Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The New South: Railroads and Mill Towns

Lanett and Opelika in Alabama….Amity in Arkansas…..Hogansville, Canton, and Douglasville in Georgia….Concord and Carrboro in North Carolina and Cherokee Falls, Piedmont and Whitmire in South Carolina…..All of these places including many other cities and towns across the South were all major mill towns birthed during the New South era.

The New South Era has as many definitions as other historical periods such as the Gilded Age or the Progressive Era, but for my purposes here I’m going with Edward L. Ayers.   In his book The Promise of the New South:  Life after Reconstruction he states the New South era began in the 1880s after the biracial and reformist experiment of Reconstruction had ended and the conservative white Democrats had taken power throughout the southern states.
A fellow Georgian, Henry W. Grady, is credited with the term “New South” which represents an ideology that emphasized a new reliance upon railroads and industrialization to modernize the South. 
Many Southerners jumped on Grady’s bandwagon and became New South boosters.  New South advocates espoused a renewal of the Southern economy, a bridge to reconcile differences with the North, racial harmony and a support of hard work.  
The first area of focus for New South boosters were the existing railroads that had been damaged or neglected during the Civil War.  They also wanted to extend new lines to criss-cross the South making important trade connections with cities and towns all across the country. 
Ayers states between 1865 and the 1870s there were nearly 8,000 miles of track in the South.   By 1880, the number of miles jumped to 20,000 and by the end of the decade the South boasted 40,000 miles of track carrying not only passengers but manufactured goods as well. 
Henry W. Grady and other New South boosters worked tirelessly to engage investors from the South as well as the North.   I’ve always felt it was important to make sure students understand the United States’ habit of rebuilding former enemy territory didn’t just begin after World War I or II – most of the money and resources used to revitalize the South following the Civil War came from northern investments.
Other than the railroads, New South boosters also focused on establishing cotton mills not only in the larger cities such as Atlanta or New Orleans but in smaller towns all across the South.
Cotton mills became a symbol of economic health, and every little town wanted one.  When outside investors were slow to respond townspeople would scrimp and save to get a mill going.   According to Ayers though, by 1870, the bulk of investment dollars came from northern and foreign investors.

Ayers further states in 1880 there were 160 cotton mills in the South.  By 1890, there were 400.

In his book Creating the Modern South:  Millhands and Managers in Dalton, Georgia, Douglas Flamming advises the rise of southern railroad towns and the farmers’ shift to cash crop agriculture were mutually reinforcing trends that fostered a spirit of entrepreneurial boosterism among local businessmen and professionals.
Don Harrison Doyle author of Toward a New South Urbanization and Southern Culture Economic Elites in Four New South Cities agrees with Flamming stating most boosters worked in the most vigorous sections of the local economy such as trade and rail transportation and included doctors, lawyers, planters, and even clergymen.

This website states since New England already had a firmly established textile industry, southern businessmen benefitted from the most-up-to-date technologies and equipment from the start of their endeavors without wasting investments on outdated methods.   These technological advancements meant that workers unschooled in the craft tradition could be recruited to perform jobs such as making cloth.
New South advocates espoused a renewal of the Southern economy, a bridge to reconcile differences with the North, racial harmony and a support of hard work to achieve the goals. Unfortunately, racial harmony proved to be the most difficult goal to achieve, and I assert here that even today it has not been achieved in many circles, but the New South Era did see tremendous positive changes regarding the Southern economy.

Looking back on the political and social events leading up to the Civil War and Reconstruction I still wonder why it had to take a war and terrible devastation to help people to understand there had to be a better way to grow the Southern economy
New South ideology has been my focus over the last two weeks regarding a column I write for a local website.

You can view my previous two columns focusing on the growth of the railroad in my little town during the New South Era here and here
Other articles focusing on mill towns can be found here and here.


1 comment:

Vysvader said...

Hello! Thanks for nice pictures and fine article