Historic Structures

Muscogee Manufacturing Company Mill, Columbus Georgia

Date added: February 9, 2018 Categories: Georgia Industrial Mill

In 1844 the Coweta Falls Factory, the first textile mill within the Columbus city limits, went into operation at the site of the present Muscogee Manufacturing Company. Major John H. Howard and Josephus Echols built the Coweta Falls mill on the northernmost of 37 water lots set aside for private developers by the city of Columbus.

Water Lot 1 cost the developers $3,500; mill construction costs totalled $6,000. Contemporary newspapers described the mill as a 75 x 48 foot, five-story brick structure with, a tin roof. A mill bell in the belfry atop the roof called the hands to work. A dam, built by Howard and Echols just north of the mill, diverted water into a power canal which ran to water lots 1 through 29. The canal served several other ante-bellum mills, including the Howard-Factory and the Eagle Manufacturing Company. Power was transmitted hydromechanically to the 1,100 spindles and 20 looms in the Coweta Falls mill.

In April 1845, Colonel Farish Carter, one of the wealthiest cotton planters in Georgia, purchased one-quarter interest in the Coweta Falls Factory; his nephew, Dr. John Eaird, also purchased interest in the concern. The owners used the newly acquired capital to expand the mill facilities. By 1849, total investment had reached $80,000 in the Coweta Falls Factory. There were 3,700 spindles and 45 looms making cloth and yarn. A machine shop in the building produced spindles and looms for the mill and for other manufacturers. Power to the entire mill was provided by a Rich's center vent water wheel 5 feet in diameter.

In April 1851, high water flooding damaged the power canal, crumbling half its length and severely reducing power available to the various mills. The Coweta Falls Factory, at the head of the canal, blocked the entrance to divert more water to its wheels, further inhibiting flow to the mills below. Not until June 1853 was the western wall of the canal completely restored.

The Coweta Falls Factory suffered difficulties in addition to the problems and controversies concerning water flow. The company frequently suffered from sudden rises in cotton prices, a condition rendered more acute by a shortage of operating capital. In 1851 the Brunswick Bank, the company's primary lender, refused to extend further credit. The stockholders of the company could not raise the operating capital required, and the company was forced to mortgage its assets in 1852 to R. J. Moses, Epping, and Reed. In 1854 the Coweta Falls Factory defaulted on the mortgage, and the owners sold out to Seaborn Jones, Paul Simms, and other Columbus businessmen.

The start of the Civil War saw the Coweta Falls mill owned by John J. Grant, a cotton broker and commission merchant. Grant's business, like all Columbus concerns, experienced a great wartime expansion. Coweta Falls produced white goods and yarns for the Confederacy. Grant's good fortune ended abruptly in April 1865, when General Wilson's Union troops burned Coweta Falls, and all the other Columbus textile mills, to the ground.

George Parker Swift, a textile entrepreneur originally from Massachusetts, had moved to Georgia in the 1830's and established several mills in Upson County. One large mill of 5,000 spindles and 200 looms produced grey sheetings, shirtings., and ball thread from the 1840's until well after the Civil War. Swift found the profitability of this mill limited by the crude transportation available at the site; twice weekly, a six-mule team pulled the finished goods 75 miles to Macon by covered wagon. Another of Swift's concerns, the Flint River Mill at what is now Swifton, could ship its products by ferry to railroad terminals.

Swift became familiar with Columbus during the ante-bellum period through John J. Grant of the Coweta Falls mill, who served as factory agent for one of Swift's mills. Swift's firsthand experience of the importance of transportation facilities to manufacturing success drew him to Columbus after the Civil War. He was attracted by the combination of water power and river transportation available at Columbus (the city was at the foot of the Falls of the Chattahoochee and at the head of river navigation). Swift went into business with his Columbus selling agent, and by 1866 Grant's Factory was under reconstruction at the Coweta Falls site. The new mill was to be larger and greatly improved over the ante-bellum establishment.

The people of Columbus impatiently awaited the opening of the mill in anticipation of the great numbers who would be employed (many were left jobless after the mills burned in 1865). By December 1866, three of the four stories for the new mill were completed. In May 1867, the building was ready to receive machinery, and late that year Swift installed 2,400 spindles and 60 looms to produce sheetings, shirtings, and osnaburgs. A Leffel turbine of unknown capacity provided power to the mill.

In order to acquire the necessary additional capital, Swift and his son, George P. Swift, Jr., along with S. G. Murphy and John J. Grant, incorporated the Muscogee Manufacturing Company. George P. Swift was president. Production capacity was systematically increased, and various smaller additions were added to the mill. In 1880, Mill #2 was completed just north of Mill #1. The latter building is distinguishable by its original bell tower; the keystones in the east elevation of the former bear letters spelling the name of the company. Mill #1 housed carding, weaving, spinning, and spooling; Mill #2 was devoted to carding and weaving. The general production expansion associated with the new construction included increasing the number of spindles to approximately 6,000.

In 1887 the company completed a third mill building. Mill #3 stands diagonally across the 14th Street and Front Avenue intersection from the two original buildings. Mill #3 was therefore isolated from the river, located too far away to receive power from the other mills. The company installed a steam engine to power Mill #3. In 1887, even before all equipment in Mill #3 was installed, the company produced 13,000 yards of cloth, including cottonades, checks, stripes, and plaids, plus cotton rope, which enjoyed markets throughout the South, and as far west as St. Louis. By 1900, Mill #3 was fully equipped, and the company operated 13,000 spindles and 450 looms, producing primarily shirting and sheeting.

The sprawling expansion of the Muscogee Manufacturing Company continued rapidly after the turn of the century. In 1904 a fourth mill was completed, doubling the number of spindles. Although built along the river bank, the new mill was above the dam and raceways of the mill complex and, like, all later additions, required an alternative source of power. At this time, Muscogee began to concentrate on the production of towels, ticking, cottonades, lap, robes, bedspreads, and yarns. Jacquard looms were installed in Mill #4 to weave intricate multicolored (Jacquard) patterns. In 1916, completion of Mill #5, set behind Mill #3, brought another revision in the company's production policy; this time the product line was restricted to woven ticking and turkish toweling. Construction of Mill #6 in 1926 brought the total number of spindles to 34,500 and looms to 1,043.

By the late 1930's, the Muscogee Manufacturing Company had become a major producer of towels, ticking, and heavy fabrics, with markets throughout America and in several foreign countries. Although the next major construction was not until 1950, the company's expansion continued in subtler ways, as additions and annexes sprouted beside the existing mills, surrounding and incorporating buildings which once had no affiliation with the mill.

In the 1940's the expanding mill complex engulfed the Mott House, a plantation house used as corporate offices since at least 1900. Built in the 1840's, this planter's home faced the Chattahoochee River at the northern end of Front Avenue. In 1849 the mansard roof was added. Colonel Randolph Mott purchased the house in 1856 for $20,000.00. Throughout the Civil War, Mott, a staunch Unionist, flew the American flag over his home. When General Wilson captured Columbus, he was invited to use the house as his headquarters. The Mott House, still visible as a unit from the Alabama shore, is the last of the great mid-19th-century plantation houses that fronted the Chattahoochee.

The Carnegie Public Library building became a part of the mill complex in 1950. The completion of Mill #7 during that year, just north of Mill #6, brought the Muscogee Manufacturing Company to the library's back door. Muscogee acquired the building and incorporated it as a machine shop.

Completion of Mill #7 increased the company's capacity to 34,252 spindles and 1,175 looms. The latter included 1,015 plain looms, 164 Dobby looms, and 36 Jacquard looms. At this time the production processes were restricted to the five newer mills. Management had begun phasing Mills #1 and #2 out of production in the 1920's because of their isolation from the rest of the mill complex. It was difficult to integrate them into a process flow with the other mills, and they were devoted to storage by 1950.

The production process after 1950 began in Mill #4, where bales of raw cotton were broken, opened, and picked on the first floor. The upper floors housed carding, drawing, and sluhbing operations. Bleaching was done in Mill #3; the upper floors of this building were devoted to ring spinning. Mill #5 housed spooling, warping, and tying-in operations. Mill #6 had warpers, slashers, twisting, and winding on the top floor, while lower floors housed the looms. Dyeing took place in Mill #7. Production flowed systematically from Mill #4 to Mill #7.

Throughout these years of expansion, the Muscogee Manufacturing Company remained a Swift family concern. In 1963, Fieldcrest Mills Inc. of Eden, North Carolina, acquired the mill complex. Fieldcrest discontinued the making of ticking and converted the mill entirely to towel production. By 1974 Fieldcrest had expanded production capabilities to 44,332 spindles and 734 looms and today claims that the Columbus mill is one of the largest towel mills in the world. It is the largest mill operated by Fieldcrest and is the only mill in Columbus to take raw cotton and fashion a finished product; all the others send cloth to manufacturers who produce consumer goods. Towels from the former Muscogee Mill are transported to a cutting, sewing, and warehousing operation in Phenix City. From here towels are distributed for wholesale and retail markets around the world.