The Norwood Cotton Mill
By the final decade of the 19th century the industrial revolution began to reach Norwood. The Yadkin Railroad arrived from Salisbury in 1892, connecting both Norwood and Albemarle with the world beyond.
Town records show that in 1898 “A factory had come to town.” This is presumed to be Norwood Mfg. Co., the cotton mill that would become the largest employer in the area. The mill was purchased in 1943 by Collins & Aikman Corporation (C&A) and again in 1997 by Joan Fabrics. In recent years it has operated as Norwood Yarn Sales. This week the mill’s glorious reign as Norwood’s most prominent institution will end.
For the first fifty years of operation, this was a true cotton mill, where raw cotton was carded, drawn, spun, and twisted into yarn. By mid-century synthetic materials were replacing natural fibers in many yarns.
In 1901 a Stanly Enterprise article reported, “The stockholders of Norwood Mfg. Co. had a meeting Tuesday. They seemed to be well pleased with the out-look.”
But all was not calm at the cotton mill. As happened in many mill communities, there was labor unrest. Two months before, the same newspaper reported: “Union Men Discharged. A labor union was organized at Norwood a few days ago among the operatives in the cotton mill there. The mill authorities refused to recognize the union in any way and warned the operatives that they would be discharged if they joined it. Some thirty of them paid no attention to the injunction and as a consequence were discharged Thursday evening of last week.”
D. B. Coltrane of Concord owned Norwood Mfg. Co. for most of its early history and J. F. Shinn of Cabarrus County was its general manager. Yet, records have not been found to indicate if Mr. Coltane was the original owner of the mill or when Mr. Shinn assumed his duties here.
In 1916 the Albemarle Enterprise reported that a 96 x 75 foot expansion was to be constructed and mill operations converted to electric current which would arrived that year from Albemarle.
Norwood Council minutes of 1921 say, “The use of the tractor and scrape was given to the mill authorities to build a ball park.” That must have been for the ball park at the site of the present Town Park and lake.
Spencer Smith remembers going to games there with his father in the 1930s, when the mill team was unbeatable. Teams from Charlotte could not win against the Norwood nine. Spencer said, “And most of those players lived right there on the mill hill.”
Matthew Smith came to Norwood to work at the cotton mill, after leaving the family farm near Locust to work in an Albemarle mill. The Smith’s move was the classic journey of the early 20th century. Farm prices were low. At the end of the growing season – at settling-up time – there often was little cash and harvest remaining for the year’s struggle on the farm. A friend once told me, “Every mother told her boys, ‘Go get a job at the cotton mill, Son.’”
Matthew’s descendants abound in Norwood. Besides Spencer, his children include Lenox, Robert, Melville, Lawrence, Mary Kate (Bowers), and Annie Ruth (Luther). Dwight Smith, our town manager and former mayor and county commissioner, is a grandson, the son of Lenox and Georgia Cooper Smith.
As in most mill communities, Norwood Mfg. Co. provided housing for its employees who moved from farm to town. The housing standards were adequate, perhaps better than the rural housing from whence the mill workers came. But there was no running water or sewer, no paved streets or sidewalks. There was poor heating in winter and insulation was unheard of. Community wells supplied water for a dozen or more families, and the water had to be carried home by hand. Each home may have had its own out-house.
Early on, the cotton mill constructed a two-story brick company store. Peoples Grocery was on Main Street, a few hundred feet uphill from the mill’s entrance. (Later, this building became Reese Furr’s Furniture Store.) More than groceries were sold at the Company Store. Ready made clothes, shoes, and piece goods were sold along with groceries. Several times a year a tailor came taking measurements for men’s suits. Nearly everything that one might need was sold at the company store. So there was no need for a mill worker to go to town to shop. Besides, he could receive credit at the company store with payments deducted from his weekly pay.
The upstairs level was used for civic functions, and when the mill purchased a movie projector, Saturday picture shows were enjoyed for a small fee.
The store was managed by Fred A. Skidmore, the eldest son of Dock J. Skidmore, the mill superintendent.
Dock Skidmore moved to Norwood in about 1902 from Pineville to become the mill superintendent. The Skidmore name has been prominent here ever since. Raymond Skidmore, Jr., a current town councilman and former mayor, is a grandchild. So too are Tommy Skidmore and Mary Ella Skidmore (Vick), also Norwood residents.
As one might imagine, the Great Depression brought difficult times to Norwood Mfg. Co. With fewer sales and short time, and reduced prices and wages, the company struggled through that period. In 1943 C&A bought the Norwood facility and began to transform the mill and its village. The mill houses were re-modeled, adding indoor water and bathrooms. I learned from Luther Laton, a lifelong employee of C&A, that underground electrical wiring was installed throughout the village. Streets and sidewalks were paved, trees and shrubbery planted, and granite retaining walls constructed. Sam Hopkins believes the stone masons may have come from Italy.
The factory was expanded and up-to-date textile equipment installed. There was a cafeteria, a huge auditorium, a full-time company nurse, a fire house and fire engines, and an even larger water tank. A spacious guest house and executive housing were constructed at McCullough Place, named for C&A’s owners, Don and Bob McCullough.
This was a period of “enlightened self-interest” that could be seen in town after town. Employers attempted to provide improved living conditions, recreation and entertainment, and health care opportunities for their employees. C&A was no exception.
On Saturday nights free entertainment was provided in the mill auditorium. Local singing groups performed, Harold and Lloyd Whitley chief among the musicians, and comedians told tall tales. Benny Thompson, Darrell Honeycutt, and other classmates often came to school laughing at jokes told by Skinny Morris and Barney Luther.
H. J. Blanchard, general manager, and C&A’s ownership recognized the value of family entertainment, wholesome activities, and comfortable housing for their employees.
The mill auditorium was used for many purposes. The Norwood Boy Scout troop met there one afternoon a week. First aid courses were taught, especially to the volunteer firemen, and Red Cross blood donation drives were conducted there.
Each summer there was a Family Day in the mill yard. Food and iced drinks were served. Benny Thompson remembers the pony rides and a miniature Farris wheel. One could not find a sad face at Family Day.
By the early 1950s a new baseball field was constructed, named Candalon Field. It had a covered grandstand and dugouts for both teams, bleachers along each foul line, a public address system, a concession stand, and lighting for night games.
The C&A team became one of the dominant teams in the area, often defeating arch rivals, the McCrary Eagles of Asheboro and a mill team from Robbins. Among other opponents were mill teams from Albemarle, Wadesboro, Rockingham, and Siler City.
Many of the players were local boys, but others came from college teams. Albert Long, a four-sport letterman at UNC, played for C&A during at least two seasons. Roger Craig was an ace pitcher for one season while stationed at Ft. Bragg. Upon his discharge from the army, Roger was called up directly to pitch for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Speedy Langston, Bobby Dingler, Bob Deese, Red Sides, and Lacy “Lefty” James were stars one can never forget.
And then there was Craig “T-Nine” Lisk who played and coached baseball forever in Norwood. Craig was the swift-footed centerfielder for the 1940 Albemarle American Legion National Championship team.
Craig received his nickname from the mid-wife who delivered him, Mrs. George (Cora) Ross, mother of Buck Ross who pitched ten season’s in the major leagues, and grandmother of J.C. “Buster” Talbert. When Miss Cora looked at that little baby boy, she commented to a neighbor, “He’s so tee-nincy.”
Candalon Field was used on Friday nights by the Norwood Black Sox, the local Negro team managed by Tipp Diggs. On one occasion a traveling team, a la the Harlem Globetrotters, played against the Black Sox. The visitors won the game, of course, and it seems they threw the ball behind their backs or looking in the opposite direction at every opportunity, never once committing an error. Johnny Carpenter, a pitcher for the Black Sox, remembers that game well. After consulting his memory for a moment, Johnny said, “They were the Indianapolis Clowns. Remember that player who wore a grass skirt? And, Satchel Paige, he came with them, too. Ask T-Nine; he was there.”
For all of the C&A games I was in regular attendance, usually working for the club chasing foul balls. My pay for the evening’s work was a used baseball or a broken bat, plus free admission to the game. Every boy knew how to repair a broken bat.
Perry Rivers was the team batboy; I never advanced to that level. One night, however, the McCrary Eagles arrived without a batboy, and Paul Lewis, the Norwood coach, pointed me out to the Eagles manager, so I became a batboy for that game. To my dismay, the Eagles players insisted that I pull for them, saying that I could not be in their dugout pulling for Norwood. That was a moral dilemma of the variety I previously had not experienced. I finally agreed to pull for the Eagles, except when my pal Jeter Lee was at bat.
Billy Hutchinson taught school and coached at Aquadale and South Stanly High Schools. Craig Lisk once told me, in a moment of reflection, “You know, if I had to say, the best player I ever had play for me was Bill Hutchinson.”
The addition of lighting at Candalon Field provided Norwood the opportunity to step forward in a new direction – high school football. With stadium lights, there now could be Friday night football games. That was, if funding could be found. The County Commissions could not be expected to fund the program. The Norwood Lions Club adopted the project, selling stickers at $5.00 each to go on automobile windshields.
Names that come to mind when I think of C&A include: C.J. Clayton (my scout master), James Boles, Robert Smith, Pete Haire, and C.C. Blalock (Little League coaches), Bo Baldwin (usher at my church), and the Nat Dean, Luther Laton, Milton Moose, Joe Guffy, and David Lee families.
Larry McMahon, mayor of Norwood, began his textile career at C&A in 1960, working for Stan Bennett in accounting. He soon moved to product development, working for Bill Satterfield, and later into manufacturing management, supervising the spinning department. Frank McQuilkin and Phil Morris were the general managers of C&A Norwood during that period. Later, John Montgomery assumed this duty. The mill’s present general manager is Roy Anderson.
“At one time we had 600 employees at C&A Norwood,” McMahon said, “operating three shifts around the clock, seven days a week. In my department there were 250 employees. Today it’s down to ninety.”
At the end of this week production will cease and the equipment will be removed. What will become of the facility is yet to be determined.
Throughout the past century the cotton mill provided good jobs for thousands of Norwoodians and their families. Perhaps nowhere could one have found a more desirable place to have lived during the glorious reign of the Norwood cotton mill.
Published in the Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, North Carolina, April 23, 2006 (Norwood Arbor Day Section).