THE COTTON MILL 1849-1954 by Michael Rutherford


CANNELTON REPORTER, Saturday,  24 June 1854


One statistic not noted elsewhere may be deduced from the paragraph on Boiler Chimneys: The roof of the mill is 76 feet above the ground. The following paragraph on Engines apparently refers to the engine installed in 1859, estimated then as of 400 horsepower, now "about 350 horsepower." The 800 horsepower engine in 1892 required the new taller chimney built during that summer. The "5 tubular boilers" of the Survey are still the ones in the description of October 1892.

The disparity in numbers between the Survey's count of 144 cards (4 x 36), 13,712 spindles and 440 looms and the October 1892 count of 162 cards, 12,880 spindles and 450 looms may be grounded in the circumstance that the 1892 report is ad literam Goodspeed (1885) with several updating statistics somewhat awkwardly interspersed at intervals.

However, the most helpful information to be gleaned from the 1890 Survey is the layout of the sequence of operation in the mill before the acre-sized weave shop was added in 1919. This was likely the general pattern of operation from 1851 to 1919. Improvements in the design of different types of machinery at times would call for changes in the numbers of each type in use in order to maintain balanced and efficient operation throughout the plant.

Even though the Picker Building on the Washington Street end of the Mill was "Situated east of (southeast of] and adjoining mill building, heavy iron door to opening between," it was otherwise constructed and regarded as a separate building. From 1854 gas lights had been in use throughout the mill in order that the 6:00 AM - 6:00 PM work schedule could be maintained year-round. In the Picker Building these "Burners were against wall and enclosed" because of the presence of a large amount of cotton plant residue and lint. which raised the level of potential fire hazard. In 104 years of operation there was never a fire in any part of this mill structure.

On the day before processing was to begin a dozen or more 400-plus pound bales of ginned cotton were opened on the main floor of the Picker Building and allowed to expand overnight. The layers were run through 3 breaker and 2 opener machines with rollers of spikes and needles which began separating the fibers into small fluffy masses. This fluffy form was sent to the basement through a chute for further tearing and separation by rollers of smaller spikes and needles in picker machines. Air forced through the material blew unwanted trash through ducts into the dust room on the northeast end of the Picker Building basement. The cleaner more finely separated fibers were returned to the main floor for forming into rolls/ laps of crude batting on 3 lap winders. The Tappers used the same power source as did the picker machines below around 15 minutes each day during which time the pickers were idle. In later years the picker and lap processes were combined in one machine. In mills making cotton batting for commercial sale further picking may have been done before forming the final 25-pound roll.

The laps of batting were carted through the iron-guarded doorway into the first floor of the main building. The batting was run through a series of small-toothed rollers in the carding machines, each series of rollers turning progressively faster, finally forming the fibers into a loose rope of parallel fibers, called slivers, and coiled into tall round cans. Loose fibers were collected as waste and returned to the opening room in the Picker Building for re-use. Since the fibers had lost some of the natural clinging qualities during the first processing, this waste had to be combined with new fibers in regulated proportion.

The separating process was continued on drawing frames on the same floor which combined 4 or 6 slivers from the carding machines through another series of progressively faster moving rollers of smaller teeth into smaller slivers which were again coiled into tall round cans.

Yet one more stage of preparation for spinning was required for these slivers of cotton fibers. Roving frames (slubbers) continued forming the rope of parallel fibers into a yet smaller, weaker "rove" while applying a slight strengthening twist (slub), the result being cotton yarn wound on spools. In 1890 these slubbers were located on both the first and third floors. These spools of yarn were ready for the spinning frames.

In 1890 spinning frames were operated primarily on the third floor with some in the attic. Pairs of spools of yarn were further stretched and spun into two main sizes of thread. The larger size, #14, was rewound on larger spools in an operation in the attic. Many of these spools were then wound on a large reel called a warp. The exact size and weight of these 1890 warp reels is not known but an empty was probably in the 150-160 pound range and a filled one more than 500 pounds. One warper machine in the attic was enough to keep the 440 looms supplied with thread.

The smaller thread, #20 - 24, from the spinning frames served as the crossthread (woof) in the woven cloth. The bobbins of this smaller thread were ready for use on the looms.

The attic was a busy area in 1890. It is a bit difficult to visualize the process of passing the warp threads through the "slasher" and steam-heated starch on this floor. The threads were quickly dried and rewound on smaller loom warps. Each thread was then "drawn-in" through the center eye of each heddle of the 2 or 3-section harness units and made ready for attaching to the looms. In later years this was done by an ingenious machine; how it was managed in 1890 is not known.

The bulk of weaving was done on the second floor with some in the basement. The basic 372 looms probably occupied the entire second floor. The additional number to total 440-450 was probably installed in the basement. In the 1850 Circular Hamilton Smith said that the cloth room was to be located in the one-story stone building adjoining the main mill on the northwest end. The 1890 Survey says that baling took place in the basement. The use of both locations would have been possible simultaneously.

Superintendent Wilber on 1 August 1890 gave the number of employees as 11309 -- 78 of them men." The 231 remainder was made up of women and children. Boys and girls from the age of 12 were regularly employed for full shifts until child labor laws in the 1920s ended the age-old practice.

At the expiration of the 1854 charter Indiana Cotton Mill reincorporated for 50 years. This was recorded in Perry County on 23 October 1905. The capitalization was set at $300,000, each share priced at $100. George W. Morris and Edward Chamberlain continued on the board of 5 directors; John Bacon, James T. Duffy and Theodore Harris were the others. The shares were held as follows: National Bank of Kentucky, Louisville - 745; Edward Chamberlain - 500; James T. Duffy - 310; George W. Morris - 125; Margaret (Mrs. Ebenezer) Wilber - 110; Henry H. Wilber - 70; George J. Wilber - 70; George P. Smith (Plant superintendent) - 40; William C. Chamberlain (son of E. C.) - 35; Theodore Harris - 25; John Bacon - 25.

On 19 December 1905 Treasurer Edward W. Chamberlain died at Louisville at the age of 71; he had been treasurer of the mill for 30 years. His son, William C., succeeded him in the position and moved to Cannelton in late 1906, residing for a few years in the large brick house at Second and Taylor built by William Heming in the 1870s.

In early 1906 new investors joined with Wm. Chamberlain and others to retrieve control from the National Bank of Kentucky after more than 20 years. The identities of all the shareholders are not known here; two of them were George W. Tarleton and Lee Rodman, both from Louisville. Controlling ownership of the mill remained in Louisville from 1848 to 1946, with the exception of a few years in the late 1850s (Boston) and the last few years of Newcomb's control between 1874 and 1881. When management offices were finally moved to Cannelton in the summer of 1906, Lee Rodman, as Vice-president, began the longest period of a resident manager-agent, 40 years, to 1946.

In July and August 1906 the office on Washington Street was enlarged with an 18 x 24 addition. The entire structure was covered with a layer of weather board. The office equipment and records were moved from Louisville in the last week of August 1906.

The Wilber family moved from the company residence at First and Washington Streets in 1906. After leaving the building vacant for 6 years, Mr. and Mrs. Lee Rodman made their home there from 1912 through 1946.

On 1 March 1909 the Mill sold the lot of the Blocks at Fourth and Washington to the Cannelton State Bank for $1,600; in a year the Cannelton National Bank would be built here. On 22 March 1909 the lot at Fifth and Washington was sold to the newly organized First National Bank for $1,660.60; this new bank was also in use a year later.

In August 1909 the mill sought to insure a dependable water supply by constructing a reservoir on the hill adjoining the city reservoir. It was round and 14 feet deep. The elevation provided a sufficient head of pressure to ensure that the mill's internal fire-fighting system could function. Although the reservoir fell into disuse by the 1930s, it remained part of the company's real estate until the sale in 1956.

In April 1914 the Mill made an important contribution to the recreational life of the community when it remodeled the first floor of the remaining Blocks on Washington Street into a moving picture theater. The resulting 32 x 60-foot, room would hold 200 seats for viewers of silent film thrillers. The room also served for other public gatherings during its 15-year life. The construction of Irvin Theater across Washington Street in 1929 for showing the new talking pictures ended the public use of this Blocks space. It was re-remodeled into apartments for dwellings and was utilized as such into the 1960s.

In the summer of 1918 the mill finally began to realize George Buchanan's 1881 plan to add a new weave Shop on the mills real estate. In mid-September 1918 the American cannel Coal Company filed suit to stop construction because of an alleged restriction in the original deed to the Cannelton Cotton Mill: "A strip of ground covering an area of not less than 195 ft. wide and running from the main building to Front St. on the river shall always be left open as a promenade." The 30,000 square feet of this new structure along with the 1948 addition yet standing attest that the suit did not succeed.

Before machinery was installed in the new building a Dedication Dance on Tuesday, 4 March 1919, served as the grand opening one dancer later recalled that when at the end of the building opposite the band only the beat of the drum could be heard.

After the ball began the installation of 450 new looms made by the Stafford Company of Readville, Mass. These looms were used into the mid-1940s when they were replaced by Draper looms. Other new machinery was also added in the Mill in 1919: Roving frames (slubbers) by Woonsocket Machine Company of Rhode Island and cards by Saco-Lowell of Lowell, Massachusetts. Humidifiers by the American Moistening Company of Boston provided a constant mist spray to reduce breakage of the delicate threads in spinning and weaving. The cloth room and drawing-in room were located at the Adams Street end of the new weave shop building. The CANNELTON TELEPHONE item of 6 March 1919 said that the old basement was to be converted into a wash room and lunch room for employees; no one can be found who remembers such an arrangement.

With this large amount of added floor space the use of the attic was almost totally discontinued. The now vacated second floor was filled with spinning frames, the spoolers and the warper. The slashers (for applying starch) were relocated to the basement just across from the drawing-in room.

For reasons not here learned the Mill was incorporated in Kentucky again on 10 February 1928. The home address was at 1212 Kentucky Home Life Building, Louisville; there were 3,000 shares. Lee Rodman continued as agent in Cannelton.

In the depths of the Great Depression THE CANNELTON TELEPHONE on 21 July 1933 reported that the mill began on 17 July to work 2 shifts "in compliance with the code of cotton textile manufacturers, paying a minimum wage of $13.00 for a 40-hour work week." Previously one 11- or 12-hour shift was the practice. The 2 shifts were 6:30 AM - 3:30 PM with an hour for dinner; 3:30 PM - 12:30 AM with an hour for supper. By the 1940s there were 2 shifts of 9 hours each (6:00 AM 3:00 PM; 3:00 PM - 12:00 PM) with eating time to be taken at the worker's choice with no loss of paid work time. In 1943 the hourly rate was between $.47 and $.66.

Payment was made at the end of each week in envelopes of cash. Wages were paid in the week following the work, allowing time for calculation. In the Mill the expression, "Holding back a week" was commonly heard. This concept led to some interesting debates when a person was laid off, quit, or was fired. After receiving pay including the especially calculated current earnings, then the party wanted "that week you held back." Often the paymaster was not certain in the end whether the person understood the situation.