Threads of Time: How Textiles Wove Greenville into a Global Powerhouse

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Today we explore the rich tapestry of Greenville’s textile history with Don Koonce, a leading expert on the subject and a seasoned filmmaker. From the rise of 18 mills in a mere three-square-mile radius to the indelible impact on local communities, we unravel how textiles have shaped Greenville’s economy, governance, and even its neighborhoods.

Don shares captivating stories of entrepreneurial brilliance, community spirit, and the transformation of empty mills into bustling hubs of modern activity. Discover how the legacy of these textile titans continues to influence Greenville today, and why understanding this history is crucial for the community’s future. Don’t miss this journey through time, as we stitch together the past, present, and future of Greenville.


Don Koonce Bio

Textile Empire Documentary


Katy Smith: Greenville was once known as the textile capital of the world, with 18 mills operating in just 3 sq. miles of our community. Today you can still see the smokestacks, water towers and brick mill buildings throughout the area, even though only two of those facilities are still operating as mills. But the history of textiles is woven into Greenville’s local governments, neighborhoods, and the economy even today. 

I’m Katy Smith with Greater Good Greenville, and I’m so pleased to be joined by Don Koonce, who is one of the foremost experts on Greenville’s textile history. Don is creative director for FernCreek Creative, Inc. for which he has produced over 300 films and videos for clients throughout the country. 

In 2019, he produced a full length documentary about the textile history in the upstate of South Carolina for PBS. Don’s bio is in the show notes, but know that he’s a recipient of the state’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner award for his contributions to the arts, as well as the Order of the Palmetto for his service to veterans and the state of South Carolina. 

Don, I’m so grateful to you for being here and for the tremendous way you have documented Greenville’s rich history with the textile industry. Thank you!

Don Koonce: I’m glad to be here and glad to help tell this story, which is an absolutely remarkable story.

Katy Smith: Well, I do believe there are so many newcomers to Greenville who see the water towers as they drive out Cedar Lane Road or smoke stacks or they know that we have a history. Or they might even live in a condo that’s located at an old mill, but might not know the depths of the history of the textile industry and how it is still woven into Greenville today. 

So it’s hard to give a short overview of the textile history of Greenville, but can you give folks kind of a run through of how it started here?

Don Koonce: Certainly. Keep in mind that all of the south, principally South Carolina, had textile mills in every little town. The textile industry was huge, but there were one or two mills in each town in Greenville because of a brilliant entrepreneur named Ellison Adger Smyth, who was the president of Pelzer Mill, put a whole group of businessmen together and they built 18 textile mills in Greenville, South Carolina. They form a crescent around the southern part of the town, which they called the textile crescent. 

And the furthest mill is 3 miles from downtown, which is amazing. There’s nowhere else in the world that has that many textile mills that close to an urban downtown. The importance of that is they decided early on to partner with each other in the manufacture of fabric, all kinds of fabrics, sheeting, broadcloth, twill, which is a uniform fabric.

And they decided they would make more money if they combined efforts. They also decided early on to build Greenville, and they all contributed to the building of Greenville, the Poinsett Hotel, many of the other things were built by these guys. They all served on the boards of the railroads, so they control the railroads. 

The interesting thing about Greenville, too, is that textile mills all over the south were built to be driven by water power. These guys built only one mill to be driven by water power, and that was camper down mill. The rest of them were located because of the railroads, not water.

Katy Smith: And they were powered by steam?

Don Koonce: They were powered by steam. So water was important, but it was not a driver. Like, Camperdown was where you have a water mill and that kind of thing. So textiles were extremely important. The economy of this community of Greenville from the late 1800s to well into the 1970s, 80s, was driven by the Textile Crescent.

Katy Smith: To ground it more specifically in time, when Mr. Smyth helped build those first mills and unite those businessmen at the time to have those 18 mills. When would you say we had, like, were the 18 all functional? What time frame are we talking about?

Don Koonce: By 1930.

Katy Smith: By 1930.

Don Koonce: Yeah. The last mill was built in 1930.

Katy Smith: Okay. And at that time, downtown Greenville was a couple of square blocks, right? And had five railroads coming into it at that time?

Don Koonce: Five different railroads, and were either terminated in Greenville or they passed through Greenville. But they all came through into Greenville because of the textile industry.

Katy Smith: That’s remarkable.

Don Koonce: Yeah, it really is. All of it is remarkable. Smyth was a genius. Smyth was absolutely a genius. He ended up being on the boards of 32 textile mills. And 16 banks. He was on the boards of 16 banks. And so he decided, as I mentioned, the best way to make money was to put these guys together and talk them into going in the textile business. It was amazing. Otis Prentiss Mills was in North Carolina. 

And he came over here because he fell in love with colonel Thomas Gower’s daughter, Susan. And so he came over here and created a dairy farm. But he also was in the dry goons business, not Texels. And Ellison Adrismai talked him into going in the Texel business. And this is in 1895.

Katy Smith: Oh, my gosh!

Don Koonce: And so he builds mills, mill, which made herringbone fabric for the marine corps. It made very luxurious fabric, linen and that kind of thing. So it just went on. And then, for instance, Brandon mill, he talked John Irby Westervelt into building Brandon mill, which Westervelt named Quentin Mill. But he made Ellison Andrew Smyth the president of his board. 

And so Smyth talked him into changing it to Brandon, which was named after a revolutionary war colonel’s family who owned the area around west Greenville. And you’ve seen Brandon. Brandon’s a huge mill. Luckily, it is now completely occupied as an apartment complex and art center.

Katy Smith: Yeah. So this innovative man, Mr. Smyth, sees opportunity for himself and for this area in textiles. So gets 18 mills open either by his own doing or by encouraging others to do so, all within 3 miles of downtown. Is that correct? 

Don Koonce: Oh, absolutely.

Katy Smith: Yeah. And so they had a huge part of our economy, but they played a huge role in our government. And the vestiges of them can still be seen today. Can you talk about the echoes of the textile industry still today in our community and in our government?

Don Koonce: Oh, I think Greenville is where it is prosperity wise and government direction and leadership wise because of these guys. These guys literally provided the foundation of the leadership that drove Greenville, that built Greenville. 

And you layer on top of them the Charlie Daniels and the Buck Mickels and the real leadership that kept Greenville growing. And these guys, especially Smyth and the Woodsides, had a great deal of input into the government of Greenville. It’s just like when World War I hit. They decided to build Camp Sevier. 

And so they went to the army and talked the army into building Camp Sevier. Joe Sirrine, who was a brilliant architect, was also the one that designed and built most of the textile mills in the Crescent. He designed and built Camp Sevier. And so they had their fingers in all the pies. They would meet and they all had offices in one building downtown on Main Street.

Katy Smith: Which building?

Don Koonce: It was the Masonic Temple. It’s no longer there. And it’s where the Symphony building is now.

Katy Smith: Okay, got it.

Don Koonce: And they would meet on a daily basis or nightly basis and make decisions for their mill villages and for great one. And the interesting thing, if you ever drive the text of Crescent mill villages overlap, they literally touch each other. And the mills are so close to each other that these guys decided to design their mill houses. 

And there are over 5000 mill houses out there designed their mill houses differently so that they could tell which houses were theirs without having to drive around or without having to go to paper. And so you see what they called salt box style. You see slant back, you see pyramid style, you see throughout the Textile Crescent.

Oh, I think the legacy of the Textile Crescent and the men who built the mills is very strong in this area. There’s no question that the pure sense of entrepreneurism has led Greenville to grow. And the leadership that has layered on top of these guys, they’re all entrepreneurs. 

They also created this incredibly strong public private partnership that has built so much in this town. 

Katy Smith: Yeah. So it does sort of point to the importance of people coming together, people of goodwill coming together for the good of the community.

We started by talking about how people can see water towers and smokestacks in the mills themselves. What is really great is that while they might not in many cases, most cases be still working on textiles, they still have a life. Can you talk about the purpose of the mills these days?

Don Koonce: The exciting thing for me is the fact that the mills are still there. 15 out of the 18 are still standing. And back in the 80s, late 70s, 80s, these mills closed. When I started giving textile tours, they were all empty. Brandon was a warehouse for Kmart and Walmart and that kind of thing, but it was basically empty. All of them were empty. 

Pied, my plush mill, the roofs falling in, which is right across from St. Francis Hospital. They were that way for 15, 20 years, and now all of a sudden, they’re all been redeveloped. Brilliant developers have come in and seen the opportunity to do something really positive with these huge mills, and they’re all full, except for one. That’s phenomenal. 

Other communities, whether it be Ware Shoals, whether it be even in Spartanburg, they’ve torn their mills down, whether they had a tragedy like fire, or some of them just tore them down for the bricks and timber. And Greenville never did. And one of the reasons, and I know I’m getting off this, but in the 1980s, because the textile industry basically came to an end and these mills closed. 

Greenville, for some reason, completely turned around because the whole focus of Greenville was the textile crescent, was this area completely turned around and moved northeast and left the whole textile crescent basically the area in poverty. And so that’s why they stayed empty. And Greenville just said, well, they’re back there. We don’t worry about them. They’ll just sit there. And they sat there empty. 

And the worst part about it is the mill villages suffered enormously. I mean, they were so poor, the big mills had sold their villages to Slumlords. because the new owners, which keep in mind the older owners, had passed away. So the Dan Rivers and the Cone Mills and JP Stevens took over. They didn’t want to be in the real estate business they didn’t want to own those houses, so they sold all their houses to slumlords, basically. 

And most of the mill villages were transient. And it was sad. It was really sad. And now, because these developers have turned everything around and developed these mills, the villages are coming back to life. 

Young people are buying these mill houses and fixing them up. They’re not forcing out families. The families themselves that have worked in the mills are fixing up their houses. And it’s just very encouraging. 

Dunean is still in operation with the textile mill they manufacture. They’re owned by the International Textile Group, which manufactures the material for airbags, for automobiles and trucks throughout the world. They manufacture fireproof fabric for the military and for firefighters, and they manufacture bulletproof material for fuel bladders, for fighter aircraft. 

And then the other one is Southern Weaving, which made the actual cabling that brought up the Henley. They make polyester cabling. And then KM Fabrics. KM Fabrics one time was part of Brandon mill, and they were making duck cloth. 

And now it was purchased by a guy in the 80s and it’s manufacturing velvet and velour drapery for auditoriums all over the world, including the Metropolitan Opera and right there in Greenville. So, I mean, it was still in operation.

Katy Smith: With all of these mill presidents and all of these mills. There is story after story after story. Can you tell us one of your favorites?

Don Koonce: One of my heroes is a guy by the name of Bennett Gere. Bennett Gere was at one time the head of the English Department at Furman University and a Shakespearean scholar. And his brother John was the president of five textile mills. This is in 1911, 1912. 

And a guy by the name of John Irving Westervelt had built a mill that was an experimental mill designed to manufacture short, stable cotton and silk. And it was struggling. And he was struggling. He was about bankrupt. John Gere, the stockholders, talked him into coming over and taking over the mill, which he did. 

The problem is he developed cancer and had to go to Johns Hopkins. He calls on his brother Bennett at Furman and said, I need your help. Bennett resigns from Furman and goes out and takes over as president of Westervelt Mill and five other mills. 

He changes the name of Westervelt to Judson in honor of Dr. C. S. Judson, who was the president of the women’s college at Furman and he starts turning the mill around. The problem was, the mill was close to going out of business. One of the stockholders was James Buchanan Duke, the tobacco giant.

Katy Smith: Yeah. And Duke University and all the “Dukes” that you know?

Don Koonce: Yep, him. Bennett gets on the train, goes to New York to meet with Duke, and Duke asks him, what is it you do? And he said, I’m an English professor, but I’m trying to learn something about this business. He’s the general manager of six textile mills. And so they became fast friends. James Buchanan Duke gives him a check for $65,000 to save Wesserville Mill again, which he named Judson. 

And then they would travel back and forth from Greenville to New York on Duke’s train and have all these wonderful conversations. So then in 1920, he’s running Judson Mill and DuPont, DuPont invents rayon, which is really a big deal. 

And Bennett Gere being the English professor, that he decided, well, why don’t we produce a new fabric using short, stable cotton and rayon? And he manufactures the first synthetic fabric in the world right there, Judson. And it was so successful that Garish Milliken ended up buying Judson, keeping Bennett on his president. And the Milliken story goes, but it was the first big mill that Garish Milliken invested in.

Katy Smith: Wow. And if that’s not a testament to a liberal arts education, I don’t know what is….

Don Koonce: Exactly. 

Katy Smith: English professor turned textile magnate.

Don Koonce: And Shakespearean scholar. 

Katy Smith: And Shakespearean scholar. Right, right.

Well, I think for people who want to learn more about those stories, which everyone should, because it’s fascinating and it is the roots of our community, they need to go and visit and watch the documentary that you made.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

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