Dan River Mills Postcard

Dan River Mills

Dan River Mills in Danville, Virginia, is a historic manufacturer of apparel fabrics and home fashion products such as bedding. Opened in 1882 as the Riverside Cotton Mills, the company grew to become the largest textile firm in the South. The mills were a prime target for union leaders, who reasoned that they could organize textile plants across the region if they could crack the strategically located Dan River Mills. In 1930 and 1951, major strikes occurred at the mills; both ended in defeat for the workers. From the 1970s, employment levels at the Virginia firm fell dramatically as it struggled to compete with cheap imported textiles, competition that eventually brought the historic firm to final dissolution in 2006. MORE...

 

Early Years

Established by six local men on the banks of the Dan River in 1882, Riverside Cotton Mills expanded rapidly, with four mills built within the company's first decade of operations. In 1895 a group that included five of the six original founders also set up the Dan River Power and Manufacturing Company so that they could develop the water power of the Dan River. In 1909, Riverside and Dan River merged to form the Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills. By then, annual production of cloth had risen to more than 78 million yards, up from just 2 million yards in 1884. The company continued to expand, in particular by moving into the manufacturing of sheetings, ginghams, and chambrays.

Even before the merger, Riverside Cotton Mills in Danville was the largest textile mill in the South. Like most southern textile companies at this time, Riverside developed a mill village for its workers, providing housing in order to retain labor that had been recruited from the surrounding areas. Named after three brothers who had helped to found the company, the mill village of Schoolfield was independent of the city of Danville until annexation in 1951. Although conditions in Schoolfield were harsh—it did not have a sewage system until it was annexed by Danville—many residents embraced the close community that existed in the old mill village.

In the 1920s, Riverside gained national publicity through its efforts to implement "industrial democracy." The brainchild of company president H. R. Fitzgerald, the scheme was modeled after the federal government and it allowed a workers' House of Representatives to introduce legislation that addressed their grievances. Although industrial democracy did help to address small issues, its limitations were exposed when the company began to cut wages late in the 1920s, and the scheme itself was terminated in 1930. Seeking higher wages and more autonomy, workers joined the United Textile Workers of America in large numbers, eventually walking out on strike on September 29, 1930. The dispute generated a considerable amount of violence and bitterness, especially as some strikers were evicted from their company-owned houses. After four months, the strikers returned to work, partly because the union was running out of funds to feed them. In addition, many workers had broken the picket line even before the walkout was abandoned.

Dan River Mills at Its Peak

Following the lean years of the 1930s, in which net earnings averaged less than half a million dollars per year, the mills thrived during World War II (1939–1945) by fulfilling orders for the military. By 1942, the company operated twelve weaving and spinning mills, together with dyeing, bleaching, finishing, and power plants. These mills contained nearly half a million spindles, allowing the company to easily retain its position as the biggest textile firm in the region. At this time, the mills dominated life in Danville, employing 14,000 workers in a town of about 40,000 people. When the war ended, the newly chartered Dan River Mills Incorporated continued to thrive by fulfilling pent-up civilian demand for textiles. After making several acquisitions in the 1950s, the firm began to operate manufacturing facilities in other southern states, moves that pushed company-wide employment levels to more than 18,000 in 1956. Following passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment, the company also hired more African American workers and gradually placed them in a range of positions that had previously been reserved for whites.

Hoping to capitalize on the strong economic position that prevailed across the industry, the Textile Workers Union of America called a strike across the South in the spring of 1951. As a traditional wage setter for the industry, Dan River Mills played a crucial role in the walkout, which affected mills in seven southern states. The company's refusal to grant the union's demands for a 12 percent base pay raise exposed the TWUA's weaknesses and ensured that it largely lost the ability to influence wage levels in the region. At Dan River itself, the local union, which had been organized during World War II, survived the strike but it never again had the same level of power, especially since the company now refused to deduct workers' dues automatically.

Recent History: Decline and Dissolution

For Dan River and other U.S. textile makers, the good economic times did not last. Starting in the 1960s, imported textiles gradually began to take away market share from American textile makers. Like other companies, Dan River initially responded by investing heavily in new technology in order to stay competitive. In the 1990s and early in the 2000s, however, the industry collapsed, hit by a surge of imports from Latin America and Asia. Ignoring the industry's calls for protection, U.S. policymakers signed a series of free trade agreements with developing countries, insisting that these deals would help exporters and lead to cheaper prices for consumers.

After steady declines in employment levels in the 1980s and 1990s, in March 2004 Dan River went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. It was a move that led to the closure of a number of its facilities, including the finishing and sheet-sewing plants in Danville. Although it emerged from bankruptcy a year later, early in 2006 Dan River was bought by Gujarat Heavy Chemicals, an Indian chemical firm that quickly closed the main mill and moved the remaining 500 jobs overseas. As with so many historic American firms, the Dan River brand survived but it was no longer made in the United States. In November 2008, the company's familiar smokestacks were toppled by an implosion, removing one of the main physical vestiges of Danville's long textile heritage.

Time Line

  • 1895 - Five of the six original founders of the Riverside Cotton Mills establish the Dan River Power and Manufacturing Company so that they can develop the waterpower of the Dan River.
  • 1909 - The Riverside Cotton Mills and Dan River Power and Manufacturing Company merge to form the Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills.
  • September 29, 1930 - Seeking higher wages and more autonomy, workers at the Dan River Cotton Mills join the United Textile Workers of America in walking out on strike. After four months, the strikers return to work, partly because the union runs out of funds to feed them.
  • 1941–1945 - Dan River Mills thrives during World War II by fulfilling orders for the military, employing 14,000 workers, and operating twelve weaving and spinning mills.
  • Spring 1951 - When the Textile Workers Union of America calls for a strike across the South, Dan River Mills refuses to grant the union's demands for a 12 percent base pay raise, exposing the TWUA's weaknesses and ensuring that it largely loses the ability to influence wage levels in the region.
  • 1960s - Imported textiles gradually begin to take away market share from American textile makers.
  • 1990s - The American textile industry begins to collapse, hit by a surge of imports from Latin America and Asia. Ignoring the industry's calls for protection, U.S. policymakers sign a series of free trade agreements with developing countries, insisting that these deals will help exporters and lead to cheaper prices for consumers.
  • March 2004 - Dan River Mills enters Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization, a move that leads to the closure of a number of its facilities, including the finishing and sheet-sewing plants in Danville.
  • 2006 - Dan River Mills is bought by Gujarat Heavy Chemicals, an Indian chemical firm that closes the main mill and moves the remaining 1100 jobs overseas.
  • November 2008 - Dan River Mills' smokestacks are toppled by an implosion, removing one of the main physical vestiges of Danville's long textile heritage.
Further Reading
Cross, Malcolm A. Dan River Runs Deep: An Informal History of a Major Textile Company, 1950–1981. New York, New York: The Total Book, 1982.
Erwin, William J. Dan River Mills: A Story of 75 Exciting Years in Textiles, 1882–1957. New York, New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1957.
Minchin, Timothy J. What Do We Need a Union For?: The TWUA in the South, 1945–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.
Smith, Robert Sidney. Mill on the Dan: A History of Dan River Mills, 1882–1950. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1960.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Minchin, T. J. Dan River Mills. (2013, November 21). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Dan_River_Mills.

  • MLA Citation:

    Minchin, Timothy J. "Dan River Mills." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: September 17, 2009 | Last modified: November 21, 2013


Contributed by Timothy J. Minchin, an associate professor of history at La Trobe University in Bundora, Australia. He has published widely in the field of southern history, including the award-winning Hiring the Black Worker: The Racial Integration of the Southern Textile Industry, 1960–1980 (1999), and Fighting Against the Odds: A History of Southern Labor since World War II (2005).