World-renowned “Canton Denim” was produced in this southern town for many years before the textile industry died down in the 1980s.
In 1899, a rising mercantile business and the steady production of cotton in the city encouraged prominent Canton community leaders to raise money to build a cotton mill. Completed in 1901 and employing 125 local men, women, and children from northeast Georgia, under the leadership of R.T. Jones Sr, Canton Cotton Mills produced cotton thread in 1901. In an effort to gain revenue after several financial setbacks in 1902, Jones made several changes to the mill’s management and added a dye house that allowed the mill to produce denim.
“Canton Denim” quickly became famous and production increased in the following years. The success of “Canton Denim” allowed for the construction of a second mill in 1923, one mile north of the first mill. Both mills built homes for their employees and the mill village featured amenities, such as indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, and ice delivery. Jones Mercantile Store, owned and operated by one of R.T. Jones’s sons, became a popular shop for the residents of the Canton Cotton Mills mill villages. Later on, Jones Mercantile served as the parent company for Etowah Manufacturing Company, which produced trousers from “Canton Denim” as well as chenille bedspreads.
Canton Cotton Mills faced many hardships, including the Great Depression, floods, a major strike, and changes in leadership. In the late-1970s, the textile market slowed due to cheaper markets overseas. Canton Cotton Mills shut their doors in the spring of 1981.
Things to Do
- Canton Cotton Mills No. 1 and Riverdale Mill Village, 225 Reformation Parkway: Once the site of the original Canton Cotton Mills, this facility previously operated 20,000 spindles and employed 500 people. Its principal product, “Canton Denim”, was known nationwide. It has been redeveloped and contains several restaurants, a brewery, a church, and office space. The houses of the mill village are private homes and are not open to the public. The entrance is on North Street and Riverdale Circle. This neighborhood was home to the workers of Canton Cotton Mills #1. The homes were built by the company and originally rented for $5 per month. Employees were allowed space for a garden and the company performed all maintenance on the homes. In the 1960s, the houses were sold to mill employees.
- Cherokee County Historical Society, 221 East Marietta Street: This historical society was founded in 1975 and is the sole organization in Cherokee County dedicated to preserving and collecting the county’s history. Visit their museum to learn more about the history of Cherokee County. The museum’s hours of operation are Wednesday through Friday 10:00 am – 5:00 pm and Saturday 10:00 am – 3:00 pm.
Places to See
The following properties are not open to the public, but you can view them from the exterior to learn more about the buildings that supported the textile industry here.
- Canton Cotton Mills No. 2 and Mill Village, 550 Riverstone Parkway: These locations are private property and are not open to the public. Originally built as Canton Cotton Mill #2, this building was opened in 1923 after the success of “Canton Denim” on the national market. No. 2 was larger than the original mill as it brought an additional 23,000 spindles to the operation and employed 600 people. Today, this mill is home to Canton Mill Lofts. The entrance to the mill village can be found at the intersection of Center Street and Juniper Street. This village was much larger than No. 1’s Riverdale neighborhood. The company employed assembly line construction methods to rapidly build similar homes. Some of the original amenities of these homes included indoor plumbing, running water, and electricity.
- Historic Jones Mercantile, 130 East Main Street: Established in 1879, Jones Mercantile served as a focal point of the central business district. This location accepted both mill currency and store credit as payment for anything from hardware to haberdasheries. In the late 1980s, the building was purchased by Cherokee County for additional office space. 2017 saw the beginning of restoration for this historic location.
- Canton Cotton Mills No. 1 Office Building, 221 West Main Street: This building served as the center for all of the administration needs for Canton Cotton Mills. Today this space is leased for commercial businesses.
- Riverdale Baptist Church and School, 15 Riverdale Circle: This church and school combo was constructed and funded by Canton Cotton Mills for the mill village residents. In 1969, this building was purchased by the church congregation from the mill.
Explore this community’s history via the drop-down sections below!
In the 1880s, Henry Grady used his position as editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution to call for industrialization in the South, in particular the building of cotton mills to “bring the cotton mills to the cotton fields.” In response, the 1890s saw a wave of cotton mill construction which swept across the Piedmont region of Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas as Southern businessmen leapt at the chance to heed Grady’s call. Discussions for building a cotton mill in Canton began in earnest by August 11th, 1899, as Robert Tyre “R.T.” Jones Sr. openly pledged $25,000 to $50,000 of his own money towards the project. The local newspaper, The Cherokee Advance, prominently advocated for the project.
Canton’s business community quickly rallied to back Jones; The Cherokee Advance proudly announced that they raised a total of $60,000 in subscriptions to the potential mill’s capital stock only one week later on August 18th. Those subscriptions were not binding until $75,000 had been raised, but it was still cause for excitement. When they reached $75,000 and the subscriptions became binding, only 25 percent of the subscription came due immediately. Further installments were due when construction began, when they purchased machinery, after business commenced, the final balance being due after the mill had been in operation for 6 months.
Things moved quickly from there; in October of 1899 the mill’s leadership committee (composed of citizens such as R.T. Jones, Sam Tate, W.A. Teasley, T.M. Brad, Ben F. Berry, Dr. J.M. Price, G.L. Teasley, William Galt, W.J. Webb) applied for a charter to incorporate the Canton Cotton Mills. On November 3rd The Cherokee Advance proclaimed that “Canton’s cotton mill is assured.” while shamelessly exhorting their readers to invest in the new mill’s capital stock. By Christmas arrangements were made for a $105,000 mill building with accompanying warehouses and houses for employees. The leadership committee placed an order with a company in Lowell, Massachusetts for equipment to fill a 5,000 spindle mill. Not long after, on January 26th, 1900, The Cherokee Advance announced that the Canton Cotton Mills’ board of directors held a meeting with the Whitin Machine Company to choose the site of the mill. They decided on a location just south of the marble mill “on the right of the railroad.” They also determined that the main mill would be an 80×240″ two-story brick building.
Negotiations with Whitin Machine Company ran slow, but by the end of March R.T. Jones had finalized negotiations with Whitin and expected that the foundations would be laid soon. The new company also hired a superintendent, W. T. Brown, who they poached from the well-established Crown Cotton Mills of nearby Dalton. However, it appears that this progress was not swiftly built upon. Only in October of 1900 did the contractor begin work on the main building. Indeed, the mill had yet to be completed in January of 1901 when the stockholders met for the first annual meeting. Despite the relatively slow progress, the stockholders elected R.T. Jones as president of the new company in which they had invested $125,000. The Courant-American estimated that the mill would be in operation by February 15th of that year. The mill had already purchased 1,000 bales of cotton to feed their 5,000 spindles and 160 looms; 1,000 bales of cotton that those stockholders hoped would be turned into 4-yard sheeting.
Indeed R.T. Jones certainly treaded a tightrope in those early days. Not long after his election, it came to light that he had purchased several insurance policies for the mill from agents outside the state of Georgia, meaning that those agents were not licensed to write policies in the state of Georgia. This had the effect of removing the mill’s insurance coverage, making them vulnerable to any disaster. The danger that the mill was in caused quite a scandal in the Georgia press.
However, R. T. Jones proved his business acumen shortly after by avoiding a cotton shortage when he purchased the aforementioned 1,000 bales at a good price. The new company carried on this good luck when they finally opened the mill on March 14th, 1901. By the beginning of April the Blue Ridge Post claimed that the Canton Cotton Mills’ goods would soon be on the market. By the end of June R. T. Jones, newly returned from a conference of textile manufacturers in Warm Springs, took a train to New York and personally sold every item that the mill had available. He did incredibly well with agents who sold to the market in the Chinese Empire. So well, in fact, that he received orders for several hundred bales of sheetings (roughly 249 sheets per bale), destined for China. The volume of this order forced the Canton Cotton Mills to switch to 3 yard sheeting to be able to keep up. To fund this transition and purchase enough cotton to meet the order in advance, the mills issued $50,000 in bonds.
The Canton Cotton Mills filled the order in 2 months time, only to be swamped by another order from those same Chinese merchants, this time for 100,000 yards of sheeting. They even engaged a New York selling agency, Haynes and Bishop, to facilitate this connection.
It is not known whether or not the mill was able to fill the second order for the Chinese market. However, management soon began taking steps to lessen the mill’s efficiency, albeit for moral reasons. R.T. Jones began the habit of shutting down the mill on Mondays to clean out the boilers which fueled the steam powered mill. Other mills and industries typically used Sunday for such a task because the mill would be shut down anyways, but R. T. Jones chose not to use the Lord’s day. This clearly put the mills at a disadvantage, as their competitors in the industry certainly would not have taken such a break.
To compound their disadvantage, on Sept 13, 1901 The Cherokee Advance announced “In conformity with an agreement among the cotton mills of the state, the Canton Cotton Mills has posted notice in its office that hereafter no child under 12 years old will be employed in the mill except under certain restrictions and conditions, and no child under ten shall work there under any circumstances.” While this undoubtedly was a good thing, there is no indication that Canton Cotton Mills’ competitors who were vying for the Chinese market and were located outside Georgia signed on to this pledge.On top of that, barely a month after the Canton Cotton Mills made that announcement 14 year old girl named Eula Duncan badly mangled her hand after it was caught in the cogs of a spinning frame. Clearly the mill was not safe enough.
Disadvantages and accidents aside, the Canton Cotton Mills pushed on. In August of 1902 they completed an addition to the plant, a dye house which allowed them to produce colored goods. Towards the tail end of 1903, the Canton Cotton Mills’ leadership made a momentous decision, they switched the mill’s product from 4-yard sheeting to Blue denim. Perhaps they made this decision because of their inability to maintain their position in the Chinese market. The change might have also been made at the behest of the mill’s new selling agent: Robinson, Hughes, and Company of Louisville. Although the Canton Cotton Mills encountered difficulties along the way, it would eventually become one of the largest denim producers in the world.
Canton’s grip on the Chinese market was lost when the Canton Cotton Mills transitioned from sheeting to denim. Initially, the gamble appeared to have paid off. The Canton Cotton Mills routinely paid out an annual dividend of 8 percent on their capital stock from 1905 to 1907. In 1905, $5,000 of the operation’s profits were put towards a sinking fund, which is a way to either save up for a large expense (such as an expansion) or pay off debt. The Canton Cotton Mills did issue $50,000 in bonds to fund their early Chinese ventures. However, it appears as if their motivations for establishing the sinking fund were based on potential expansion. In 1907, the mill’s stockholders elected to embark on their first round of expansion. By April of that year, the mill’s capacity had been increased to 9,200 ring spindles and 336 broad looms, an 84 percent increase in spindles and a 60 percent increase in looms. By 1909 they increased the mill’s spinning capacity to an even 10,000 ring spindles. This expansion required the installation of a new boiler to power the additional machinery. The stockholders also elected to build a new office on the south side of the mill to facilitate the management of the newly expanded plant.
For all the optimism that the mill’s prosperity brought, dark clouds were gathering. 1907-1910 was a difficult period for the Canton Cotton Mills. To start, in May of 1907 a small cyclone crossed the Etowah River, creating a waterspout which flung water high into the air, before striking the Canton Cotton Mills plant. Fortunately, the storm did not harm anyone, but it did demolish the mill’s large metal smokestack. That same day, the Cherokee Advance announced the death of Captain T. M. Brady, an original incorporator and prominent stockholder of the Canton Cotton Mills. Brady’s leadership would be missed in the coming years, as the challenges facing the young company continued to mount.
In October of 1907 a failed speculation attempt in New York City’s elite business arena caused the collapse of several brokerage houses. This led to a run on the banks, which spawned a national crisis. Although legendary financier J. P. Morgan stepped in to shore up the money market, the nation’s industrial output slipped substantially as orders for their goods dried up. Canton Cotton Mills, with their main customer being based in Louisville selling to the heart of the industrial Midwest, saw a large dip in orders for their denim. In December of 1907 Canton Cotton Mills management announced that it would likely shut down production for an indefinite period, as they had been producing denim without selling any of their product for a significant amount of time. While it does not appear that the mill ever shut down for an extended period of time, the mills were forced to cut down to a 5 day work week.
To alleviate the surplus of their product accumulated during the economic crisis, R. T. Jones travelled to Cincinnati, Ohio on another sales trip. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the Canton Cotton Mills engaged a second selling agency, Putnam-Hooker and Company of Cincinnati, in 1908 shortly after Jones returned to Canton. However, the challenges facing Canton Cotton Mills continued to mount. In April of 1908 another major stockholder and director, Colonel Teasley, passed away, adding to the leadership crisis initiated by Captain T.M. Brady’s death. On top of that, a fire sparked by a passing freight train broke out in the mill’s cotton yard, where 200 bales of cotton were stored. Although firefighters quickly extinguished the blaze, 50 cotton bales were lost.
Despite the difficult times caused by untimely deaths and the Panic of 1907, Canton Cotton Mills came through with flying colors. By September of 1909 the mills finally erected a new brick smokestack to replace the metal one destroyed in 1907. They followed up on that positive news by advertising another round of expansion on the mill, which had begun several months beforehand. The Atlanta Georgian projected that the expansion would contain a further 11,000 ring spindles and 300 looms, effectively doubling the mill’s capacity. The contract for the new machinery, the generator to power it, and designing the new building went to Stuart Cramer of Charlotte, North Carolina.
By November of 1909 the workers from Thompson Brothers construction company were close to finishing the addition. In January of 1910 the stockholders increased the mill’s capital stock to $300,000 to pay for the addition. Finally, in June of 1910 the machinery had been installed and the addition was ready to begin operations. The addition brought the mill’s equipment capacity up to 20,000 ring spindles and 600 looms consuming 12,000 bales of cotton per year. It cost $45,000 to construct the building and a further $235,000 to acquire and install the machinery, equivalent to a total $7,674,593.68 in 2020. Experts considered the new 128×300 foot weave room to be one of the finest in the state of Georgia. After only 10 years, the Canton Cotton Mills had quadrupled their original capacity.
The Canton Cotton Mills’ leadership completed these additions in time to properly exploit the increase in demand for their products brought about by World War I. Perhaps they completed this objective, in part, by utilizing unsavory means. In June of 1910, as workers finished the installation of the new machinery in the expansion, federal prosecutors dropped a bombshell in the textile industry by indicting Colonel Robert M. Thompson and seven others on charges of manipulating the price of cotton in collaboration with dozens of cotton mills across the country. Amongst other mills along the Textile Heritage Trail, the government implicated the Canton Cotton Mills as a co-conspirator in this plot. The whole conspiracy was part of an effort to keep the price of cotton low for manufacturers nationwide, as Southern mills bought up all their local cotton at a lower price and sold the surplus on to Northern mills, who would have had to pay a higher price if they bought through normal channels. Perhaps it was the negative publicity from this incident which caused the Cherokee Advance, ever the ally of the Canton Cotton Mills, to write an article in 1914 about the mill’s providing an excellent and high-paying cotton market for local farmers.
Whether they cheated or not, the Canton Cotton Mills went into the First World War fully equipped. Indeed, the mills appear to have run full time throughout the war. Out of appreciation for the efforts of the mill’s employees during this period, management saw fit to reward workers 2 days of paid vacation at Christmas of 1915. However, this benevolence flew out the window in 1916 when the mills were faced with the Keating-Owens Child Labor Act, which sought to prevent the sale of goods produced by companies who employed children under the age of fourteen. R. T. Jones, along with other delegates at the Georgia Manufacturers’ Association, roundly condemned the bill which they believed endangered their workforce.
However, the Canton Cotton Mills clearly profited from the war, as they announced in 1923 that they would build a second mill in Canton. Management intended for the No. 2 mill, as it would come to be known, to more than double their production and employment numbers. As such, they spared no expense on the mill, reportedly spending $2,000,000 ($30,436,140.35 in 2020 dollars) on the building, machinery, and houses for the employees.
L.L. Jones, son of R.T. Jones and treasurer of the Canton Cotton Mills, wrote an article describing the new mill in glowing terms. He noted the quality of the machinery, the ventilation, and heating that the new mill would possess. He also touted the up-to-date nature of the mill village which would feature both a church and a school. He claimed that the new employee houses would have running water, electricity, and sewage. Finally, he called for 650 to 750 new employees to work at the new mill.
When they completed the mill in 1924, the Canton Cotton Mills controlled a total of 229 Cards, 1,400 looms, and 43,000 ring spindles which employed 1,000 people who produced their now famous “Canton Denim”. Despite all of the joy and pride that the 1920s brought to the employees of Canton Cotton Mills and the Jones family, perhaps their greatest pleasure came from seeing R.T. Jones’ grandson and namesake, Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones, win the US Open in 1923. In time, the young golfer would become a household name and go on to co-establish the Master’s Tournament in Augusta.
Canton Cotton Mills, as one of the largest producers of denim in the nation, appears to have pushed through the Great Depression without major closings, layoffs, or strikes. In 1933 the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article claiming that the Canton Cotton Mills had not experienced any closings. Not a single paper mentions the Canton Cotton Mills in their coverage of the General Textile Strike in 1934, indicating that conditions were good enough in Canton that workers did not see striking as worth the risk, despite pressure from out-of-town union organizers.
Indeed, the Jones family even opened Etowah Manufacturing Company, a subsidiary of their Jones Mercantile Company, to manufacture pants from surplus denim produced at the mill. Later on, Etowah Manufacturing would produce chenille bedspreads to take advantage of the chenille boom. With that in mind, perhaps the biggest challenge during the Great Depression era came in the form of grief, as Robert Tyre Jones Sr. passed away in September of 1937 at the age of 87. He had led the Canton Cotton Mills through thick and thin and had earned the loyalty of his employees. The burden of leadership fell to his son L.L. Jones, who had been groomed as a leader by his father since the 1910s.
One of L.L. Jones’ first challenges as President of Canton Cotton Mills came in the form of World War II. First, the mills were ordered to switch from the production of denim to the production of osnaburgs, a coarse fabric used for bagging. Then, the mills experienced an outbreak of influenza which infected at least 100 of his workers and took them off the assembly line. To add to that trouble, the War Production Board then ordered the mills to switch back to producing denim, giving them only 6 weeks to fill their outstanding orders and convert their machinery back over to denim production. However, by the end of the conflict the Canton Cotton Mills, along with dozens of mills across Georgia, were wealthy enough to voluntarily offer their employees a substantial wage increase.
The second half of the twentieth century signaled the end of an era for the Canton Cotton Mills in more ways than one. 1950 saw the death of T.J. Carpenter, a 99 year old witness to Sherman’s March to the Sea, and original stockholder of the Canton Cotton Mills. Although the mills undoubtedly enjoyed the postwar manufacturing boom that saw American companies take advantage of the destruction wrought by World War II on Europe’s industries, the second half of the decade brought a sharp decline which led to a national recession. The Canton Cotton Mills felt it hard enough to cut production to a 4 day work week in April of 1958. This arrangement lasted until September of that year, when management finally restored the 5 day work week. L.L. Jones Jr., by now the company president, saw the writing on the wall perhaps, and began a campaign of complaining against his company’s overseas competitors which did not adhere to the labor standards required in the United States.
Things went from bad to worse for the Canton Cotton Mills when they were forced to close by the flooding of the Etowah River in 1961 as both their machine shops were filled with water. In desperation to promote production efficiency, management permanently closed the obsolete No.1 mill in favor of running the more modern No. 2 mill 24 hours per day with day and night shifts. There is no mention of pay cuts or layoffs coming with this switch, but it obviously put the mill’s employees on edge. So much so, in fact, that the mill’s employees voted to unionize in October of 1963 for the first time in the company’s history.
Later that month management ordered 4 workers to scale and paint the smokestack at the No. 2 mill. The workers refused, on the grounds that the equipment provided by the company was unsafe. Management fired the workers. In response, the employees voted to strike. On October 27th the strikers forced the mills to close at noon as 1,100 workers walked off the job. Things quickly got out of hand when employees who crossed the picket line were threatened, verbally abused, hit with rocks, and even shot at by strikers. 25 state patrol troopers were quickly dispatched to keep order and a judge ordered strikers to refrain from blocking the 50 or 60 employees who chose to work from entering the mill. The strike ground on for a further 3 months amid fruitless negotiations. In December of that year the National Labor Relations Board charged the Canton Cotton Mills with using unfair labor practices. The strike finally ended on January 26th when employees accepted an “interim agreement from the company.
To make matters worse for the Canton Cotton Mills were closed by further flooding. L.L. Jones Jr. attempted to turn over a new leaf and restore the company’s reputation by committing the company, and the Georgia Manufacturers Association, to reducing air and water pollution. He also renamed the company to Canton Textile Mills to reflect a newly diversified product line.
The 1970s started off brightly for Canton Textile Mills when they received a large grant from the E.P.A. to produce a system for limiting air and water pollution. They also underwent a modest expansion campaign in an attempt to build a vertically integrated operation. 1973 saw them purchase a plant in Siluria, Alabama which added to facilities in Canton and Acworth in Georgia and Roanoke in Alabama. Their expanded product line included industrial fabrics, quality aluminum castings, and certain textile machinery and supplies in addition to the famous “Canton Denim”. The mills employed 2,250 people across the southeast.
However this age of optimism was cut short by economic recession and a rise in textile imports in the second half of the decade. The mills often cut hours or closed altogether, and employees were often forced to take out unemployment benefits in 1977 and 1978. By 1981 it became clear that the mill, which had at one point been the third largest denim producer in the world, could not keep itself afloat. By April of that year Canton Textile Mills closed its doors, costing 850 employees their jobs. Most employees were forced to take out unemployment benefits. Several schemes were floated to reopen the mills, including enticing Japanese capitalists to invest, but ultimately the company sold off the machinery and sold the buildings.
Today, the two Canton Cotton Mills plants have been repurposed. The No. 2 mill has been converted into apartments and is now known as the Canton Mill Lofts. In 2018 local developers purchased the No. 1 mill and, as of 2021, are in the process of converting it into a shopping mall and event space known as The Mill on Etowah. Currently, the property is home to several businesses, stores, and the renowned Reformation Brewery. Once again, the Canton Cotton Mills are becoming the center of the community.
Charter Trail Members
Resources to Explore
Click on the following links to learn more about this region.
- Canton Driving Spur Tour
- Facts for Kids
- Digital Library of Georgia
- Georgia Historical Society
- Georgia Archives Virtual Vault
- New Georgia Encyclopedia
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