Rocky Mount Mills, the second cotton mill in North Carolina (after the Schenck-Warlick Mill in Lincoln County), was built in 1818 on a 20-acre tract of land at the falls of the Tar River in Edgecombe County. The mills were operated initially by Joel Battle and two partners, but by 1825 Battle was the sole proprietor. When Joel Battle died in 1829, his son William took over the operation of the mills. Built from local granite, the facility was three stories plus a basement; within the building, the Battles operated both cotton and grist mills.
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Slaves and a few free African Americans supplied the labor at Rocky Mount Mills from the earliest days until about 1852, when the Battles began to substitute white workers, many of whom were women and children. By that time local slaveowners were less inclined to hire their slaves out for factory work and local white men found the work “humiliating.” Eventually becoming a more desirable place of employment, a village of “neat white cottages” for factory workers grew up in the vicinity of the mill.
A large industrial complex, Rocky Mount Mills was raided by Brigadier General Edward E. Potter’s Union cavalry on July 20, 1863. The mills, outbuildings, cotton, and yarn were destroyed by fire. William Battle rebuilt Rocky Mount Mills on the original foundation between 1866 and 1867. The new brick building, four stories with a basement, burned in 1869. Battle again rebuilt the mills. During the height of its nineteenth century production, the cotton mills, with about 50 employees, could process about 700 pounds of raw cotton per day.
In 1883 financial difficulties led William Battle to relinquish control of the mill. Thomas A. Battle, great-grandson of Joel Battle, was secretary to the mill’s new board of trustees. He eventually became president and the mills thrived under his leadership. Battle constructed additional buildings in 1889 and 1894. When Rocky Mount Mills closed in 1996, it was believed to be the oldest operating cotton mill in the South. It now comprises a local historic district and is undergoing redevelopment. In 2007 Capitol Broadcasting Company of Raleigh purchased between 50 and 60 acres of the complex, comprised of 300,000 square feet of mill and factory buildings, 30 mill village houses and 30 vacant lots.
William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (2006)—essay by David A. Norris
J. Kelly Turner and John L. Bridgers Jr., History of Edgecombe County, North Carolina (1920)
Holland Thompson, From the Cotton Field to the Cotton Mill (1906)
Rocky Mount Mills Records, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill, online finding aid at: http://webcat.lib.unc.edu/search?/drocky+mount+mills/drocky+mount+mills/1%2C2%2C5%2CB/frameset&FF=drocky+mount+mills+rocky+mount+n+c&3%2C%2C3
Capitol Broadcasting Company website: http://www.cbc-raleigh.com/capcom/news/2007/corporate_07/rm_mill_purchase/rm_mill_purchase.html