Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Great Fires of Swepsonville

Here's an interesting description of Swepsonville, NC in the 19th century. It came from The light of four candles by Cardenio Flournoy King (1908). Mr. King's mother was defrauded of her late husbands estate . . .

Sixty miles to the eastward was the little town of Swepsonville, in Alamance County—a Southern cotton-mill town. Mother was forced to go there, that the older children might work. She helped keep the family purse filled by taking boarders. We all worked as soon as we were able. I was a bobbin boy at ten.

There were four hundred hands in the mill, which was a three-story frame structure, and it ran night and day with two shifts. Its machinery was idle only from midnight Saturday night to midnight Sunday night. I was in the night shift. As I remember it, it did not seem to be especially unpleasant. I recall but one painful incident—being knocked across the room by a cruel overseer who found me asleep one night when I should have been at work.

We had religious services every Sunday in the saw-mill, Sunday school and occasional sermons from a Baptist preacher who came from the next town and preached for what he could raise in the collection box. We had singing lessons weekly. This was about the limit of our diversions.

They were good people in that town. Everybody was kind and generous. Everybody was hard-working. I think everybody was religious. The favorite tune sung or whistled was "In the Sweet Bye-and-Bye." I have sometimes wondered, since I grew up, if that was because they had very little to look forward to in this life.

Then came Swepsonville's calamity. The entire population, aroused by the loud clang of the bell on the hill, went up one night and stood in horror, watching the mill burn to the ground.

George W. Swepson, of Raleigh, the owner of the mill, was in town. I knew him quite well, for he boarded at our house when he was in Swepsonville, and I want to depart from the thread of my story just long enough to pay his memory a warm personal tribute. He was a good man, a strong man, a Southern gentleman. He appreciated the humanity of his employees and was interested in them personally. There was none of the soulless magnate about him. The people in his town admired him, respected him and loved him.

I worked my way through the crowd, at eleven or twelve o'clock that night, and stood beside George W. Swepson. Then and there I received my first lesson in bearing up under adversity, in turning defeat into victory. Standing there in the glare of the burning mill, which meant a terrible loss to him, Mr. Swepson made a drawing for the new mill which should be erected upon its ashes, and while the sparks were still shooting heavenward he gave orders to his general superintendent, Monroe Cooke, to order the materials from which the next structure, to be of brick, should be constructed.

This was on Thursday or Friday, and on Monday morning the brick yard was started. Left without a position by the destruction of the mill, I applied for work at the kilns and was given a place as brick bearer, at twenty-five cents a day.

For some weeks I bore brick from the molders to the sun-drying places. I earned a dollar and a half a week and turned it over to my mother. Then there came a day when she realized that the family was not earning enough to support itself. Some of us must go away from home, out into the world where wages were higher and opportunities greater. I was one of those to go and with four dollars in my pocket and my shoes in my carpet-bag I crossed the high bridge and struck out for the railroad and that fortune I never doubted I should some day have.


  1. Actually, this is interesting. I don't think this story can be true. Falls Neuse Mill burned in 1880 and G W Swepson did rebuild the mill immediately, but of wood. The replacement wooden mill also burned in 1893 and was replaced in brick, but Swepson had already died in 1883.

    So there's no way that King witnessed Swepson ordering up a brick mill. Maybe King worked in a kiln used for making brick components of the second wooden mill in 1880. Or maybe he worked in a kiln making bricks for the 1893 mill.

  2. Here's how Julian Hughes tells the story in Development of the Textile Industry in Alamance County:

    Meanwhile in the early part of the year 1880, Swepson's mill at Swepsonville was destroyed by fire. There were no fire-fighting facilities sufficient to put out the roaring flames, and while there was plenty of water in the millpond, there was no fire pump or gravity tank to supply automatic sprinklers, even if they had sprinklers, which was unlikely. The frame building was reduced to asjes, and the machinery ruined beyond repair.

    Fortunately, Rosenthall [Swepson's partner] carried enough insurance on the property to cover the loss of building, machinery, and stock in process. All employees who wanted to work were given jobs clearing away the debris. Soon there was lumber on the lot for building another wooden structure about the size of the first one. As a matter of fact, the new building was erected on the old foundation which consisted of field stones gathered in the neighborhood. [Not brick!] The new machinery was the same make as the first.

    Three years after the Falls Neuse was destroyed by fire, George Swepson died. He passed away March 7, 1883, and was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Raleigh . . .

    On Wednesday, December 28, 1892, the day the mill was to resume operations after the Christmas holidays, the mill was again destroyed by fire. That was the second fire at Swepsonville in twelve years. The main mill building was burned to the ground. Everything was consumed by the flames but the machine shop and lapper riim.

    That was one year when a white Christmas came. Snow was knee-deep on the ground and waiting for more to come. While the mill had fire-fighting equipment of a sort, all water in the pipes was frozen, so the fire fighters were helpless.

    Undaunted by the unkind stroke of fate that reduced the Falls Neuse Mills to shambles, Mr. Baker [Swepson's heir] as soon as the weather permitted, had men and boys of the village clearing away the debris. Two wooden buildings had burned to the ground in the short span of a dozen years! That was enough to convince Mr. Baker that cotton mill buildings shoudl be constructed of more fire-resistant material. So brick, heavy timbers, window frames, window sashes and doors were soon on the lot. All the building material that went into the new mill was shipped by rail to Haw River Depot. Since the highway from Graham to Swepsonville was in bad shape, the building supplies came down the river by barge as usual.

    By the fall of 1893, a one-story, modern brick building was completed, and 4,368 spindles were ready to start. When everything was going nicely again, baker moved back to Raleigh, and established the main office there.

  3. Google tells us:
    King, Cardenio Flournoy, b. 1867

    So King was 13 years old when the 1880 fire hit. Obviously, from context of the story, that was the fire he witnessed. And I have no doubt that George W. Swepson was there that night. But Julian Highes's narrative doesn't make it sound like a brick kiln was necessarily gotten up. I guess we have to assume that King did work in brickmaking.