Cone Mills’ White Oak Plant, which parent company International Textile Group announced last week will cease operations by the end of the year, is more than just a mill.
At the height of its output in the late 1940s, thousands of Draper fly-shuttle looms put out miles of selvedge denim used to clothe a nation of workers. But the mill also anchored a community, with its own neighborhoods, its own schools and stores, even its own dairy.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that without Cone Mills and its short chain of manufacturing in the northeast corner of town — including Revolution Mill, recently remodeled into a high-dollar residential, retail and restaurant facility, and Proximity Mill, built in 1896 and now overtaken by weeds, wild trees and graffiti — Greensboro would not be the city it is.
The Cone brothers built the White Oak Mill in 1905 strictly for denim, in high demand for miners, cowboys, soldiers and others engaged in building the nation. Within three years it was the largest denim producer in the world.
Fueled by steady streams of cotton from the Deep South and ready labor coming through the Overseas Replacement Depot, the mill became the city’s largest employer by the 1920s — one out of every seven residents worked at one of the mills, and many of the rest relied on the millworkers’ business to stay afloat.
Decades of corporate consolidation and offshore production have stripped away Greensboro’s heritage as the textile center of the world, but at least we could still say that the very best denim in the world came from the North Carolina heartland.
The final fate of the White Oak plant, this last vestige of our industrial past, has yet to be determined. Perhaps it will go the way of Revolution Mill, refurbished into an industrial-chic complex, or be razed and the land recast for condos.
Or maybe someone will see buy up those Draper fly-shuttle looms — there are still a few hundred of them in operation at the White Oak plant, rocking the floorboards and swinging out that good selvedge denim, the pride of Greensboro — and continue the denim tradition that put the city on the map. Maybe VF, the city’s major apparel brand, is up to the task.
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