On March 24th, 2011, a devastating fire destroyed Macon’s Atlantic Cotton Mills (See Figures 1-3 Below). According to Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, the mill was under construction in 1889 and was largely unchanged at the time of its demise. As part of my survey work, I studied Atlantic Cotton Mills on February 1, 2011. Although my project’s chief focus has been to determine how and why Georgia’s textile mills changed architecturally, one issue that became apparent throughout my project is that many mills did not expand or add additions, but chose to only invest in newer machinery and equipment in order to stay competitive. Such was the case with Atlantic Cotton Mills, and why I had the pleasure of surveying the mill property while in Macon investigating another mill.
Figure 1: Hines, Lewis. “Going Home from the Manchester Cotton Mill, Macon, Ga. ” January 1909. Photograph Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 1 April 2011. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004001418/PP/. (accessed 1 April, 2011) Atlantic Mills was known as Manchester Mills at the time of the photograph.
Figure 2: Photographer facing southeast, Photograph of Atlantic Cotton Mills north façade, Macon, GA. Photograph in possession of author, taken 2/1/11.
Figure 3: Bennett, Josephine. “Fire Destroys Historic Macon Cotton Mill,” 24 March 2011. Photograph Courtesy Georgia Public Broadcasting News. http://www.gpb.org/news/2011/03/24/fire-destroys-historic-macon-cotton-mill. (accessed 1 April, 2011)
The conflagration at Atlantic Cotton Mills does illustrate some key historical issues. The chief danger for a textile mill, especially those built around the turn-of-the-twentieth century, was fire. Mills were ever cognizant of the danger of fire, and undertook a number of precautions to avoid catastrophic blazes. The presence of heavy cotton dust in cotton mills, made the threat of fires ever present. Crude sprinkler systems designed to extinguish fires were in use in New England’s textile mills in the early-to-mid 1800s. Gas or diesel fired generators saw widespread use in Southern mills, and allowed water to be more forcefully pushed through the mill, speeding reaction time to fires in addition to putting more water into a burning mill. Thus fire suppression systems were an integral part of mill construction, and Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps document these complex fire suppression methods in detail. Take for instance the information provided in a 1962 Sanborn Map for Pacolet Manufacturing’s New Holland Mills, located near Gainesville, GA (See Figure 4 Below). The Sanborn Map designates how many people are on site when the mill is closed, the main power source for the mill, the types of sprinklers used, method of water delivery, water pressure, pipe capacity, where water comes from, and finally the types of fire repellants available to workers inside the mill. The information on how well a mill was prepared for a fire carried more weight than the actual mill footprint, which is of such great value today. New Holland’s mill is still owned and operated today by textile giant Milliken.
Figure 4: Sanborn Map. Gainesville June 1930-Feburary 1962 update. Sheet 26. Accessed through Proquest, Digital Sanborn Maps 1867-1970. The Sanborn shows New Holland Mills, in addition to the fire suppression system information, which has been enlarged for increased readability.
The threat of fires directly affected how the vast majority of Georgia’s mills were built. The construction method of choice for Georgia’s built in the late 1800s and early 1900s was a system known as “slow burning construction,” sometimes known simply as “mill construction.” Slow burning construction employed heavy use of interior wood framing, placed in such a fashion that in case of a fire, the wood would char, and not burn thru, thereby maintaining the rigidity necessary to sustain the weight of the mill machinery and not collapse. Slow burning construction also called for the use of self contained horizontal compartments that were separated from other compartments by closable fire doors. Thus, if a fire began in a mill, it could be contained in a single sealed compartment, and as it burned, it would not destroy the ever important wood columns or detract from the overall structural integrity.
Fires are still an issue for textile mills even after manufacturing ceases and although mills may stand vacant for years slowly deteriorating away, many suffer a fiery demise. Many Georgia mills have recently suffered the same fate as Atlantic Cotton Mills. Columbus’s Bibb Mill, a massive structure measuring nearly a quarter mill in length, burned in October 2008, halting plans to adaptively reuse the mill. Another Columbus mill, Jordan Hosiery Mill burned in October 2005, while plans were being formulated to redevelop the property. Some fires do not result in total loses but are nonetheless devastating. Atlanta’s Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills suffered a severe fire in 1999 while the property was being converted into lofts. The damage was not catastrophic and the outer shell survived. Numerous other mills have burned in Georgia recently while still housing production. Examples include Aragon Mills in Polk County which housed limited production when it burned in 2002 and LaGrange’s Valway Rug Mills, which burned in 1995, but was rebuilt by its parent company Milliken in only 6 months.
These are only a few select examples of the current danger of fire in Georgia’s mills. Many more mills simply fall into states that negate their use for anything other than scrap. The historical significance of the textile industry, in not only the state of Georgia but the broader South, calls for careful preservation of mill structures. The widespread conversion of many mills to loft or housing, may assure that these structures will remain viable landmarks to a proud industrial past, an industrial past that Georgia is not all that far removed from. In the past two decades a significant number of mills in Georgia have closed, putting a number of structures at risk. Although the fate of Atlantic Mills looked bright in the weeks before its destruction, because preservation efforts were underway to redevelop the mill into lofts, a bleak fate seems assured for many mills across the state of Georgia, unless preservation of mill prosperities becomes a priority, or at least a significant focus of preservation efforts. Georgia’s textile mills, although certainly not as aesthetically pleasing as the finest houses in Atlanta’s Inman Park, do carry a deep historical significance and a have distinct presence where they exist, making their preservation understandable and warranted.
Steven Eubanks is a graduate student at West Georgia University and recipient of the 2010 Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship. The Elizabeth Lyon Fellowship provides financial assistance for projects that acquaint undergraduate and graduate students, and young professionals with preservation programs and practices.