A brief look at the long history of Revolution Mill

If you’re new to the project, Revolution Mill is a historic property in east Greensboro that was once the cornerstone of the Cone textile empire. Generations of mill workers labored there from the early 1900s creating thread and textiles that were shipped all over the world. Production at the facility, however, halted in 1982 as the textile industry began to change greatly and move more and more overseas.

Over 30 years later, we could be discussing how the property had become a blight on the community, but that’s not the case here. Instead, it has been undergoing a transformation as revolutionary as the place’s name. After being placed on the National Register in 1984, renovation work began that saw some of the property converted into office space.

Let’s take a look at how Revolution Mill became a historically recognized property, how it became important to Greensboro in the first place and how a couple of Tennessee brothers with an idea that southern mill profits should stay in the South made it big.

Moses and Caesar Cone became a part of the southern textile business in 1887 after investing in an Asheville cotton mill that would later fold only to be reorganized under the brothers’ control and become the first of the Cone Mills. Keen businessmen, the two would revolutionize how cotton textiles were sold, effectively cutting out New York-based agents and commission houses. They also began cotton finishing houses in the South, bringing the finished products closer to the sources, further reducing costs for what was a world-wide product.

The two were producing denim in Greensboro as early as 1896 at the White Oak Mills, along with their finishing work at the Southern Finishing and Warehouse Company locally. At that time, Caesar Cone, FJ Murdoch and JW Scott filed articles of incorporation to begin what would become Revolution Mill.

Designed to produce flannel, the new Revolution Mill property was purchased by the shareholders from Cone for $100 an acre and he was tasked with setting up railroad connections to the land as well as the necessary bricks that would be needed for construction. Seventy-five acres were originally purchased and an option was obtained for an additional 25 acres if they were needed in the next year.

By 1900, the mill had produced its first canton flannel and was on its way. The early facility, according to the Sept. 1900 issue of Manufacturer’s Record, featured 12,000 spindles and 376 looms. It employed 350 workers and the facility was powered by a single 675-horsepower engine.

The design of the mill was definitely a product of the time and what were considered the best practices for safety and efficiency for its day. What we see now in large, long buildings with huge windows was at that time an attempt to make the most use of natural lighting and ventilation. Work in the mills was extremely hot and the cross ventilation from the windows, and even the wind tunnel-like long corridors could make sweltering Piedmont summer days at least survivable.

Fire was also a huge factor in the design. Textile mills could be extremely flammable because of all of the lint, raw materials and wooden fixtures. Combine that with primitive lighting and electrical systems and a poorly designed mill could go up in one big cloud, taking lives and profits with it.

Insurance regulations at the time helped shape the facility and its future expansions. The New England Factory Mutuals and the Factory Insurance Association required “slow burning construction” that would keep flames from spreading quickly throughout the building. Designs were made with the lower tech firefighting tools and techniques of the time in mind, to give them a chance to work and limit damage and loss of life.

Automatic sprinkler systems worked in conjunction with heavy, uniform-sized beams, thick interior brick walls, heavy-boarded watertight floors, gentle roof slopes and heavy fire doors. Those items now feature heavily in the restored look of the Revolution Mill project, turning from pragmatic necessities to architectural nuances.

Revolution Mill expanded twice over the next decade, basically doubling its original size. Moses Cone passed away in 1908 and Caesar in 1917. Leadership of the mill went over to the members of the Sternberger family for a time after that and a third Cone brother, Julius W. Cone became president. The mill eventually came back under the ownership of the overall Cone Mills Corporation in 1948 as it merged with the Proximity Manufacturing Company.

While Revolution Mill grew and produced, it had a huge effect on the community around it. In fact, in many ways it created it. Like many mills, Revolution had its own mill town spring up around it with small, affordable houses for its workers. It went beyond houses, as well, as Cone factories assisted with providing neighborhood schools, social workers, community nurses and even the construction of YMCAs in their areas.

Changes in the textile industry in the 1970s took a heavy toll on Southern mills, and new fabric flammability requirements hit the flannel production at Revolution Mills particularly hard. The factory switched over to corduroy fabric, but never could regain its ground. Production ceased in 1982 and the workers were sent home for the last time.

The property was beloved, though, and preservation efforts started right afterwards. It became part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and renovations over the next six years began attracting businesses and organizations, including the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship.

In 2003 Revolution Studios purchased the mill and put $5 million into renovations. The project would grow over the next three years, but eventually would run into too many hurdles to continue an expansion of their efforts.

There it would remain until 2012 when the Self- Help Ventures Fund would take over ownership of the property and its future.