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Darlington Manufacturing

Between Nowhere and Lost was inspired by true events surrounding Darlington Manufacturing Company, a 73-year-old textile mill in Darlington, South Carolina.

The Seed

When I began this book, my intention was to write a love story, but my character needed a job of some sort. I considered a paper mill, but have another story dealing with that industry, so the idea of textiles came to mind. With much of my family hailing from the south, and some of them having worked for Springs Mills, I thought it would be a good backdrop for the story. When I started my internet research, some Supreme Court papers popped up regarding the Darlington Manufacturing Company case and the seeds for the story were planted.

As my imagination, and the book, took off and I got deeper into it, I wanted more accurate information than a one-page court brief, so I made a trip to Darlington to visit the County Historical Commission…and was richly rewarded.

With a banker’s box full of documents dating back to 1890, with photos, newspaper clippings, letters, even paystubs and an old employee handbook, I finally learned the history of Darlington Manufacturing and the details of the case—and the story touched me deeply.

The History

In 1883, the mill in Darlington was incorporated by Major James Lide Coker, a veteran of the Confederate Army during the Civil War and affectionately called "The Major". When many mills were shutting down because of the poor economy, Darlington remained open and even paid dividends through at least the 1890s. Coker’s brother William, the mill’s first president, believed stockholders could more easily withstand a loss in dividends than the workers could afford to lose in their wages.[1] The Cokers ran the plant with a benevolent hand, even with child labor in the ranks.

There are some inconsistencies in the dates I’ve found during the early 1900s. At some point (some reports indicate this was in the 1930s, but further research indicates that can’t be correct), Coker began expansion of the mill, but needed financial assistance, and Seth M. Milliken, Sr. became a principal stockholder in the company. Seth Milliken died in 1920, however, so his financial interest must have come at least in the decade prior. Seth’s son, Gerrish, took over Deering-Milliken after his father’s death. Sometime during this period, Coker and Milliken (whether Seth or Gerrish) disagreed over the way Coker ran the mill. Finally, Coker tired of the battle and sold the company and its stock in its entirety to the Milliken family. When Gerrish died of a heart attack in 1947, his son Roger took control of Deering-Milliken and in 1958 built a new research facility in Spartanburg and moved the company.

Darlington Manufacturing was not the only textile mill acquired by Milliken in those years. Under Seth, 42 struggling mills were bought out, and by the 1950s, Deering-Milliken was the third largest textile corporation in the country.

* * *

Darlington Manufacturing had a 200,000 square foot mill building and 50,000 square feet of warehouses that sat on approximately 31 acres. By the time of the plant’s closure in 1956, the mill village by the plant was a self-sustaining community, with a YMCA, barbershop, company store—even sports teams and social hang-outs. Employees had no need to leave sight of the mill; however, nearby Darlington stores did benefit from their business. The company began selling off the mill village houses in the early 1950s, allowing workers the opportunity to own their homes.

By the 1950s, as the largest corporation in the town for 73 years, Darlington Manufacturing employed 523 people and ran three shifts. With 873 high-speed looms and a weekly output of 600,000 yards of fabrics, including poplin, oxford and printcloth, the gross annual payroll was over $1.6 million. Darlington received nearly one-eighth of their property tax base from the mill—$18,000 in city taxes, and $24,000 in county taxes [2].

But none of the townspeople or the employees knew of the devastation about to occur to the town, and to them personally.

Next: The Union Vote

Images used by permission from the Darlington County Historical Commission

[1] Florence Morning News, August 23, 1981

[2] [Darlington] News and Press

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