WHEN DON KOONCE MOVED FROM ATLANTA TO GREENVILLE IN 1975, HE THOUGHT HE’D MADE A HUGE MISTAKE. THE GREENVILLE OF THE MID-1970s WAS A FAR CRY FROM WHAT THE TOWN IS TODAY. TEXTILE MANUFACTURING JOBS, LONG THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE AREA, HAD BEGUN TO VANISH FOR A NUMBER OF REASONS, INCLUDING MODERNIZATION AND FOREIGN COMPETITION, AND YOUNG PEOPLE WERE LEAVING THE TOWN IN DROVES IN SEARCH OF GOOD JOBS. MAIN STREET WAS NOT ON ANYONE’S CULINARY RADAR, AND THE WEST END OF TOWN WAS ESSENTIALLY BOARDED UP. GREENVILLE SEEMED STAGNANT, AND KOONCE FIGURED HE WOULD MOVE BACK TO ATLANTA AT THE FIRST OPPORTUNITY. BUT OVER 30 YEARS LATER, DON KOONCE IS STILL HERE, AND ON A RECENT WINTER MORNING HE SAT AT SPILL THE BEANS BEHIND A LARGE COFFEE AND SMALL TABLET COMPUTER ENTHUSIASTICALLY DISCUSSING HIS HOBBY, THE HISTORY OF GREENVILLE’S TEXTILE MILLS.
Well-spoken and dressed in what seems to be his uniform, blue blazer and khaki pants, Koonce doesn’t seem like an “Ad Man” (he is creative director at Ferncreek Creative), but more like a professor, which in a way he is. A graduate of the Citadel with a degree in history, Koonce has a natural curiosity for yesterday. Soon after his move, he began asking about the history of Greenville and was surprised to discover most people he encountered seemed to the think the town didn’t have much of one. One civic leader Koonce queried simply said, “Oh, it’s just an old mill town.” That piqued Koonce’s curiosity, and he set out to find these mills and discover their stories. What he learned was the importance of the “Textile Crescent,” and how it is not only the foundation of Greenville, but also the root of some of its current challenges and the basis for some of its best opportunities.
Flipping through dozens of old mill photos on his tablet, Koonce shakes his head at the audacity of the men who built them. “What’s amazing is that very few of these men had any manufacturing experience,” says Koonce. “They were entrepreneurs, and they were good business men, and they hired good people. But it would be like me going out and starting a steel mill tomorrow. It’s incredible.” The mills Koonce is referring to make up the “Textile Crescent,” a semi-circle of 16 cotton mills and two dye and bleaching mills built from the late 1800s through 1920 and all located within three miles of Main Street. The lower end of the crescent begins at Mills Mill just off of Mills Avenue and curves west to Woodside Mill then east to its peak at American Spinning. Of those original 18 mills, only 13 remain standing, and several of those are abandoned. Two have been repurposed into housing; Monaghan Mill as apartments and Mills Mill as condos, both currently fully occupied. But the remaining abandoned mills serve as Greenville’s largest ghosts, haunting the neighborhoods that surround them by keeping new development at a safe distance.
The history of the Textile Crescent is a fascinating study of the building of an empire. Koonce hesitates to use that word but admits Greenville’s mill entrepreneurs were working toward a greater goal. “They knew each other, and they decided early on that they wanted to build a textile center,” says Koonce. “They were conscious that they were building something bigger than their own individual mills. They served on each other’s boards even though in some cases they competed with each other. Several mills were making broadcloth, some were making twill and selling to the same customers. So they were competing with each other, but they were also about a bigger picture, about building Greenville as an important town in textiles. They did things like build a hospital and build the Poinsett Hotel, not just for their customers but for the general good. These men really built Greenville,” he says.
According to Koonce, Greenville’s textile industry started with Alexander McBee, the son of town father Vardry McBee, who in the mid- 1800s started a spinning operation in one of his father’s mills located in Conestee. McBee used cotton from the local farms and shipped it north. It was so successful that when Vardry McBee sold the mill at Conestee and moved Alexander to his sawmill, which was located on the lower falls of the Reedy River, Alexander added a floor to house a spinning operation. In 1873, young McBee leased his mills to three men from Boston; George Putnam, George Hall, and Oscar Sampson, whose cotton mill had burned in the great Boston fire of 1872. The men continued the spinning operation on the Reedy River, and used McBee’s old gristmills for storage. “They named it Camperdown,” says Koonce, “and we still don’t know where that name came from.” Business was strong, and in 1874 the men renegotiated their lease with McBee. Soon after began construction of a second cotton mill across the falls which would be known as Camperdown 2.
Over the next ten years, the business encountered some financial problems, and the picker room burned a total of three times. “In 1885 George Putnam and George Hall left the operation,” says Koonce, “and several years later Oscar Sampson decided to close down Camperdown 2, removing all of the equipment and starting Sampson Mill. Camperdown
2 was a pretty significant mill. I wish we still had that building today. It was beautiful,” he says. The mill was torn down in 1959 and was in the approximate location of what is now the Bowater building at the east end of Liberty Bridge in Falls Park. The beginning of Greenville’s textile industry was literally at what is now the town’s centerpiece.
Despite the financial disappointment of Camperdown, when run efficiently these early mill owners were basically spinning gold. In fact, the owners of Woodside Mill, brothers John, Edward, and David Woodside, could hardly keep up with demand. “The first part of Woodside Mill was built in 1902,” says Koonce, “and by 1906 they were making so much money, they built the east end of the mill, and in 1914 they built the whole west end, making it the largest cotton mill under one roof in the world.” Another Woodside brother, Robert, was a banker, and in 1906, together with his brothers, formed the Farmer’s and Merchant’s Bank which later became the Woodside National Bank. The four brothers, known around Greenville as the “Big Four,” worked closely on textile, banking, and development projects. By 1923, Woodside National Bank moved into a new 17-story building in downtown Greenville, which at the time was the tallest building in the state of South Carolina. John Woodside was also instrumental in the building of the Poinsett Hotel, which opened in 1925.
In 1926, still riding a wave of success and flush with profits from the Woodside Mill, the four Woodside brothers purchased 66,000 acres in Myrtle Beach, including 12 miles of beachfront property, where they envisioned building a luxury hotel and country club. The Ocean Forest Hotel opened on February 21, 1930, just four months after the stock market crash of 1929, which cost the brothers their fortune. Their run had come to an end, and their empire crumbled. Woodside Mill continued under new ownership and ultimately stayed active for more than 100 years, before closing in 2006.
The story of Woodside Mill and how its early success helped create the modern Greenville we now know is only part of its legacy. In fact, the mills of the Textile Crescent leave trails that connect in various ways to many of Greenville’s institutions including what is now Bon Secours St. Francis Health System, Greenville Country Club, and Furman University. Bennette Geer, who in 1919 was president of five cotton mills, including Judson Mill, was the former head of Furman University’s English Department. It was Geer’s friend, tobacco magnate and investor in Judson Mill James Buchanan Duke who gave Furman University 5 percent of the original $40 million endowment now known as the Duke Endowment. Bennette Geer became president of Furman University in 1933. It seems as though almost every aspect of Greenville has some early connection to the textile industry. But the legacy of the Crescent has a darker side, as well.
All of the mills that make up the Textile Crescent were surrounded by “mill villages,” built by the mill owners and occupied by mill employees, known as “operatives.” These villages were ready-made neighborhoods with company stores, recreation facilities, churches, and community centers. But during the 1940s and ’50s, the textile industry began evolving. The automobile freed mill operatives from having to live next door to their work, and the big corporations buying mills at the time had no interest in being in the real estate business, so a massive selloff of the villages began. Many of the homes became rental properties and the solidity of the neighborhoods began to show cracks. According to Koonce’s research, many of the mill village community buildings, including recreation centers and stores, were demolished by the mill companies who feared impending desegregation. “But they didn’t tear down the churches,” says Koonce. “They didn’t go that far.”
Several of the Textile Crescent mill villages overlap, and many communities still bear the name of the mills they served: Woodside, Dunean, Brandon. But whereas these villages were once the center of Greenville’s economic productivity, many of them are now struggling. “There are 2,000 mill homes in the Crescent,” says Koonce, “and many are in poverty.” Standing in the shadows of the mills that created them, these neighborhoods are some of the most depressed areas in Greenville. According to Neighborhoodscout, an agency that compiles data from the U.S. Census and all 17,000 local law enforcement agencies in the United States, the Woodside Mill neighborhood in West Greenville is the eighth most- dangerous neighborhood in the country. By comparison five of the top seven are in Detroit.
“I was part of Vision 2025,” says Koonce, “and we talked a lot about neighborhoods. I got involved because I wanted to do something, and I thought the best way was to make people aware of the heritage and also the potential of Greenville. This town is really a model for redevelopment.” For the past six years, Koonce has been giving personal tours of the Textile Crescent to anyone who’s interested and larger group tours in conjunction with the Upcountry History Museum. Although frustrated by the current state of the mill villages, Koonce is optimistic about their future, whether or not that future includes repurposing the abandoned mills, which can be a costly venture. “Knocking out those bricked-up windows is expensive,” he says, “and the wood floors are soaked in dyes and oil. That’s why Poe Mill burned. The homeless moved in and started building campfires.”
But Koonce points to West Greenville as an example of what could be the future of the mill villages. Over the past several years, artists have been moving into the area, buying homes, fixing them up and giving Brandon Mill a real sense of neighborhood. The Artbomb, located on Pendleton Street, is actually the old Brandon Mill company store. While the Brandon Mill itself may remain desolate and a recent plan to repurpose the mill into apartments abandoned, the neighborhood itself is showing signs of life, and more importantly, renewed pride. A community garden is in the works, and the studio strolls and rumors of soon-to- come restaurants keep interest high. “This could become our Soho,” says Koonce, giving a nod to lower Manhattan’s arts neighborhood. “There is a lot of opportunity here.”
Koonce finishes his coffee, packs up his tablet, and steps out into the cool December air just yards from where the Camperdown Mills operated more than a 130 years ago. He points toward Chicora Alley and starts talking about Chicora College and the unpublished story of why it moved to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1915. Crossing Main Street, Koonce points north towards Larkins and the Wyche Pavilion and begins a dissertation on the carriage factory and associated paint shop. One begins to wonder if it’s the caffeine or just Koonce’s unbridled enthusiasm for the history of his adopted town, which is admittedly fascinating and to many residents sadly unknown. Whatever the reason, never let anyone fool you into thinking Greenville is just an old mill town.
Don Koonce conducts personal driving tours of the Textile Crescent, as well as group tours through the Upcountry History Museum.