Fact Friday 74 – Historic Belmont, Villa Heights, & Optimist Park - The Mills and Their Villages
Happy Friday everyone!
The three mills were begun between 1888 and 1897, a critical decade in Mecklenburg County's economic development. In that short period the county moved from having a single cotton mill to become one of North Carolina's top three textile producers.
The earliest and best-preserved of these three textile plants is the Alpha Mill at 311 East Twelfth Street. Its original section was erected in 1888-1889 and is now largely gone, with only the chimney stack and boiler room remaining. The main building today, highly visible due to its location adjacent to the recently constructed Brookshire Freeway (I-277), dates from 1901 when Orient Manufacturing took over the firm. 6 It is a handsome two-story brick structure with a castle-like corner tower. Unlike many early mills in this region, the building still retains its segmental-arched window openings, with eight-over-eight-over-eight triple-hung wooden windows. On the rear and west sides of this structure are several one-story additions made after the facility became Mill #3 of the Chadwick-Hoskins chain in 1908 (popularly known as the Calvine Mill). The site now houses the Alpha Mill Apartments, where the historic structures were maintained.
East of the mill, three parallel rows of cottages survive from what was originally a somewhat larger mill village. The dwellings were in existence by the time that the area was first covered on fire insurance maps in 1911, and they may well date back to the construction of the Alpha Mill in 1888-1889.
Alpha Mill Village
The original Alpha Mill was organized by Charlotte lawyer E.K.P. Osborne and local grocer Calvin Scott. Both were active politicians and community leaders, and Osborne had been instrumental in initiating horse-drawn streetcar service in Charlotte a year earlier. For textile expertise the pair hired a thirty-six year old industrial entrepreneur recently arrived in Charlotte, named Daniel Augustus Tompkins. Tompkins designed and built the mill building, providing its machinery, and presumably built the workers' housing. The project was among the first executed by the D.A. Tompkins Company (established 1884), which went on to design over one hundred mills throughout the South.
The mill and village are today the earliest by Tompkins that survive in Charlotte. His contemporaneous Victor and Ada mills have been demolished, although his 1892 Atherton Mill may still be seen off South Boulevard in Dilworth. In addition to his activities as a mill builder, Tompkins also published numerous books on mill development and design.
Along with his involvement in the physical design of Southern mills, D.A. Tompkins also became known as a financial innovator whose introduction of installment stock financing allowed numerous small Southern towns to start their own mills. The creation of the Alpha Mill was among the earliest tests of this idea, and may have been the first.
After the Alpha Mill, the second mill in the area was the Highland Park #1 Mill begun in 1892 two blocks north up Brevard Street. The company was formed in the summer of 1891 under the leadership of local real estate, manufacturing, and streetcar magnate Edward Dilworth Latta.
Edward Dilworth Latta
Unlike Scott and Osborne, Latta had previous experience in textiles. His establishment of the successful Dilworth Pants Factory in the mid 1880s had been an important step in his rise to prominence in the city. Despite this, Latta apparently took little direct interest in the mill, but left its direction to local banker J.S. Spencer. It was Spencer, along with D.A. Tompkins, who chose the company name. A long, one-story weaving mill was the plant's first building. The brick structure survives today in good condition except for bricked-up windows, as does the smaller adjacent spinning mill added in 1895 under the direction of officers W.E. Holt and Charles Johnston. A finishing building was added between the weaving mill and the Southern Railway tracks sometime between 1900 and 1911, but it is now gone.
At the same time that Highland Park Manufacturing purchased land for their factory on the southwest corner of Brevard Street and present-day Sixteenth Street, they also bought land on the east side of Brevard for a mill village. The total purchase was ten acres from the estate of W.F. Phifer, one of the county's most important nineteenth century planters. Phifer had come to Charlotte shortly after 1849, just in time for the arrival of the region's first railroad. Already a wealthy man, he may well have been attracted by that harbinger of prosperity. He bought land just north of the city, soon the route of the North Carolina State Railroad, and built a handsome brick house at North Tryon and Phifer Avenue, where Confederate President Jefferson Davis conducted the last full meeting of his cabinet in 1865. Plans are currently underway to redevelop the old Highland Park Mill structures into a shopping and office district.
The third textile mill to be built in the survey area was the Louise Mill between Louise Avenue and Hawthorne Lane on the Seaboard Railroad. The two-story brick building opened May 31, 1897, and was joined by a second weave building in 1900.
A two-story packing room connected these two large wings, giving the plant a "U" shaped layout not found in other Charlotte facilities. A stream which ran along the route of today's Hawthorne Lane was dammed to provide a mill pond whose water was not used for power but rather as insurance against fire: water mains ran from the pond to a pump house, and thence throughout the complex. The facility was known as the Louise Mill, after the wife of founder H.S. Chadwick, until 1908 when it became Mill Number Four of the Chadwick-Hoskins chain. Today the buildings remain in a much-altered state, were used by Kellog as a cookie factory, but may soon house a brewery, restaurant, and coffee roaster.
Until construction of the mammoth Highland Park #3 Mill in 1903-1904, the Louise Mill was Charlotte's largest. Seventy-two cottages for Louise Mill workers lined parallel William (now Pamlico), Louise, and Pegram streets on the hill above the mill. Their design was quite similar to that seen in the Alpha Mill village except for minor details. Compact T-plan cottages like those on Calvine Street line Louise Avenue, while the slightly larger Caldwell Street-type dwellings are found along Louise and Pamlico avenues. The Louise cottages often use grooved "novelty" siding rather than weatherboards, paired rather than single front windows, and possibly have slightly less steeply-pitched roofs, but otherwise the designs appear identical. Today windows, porches, and siding have been changed on many of the mill cottages, but the village survives essentially intact.
Until next week!
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Information taken from:
Belmont-Villa Heights-Optimist Park Survey Area, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission
Additional commentary added.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass