Retrospect: Alabama’s Loom Towns

Avondale Mills was founded in Birmingham in 1897 but at its height employed 7,000 workers throughout the state

Women operate machinery at Avondale Mills in Sylacauga in 1943. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Founded as a single textile mill in Birmingham in 1897, Avondale Mills grew to include textile manufacturing operations in several Alabama cities. At the height of production in the 1940s, Avondale Mills employed 7,000 workers and produced a variety of textiles.

The looms of Avondale once seemed insatiable, consuming an estimated 20% of Alabama’s annual cotton crop. Few companies played a larger role in the state’s economic and political history.  

In the 1890s, following nearly two decades of Birmingham’s exponential growth as an industrial center, Pennsylvania textile magnate David Trainer fixed his eyes southward for an expansion. He found the members of the Birmingham Commercial Club (a precursor to the Chamber of Commerce) amenable to his offer to build a textile mill in the city. Civic leaders like Frederick Mitchell Jackson and Robert Jemison corralled willing investors for the enterprise. With an initial stake of $150,000, plans for the new mill commenced. The partners secured a 30-acre parcel from the Avondale Land Co. on the eastern outskirts of Birmingham. The majority of the nine-member board of directors were locals. Trainer and the other out-of-state investors were bought out soon after operations commenced. For much of its history, Avondale would be an Alabama company.

Alabama Gov. Braxton Bragg Comer around 1909. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Banker and businessman Braxton Bragg Comer became president of the new mill. He was a newcomer of sorts to Birmingham, arriving in 1890 by way of the boom town of Anniston, where he had spent five years as a commercial merchant. Despite his relative lack of textile expertise, Comer was a known entity. His agricultural upbringing and accompanying knowledge of cotton proved invaluable. And his rising star within the state’s Democratic party brought added cachet. Alabamians elected him as their 33rd governor in 1906. 

Shortly after Avondale began operations, a local writer described the din of the mill’s machinery as deafening. And for good reason. With 1,000 looms and some 35,000 spindles, the mill consumed 14 hulking bales of cotton a day and produced 40,000 yards of fabric.

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The company’s first product was a simple, plain print cloth, sold for pennies a yard. In its first year, Avondale employed 400 workers and posted a respectable profit of $15,000. That figure more than doubled in a decade, by which time workers were producing some 8 million yards of cloth each year.

Boosters beamed at Avondale’s unqualified successes and said the company represented the “spirit of Birmingham.” And like the city’s other industries, Avondale employed both women and young children in great numbers. The rise of Alabama’s manufacturing age came amidst a decade-long agricultural depression. Scores of families forsook the hardscrabble life of tenant farming for mill work, which oftentimes promised better wages and more reliable housing. In 1900, 30% of Alabama’s 8,000 millhands were children. Reformers rightly highlighted the dangerous nature of the work and its long-term effects on the health and education of child laborers. Perhaps due in part to his agricultural upbringing, where children regularly worked the land alongside their parents, B. B. Comer adopted a more conservative view of the issue. Still, both as a mill owner and later as governor, he helped broker compromise legislation reducing the number of hours for working youngsters.  

Upon B. B. Comer’s election as governor, the daily operations of Avondale Mills transferred to his son, Donald, who presided over the family’s growing textile empire for nearly half a century. Donald Comer oversaw the expansion of the company in Sylacauga (which also later served as Avondale’s headquarters) and other towns in Alabama and neighboring Georgia. The reach of the company went far beyond the walls of its mills. Avondale supported local schools, churches and community houses. There were mill-funded baseball teams and bands. Workers received bonuses, insurance and investment plans and even a profit-sharing program in later years. A weekly newspaper, the Avondale Sun, chronicled the lives of Avondale’s workers and executives.

For their part, most of Avondale’s employees saw Donald Comer’s efforts to improve their workplaces and livelihoods for what it was: a mixture of beneficence and paternalism which endeared “Mr. Donald” to generations of workers and their families but that also served to mostly keep union organizers away from the Avondale plants.

“It used to be we were just factory folk or ‘lint heads,’” one longtime employee recalled. “Now we are ‘mill operatives’ and we hold our head high. All work is honorable you know, and we are proud of ours.”

In 1933, Avondale took over operations of a textile mill in LaFayette that had been shuttered by the Great Depression. The editor of the local paper proclaimed, “Happy days are here again for those who have not had an opportunity to earn a livelihood.” This sentiment was not limited to millworkers. LaFayette businesses — including grocers, clothiers, druggists and general merchants — took out a full-page advertisement heralding Avondale’s arrival. Two decades later, the company’s annual payroll in the small Chambers County town was nearly $500,000.

Avondale Mills in Birmingham. Photo courtesy of Alabama Department of Archives & History.

In 1951, a third generation of the Comer family assumed control of the company. James Craig Smith, a grandson of B. B. Comer, undertook a modernization and expansion of Avondale’s machinery. During his tenure, Smith continued the practice of incentivizing the company’s employees, which assumed greater importance in an increasingly competitive industry. Avondale Mills became America’s leading producer of woven ticking and knitting yarn, as well as a major producer of denim.

Still, times were changing. In 1971, after seven decades of operation, the original mill site in Birmingham closed. Executives said they could no longer compete in an ever-expanding global economy. News of the closure came on the heels of an announcement from Washington of a trade agreement to curb foreign textile imports. But for Avondale’s original location, and a great many other American textile companies, the agreement came too late. The once-deafening sound of the Birmingham looms fell silent. Avondale’s textile mills in other towns continued on in their work for many years thereafter, in part through a series of mergers, until ceasing operations in 2006 after a 109-year history.    

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appeared in the August 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

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