It was So Complicated!

Pacolet Mills No. 1 and No. 2. The small building in the middle extends over the tailrace and houses the waterwheels. The Mills were destroyed in the 1903 Flood.

Even most of us who grew up around and in sight of the textile mills took them for granted. The huge brick buildings, 4, 5 or 6 stories high, just seemed like part of the natural landscape that had always been there. The mills and what went on in them were anything but natural and simple. In reality, the workings of a textile mill, even back to the early 1900’s, was an extremely complicated mechanical system. Even today, there are few, if any factories or industries that are as mechanically complicated as a textile mill was in the 1900’s. If we look at how difficult it was to start, build and operate a textile mill we can get a better  understanding and appreciation of them. Unfortunately, this new found appreciation comes almost too late because most of the industry and the big mills are gone forever.

The rural locations where most of the southern mills were built in the late 1800’s were mostly woods or at best, farmland. The sites, back then, were chosen to be next to a river or large creek to provide a source of water power to drive the mill’s machinery. Once the site was picked, the area for the mill and its foundations had to be excavated and leveled. The area was usually several acres in size. 

The steam shovel had been invented back then but was not widely available. Probably, the great majority of the earth grading and foundation excavation was done by men using picks and shovels and horses and mules pulling drag pans. A drag pan was a small dirt scoop that was pulled behind a horse or mule like a plow. It did not hold much dirt. Thousands upon thousands of drag pan trips would have to be made in grading the site for a typical mill. 

Men and horses using drag pans. Location unknown.

Once the site had been graded, the construction of the mill could be started. However, the design and planning for the mill had started long before this. The mill was built as an integrated system for the sole purpose of making cloth on a large scale. Everything about the design of the mill was devoted to that fact. The arrangement of the floors, the purchase and location of all the machinery, getting power from the water - all had to be considered and precisely determined. Thousands of details had to be decided. The company, Lockwood and Greene, which still exists, designed some of the early buildings at Pacolet Mills

Each mill that was built is a testimony and tribute to all those unknown and unheralded men of every occupation that had a part of making an idea become a reality. There were carpenters, brick masons, stone masons, engineers, mill wrights and many, many others. 

Getting the raw materials for building the mill was a huge and expensive hurdle. First, someone had to determine just how much and what size material would be required. Secondly, a source had to be found for the material to buy it or else to make it onsite. Third, after a source had been found, a method of transporting the material to the mill site had to be found. 

When the first mills were built at both Pacolet and Glendale, there were no railroad connections to the mill site. All of the material had to be brought in by horse and wagons over rough dirt roads. Pacolet Mills No. 1 was built in 1883 and Bivingsville, now Glendale, in 1837

It is hard to visualize just how much of the two basic building materials, lumber and bricks, were needed for one of the early large mills. Tremendous quantities of timber were used for the mill frame and floors. Many of the timber beams had to be huge to support the loads they carried. The heavy textile machinery vibrated as it ran , often around the clock. If the mill was not built strong enough, it could be literally shaken apart. Probably ,much of the timber needed was from trees felled and sawn close to the vicinity of the mills. Bricks in quantities of hundreds of thousands or even millions were needed. At Pacolet, it appears that the bricks were built at a location close to the village. A newspaper advertisement exists where Dr. Bivings was soliciting brick makers and brick masons in 1837 when he was building the first mill at Bivingsville or what is now known as Glendale. This same ad also solicits workers to cut and shape the timber beams used in the mill.
The advertisements are from the Greenville Mountaineer Newspaper of 1837. One advertisement from April, 1837 is solicting bricks and brick masons and other workers for constructing the mill. The second ad from July, 1837 is announcing that the mill is in operation and now producing yarn. Both ads can be read in detail at 1837 Newspaper Advertisements. 

Construction of the mill was hard physical labor. Much of the effort consisted of moving and lifting the tons of building material. The foundations had to be constructed down to the bed rock. A weak foundation could result in the mill collapsing. Some of the very early mills were made of wood timbers and flooring placed on stone foundations. Others had exterior walls made of many layers of brick but used timber for the interior framing and floors. 

In both cases, considerable effort was used in hoisting the materials to the upper floors. Probably, most of the lifting was done by the use of ropes and pulleys powered by men or horses. Mill No. 2 at Pacolet was built in 1888 and was four stories or about 80 feet high. Even with modern cranes and elevators, moving material to this height would be difficult. It is amazing that the builders did this just with men and horsepower. 

Another aspect of building with bricks has not been mentioned. There would be tons of mortar to be mixed, carried and used to bond the thousands of brick together. It is possible that the mortar was made right on the site using lime kilns. These kilns heated limestone rocks into lime that was used in the mortar. However, it is more likely that at Pacolet and even Bivingsville, commercial mortar was used that had been obtained from Limestone Springs near Gaffney in what is now Cherokee County. A superior grade of mortar was made commercially there and shipped all over the South. 

The brick masons building the high, multi-story mills had to be not only skilled in their trade but also brave. Some of their work involved standing on rudimentary scaffolding 80 or 100 feet above the ground - or the Pacolet River. 

The dam at Pacolet No. 3, "the old mill". It was built in 1891 and is still used to generate electric power today.

So far we have discussed building the mill. However, the all important dam was being built at the same time or even before the mill building. Building the dam was truly a dangerous and critical job. Without a dam there would be no waterpower to run the mill’s machinery. 

In building the dam, the river had to be first partially diverted to one side of the channel by blocking the flow. This was probably done with wagon loads of rocks. Once this was done, half of the dam could be built in the “dry” part of the river bed. After half the dam was complete, the process was repeated and the rest of the dam was built. The first dam was built for Pacolet Mill No. 1 in 1883 and was about 100 yards long. This dam survived the great flood of 1903 and still stands today. 

Men building a dam - location is unknown.

Water flowing over the upper dam at Pacolet Mills.

Girl Scout, Louise Paige, with Pacolet Mills No. 5, "the new mill", and the upper dam in the background.

The dam at Glendale with the old iron bridge in the background.

In the first mills, the purpose of the dams was to increase the depth of the water and to channel a flow to the mill’s waterwheel. The waterwheel was the heart of the mill. There were four big waterwheels for Pacolet Mills No. 1 and 2. The water made the big wheel rotate. The wheel was attached to a shaft that went inside the mill. The rotating shaft was attached to a complex system of pulleys, smaller line shafts and flat leather belts. These parts transmitted the power from the waterwheel to every floor in the mill. Individual machines such as looms were connected to the belt and pulley system. 

A waterwheel at a mill. Not at Pacolet or Glendale.

A mill, around 1900, was a complex, noisy scene of rotating pulleys, line shafts and flat belts. For the most part, these rotating parts were not covered. A belt could break, come off a pulley and cause serious injury or death to a worker. 

The textile machinery used in the mills around 1900 was probably the most elaborate and complex machines that existed anywhere at the time. They were a mass of gears, pulleys, levers, cams and belts. All of this was usually contained within a very heavy cast iron frame. Some of these machines weighed several tons. Textile machinery was always in the forefront of technology. Our modern computers and coded data instructions can be traced back to the Jacquard Loom invented in 1801. This machine used cards with punched holes to control the loom to weave cloth with complex patterns. 

Mill machines not only had to have skilled operators they also have skilled maintenance and repair workers to keep them performing properly. Keeping the machinery up and running was a full time job for many workers. 

One of the unsung wonders of the Upcountry textile industry was the recruiting and training of thousands of rural workers to operate and maintain the truly complex machinery of a textile mill. 

Overtime, waterwheels were replaced with steam engines and eventually electric motors. However, for a long time, the system of pulleys, belts and line shafts were still used with the new power sources. They were in use generally until the around 1940’s when new machinery was installed in the mills that their own individual motors. 

The construction of the mill and dam was a very important part of the project but it was not all. A place had to be provided for the workers to live. In the era before cars, it meant that the workers had to live close to the mill. To allow this, the owners had to build an entire small town or village around the mill. This involved building houses for several hundred workers, roads, a school, a church, a post office, a store and other facilities. In a period of two years or so, an open area of farmland was turned into a new town and manufacturing operation that gave several hundred badly needed jobs. 

Some of the houses and other facilities at Pacolet Mills.

Building a textile mill like those at Pacolet and Glendale in the 1800’s was a supreme expression of faith and confidence on the part of the owners and founders. For the most part, this meant starting a new operation where it was unknown and not widely familiar. The following questions loomed over the heads of the first builders. -

How will you finance the building of the mill?

Where would you find the people to design and build your mill?

Where could you find a cheap reliable supply of cotton in the quantity you need?

In a rural area populated by farmers, where will you find the hundreds of workers that will be needed to operate the complex, dangerous machinery?

Where will your workers live? Lack of transportation means that they will have to live close to the mill.

Where will you find a reliable market for the cloth you make?

How will you transport the raw cotton and finished textiles to and from the mill site that only has rough dirt roads?

These were just some of the troubling questions that had to be answered for every one of the numerous textile mills that sprang up in the Carolina Piedmont in the late 1800’s In spite of all these uncertainties, the early mill builders, owners and workers pressed on, survived and created the once booming textile industry of the Piedmont.
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This web site has been started as a public service to share the story of Pacolet. The web master and person to contact about putting information on the web site is me, Gerald Teaster.  Contact me at: or by telephone at (843) 873-8117.  My regular mail adress is:
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