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In her 1925 book Bettie Caldwell referred to the Mount Hecla Steam Cotton Mill as “long the pride of old Greensboro.” Completed by 1834 in the center of the city by Henry Humphreys (1787-1840), the mill was the first in North Carolina powered by steam. Eventually the steam mode of operation would become the standard (by 1905 sixty-seven percent of the cotton mills in the South were steam-powered) but at the time it represented an innovation. Textile entrepreneurs, among them Edwin M. Holt, consulted with Humphreys on steam technology.
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Humphreys got his start in the mercantile business and soon profited to the point that in 1822 he could purchase the Greensboro mansion (later owned by John Motley Morehead) known as “Blandwood” The first Mount Hecla cotton mill, only the third built in the state (after Schenck-Warlick and Rocky Mount) was a typical waterpower driven operation opened in 1818 on the outskirts on Greensboro. By 1828 Humphreys had closed this mill and purchased a lot at the corner of Bellemeade and Greene Streets. He purchased machinery from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and brought down James Danforth to design and equip the mill. The masonry building was four stories tall with a basement, 150 feet long by 50 feet wide, working 2500 spindles and 75 looms.
An advertisement in July 1834 indicated that the mill was “in the full tide of successful operating.” Initially employing a mixed workforce of slaves and whites, Humphreys soon moved to whites only (100 in 1840 produced 3000 pounds per week), supplying “employment for numerous hands hitherto doing nothing for the community, and but little for themselves.” He issued scrip currency in 50 cents, $1, and $3 denominations featuring an illustration of the mill. Humphreys died in 1840 and was succeeded by his son-in-law Thomas R. Tate as operator of the mill. An ad in 1843 indicated that the mill was shipping “immense quantities” to distant markets but by 1850 it had relocated to the Catawba River in Gaston County and returned to traditional waterpower.
Bettie D. Caldwell, Founders and Builders of Greensboro, 1808-1908 (1925)
Ethel S. Arnett and Walter C. Jackson, Greensboro, North Carolina: The County Seat of Guilford County (1955)
Marvin Brown, Greensboro: An Architectural Record (1995)
Alexander R. Stoesen, Guilford: A History (1993)
Diffee W. Standard and Richard W. Griffin, “The Cotton Textile Industry in Ante-Bellum North Carolina,” North Carolina Historical Review (January, April 1957): 15-35, 131-164
Brent D. Glass, The Textile Industry in North Carolina: A History (1992)
William B. Bushong, “Blandwood” (1979)
Greensborough Patriot, May 15,1833; July 19, 1834; September 30, 1843