The Charlotte, North Carolina area was home to a large number of textile mills in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where profits were literally spun up and sold, cotton and other fibers being twisted into yarn or made into fabrics. These mills, such as the Highland Park Gingham Mill No 1 (in Optimist Park), the Johnston Mill (in NoDa), or the Alpha Mill (in Optimist Park), were all major contributors to Charlotte’s cotton boom and provided work to hundreds of employees. However, the working conditions at these mills were nowhere near as great as the profits reaped by plant owners. Mills were dangerous working environments; workers could lose fingers or limbs, inhale cotton fibers, and develop asthma-like symptoms, and the mills would spread smoke and polluted wastewater and dyes throughout the surrounding environment.
Despite this, these Charlotte area mills are being reborn as community hubs; as apartments or food halls where members of the Charlotte community can live and congregate. This project looks at the history (or Use) of these three mills in NODA and Optimist Park, their impact on (or Abuse of) the world, and their Reuse by the community today.
Use and Reuse: The Alpha Mill
Use: The Alpha Mill was erected by leading New South industrialist Danial Augustus Tompkins in 1888. The mill, one of three major mills erected that year (along with the Ada and Victor mills) was made to twist fibers into yarn, and was one of the first cotton mill complexes in the Charlotte area, helping kickstart the cotton boom. It was the second oldest cotton mill in the city; with only the Charlotte Cotton Mill on North Graham Street being older. The original Alpha Mill was a simple one-story brick structure, a warehouse, and a waste house, with a few homes for workers set up on the grounds.
In 1901, the mill was sold and repurposed for the task of producing fine cloth, such as madras cloth or sateens. This required a large expansion of the mill complex. A two-story brick building was raised, complete with the iconic tower which makes the mill stand out today. The tower was common in New England mills but comparatively rare in the South. The newly expanded mill contained, among other things, 20,000 spindles, and 500 looms. In 1955, the mill was repurposed once again for the purposes of textile engraving; engraving patterns for use in textiles, tiles, etc
Reuse: In 2003, the mill was targeted by the Crosland Real Estate Investment Company for redevelopment into apartments, creating a 267-unit complex, complete with two clubhouses, computer rooms, and other amenities in several floorplans. The complex is currently owned by the Cottonwood Residential firm. The Alpha Mill Apartments are located in what is now known as Optimist Park. The Mill is close to the 9th Street light rail station, and the Belmont bus station is the closest bus station.
Use and Reuse: The Highland Park Mill
Use: The Highland Park Gingham Mill No. 1 was erected in 1891 by D.A Tompkins and began operation in 1893. By 1895, there were 6,000 spindles and 400 looms, and by 1897, an additional 100 looms were added for a total of 500, production shifting to the production of Gingham fabric. By 1972, the firm had begun to manufacture raw materials for the production of ladies’ hosiery (pantyhose, etc). Interestingly, in 2000, Sara Blakely contacted the mill owner at the time, Samuel Kaplan, to create a prototype for her new product, Spanx, which is a prominent line of ladies’ undergarments. Of the three mills being looked at, the Highland Park Mill stayed open the longest, until 2015.
Reuse: In 2015, the Highland Park Mill closed its doors for the last time. Then, in 2016, the mill was purchased by White Point Paces Partners, who intended to renovate the facility for adaptive reuse. The north side of the compound was purchased by Carolina’s energy giant Duke Energy, and the Duke Energy Innovations Center is focused on handling mobile technology, such as outage maps and the company’s mobile app. The mill building itself has been converted into a vast food hall, dubbed Optimist Hall. Optimist Hall is home to over 26 different restaurants and stores, ranging from a paper goods store or plant store to a Cuban pastry shop or a retro-themed burger joint. Optimist Hall is located in the Optimist Park neighborhood and is near the Parkwood light rail station. The closest bus stop is the Davidson St. and 16th St. stop.
Use and Reuse: The Johnston Mill
Use: The Johnston Mill was built in 1916 by Charles Johnston, a prominent developer in the North Davidson area. The original mill structure was a two-story mill brick structure built in 1916, with additions in 1926, as well as the addition of a tower in 1930. By mid-1916, the mill was running 12,000 spindles. Several additional structures, such as a waste house, cotton warehouse, and mill houses were constructed or acquired through 1941. The mill continued to operate until 1975 when it shut down. It was purchased and used as warehouse space in 1976, only to be purchased by the Johnston Mill Associates Limited Partnership in 1990. Plans were underway to convert the mill into affordable housing, but these fell through and the structure was neglected until quite recently.
Reuse: The Johnston Mill is currently being renovated into affordable housing in the NoDa neighborhood by a group called The Community Builders Inc. I had the privilege of being able to tour the Mill as it was being renovated in Spring 2022 as part of a series of visits to historic sites with my HIST 6320 class on Historic Preservation. I thus have some unique images from inside the mill as it undergoes renovations, which are included below. I witnessed first-hand how efforts are being made to preserve the historic character of the structure while still adapting it for use as housing for a new generation; for instance, all the original brick walls and windows are being preserved where possible (except for cases of water damage, or where a tree had grown through the wall), and where this is not possible, “like-kind” materials (materials which are visually similar to the historic material) are used throughout the structure to ensure it retains a historic appearance. The Johnston Mill is to be renamed The Lofts at NoDa Mills. During the tour, a worker walked us through the facility and informed us that the mill was being converted into affordable housing. The website for the apartment complex lists maximum incomes to be eligible for an apartment; for instance, for a one person apartment, the maximum income is listed as $29,500, while a two person apartment lists the maximum income at $33,700, and so on; the list tops out at a 7 person income maximum being $52,250.
The Lofts at NoDa Mills is located in the NoDa neighborhood, and is almost directly adjacent to the 36th Street light rail station, with the nearest bus stop being right beside the 36th Street station as well.
Hazardous Working Conditions
Working in a textile mill was hazardous, and if one lived in a mill village, they depended on their employer not only for income but also for housing.
The machinery used in textile mills was large, industrial, and potentially hazardous to those operating it. Belts on machines could fly loose, with potentially lethal consequences; mill worker Alice P. Evitt remembered this during an interview;
“Sometimes you had to watch them belts runnin’ up there. If they happened to break and hit you, they’d knock you down. They’d hit you so hard they’d kill you, wouldn’t they? I never knew them to hit one, but I imagine it would. It was just a flyin’. It’d break and hit you, it’d slap you so hard, I don’t guess you’d ever remember anymore.”
When asked if she ever saw one break, she said “Yes, I’ve had them break on my work. Had them break overhead and on my speeders. All out here, they low and run under. They didn’t come over your head. But the other places, they all go over your head. I was always scared of them belts breakin’ and hittin’ you.”
Another mill worker, Carl Thompson said that you had to be very careful with belts; “You’d have to watch yourself. There were so many things you could do. Even cleaning up, if maybe your brush would get caught in a belt or a pulley, it’s going to yank your arm. I’ve been them jerked in the cards thataway and maybe get their whole arm and all broke and skin pulled off, maybe slam through the bone. I’d seen so many of them get hurt on them, get their arms broken. That was when they had overhead pulleys, had the pulleys at the top of the mill. There was one man, his shirt or something got caught in that belt and the belt threw him to the top of the mill and busted his brains out. He just hit the ceiling of the mill. They had big beams up there, and he hit them, right at the back of his head. It killed him.”
In addition to these obvious physical threats, certain diseases were endemic to mill villages. Cotton mill villages were villages created by companies as worker housing, and to avoid having to buy food from the company store, many mill workers would raise their animals and grow vegetables. A typical diet for a mill worker might consist of beans, potatoes or sweet potatoes, onions, cornbread, and, on special occasions or Sundays, meat, typically chicken or pork chops. This diet is lacking several key vitamins and minerals and often led to the emergence of a disease known as pellagra.
Pellagra results from a lack of vitamin B3 and causes scaly red blotches on the skin, diarrhea, and “profound lethargy” (severe lack of energy), but, if left untreated, could result in nervous system disorders, insanity, or death. A 1916 study of Piedmont area mill villages by the US Public Health Service revealed that 16% of the households studied suffered from pellagra, and of those, two-thirds of those affected were children between two and fifteen or women between twenty to fifty, who were ten times more likely than men to contract it; this is because men would usually receive most of the food to help them keep up their strength for the hardest jobs in the mill.
If pellagra was a threat within the mill village, a more insidious threat lurked in the air of the mills themselves. Cotton dust and fibers floated in the air, and would cause asthma and a disease known as byssinosis, also known as Monday fever, mill worker fever, and brown lung. The disease was known as Monday fever or Monday morning sickness because symptoms would recur shortly after being re-exposed (returning to the mill interior), which would, typically occur when the work week resumed.
Byssinosis caused wheezing, coughing, tightness in the chest, and difficulty breathing, and can lead to further complications such as lung fibrosis (scarred and damaged lung tissue), a dependency on oxygen, and chronic and continued exposure to more cotton dust can even lead to death. Grover Hardin said that “When you hit the mill on Monday morning, you’d have a mouth full of tobacco and anything else to keep this dust from strangling you.” He contracted byssinosis and described its effects; “On Mondays, I’d go in, and it’d, sure enough, get worse by the night. Tuesday, and Wednesday, it’d get a little better. I guess I’d get my lungs plugged up good. Over the weekend, you’d clear your lungs up pretty good, then Monday morning it’d be the same thing.” Over time, his symptoms worsened due to continued exposure. He was told he had asthma by doctors, but nothing helped, because it was not asthma. He describes his decline; “Nothing I could take for asthma would do this breathing any good. I couldn’t get no air in my lungs, and I slowed up. It got to where I had to push on the job to stay up in the mill. And when I’d get a spare minute I’d go over and lay in the window and get all the air I could.” Finally, Hardin had to quit because he could not keep up with the work.
In addition to being unsafe working environments and fostering the development of debilitating health issues, the mills hurt the surrounding environment.
Cotton mills are water-intensive operations; cotton mills use somewhere between 30,000 to 70,000 gallons of water per 1,000 pounds of cotton. That is a massive amount of water to essentially be wasted, having been used once and often infused with toxins.
A 1978 EPA report on textile mill pollution revealed that roughly half of all wastewater came from the washing and scouring of wool or fibers, wherein the material is washed and “scoured” of dirt or chemicals. The water from this process is often highly alkaline and thus can destabilize local water sources PH balance, potentially rendering the water uninhabitable for marine life such as fish. The dyes used to dye cotton account for around 15 to 35% of water pollution; the amounts released are relatively small, but because of economies of scale, this is still a large number of dyes (including acids, sulfurs, and other such hazardous chemicals) being released as wastewater. The dying process also exposes workers to known carcinogens (substances that can cause cancer); benzidine-based dyes have been linked to pancreatic and rectal cancer. This and other cancer-causing chemicals were released into the waterways and groundwater, potentially causing cancers in the surrounding area.
A 1976-1978 study investigating the death of 4,426 white female North Carolinians found that 86% of them worked in textile mills; elevated mortality rates were found for cancers of the larynx, connective tissues, uterus, thyroid, genitals, and for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A 1963 study observed that male textile mill workers had an elevated mortality rate due to lung cancer.
Textile mills in Charlotte were highly profitable enterprises, bringing an economic boom to Charlotte, attracting outside investment, and providing jobs for thousands of Charlotteans.
Despite this golden exterior, textile mills were a highly dangerous place. They not only polluted the environment with toxic chemicals but also exposed workers to hazardous working environments and fostered -directly or indirectly- the development of debilitating health issues such as pellagra or byssinosis.
Despite their toxic past, at least some textile mills in the Charlotte area have been reborn through adaptive reuse. The Alpha Mill is now home to an apartment complex. Highland Park Mill No. 1 is now a popular food hall where community members gather to eat. The Johnston Mill is being redeveloped into affordable housing for the less wealthy – those would have been impacted the most by industrial runoff or unsafe working conditions.