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History of Whittier Mill

Served by the Southern Railroad (several trains a day) and an electric streetcar line running every thirty minutes, the mill and its village nestled in a small valley near the Chattahoochee River. Construction began in May 1895 and was completed in less than a year at a total cost of $180,000. Less than a quarter mile away was the Chattahoochee Brick Company, and a March 6, 1895 letter from that firm's vice president G. W. Parrott outlined and confirmed the financial arrangement between his corporation and Whittier Cotton Mills. The brick company sold thirty acres along the river and their manager's existing brick cottage and would construct a 40,000 square foot cotton mill, warehouse, and a storehouse of "the very finest hard brick" as well as thirty frame cottages for the operatives. The mill owners would apply half of the equipment from their existing mills in Massachusetts and half would be new. Chattahoochee Brick received $2,500 in cash and $50,000 in stock.

The mill company was named after the Whittier family of Massachusetts, which had started the business in Lowell. The actual owners, however, were Paul Butler, son of Civil War general Benjamin Butler, and several other prominent capitalists. Nevertheless, the Whittier family provided the major officers, including president Helen Whittier and treasurer Nelson Whittier. According to newspaper reports, it was Helen Whittier who selected the site for the southern branch of the ten mill system and who officially threw the switch to open the factory in 1896. Miss Whittier had come to Atlanta prior to the 1895 Cotton States and International Exposition and was obviously attracted to the area for the firm's southern expansion. Her nephew Walter R. B. Whittier was installed as the manager, a job he would retain until 1936.

A special feature in the Atlanta Journal in July 1896 (six months after the mill had been operating) was subtitled "Quite a community itself/The Operatives Colonized in Comfortable Cottages -- Built by Capitalists of New England." In a typical Victorian prose, the writer stated: "One of the most picturesque places in the vicinity of Atlanta is Whittier Mills. . . . The houses of the operatives are built around the brow of the hill in a semi-circular shape. . . [that] resembles a half-moon. . . . The greatest number of these houses face the mill and are built of the best material with terraced yards and plenty of green grass, some of the more thrifty of the occupants already having roses planted and growing. Altogether they present an appearance of thrift and care not usually seen among people of this class." Guarding over the workers was manager Walter "Boss" Whittier in a large, brick house named "Hedgerows" on a nearby hill, and superintendent W. H. Salmon, also living on the property. The homes of these two men were heated with steam from the plant.

Other than jobs, which started in 1896 at one dollar a day, the mill owners, over the years, provided a settlement house, store, a school building with space for church services, and a golf course. In the east half of the mill store were dry goods, groceries were located in the west half and the Chattahoochee post office occupied the northwest corner. Directly across Parrott Avenue from the company store is what was and is known as the "ark" which housed the barber shop, a shoe shop, a pharmacy, and the men's showers.

Whittier Mill StationeryHousing was rented from the mill and paid for by the room. Most units were duplexes and were built with locks on both sides of the doors to each room so the interiors could be easily reconfigured when families needed more space. At $.50 per room, $1.50 per week, or $6.00 per four week month, the price included all maintenance and utilities. The mill kept the houses painted and the grass cut, provided water and electricity, and made all plumbing and electrical repairs. The original houses had wells for water, but when there was a mill expansion in 1926, the new houses had running water. The 1926 housing is distinguished by less steeply pitched roofs than the original dwellings and was designed by the Boston architectural firm of Parsons and Wait. Paul and Sid Whittier (sons of W. R. B. Whittier) oversaw the construction, which was of "Common Southern Pine," fireplaces and chimneys of Chattahoochee brick, and sited on pier foundations. The streets were unpaved, but rear alleys helped provide good drainage and the lots were smaller for easier upkeep. To this day, the 1926 construction is still called "New Village" by long time area residents.

That some "outside" help was needed, however, is reflected in W. R. B. Whittier's 1910 request that the Atlanta Sheltering Arms Association of Day Nurseries set up a settlement in the village. In addition to the nursery, there were kindergarten classes, night school for adults, clubs for boys and girls, and mothers' meetings with a social worker. A physician held free clinics twice weekly, and a brass band was organized for the young men, who performed in a bandstand located north of Parrott Avenue. The settlement house was in a large, three story building at the southeast corner of Parrott and Whittier Avenues (based on the 1911 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map), but was dismantled in 1926 with the waning of the settlement house movement in the United States during that decade. Sections of the settlement house were used to construct other houses in the expansion of the village that year.

Despite the many amenities provided by the mill owners, life for the workers was not easy even if it was a step up from rural or mountain poverty. Sid Whittier, the last member of his family to run the business, showed why this was when he stated that even with the low pay, ". . . there were hundreds of people for every job and none of them had ever worked in a factory before." The 1900 census lists 635 people working at Whittier Cotton Mills including 211 weavers, 135 spinners, 60 spoolers, 48 dolphers, 29 carders, 23 speeders, and 20 drawers. Many of the dolphers, weavers, and spinners were children as young as seven or nine years. The failure of southern states like Georgia to pass compulsory school attendance laws made it possible to employ children and helped the southern mills to have profits of twenty to seventy-five percent while their counterparts in New England might be actually losing money. Another factor in such profits was long hours. During its first decades, Whittier Mills ran seven days a week with two shifts, midnight to noon and noon to midnight. Six day work weeks were standard. According to I. A. Newby in Plain Folk in the New South, mill villages were often plagued with alcoholism and violence partially as a result of the hard conditions. He recounts numerous incidents throughout the South and one from Whittier Mills in 1905 when two male youths who had been drinking assaulted two young girls on a public street. All were workers at the mill. This and other similar incidents undoubtedly brought about the establishment of the settlement house in 1910, but it is difficult to imagine how the workers could realistically be expected to take advantage of its programs when whole families worked such long hours.

These workers or operatives primarily produced cotton yarn, ranging in size from "twos," used for window cord, to "forties," the finest of cotton filaments. "Softbacks" for gloves and mittens, braiders' yarn, druggists' twine, and wrappings for hose were also manufactured. Mississippi delta cotton was used for thread and California cotton was used for yarn. Yarn-wrapped water hose used for firehoses was the mills' specialty. The use of cotton fiber to make flexible firehoses had been developed by Paul Butler and Nelson Whittier prior to 1895 and the business had a virtual monopoly on the production due to patents on the circular loom and twister machinery these two men had developed. It was this part of the Whittier Mills production which was moved to Georgia with the opening of the new southern branch.

Nevertheless, the mills' wares changed with the times. In 1914 experiments with "mineral wool" or asbestos were recorded and in the late 1920s blue denim was sold to the United States penitentiary in Atlanta. During World War II, the mills made cloth for sandbags for the federal government. At other times, Whittier Mills produced corduroy cloth, garden hosing, and even synthetic cloth. In September 1926 the trade journal Cotton reported that the Silver Lake Company had applied for a charter to produce cordage at Whittier Mills in what was now called the suburb of Chattahoochee. It was this expansion of the mill by 65,000 square feet which brought about the already mentioned addition to the mill housing.

The 1930s proved a particularly difficult time for Whittier Mills and its workers. The Whittiers had had a virtual monopoly on firehose yarn production in the South until the depression when Callaway Mills hired a key worker, who stated Sid Whittier, ". . . took a complete set of yarn samples and the 'know-how'" with him. Bibb Manufacturing later hired knowledgeable personnel from Callaway, and three southern mills began to compete for the lucrative firehose business. Again according to Sid Whittier, ". . . the last to pirate his way in had a cost advantage because he comes in with more modern machinery." To earn extra money during the Depression, millworkers cut pieces for Ideal American Jigsaw puzzles in the evenings.

The loss of the monopoly and the depression ended the mills' expansion. Permanent lay-offs and short-term strikes occurred at Whittier Mills, which had begun to lose money on its Georgia operation. In 1934, the year of the General Textile Strike throughout the country in which so many southern millworkers participated, "Boss" Whittier left the operation. J. J. Scott of Scottdale Mills near Decatur became general manager. Scott divided his time between his own mills and their competition at Whittier Mills in the town of Chattahoochee. Scott put the mill back into the black and in 1936 placed Hanford Sams in the manager's position of both his mills. Sams eventually became vice president of the Whittier Mills board of directors under president Scott, who had taken over that position from Sid Whittier in 1936.

Mill TowerDuring the 1940s, the new management and wartime contracts brought renewed economic stability to the mill and the village. The employees' newsletter, Whittier Mills & Silver Lake News, reported on the prowess of the company baseball team with detailed accounts of winning seasons, playing against Clarkdale Thread Mill and Celanese (of Rome), and in 1948, the construction of new bleachers for the fans. That year the Osborne family were the big stars: the father, "Tiny," was once a major league player for Chicago and Brooklyn in the National League; "Jeter," one of his seven children, played in the Southern League for the New Orleans Pelicans; and another son, "Bottles" played for Rochester (AAA ball) and Birmingham in the Southern Association. In 1949, the trolley from Atlanta, filled with free riders for the occasion, made its last run to Chattahoochee.

Major changes occurred, however, in the 1950s. In 1952 the City of Atlanta annexed Chattahoochee, an unincorporated township since its foundation. It was also in this decade that J. P. Stevens sold Whittier Mills to Scott Dale Industries. Shortly after the mills' sale in 1954, the new owners began selling the mill houses to the tenants starting at $2,000. Butler Way was extended to occupy the old baseball grounds and several of the houses were moved there to create more equitably sized lots.

By mid-1971, Whittier Mills has closed for good following a decade of increasing competition from cheap imports. Company officials cited the problem as ". . . the accelerating flood of imports from low wage countries into our textile market. Added to this problem is the shortage of textile workers in this area." Although it was reported at the time that low unemployment figures for Atlanta meant the workers would probably find new jobs quickly, newspaper reports later that year stated that still unemployed workers from Whittier Mills would be eligible for extended benefits from the federal government because job loss was deemed the result of unfair trade practices.

For the next two decades, the mill buildings went unused. Several were burned by arsonists in 1986 and the owners proposed to turn the site into a landfill in 1980. Over the protests of local residents, the remaining structures were demolished in 1988 by Victorian Artifacts, Inc., which valued the massive heart-of-pine timbers and the antique bricks. The original mill tower which housed offices and a water tank for fire protection still remains. Meanwhile, a small investment group began to renovate the area's housing for resale. A 1991 article in the Atlanta Journal/Constitution Homefinder section indicated that the renovation work had been successful with the old mill houses selling for up to $75,000. One of the "amenities" cited in the article was that residents were seeking historic status.

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