Along The Trolley Line
Atherton Mill at turn of century
The original Atherton Cotton Mills building is actually behind the Charlotte Trolley Car Barn. It was built in 1893, and produced cotton yarn goods. It was the first industrial property in the planned Dilworth factory district, and provided the impetus for the development of this industrial corridor between South Boulevard and the Southern Railway railroad tracks. It was the first mill established by the D.A. Tompkins Company. Tompkins ranks among the preeminent textile industrialists in the South, and during his remarkable career his firm constructed all or portions of 100 cotton mills as well as numerous support industries. Tompkins also established the Charlotte Daily Observer, now the Charlotte Observer, as a major regional newspaper; wrote books that codified standard mill and housing designs and set forth investment plans to assist towns in attracting textile mills; and was instrumental in establishing textile college programs which would become part of North Carolina State University and Clemson.
The steam-powered mill drew its water from the nearby Summit Hill Gold Mine, and shipped goods via the Charlotte, Columbia and Augusta Railroad, which built a side track to the mill. When it was built, Atherton Mill housed 5,000 spindles manufacturing yarn goods. The floor space was equipped for expanding production, and by 1896, the mill housed machinery for 10,000 spindles.
Atherton Mill’s architecture was very typical of textile mills in the Charlotte region at the turn of the century. The building illustrates the "slow burn" design promoted by the fire insurance companies of the time. For example, in a fire, the stair tower could be closed off from the main facility, thus confining the spread of flames. The hardwood floors and thick structural timbers would char but retain their strength rather than collapsing as iron did in intense heat. The rows of windows along the long brick walls of the mill provided air and natural light for the men, women, and children who typically labored 60 hours per week producing yarn at the Atherton plant. The exterior of the Atherton Mill building is remarkably intact, having undergone little alteration since the turn of the century, except for loss of its tower and the destruction of part of the powerhouse and machine shop.
In 1896, Atherton Mill employed about 300 operatives and included a mill village. This village comprised a school and 50 one-story, frame mill houses, situated along straight streets (mostly Euclid, Tremont, and Cleveland Avenues) on the east side of South Boulevard. The village school, called the Atherton Lyceum, was a two-story, frame, multipurpose facility that taught evening class in the basics of reading and writing and also housed a general store, town hall, and Sunday School classroom. Life in the company-owned mill village was largely regulated by mill owners and their supervisors.
Guided by a combination of paternalism and pragmatism, owners sought to develop a stable and loyal work force by creating villages which were a tightly controlled and all-encompassing social system. Conditions in the workers' village were far from idyllic. None of the mill houses had toilets, closets, or hot water, which Tompkins explained by the rural character of the hands, who were not used to such "modern improvements." Quarrels and brawls were common among the industrial hands. The deafening din of machinery earned the factories the title of "hummers" and dimmed plans for Dilworth as a fashionable community. Accidents at the Atherton Mill were frequent. Newspaper accounts of injuries and fatalities at the Atherton Cotton Mills documented the perils of working in the textile factories. Through the years, reports appeared of picking room fires, mangled fingers, and even the death of an overseer who became entangled in machinery.
Atherton Cotton Mills operated for 40 years, until, during the Great Depression, factories in Dilworth began to shut down or started relocating to larger industrial tracts. In 1933, Atherton Mills, Inc. lost ownership of the South Boulevard plant. Vacant until 1937, the factory was then owned and operated until the early 1960s by J. Schoenith Company, Inc., manufacturer of "high grade" candy, baked goods, and peanut products. For a number of years the main factory and warehouse were used by wholesaling and textile-related manufacturing companies, and the former office building was converted to a restaurant. The building now houses condominiums.
Many thanks to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission for the historical information included above.