that could card and spin cotton. The uncle and nephew then moved to Georgia to establish a small textile plant, but the venture failed in the aftermath of the War of 1812.
Impoverished by the collapse of his business, Jacob Gregg apprenticed William to a fellow watchmaker. William worked in both Virginia and Kentucky before moving to Columbia, South Carolina, where he became a successful jeweler and amassed a fortune. His experience growing up in his uncle’s mill stayed with him, and in 1837 he invested in a small plant near Columbia called Vaucluse Mill.
Though he sold his share in the mill and returned to the jewelry business, this time in Charleston, Gregg returned to the area in 1843 and purchased Vaucluse Mill outright. In 1844 Gregg toured the large-scale textile villages of New England and became inspired to develop the same framework in the South. He saw industry combined with education, worship, commercialism, and family life as a blueprint to success for Southerners.
Gregg employed local laborers to begin construction of the Graniteville canal, seen below, in 1846. Quarried blue granite was used in the project that would eventually power Gregg’s cotton mill. However, the canal’s initial use was for a sawmill that would supply the lumber needed for building the town.
The town was near completion as early as 1849. A free school was built as well as two churches and several small yet ornate Gothic Revival-style houses for mill workers and their families. The village was ready for occupancy, and the mill itself was completed and operating that same year.
Gregg had realized his dream of creating a community dedicated to industry, production, and education. He insisted that his mill workers send their children to school at Graniteville Academy (seen below), or pay a large fine as a consequence. Gregg saw himself as the moral guide of his burgeoning community.
This beautiful Victorian home was built for William Gregg in 1845 and sits directly across the street from the mill he founded. The house was later sold to James Reardon who was an 80-year employee of the mill.
The mill continued its success over the decades, though Gregg’s paternalism eventually gave way to independence. Graniteville Academy, now Leavelle McCampbell Middle School, was sold to Aiken County in 1960 and currently operates as an Aiken County public school. The Graniteville Manufacturing Company, which once owned and maintained the community’s housing, sold all of the small mill homes to private owners by the 1960s.
In 1996 Graniteville Manufacturing was purchased by Avondale Mills, a company that produced denim and flannel. However, on January 6, 2005, a devastating train wreck occurred in the heart of the community when a Norfolk Southern train hit another parked train, releasing chlorine gas into the air and killing nine people. Thousands more were displaced from their homes. This disaster led to the closing of Avondale Mills in 2006.
More Pictures of Graniteville Mill
The Graniteville Mill is listed in the National Register:
The Graniteville Historic District consists of the Graniteville Canal, which dates to 1846; the original two and one-half story Graniteville Mill constructed of locally quarried granite and completed in 1849; twenty-six original workers’ houses in Early Gothic Revival style, most of whose exteriors are virtually unaltered; nine other units of early mill housing; the 1847 Graniteville Academy where operatives children were educated at company expense; and the Early Gothic Revival St. John’s Methodist Church, designed by Charleston architect E.B. White and completed in 1849.
Most of these structures were either constructed by William Gregg or under his close supervision, and many still retain much of their original architectural vitality. While building the mill, Gregg supervised construction of a company town, thus bringing into existence the first typical southern mill village. By providing cheap housing, free schools, churches, and stores and by maintaining personal supervision over the morals and everyday lies of his operatives, Gregg established a pattern that would be emulated by scores of cotton mill owners throughout the region.