The Loray Mill Project Overview
Built in 1900-01 and opened in 1902, the Loray Mill was one of the largest and most costly textile facilities in the region. By 1905, nearly 60,000 spindles were used in the mill — nearly three times the number in the next largest mill in Gaston County.
The mill was designed and built by Lockwood, Greene Engineers of Boston, one of the leading textile mill engineering firms in the country, and incorporated state-of-the-art design and construction principles. The mill’s 2,500 horsepower steam engine was one of the largest in the region. The mill was originally designed for the production of cotton sheeting.
Lockwood Greene also designed the surrounding mill village, which was planned for 400 houses. In the early 1900s, tens of thousands of families were drawn from subsistence farming into “public work” in the Gaston County mills from the mountains and piedmont of North and South Carolina and Tennessee between 1890 and the 1920s. The Loray management hired agents to recruit mountain families to relocate to Gastonia to work in the mill.
The family was the economic unit upon which cotton mill labor was based. Children could legally begin work at the Loray (and other mills in Gaston County) at age 13, and each mill-owned house in the village provided multiple workers. Employment of even younger children was common in cotton mills in the South. American documentary photographer Lewis Hine, working for the National Child Labor Committee, photographed child textile workers in Gastonia and nine other towns in North Carolina in November 1908, including several at the Loray Mill.
Textiles were the basis for the economy of Gaston County, and the Loray Mill helped to make it an international center of textile manufacturing. The mill was planned to produce cotton sheeting for international sale, particularly the China market. In 1913 China was still the primary market for Loray products, with 2 million yards of sheeting shipped there in October/November alone. An increase in demand for textile products during World War I propelled a further expansion of textile industry in Gaston County in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Gaston County had more cotton mills than any other county in the US, and most of the county’s 50,000 inhabitants earned their living from textiles.
This period also marked a significant milestone for the Loray Mill and for the families who worked there and lived in the village. In 1919, the mill was sold to the Jenckes Spinning Company, based in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1923, Jenckes Spinning Company and the Manville Company of Rhode Island merged to form the Manville-Jenckes Company, and the Loray Mill became part of this new company. Declining profitability by 1927 led Manville-Jenckes to institute new work policies recommended by the consulting company Barnes Textile Service, reducing the overall workforce and increasing workloads for retained employees. By 1928 the number of employees at the Loray had been cut from 3500 to 2200 while overall output remained the same.
The “stretch out,” as the new regime was called, contributed significantly to labor unrest at the mill. In the spring of 1929, the National Textile Workers Union, affiliated with the US Communist Party, targeted the Loray for union organization. An April 1, 1929 strike closed the mill for several days. The National Guard was deployed by governor, and the mill reopened. In May, strikers were evicted from their mill-owned houses in the village, some of whom created a tent colony a few blocks from the mill. On June 7, 1929, the police chief and deputies were called to the union headquarters in the tent village. Shots were exchanged, and Chief Orville Aderholt was fatally wounded. Sixteen union organizers and strikers were initially arrested and charged with murder. The trail attracted international press attention. In September, a local union sympathizer and writer and performer of strike songs, Ella May Wiggins, was shot and killed as she was travelling to a union rally. No one was ever convicted of her murder.
In 1935, Manville-Jenckes sold the Loray Mill to the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which operated it for the production of tire fabric until 1993. Preservation North Carolina assumed ownership of the closed mill from Firestone Fibers and Textiles, LLC in 1998. Firestone began selling houses in the mill village to tenants in the 1940s.
A $39 million renovation of the mill by Loray Mill Redevelopment, LLC, is currently underway, which will transform the original 450,000 square foot mill building into 190 loft-style apartments, residential amenities (including a pool and health club), office, retail, and function space, and restaurants. The 150,000 square foot wing of the mill, added in the 1920s, will be developed in phase two of the project. The Loray Mill National Register District comprises both the mill and the mill village, which now includes some 350 residences.
(This account of the mill’s history is drawn from Lisa Pfeuller Davidson’s report for the Historical American Engineering Record, and from the Loray National Register of Historic Places application.)
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A gift from UNC alumnus Rick Kessell in honor of his family’s long connection with the Firestone-era mill is funding the establishment of a history center as a part of the redeveloped facility. Loray Mill Redevelopment is preparing an 1100 square foot space to accommodate the center in a prominent position on the entry level of the redeveloped structure. A group of local supporters of the redevelopment and of the incorporation of the history of the mill and its community in the experience of the renovated structure was convened by Preservation NC President Myrick Howard and Loray Mill Redevelopment, LLC, partner Billy Hughes over the summer and fall of 2013.
With input from Tom Hanchett, Historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC, and Jeff Kennedy, museum design consultant and Principal of Jeff Kennedy and Associates, the UNC Digital Innovation Lab, directed by Professor Robert Allen, proposed organizing the initial work of the history center around an online digital archive of material comprehensively reflecting the history of the mill, the mill village and wider Gaston County community, and the lives of the tens of thousands of families associated with the mill over more than 110 years.
Supported by a gift from Preservation NC, the DIL is building Digital Loray, a digital collection of material relating to the history of the mill and its mill village, which can be deployed across a wide range of on-site and online public programming. This material has been collected from the UNC Library, national and regional archival sources, local cultural heritage organizations, churches, and local collectors. Digital Loray currently contains nearly 1000 objects with links to many more, including photographs, oral history interviews, musical recordings, films, maps, census enumerations, and newspapers. In September 2014, public historian Julie Davis joined the DIL and the Digital Loray team as a Carolina Digital Humanities Initiative Postdoctoral Fellow, supported through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. When the Loray Mill reopens and its history center is launched, she will serve as the UNC Scholar in Residence, working with local organizations to create innovative public programming that makes full use of Digital Loray.
The historical singularity of the mill — its audacious initial scale (“the million dollar mill;” “the largest mill under one roof in the South”), architectural and technological distinctiveness, state/regional/national industry prominence, focus of international attention as a site of violent labor/management struggle, center of a community for several generations of thousands of families for more than half a century, and economic lynchpin for an entire county — means that its complex history can be documented through a wide range of unique primary source materials available in local, state, and national collections. The history of the mill and its community are also documented in public records and publicly circulated materials — census enumerations, city directories, newspapers — the digitization of which makes it possible to comprehensively recover the hitherto invisible history of the mill community at the level of the individual worker and his/her family and to connect these tens of thousands of micro-histories with the lived experience of the mill and its community today and in the future.
The history of the mill is today present not only in the iconic structure that has been preserved for future generations and the surviving architectural legacy of its surrounding community, but also in the memories and mementos of thousands of families whose histories are intertwined with life and work at the Loray and the Firestone. Thus, digital technologies combined with oral history present an opportunity to create and sustain a dynamic, community-focused, infinitely-expandable living archive documenting the mill and its community. It would serve as the generator of research, programming, and social connections that will draw the Gastonia community into the renovated mill to contribute to that archive and re-engage with this uniquely important site and the community around it.
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Using 1920 census enumerations and the 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of the area, the DIL is “reconstructing” the Loray Mill Village as it was in the early 1920s. This was an important moment in the history of the mill and its community. To accommodate the additional workforce required by the expansion of the mill’s capacity, more than 150 new houses to the mill village. These new houses adapted the bungalow style, replacing the older Southern vernacular style that characterized the houses built in the early 1900s. Two brick dormitories (one for men; the other for women) and a cafeteria were built just north of the mill. Jenckes also added a number of “welfare” amenities: a community center, playground, and swimming pool, among them. Welfare workers were brought down from New England to develop health and educational programs for families living in the mill village. The village grew to more than four hundred houses and more than 3000 residents.
When census enumerators went door-to-door through the Loray Mill Village in the spring of 1920, they may well have talked with second-generation community residents and workers in the mill, whose families had been drawn from farms in the surrounding area to the new mill in the first years of its operation. Enumerators would have recorded information from families that had left hardscrabble lives in the mountains — some from hundreds of miles away in Tennessee — in the previous decade, lured by the prospect of decent housing and steady work in the “big city” of Gastonia. Other families would have been more recent arrivals from the country, or families who had moved from another local mill village to take advantage of the Loray’s rapid expansion. The census takers documented single adults living together in boarding houses and in the dormitories, which had just been built. As they pushed on into the southern fringes of the Loray mill village, enumerators would have met some of the African Americans who labored as sweepers, drivers, and loading dock workers in the mill, thus preserving the record of the often ignored black presence in textile mills and mill communities.
Every household census entry is a story waiting to be told. Every census enumeration page provides a social and demographic group portrait of families and individuals living on the same or adjacent streets. The Sanborn Map Company produced a highly detailed color map of the Loray Mill Village in the spring of 1922, showing every building — residential, industrial, and commercial — in the area, its size, footprint, building material, and use. By mapping the census data for each household onto this historic map, we can reconstruct the Loray Mill Village as it was in the early 1920s.
“Reconstructing the Loray Mill Village” is being built on the Digital Innovation Lab’s DH Press platform and will take advantage of the lab’s previous digital mapping project work for the Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte, 1911), Preservation Durham (Recovering Hayti), and the North Carolina Museum of History (Lebanese Migration to North Carolina, spring 2014).
Each Loray village household enumerated in the 1920 census will be represented by a geo-coded (latitude/longitude) marker displayed on the 1922 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, which has itself been georeferenced as a map layer over contemporary Google Maps maps. Clicking each marker will open an information box with basic information about each household, from which the user can then access the census enumeration page on which the household appears.
The project can be deployed on a touch-screen device (table-top or wall-mounted tablet), via computer on a wall-mounted LED display, on mobile devices (iPad and other tablets), and online via laptops and desktops.
The project will be designed to be dynamic and expandable. Additional content (photos, newspaper articles, etc.) could be added for any household. Case study narratives can be developed and added as “blog posts” to the project. User feedback and comment can be reflected. Future iterations could incorporate information from the 1910, 1930, and 1940 censuses, as well as annual city directory listings from the period. With some training and guidance from the DIL, local cultural heritage organizations will be able to maintain and expand the project, and with some assistance from the DIL mount similar projects for other mill villages, “lost neighborhoods,” and historic downtowns.
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Planning is under way for the design, furnishing, and operation of the history center through a collaboration among Loray Redevelopment, LLC, the Gaston County Museum of Art and History, the Gaston County Public Library, Preservation NC, and the UNC Digital Innovation Lab.
The history center is envisioned as a destination for visitors to the mill interested in the mill’s history and its connection with Gaston County, the state, the region, and the world; a cultural resource for community members and a cultural amenity for residents of the mill; a site for experiencing, exploring, and contributing to the mill’s multimedia digital archive; and an activities and program hub for the museum, library, and other community groups. It will also be a laboratory for developing innovative ways to make “history” a part of the experience of the site for the tens of thousands of people who will live and work in this site or visit it to shop, dine, and attend events every year. Additionally, the use of other public spaces in the renovated Loray Mill to reflect its history through photographs and artifacts will be an important reminder of its centrality to the development of Gastonia as the hub of textile manufacturing in the South for more than half a century.
For the Digital Innovation Lab, this project is both a unique opportunity to further our commitment to public digital humanities, and an opportunity to develop a model of public history and archiving that might be deployed in other redevelopment and historic preservation initiatives. For the University of North Carolina, it is a chance for us to bring together a unique coalition of expertise and resources within the university (archival, scholarly, technological) and to mobilize and help sustain local interest, resources, and knowledge through engaged scholarship and institutional outreach. In the process, this project will serve as a teaching, research, and scholarly engagement laboratory for our faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates.