Griffin Catches Mill Fever: Grantland, Kincaid, and the Birth of Griffin’s Textile Industry
1895 Sanborn Fire Insurance map of Griffin featuring Griffin Manufacturing and Kincaid Manufacturing
Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress

Griffin’s textile history began with the founding of Griffin Manufacturing Co. by Seaton Grantland in August of 1883. Grantland created a sizable cotton manufacturing operation. He quickly gathered $100,000 in local capital and his company could boast 160 looms and 5,000 spindles by 1888. His venture was located along the Central Railroad of Georgia just northeast of town on the way to the community of Experiment. This success was quickly followed by the organization of Kincaid Manufacturing Company on February 11, 1888. Grantland was voted the vice president of the new company, while W.J. Kincaid, a Confederate Civil War veteran and store owner transplanted from North Carolina, was voted president. Kincaid went on to assume the presidency of Griffin Mfg. Co. by 1893. In that year, Kincaid’s two factories featured a combined 9,928 ring spindles and 338 looms and produced a wide variety of cotton goods including sheetings, shirtings, cottonades, ticking, drills, plaids, towels, and cheviots. Kincaid would set the pace for Griffin’s textile industry for the next two decades until his retirement in 1910. 

Kincaid’s factories took advantage of Griffin’s access to the railroads, and the turn-of-the-century saw those operations joined by several others. By 1909, there were seven cotton mills in Griffin. Rushton Mill was the first of the new group, founded in 1899 by Benjamin Rush Blakely and JP Nichols. It was destroyed in 1908 by a tornado, but was quickly rebuilt and managed to maintain independent operations long past the mills which were built at the same time. The others were Boyd-Mangham Manufacturing Company, The Central Mills, Cherokee Mills, and The Spalding Cotton Mills, all jointly owned and managed by Douglas Boyd and the Manghams. 

Changing of the Guard: The 1910s in Griffin

The following years brought hard times on the mills owned by Boyd and the Manghams, and they ceased operation in May of 1911 after barely a decade of business. This, once again, brought significant change to Griffin’s textile industry, as the Boyd-Mangham owned mills were bought up by various investors. Cherokee Mills was absorbed by Kincaid Mfg. Company, which fell under the leadership of James. M. Brawner. The other Mangham-Boyd mills sat idle for a while, but were eventually purchased and merged under the name of Georgia Cotton Mills.

When the dust settled in 1915, Clyde L. King from Atlanta controlled Georgia Cotton Mills with a capital base of $400,000, and produced shirtings, drills, sateens, huck, terry towels, and diaper cloth with a combined 30,000 spindles and 1,000 looms. Meanwhile, Kincaid Mfg. Company had expanded dramatically under the watch of W.J. Kindaid and then James M. Brawner, reaching 32,000 spindles and 1,082 looms with electric power producing towels, crashes, and damasks. At the same time, J.P. Nichols and Benjamin R. Blakely had gained control of Griffin Mfg. Company and expanded it. Combined with their interest in Rushton Cotton Mills, the two men operated a total of 47,000 spindles, 416 broad looms, 952 narrow looms.

The period from 1916 to 1922 was a tumultuous for both the City of Griffin and the country, with a boom supported by World War I followed by a bust as demand slackened. Europe’s shattered postwar economies could no longer afford to purchase American surpluses, which caused instability at a corporate level for many of the mills in Griffin. In addition to this, the cotton crop was being struck down by the boll weevil epidemic made raw material for production hard to come by. This period of instability created the conditions for the founding of two textile dynasties that would largely control the path of Griffin’s textile industries for the next eighty years: the Shapards and the Cheathams. 

A Tale of Two Families: The Cheathams and the Shapards

The Shapards came from Tennessee, the sons of a wealthy attorney and Civil War veteran. They got their start in Griffin’s textile industry as executives under Clyde L. King in Georgia Cotton Mills, but in 1916 Robert P. Shapard I and his brother Thomas L. Shapard founded Griffin Hosiery Mills. Their venture was a small one with only $25,000 in capital and fifty employees. The brothers divided their business interests by 1922. Robert formed Spalding Knitting Mills while Thomas L. maintained Griffin Hosiery Mill. Both men passed their holdings to their respective heirs, who expanded those operations and founded new companies.

At the heyday of Griffin’s knitting and hosiery industry in the 1950s, mills owned by the Shapard family accounted for half of the hosiery mills in operation.  Thomas’s widow ran Griffin Hosiery Mills until December of 1957, founding Dovedown Full Fashioned Hosiery Mills along the way. After her death, her family chose to liquidate her holdings and exited the textile business.  Robert’s descendants kept a hold of the family business through to the 1990s, expanding it massively along the way. They also created American Throwing Company and even acquired another branch for Spalding Knitting Mills in South Pittsburg, Tennessee. The 1960s saw a steady decline in Griffin’s knitwear industry. By 1976, only Allstar Knitwear and the Shapard companies were left. Today, Griffin only has a handful of knitting companies. The companies owned by Robert P.’s descendants were consolidated into American Mills during the 1980s. In 2012, American Mills launched Cushion Pros to focus on production of cushions and pillows, it currently employs 50 people. Relatives of the Shapards also own Allstar Knitwear.

John H. Cheatham also established himself in Griffin during the same tumultuous period as the Shapards. Originally from South Carolina, he got his start in the textile industry in Hartwell, Georgia after acquiring Hartwell Mills in 1917. He quickly used that role to be hired as the president of Georgia Cotton Mills by the creditors who held a controlling interest in the company. By 1924, he had paid off the banks and also held a controlling interest in Kincaid Mfg. Co., which had recently built Lowell Bleachery South in conjunction with the Lowell Bleachery of Massachusetts. In that same year, Cheatham pulled off a merger between Georgia Cotton Mills and Kincaid Mfg. Co. to create Georgia-Kincaid Mills. By 1928 he had purchased a controlling interest in Rushton Cotton Mill. With that maneuver, he had managed to buy or absorb all but one of the cotton mills in Griffin which had existed in 1905. 

In 1928, when John Cheatham bought Rushton Cotton Mills, the Griffin textile industry had changed dramatically. Cheatham had created the largest mill that Griffin had seen. Georgia-Kincaid Mills boasted $1,900,000 in capital, 228 cotton carding machines, 3,000 narrow looms, and 76,000 ring spindles producing Turkish and huck towels, damasks, corduroys, tickings, crashes, diaper cloths, and flannels. Combined with Rushton Cotton Mills and his holdings in Hart and Stephens counties, Cheatham had amassed a total of 325 cards, 3920 looms, and 108,400 spindles under his control. 

His actions had side effects on the other mills in Griffin. First, W.F. Ingram and James M. Brawner, who were in control of Kincaid Mfg. before Cheatham acquired it, created their own company known as Highland Mills. Highland Mills was a sizable operation, which produced Sateens with $825,000 in capital, 28 cards, 90 broad looms, 410 narrow looms, 12,800 ring spindles, and 1,200 twisted spindles. By 1935, they had been bought out by Crompton Company who expanded the operation, and by the 1950s they were known as Crompton-Highlands inc. Griffin Manufacturing Company, whether as a result of Cheatham’s maneuvers or the stock market crash of 1929, essentially collapsed in 1929. They were shortly bought out by the Hightower family of Thomaston, Georgia and established as the Griffin Division of Thomaston Mills with 500 looms and 30,000 spindles. 

Photo of a Dundee Mills Facility, Photo Courtesy of the Griffin-Spalding Archives
The Decline of Griffin’s Textile Industry

The various cotton mills in Griffin which were listed in 1935 managed to stay in business for the next fifty years. Before his death in 1950, John H. Cheatham re-branded Georgia-Kincaid by renaming to Dundee Mills, which it would do business as until it shut its doors.  Cheatham passed his businesses to his son John M. Cheatham who modernized, maintained, and eventually expanded the business until his death in 1985. During his tenure, Dundee and its associated mills became especially known for towel production, although they did maintain other product lines.  The Cheatham family sold their textile empire to Springs Industries in 1995, including Rushton Cotton Mills, Hartwell Mills, and other companies acquired during John M. Cheatham’s expansion push during the 1970s and 1980s. Springs Industries initially pushed a modernization campaign on their new facilities, but by the early 2000s had decided to shut down their acquisitions.

Springs Industries was the last major textile operation left in Griffin, as Crompton-Highlands had collapsed in the 1980s and Thomaston Mills closed in 2001. During the period of collapse for these major firms, a grandson of John H. Cheatham founded 1888 Mills. It was bought out by an international corporation before long. Today, 1888 Mills, American Mills, and Allstar Knitwear are the last vestiges of Griffin’s rich textile history.

Member Organizations on the Trail:

What can you see?

  • Rushton Cotton Mill site (Private Property) off of Lyndon Avenue
  • Griffin Manufacturing Co./Thomaston Mills, Griffin Division Site (Private Property) off of Experiment Street
  • Mill villages surrounding both locations mentioned above as well as at Bleachery Street, Cheatham Street, Poplar Street, Peachtree Street, and Elm Street