Author: Greg Bell
Before I began working on the Textile Heritage Trail, I had never really considered how the textile industry had impacted my life. When I was first asked to write a blog post about my experience with textiles, I worried that I would not have much to contribute. After all, the era of the mill village is basically over, and the textile industry has changed drastically to meet the demands of the 21st century. Despite growing up in Cartersville, one of the communities on the Textile Heritage Trail, I felt very removed from the stories I have been researching. After giving the topic some thought, however, I realized that my life has been impacted by the textile industry much more than I assumed. My hope with this blog post is to inspire readers to think about how they have also been affected by our shared textile heritage and to hopefully convince some to share their own stories with us.
The first connection I was able to make with the history of the textile industry comes from one of my biggest recreational pastimes- hiking. When I was in high school, I had the pleasure of hiking the trails at Sweetwater State Park for the first time. Since then, it has become one of my “go-to’ hikes whenever I get the chance and is also one of my top recommendations for people looking to hike near Atlanta. Despite the special place the park holds in my heart, I had never given much thought to the history of the area, or to the ruins that can be found during the hikes there. Now, through my research with the Textile Heritage Trail, I know so much more about the story behind this special place.
Throughout the history of Georgia’s textile industry, mills and factories have been closed for numerous reasons. Some closed due to increased foreign competition, or due to loss of capital. In the case of the New Manchester mill in Lithia Springs, Georgia, the mill was destroyed along with many other manufacturing centers during Sherman’s March to the Sea at the end of the Civil War. One of Sherman’s goals on his way to Savannah was to remove any industry that would enable the Confederacy to continue outfitting their armies. This meant the mills and other manufacturers were often burned, shelled, or otherwise damaged in such a way that repair would be almost impossible. In Lithia Springs, the mill ruins were abandoned and left alone until they were incorporated into Sweetwater State Park. Today, visitors can hike around the ruins, and guided tours led by park rangers actually go inside the ruins. While the mill at Lithia Springs was a short-lived operation, its legacy continues to impact visitors more than 150 years after its destruction.
These recreational connections go much further than just hiking the ruins of an old mill. Many towns have converted their mills into apartments, shopping centers, or event venues. People throughout West Georgia live, work and play in these repurposed mills, and these places can be the setting for lifelong memories. Additionally, many mill village homes are still standing, and are privately owned residences now. The amenities from these mill villages such as parks, baseball fields, and stores may still exist, either in their original form or in a modified way, and be a part of our everyday lives.
This idea that the legacy of a mill carries on long after its doors are closed got me thinking about Cartersville, where I grew up. Cartersville’s textile history is similar to many towns in the region. The first mill in the town was established in 1904, and by the mid-20th century, the textile industry had grown to accommodate multiple facilities and employed large portions of the town. Cartersville families also participated in the chenille trade along U.S. Highway 41, also known as Bedspread Boulevard. By the early 2000s, most of these businesses had closed their doors. But rather than disappearing entirely, the textile industry of the past changed. Now, rather than producing horse collar pads or hosiery, Cartersville’s textile plants produce carpet for Shaw Industries, one of the largest carpet manufacturers in the world. This evolution from a local and regional textile center to a globally relevant one has been huge for Cartersville. Growing up, I had several friends whose parents worked at “the carpet place,” and now many of my friends work there themselves. This is a story that many towns in Northwest Georgia can identify with.
Often, when we think of the textile industry, our minds are filled with images of mill towns, company stores trading in scrip, and individuals working long hours on dangerous machinery. While these images aren’t incorrect, they show us only part of the picture. As we say on our homepage of the Textile Heritage Trail website, the textile industry touches us all. If you’re like me, your connections with the industry may seem faint or tenuous at first glance, but upon further inspection, you find that they actually run much, much deeper. Whether you live in a converted mill apartment, grew up in a mill town yourself, or just hike in the ruins of a mill long gone, you are connected to the textile story of west Georgia. These are your stories, and we would love to hear them.