Franklinville History

 An Original North Carolina Mill Village, 1838-1978 


   In early 1838 Elisha Coffin and a group of friends and investors set to work building a cotton factory. Coffin (1778-1870), owner of the local grist mill and surrounding property, was sent off to the North to buy machinery while workers in Randolph made bricks and built dwelling houses.  The brick "Factory House", finished in 1840, was the largest structure ever seen in the county to that time, and was much admired.  Coffin was apparently so pleased with the success of the factory that in 1846 he and 14 other investors organized the Island Ford Manufacturing Company. A newspaper reporter visiting that factory in 1849 found "...500 spindles running, and as many more will be put in operation during the summer and fall. Twenty operatives are employed, turning out 55 or 60 bundles of yarn per day." This downstream factory became known locally as the "Lower" mill, with the original "Factory House" therefore called the "Upper" mill. This distinction is still made. 


     In March 1839 the Asheboro newspaper reported that "a little village had sprung up at the place which has assumed the name of Franklinsville," in honor of Jesse Franklin, a former N.C. governor and congressman. Housing had been ready for workers in the village even before either factory was complete. The reporter visiting in 1849 found "...forty-two dwelling houses near the upper factory. The river here affords a wider bottom, and the hills recede with a gentler slope than at Cedar Falls; the streets are laid off in regular order, and the entire village occupies a large extent of ground." A similar village had been built around the Island Ford factory. It was obvious that the two villages, less than a quarter of a mile apart, shared common interests, and they were legally united in 1847 when the Town of Franklinsville "was incorporated by the state legislature. 


    A Methodist church and a private Academy were founded to administer religious and secular education. The county's first Masonic lodge was organized for fraternal activities. A community of craftsmen and artisans provided goods and services seldom before available to the rural area. Yet the center of life in Franklinsville was the two factories, and their workers. "The Operatives at all the Factories are respectable and intelligent girls. The visitor will be struck with their tidy dress, modest deportment and healthy appearance," wrote the 1849 reporter. "Twelve hours per day is the average time of work the year round, except on Saturdays, when it is only nine hours. Wages average from 12 1/2  to 37 1/2 cents per day, according to the age, skill and experience of the hand. Some make nothing at this, owning to their habits of expenditure; while others lay up money. For instance, Mr. Makepeace informed us that some of the girls employed by the Randolph Company, had the Company's notes for over one hundred dollars, now going on interest." 


     The late 1850s were economically troubled in the South, and both of Franklinsville's mill companies underwent changes in management. The bankrupt Island Ford company was reorganized in 1858 under the familiar name of the "Randolph Manufacturing Company." The upper mill, rebuilt as the "Franklinsville Manufacturing Company," was acquired in 1859 by the Cedar Falls Company, bringing both the Cedar Falls and Franklinsville factories under the management of George Makepeace during the turbulent Civil War period. Makepeace (1799-1872), a Massachusetts native, was recruited by Elisha Coffin to superintend the factory in 1839.  A skilled textile expert whose services were much in demand, and he and his son George Henry Makepeace together managed the company for more than fifty years. 


    Coffin was born a Quaker in Guilford County but was disowned from the faith for marrying a Presbyterian, an involvement of religion into business and personal affairs would set the tone for much of the early history of the textile mill.  The other 1838 investors were anti-slavery activist Quakers and Methodists who named the new mill village 'Franklinsville' to honor Jesse Franklin, a former NC Governor and Revolutionary war hero, who, while a member of the US House of Representatives, cast the deciding vote to keep slavery out of the Northwest territories (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois).  Elisha Coffin was a first cousin of Levi Coffin, the 'president' of the underground railroad, and was directly involved, with his father and sister, in the well-known 1821 incident where Jack Barnes, an escaped slave, was smuggled in their wagon from NC to Indiana, while being pursued by the angry slaveowner.

   The anti-slavery sentiment dwindled among the owners as time passed, although it remained strong among the mill workers.  From 1848-1851 Wesleyan, or "abolition" Methodist missionaries from Indiana established congregations in Piedmont N.C.; the only one in an urban area was in Franklinsville.  This caused problems with the conservative mill stockholders, now lead by Hugh McCain, the wealthy Clerk of Court, who had been prosecuted years before for causing the death of a female slave by chaining her to a stump behind his house in Asheboro in the dead of winter until she froze to death.  The ascendancy of someone like McCain on the Board of Directors alienated the Coffins, who sold their shares in the corporation and moved away from Franklinsville.  In an attempt to stamp out the Wesleyan influence, McCain and his Board decreed that any worker who attended the Abolition Meeting House would be fired, and did in fact fire Leander York.  This lead to a strike by the remaining employees, one of the first examples of labor unrest in the South.  At the height of this controversy, the factory mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground.  The property was then purchased and the mill rebuilt on the original walls by the Cedar Falls company, owner of the Cedar Falls Factory upstream.


   This history of labor unrest and property damage directly lead to the community's early involvement in the Civil War.  Although Randolph County as a whole voted overwhelmingly against secession, factory stockholders in Franklinsville wrote to the Governor asking permission to organize a Home Guard unit to protect the factories from "the Abolitionist and Lincolnite among us" who were threatening to burn the factories as soon as the volunteer soldiers left the county.  This unit was organized in June, 1861, a month after the county's first Home Guard unit, the Trinity Guards, was organized in a attempt to prevent the en masse enlistment of the entire student body of Trinity College.


      Despite the overwhelming Unionist sentiment of Randolph County, the factory villages strongly supported the war effort. Franklinsville raised Randolph's first Home Guard unit, and young men of the Cedar Falls - Franklinsville area formed the "Randolph Hornets" at Middleton Academy on June 10, 1861. The company was assigned to the 22nd North Carolina Regiment and served in such battles as Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and Appomattox. At home, key personnel of the textile factories and iron foundry were exempted from the draft. Under contract to the state Quartermaster's Office, the Cedar Falls Company was reorganized to sew its woven sheeting into underwear-- "Shirts and Drawers"-- for the North Carolina troops. The two factories provided raw materials, buttons and thread to local seamstresses, then shipped bales of completed garments to Raleigh. This was the largest apparel manufacturing operation in the state during the war.


    The Civil War left the Randolph factories, management and workers in an exhausted condition. But the arrival of a younger generation augured a postwar period of revival and expansion. Hugh Parks, who had managed the old Island Ford factory throughout the war, also assumed control of the Franklinsville Manufacturing Company in 1876. Parks was an energetic and innovative manager who supervised many changes. The production of cotton bags for feed and grain, begun at the upper factory in 1872, was expanded. The factory itself was enlarged and remodeled to meet insurance company specifications, becoming one of the area's most modern and efficient plants. Steam engines and electric lights were added, and the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway- dreamed of since the 1840s- finally arrived in 1890. 


     Hugh Parks, Jr. took control of the companies after his father's death in 1910 and instituted his own improvements.  A huge new coal-fired power plant was built in 1919 to generate electricity, allowing conversion of the mills from belt-driven machinery to electric motor drives. In 1920 a new office was built for both companies, the formerly separate company stores were united in a new building, and a bank was founded for the community.  As if in acknowledgement of changing times, the revised town charter of 1917 dropped the possessive 's' from Franklinsville, creating the Town of Franklinville for the first time. 


     The expense of improvements curtailed stock dividends, however, and in 1923 disgruntled stockholders accepted a corporate takeover by David Clark (1877-1955), a Charlotte textile publisher and son of N. C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Clark.  David Clark shrewdly optioned control of the stock of both Franklinville companies, which he then sold to Randolph Mills, Inc.- a new firm formed by his brother, John W. Clark, and John Clark's former employer J. Harper Erwin of Durham.  In 1925, Clark reorganized the mills to produce napped cotton flannels. A new hydroelectric generating plant was erected in 1935; a feed mill and hatchery were added to the roller mill; and in the 1940s the upper mill was renovated to house all preparation and finishing equipment while all weaving and finishing operations were moved to the lower mill. In 1948 the addition of flannel-printing machinery brought Randolph Mills to the greatest extent of its operations. 


    John Clark's death in 1969 left Franklinville and Randolph Mills in an uncertain state.  The family-controlled board put Walter M. Clark, the only son of John Clark, in control at a time when textiles were first beginning to feel the pressure of international competition. The first sign of retrenchment was the closing of the hatchery in 1971, followed by the gradual sale of most of the company-owned housing. In 1977 textile operations were suspended, closing both the upper and lower mills. Finally even the roller mill, Franklinville's oldest industry, closed when Randolph Mills entered bankruptcy. Without its industrial base the Town of Franklinville found itself in difficult limes. Fortunately, an inventory of Randolph county's historic properties in 1979/80 pointed out some new possibilities for the community. Franklinville, it was discovered, had preserved a surprising amount of its historic environment, more than any comparable mill town in the state. A large historic district was officially listed on the National Register of Historic places in 1984. 

 To Make a Donation to support the restoration of the factory and the creation of the Franklinville Mill Museum, go here.

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