Cooleemee: A Cotton Mill Town
|The Cooleemee cotton mill village was born in 1898 on the shoals of the
South Yadkin River. The Duke tobacco fortunes provided the initial capital
for this new manufacturing experiment, constructing a mill and village on a
site that had known industrial enterprise from before the American
An entire community was constructed in a short few years. Local clay was burned into brick near the river. Virgin timber was planed into huge beams. Local granite was quarried to build a 422 foot dam and a mill race which turned the mill's water wheel. When constructed the cotton mill was one of the largest in the state, making cloth from raw cotton. Its huge departments--carding, spinning and weaving---each took up 76,000 square feet in the three-story structure. At its height, the mill employed 1,800 people.
Cooleemee's pioneers were farm families who came seeking opportunity after suffering the devastations of Reconstruction and the War Between the States. In horse drawn wagons they made their way from Davie's numerous country neighborhoods---such as Cana, Fork, and Calahaln---as well as other counties including Rowan, Yadkin, Wilkes and Stanley.
With them these pioneers brought their country ways of independence, self-reliance and hard work. They also brought with them a family labor system, where all members--old and young---worked. Early mill work followed the hours of farm-life with twelve hour shifts and an hour dinner break at noon. Mill work was hard and cotton lint filled the air. But when their job was caught up, mill hands took breaks. Before WWI, it was not uncommon for children ten years old to do mill work. Most women became full-time homemakers after having children.
Families were large and close-knit. They grew their own gardens, raised hogs, kept chickens and most had a cow for milk and butter. Men and women built churches and formed community organizations. When one neighbor fell sick, others would come to help cook and clean. This closeness has been described as being like "one big family."
Cooleemee's country traditions were augmented by a wide array of modern conveniences. The Cooleemee Journal was its weekly newspaper. Its school enrolled students from the earliest times and eventually graduated its first full high school class in 1924. J.N. Ledford Department Store (the Company Store) was Davie County's first and largest. At its Square, people enjoyed a drug store, movie theater, post office, bank, doctor's office, library, auditoriums, barber and beauty shops, a cafe and even a practice room for the town's brass band. Cooleemee's population eventually rose to a high of 3,000.
The Cooleemee mill village suffered its share of calamities. In 1908, a massive fire destroyed much of the mill. It was rebuilt and running again within eight months. The WWI era influenza epidemic took a large toll, with 500 reported cases and 52 deaths. Such disasters had the effect of drawing Cooleemee people even closer together.
By the late 1930s, some significant changes came to Cooleemee. The old system of mill work was replaced with modern management techniques. Men with stop-watches timed workers every movement often doubling their load. Although a trade union appeared, work-life changed forever. Happily, the mill company offered the mill houses for sale to their occupants in 1953. But in 1962, the old town Square was demolished by the mill company. After Erwin Mills was purchased by Burlington Industries in 1963, full cloth production ended in 1969.
Today, Cooleemee remains a vital community with a local elementary school, a shopping center and an elected Town government since 1985. The Stokes County Yarn Co. occupies the old mill. Residents continue to enjoy its beautiful river and its famous "Bullhole." Proud of its cotton mill past, Cooleemee hopes to preserve its fine traditions into the next century.
Submitted for the Davie County Heritage Book by the Cooleemee Historical Association -- November, 1996