Greensboro News & Record
February 6 2001
Eric Heisler


1839 - Taking advantage of water power form Bartlett Canal, John Motley Morehead builds the first textile mill in what later became the town of Spray. The mill, called the Leaksville Factory, initially produced cotton yarn, and later added a weaving operation.

1896 - B. Frank Mebane builds Spray Cotton Mill near Bartlett Canal. The new mill is the first of a series of eight mills built by Mebane in nine years along the canal and the Smith River.

1911 - A recession forces Mebane to sell most of his mills to Marshall Field and Co., the predecessor to Fieldcrest Cannon. An exception to the sale, Spray Cotton Mill eventually falls into the possession of Karl Van Ruck.

1914 - Van Ruck asks his nephew, Karl Bishopric, to move to Spray from Canada and manage the mill. The Bishopric family will manage the mill until today. 1922 - Karastan's factory opens in nearby Leaksville.

1939 - The Textile Workers Union of America forms in Field's mills in Eden. The city becomes a hub for union activity in North Carolina.

1951 - Spray is incorporated as a town.

1953 - Marshall Field sells its holdings to Fieldcrest, Inc., which modernizes the mills.

1967 - Spray joins the towns of Leaksville and Draper to form Eden.

1977 - Spray Cotton Mill acquires the nearby canal, which still generates about 17 percent of its power.

1986 - Fieldcrest buys Cannon becoming Fieldcrest Cannon.

1986 - Pluma, Inc., a new fleece-wear company, is formed in Eden. The company will grow to prominence and a spot on the New York Stock Exchange, only to collapse in 1999.

1999 - Developers proposed renovating the old, vacant Rhode Island Mill in Spray, one of the eight built by Mebane near Bartlett Canal. They plan to use the mill as apartments. This is the start of discussion on new uses for the old historic mills.

2001 - Spray Cotton Mill announces it will close after 105 years.


The last of eight historic textile mills will close here today after 105 years, ending an era of yarn-making that helped to form the city of Eden and mold a way of life for many of its residents.

"It's sad," says Jack Morris, who worked for Spray Cotton Mills for 48 years before retiring in 1996. "People used to say, 'If anything in this city runs, Spray will run.' Everybody thought that because it was such a great business. It was so well run."

If "anything" was intended to mean "any textile mill," than that saying isn't too far from the truth.

Of the eight turn-of-the-century mills built in Eden by B. Frank Mebane, Spray Cotton was the only one still operating in 2001. It was named for the community of Spray, which later became a part of Eden.

The company broke its silence Monday and confirmed that the mill will close today.

In the mill's 104 years of making cotton yarn, Eden has seen textile dynasties rise and fall, as fabric and yarn production has moved overseas. But all the while, the red brick plant along the Smith River continued to run, outlasting many of the more modern plants.

"Is this an end to an era?" says Eden Mayor Phil Price. "From a standpoint of what caused this town to form, and of what many of these neighborhoods were built upon, and what comprised many people's livelihoods, yes it is."

The mill was built by Mebane in 1896. A former salesman with Cone Mills in Greensboro, Mebane had married into the renowned Morehead family, who established the Eden area's first mill in 1839.

Mebane picked the site because of its location on the Barnett Canal, which was built for a grist mill. That strategy proved to be a good one up until today as water from the canal still provides about 17 percent of the plant's power.

The Bishopric family became involved when Karl von Ruck, a German physician, bought the plant from Mebane and asked his nephew, Karl Bishopric, to move down from Canada and manage the plant in 1914. The family has owned the mill ever since.

"This was a family affair," says Jack Richardson, who worked at Spray Cotton for more than 50 years, beginning in 1939. "When people came to Spray Cotton, they came there for life."

As Spray Cotton matured, so did the Eden area's textile industry. In the early part of the 20th century, Mebane's seven other mills were bought by the Marshall Fields company, the predecessor of Fieldcrest Cannon. And companies such as Karastan would eventually call the area home.

As the mills expanded in the early part of the century, people like Jack Morris's father moved from the Virginia mountains to the Eden area to work in the plants. A former furniture industry worker, Morris found himself at home in the mill, paving the way for his son to work there.

"This was a textile town in those days. Textiles were all over," Morris says of the 1940s, when he went to work at Spray. "I bet 75 percent of the town worked in textiles in those days, and the other 25 were farmers."

As recently as the mid 1980s, more than 10,000 people in Rockingham County worked in textiles. At its height in 1980s, Spray Cotton employed 376 people and had a payroll of $5.5 million. About 200 will lose their jobs in Eden today when the plant closes.

To put in perspective Spray Cotton's longevity, consider this: In 1986 - 90 years after Spray Cotton's start - Pluma, a fleece wear maker, was established in Eden to take advantage of the plentiful water and labor force. Pluma rose to prominence, making it to the New York Stock Exchange, but in 1999 was brought to its knees by imports and declared bankruptcy. The sweat shirt giant closed its doors two years before Spray Cotton.

"Spray Cotton was really unique," says Bob Carter, a historian at Rockingham County Community College. "There's been a lot of merging of mills, and a lot have closed over the years, but Spray kept doing the same thing until today."

Although none of Mebane's other mills are being used for their original purpose, some have assumed new uses, and all but one are still standing. The area in Spray where the mills stand has been declared a national historic district.

Why was Spray Cotton Mills able to operate effectively for so long?

Morris and Richardson credit good management, an effective work force and business plan that saved on production costs. But whatever it was, it got the mill out of some tough binds, they say.

In 1940, a flood almost doomed the mill before the entire work force, including Karl Bishopric, agreed to take a pay cut. The same strategy got the plant through a 1954 recession.

"Within a few months, we had our raises back," says Richardson of the 1940 crisis.

As established as the name "Spray Cotton Mills" has become, it almost never was. Years earlier, the yet-to-be-incorporated town was first named "Splashy," after the waterfall at Barnett Canal, and it's likely that name would have graced the mill had it not been changed to "Spray" before the plant was built.

"Spray sounds a bit more dignified I suppose," Carter says.

Hit Counter