Photograph of Samuel Cannady Vann from Edward Hill Davis, Historical Sketches of Franklin County (1948).
Samuel Cannady Vann, a merchant in Franklinton, made a business decision in the mid- 1890s that had a lasting impact on the local economy. He purchased 10.9 acres of land adjoining the Raleigh and Gaston Railroad and, in 1895, incorporated the Sterling Cotton Mills.
Prior to the closing of the mill in 1991, it employed hundreds of men, women, and children. The profitable venture enabled Vann to invest also in the improvement of his community, which resulted in better schools, churches, and roads.
Vann's venture reflected a statewide trend. Although North Carolina remained a largely rural state throughout the late nineteenth century, considerable industrial development took place during the 1880s and 1890s.
The number of textile mills grew from around 50 in 1880 to more than 220 in 1900. Most of these factories were located in cities in the Piedmont.
At a time when tenant farmers and sharecroppers barely eked out a living, cotton mills held the promise of a better life. Many farm families left rural areas for small towns and cities, to work in the mills and live in adjoining mill villages built by the mill owners.
Investors, including family members, helped Vann develop the Sterling Cotton Mills. By 1900, the sale of stock had raised $100,000 in capital.
That year, the mill operated 6,240 spindles, nearly ten times as many as in the only other cotton mill in Franklin County, Laurel Mill.
Initially, Sterling produced cotton yarn for use in the manufacture of shirts, cotton suiting, canvas, and canvas strapping.
The mill provided steady employment for many people. In 1900, the vast majority of the sixty-seven men, eighty-two women, and forty-six children employed in the textile industry in Franklin County worked at the plant in Franklinton.
For ten to eleven hours of labor, men earned from forty cents to a dollar a day and women received thirty to fifty cents. Children made thirty cents per day.
Initially, most, if not all, of Sterling's employees were white, and usually each household contributed more than one family member to the workforce. Quite a few of the workers were children under the age of fourteen, a common situation in North Carolina prior to the enactment of child labor laws.
In 1900, James May, fifty-three, operated a cotton mill press. His wife Ada maintained the family's rental house. Six of May's eight children worked with him in the mill. These included Henry, twenty, an oiler. James, eighteen, a warper, helped to prepare yarn to be woven into cloth. As a spooler, Nanny, fifteen, operated a machine that combined thread from ten to fifteen different bobbins. Bettie, thirteen, was a spinner; she walked quickly up and down a row of machines, repairing any breaks or snags in the thread that she observed. Hired as doffers, Dallas and Benny, ages eleven and nine, respectively, cleared full bobbins or spindles from a spinning frame and replaced them with empty ones.
Writing about Vann's influence in the 1940s, when the mill had a weekly payroll of $12,000, Edward Hill Davis, author of Historical Sketches of Franklin County, praised the entrepreneur's public-minded spirit: "There is not a real interest of the community, financial, intellectual, or spiritual, that has not been promoted by him . . . . The magnificent school building in Franklinton and its replica on the grounds of the Methodist Orphanage in Raleigh may trace their origin back to the day when the first brick was laid in the foundation of the Sterling Cotton Mill[s]."
Published in The Franklin Times on July 10, 2014.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.