Entrepreneurs of North Carolina History Exhibit

Textile Entrepreneurs

1887James W. Cannon

James W. CannonJames W. Cannon was born in Mecklenburg County in 1852, and although he was raised in a family of farmers and planters, his father and brothers became one of the most noteworthy families in the textile industry. James learned the trade while working in a mercantile company in Concord where his brother was a partner. Working his way up in the company, James decided to venture out on his own and built a mill for spinning course cotton yarn, Concord Manufacturing Company in 1887.

Cannon’s rise to prominence came when he decided that towels should be available to all and not exclusively to the affluent, which was the practice of the time. In 1898, he made the first “towel finished in the south” and made it widely available and affordable. In 1906, The Cannon Manufacturing Company established the “model mill town” of Kannapolis, once among the largest unincorporated towns in the world. This newest style of mill town featured every community service, including churches, schools, parks, and the largest YMCA in the south, tailored to the employees at the textile mill. This employee benefit proved profitable for the company as they produced 300,000 towels in a year.  James W. Cannon not only changed the perspective of who could own the simple bath towel, but also helped make Cannon Manufacturing Company a household name.

Moses Cone1891Moses Cone

Moses Cone and his brother Caesar took interest in the textile industry in 1870 as they bartered cloth in exchange for the groceries that were ordered by general stores throughout the south from their father’s wholesale grocery business. The brothers began their careers in textiles by investing in C.E. Manufacturing Co. in Asheville, NC and later forming Cone Export & Commission Company in 1891.

In 1895, when denim suppliers became unpredictable, the success of Cone Exportwas threatened. The brothers decided to take control of their fate and manufacture their own durable denim in their new venture, Proximity Manufacturing Mill in Greensboro, which was centrally located to all the southern cotton resources and transportation needed to make the business a success along the Atlantic states.  Their company was the denim supplier for the famed Levi Strauss and Company for nearly one hundred years. Then in 1948 a major merger occurred, Revolution Mills and Proximity Manufacturing Company were consolidated and named Cone Mills Corporation.

1899Warren C. Coleman

Warren C. ColemanThe Coleman Manufacturing Company was the first textile factory in America that was owned and operated by African-Americans and the first major cooperative business effort by North Carolina’s African-Americans. Its founder, Warren C. Coleman, was born in Cabarrus County to a confederate general and a slave in 1849. Coleman began his business career in 1871 collecting rags, bones and junk, and would soon become the wealthiest black man in the state by the 1890s.

Coleman admired the textile giants of the time such as Cannon and Odell and sought partners to build a similar empire around 1897.  The mill was in full operation by 1899, and at the 1900 Exposition Universal in Paris, France the factory was billed as “the only Negro cotton mill in the U.S.,” “according to the article.  The good fortune did not last long as the textile industry suffered setbacks at the turn of the twentieth century, forcing Coleman to resign in 1903.  Further economic woes forced Benjamin N. Duke to foreclose on the mortgage a year later.  Cannon Mills took over operations of one of Coleman’s mills shortly thereafter.

1901John Wesley Hanes

HanesJohn W. Hanes operated a tobacco company with his brother Pleasant Hanes, but a serious illness, most likely caused by extensive exposure to tobacco, forced John Hanes out of the business. Selling the tobacco business to R. J. Reynolds in 1900 for $175,000 and splitting the proceeds, John Hanes established a sock-knitting factory called Shamrock Mills in 1901, but he never fully recovered from his illness, and died in 1903.

The business remained in the family, and in 1914 was renamed Hanes Hosiery Mills.  Pleasant Hanes established the P.H. Hanes Knitting Company in 1901 to manufacture men’s underwear, and long after both brothers died the two Hanes operations were merged in 1962 as Hanes Corporation.

Roger Gant grandson of John Q. Gant1902John Q. Gant

John Q. Gant used the land he had bought west of Burlington, NC to start Glen Raven Mills, which grew into a global leader in textiles.  He established John Q. Gant Mfg. Co. in Burlington, N.C., in 1900 and began using the name Glen Raven in 1902.  He had been employed in the industry since 1867 by Edwin M. Holt in the E. M. Holt & Sons Mill, the first in the South to manufacture colored cotton goods.

Following graduation from UNC in 1948, John’s grandson, Roger Gant Jr., joined Glen Raven and held a variety of positions culminating in president in 1972, a position he held until his retirement from management in 1989. Under Roger’s leadership, Glen Raven’s sales more than quintupled and sales per employee more than doubled. One of his most important achievements for Glen Raven was the introduction of synthetic awning fabrics and creation of the Sunbrella brand in 1961. Sunbrella is today one of the world’s leading performance fabrics brands, recognized as the market leader for awnings, boating and furniture.

1921James Spencer Love

Soon after returning from WWI, James Spencer Love began working in the family-owned Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company as a pay-master and soon purchased the run-down mill with his father.   He closed the location and moved the machinery to Burlington, where the town’s fathers were looking for someone to take over and revitalize the textile industry after the manufacturing giants of the E.M. Holt family lost interest in the location that was made famous for its “Alamance Plaids”.  After securing a much-needed loan from the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, the Burlington Mills Corporation formed. Innovation was the key to Burlington Industries’ success where Love experimented with “artificial silk,” now known as rayon, and began manufacturing bedspreads.  He expanded to a second mill in 1926, and business flourished from there, making Burlington Industries the largest textile manufacturing firm in the world.