The South in the days before the Civil War had despised manufacturing, but the men who rebuilt the war-ravaged Southern states were well aware of the importance of industrialization.
The new era began with the opening of the Piedmont Mill in the upper part of South Carolina in 1876. The textile industry grew quickly after 1880, and South Carolina was one of the leading textile-producing states in the nation for the next forty years. By 1892 there were fifty-one mills in South Carolina, making the state first in the nation in power looms and second in spindles. Textile mills became a major element of industry, commerce, and society in the upcountry.
William Ashmead Courtenay of Charleston was one of the pioneers of the industrial movement which transferred the bulk of the American cotton industry from New England to the Southern states where the raw material is produced. Courtenay served as mayor of that city from 1879-1887, where he was lauded for his handling of a major earthquake in 1886.
In weighing a location for the cotton mill he wished to build, Courtenay selected the Piedmont section of South Carolina for proximity to the growing fields, and narrowed his choice to Oconee County with its river resources flowing vigorously out of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Among other criteria he considered was the expanding rural population with its eagerness for “real pay” and more favorable living conditions. He knew that a new, clean village with more conveniences and steady pay would draw the sharecroppers. And indeed, many unsuccessful farmers did turn to the textile mill for employment.
Of a nervous temperament, his was an impetuous and in some respects aggressive nature, involving constant effort to restrain impulses and check too hasty action. He possessed quick perceptive power, tireless energy, strong facility for organization, wonderful capacity for work and marked executive ability. Impatient of unnecessary delays, this with some left the impression of needless austerity and impulsiveness, but under all this seeming brusqueness there was a genial disposition.
—-Description of William Ashmead Courtenay from History of South Carolina, by Yates Snowden, Harry Gardner Cutler, Lewis Publishing Company, 1920
On April 21, 1893, Courtenay and his associates received a charter from the South Carolina secretary of state “to establish a factory in Oconee County for the manufacturing, spinning, dying, printing, and selling of all cotton and woolen goods.” Courtenay built his cotton mill and a village of workers’ houses along the Little River, naming the town Newry in memory of his ancestors’ original family home in Ireland.
There was a rumor about William Courtenay using funds allocated for earthquake relief in Charleston in order to start the mill community, says Henry Cater, who worked for Courtenay Manufacturing Company from 1952 to 1964, in an oral history. Even the location of the mill is key to the story, as it was claimed that the community was essentially “hidden” by its location in the valley.
Cater says the corporation formed by Courtenay with Frances J. Pelzer, William B Smith Whaley, R. C. Rhett, W. B. S. Hayward, and John C. Carey in fact raised stock aboveboard and was innocent of that charge.
“It was in a sparsely settled and unfrequented corner of the county,” Courtney wrote of the new site to his stockholders. “Labor had to be brought there, shelters built for them; in fact all the primitive conditions of the distant border had to be dealt with, machinery for brick making and other purposes had to be transported from distant points, one and a half miles of railroad must be graded and built.”
Courtenay Mill was constructed in a typical New England textile factory design. The design is attributed to William B Smith Whaley. On June 14, 1894, water first turned one of the mill power wheels. The mill was in full operation by the end of that year. The plant was originally operated by hydro power, but about 1905, steam engines and boilers increased production.
Many of the structures at Newry, including the mill, mill office, post office, store, church, supervisors’ houses, and many of the workers’ houses, were built between 1893 and 1911. The houses are excellent examples of buildings in a planned textile village.
Courtenay also built a house at Newry which he called Innisfallen and lived there until 1902. That year he told stockholders in the company’s annual report: “Under the Company’s By-Laws it has not been possible for me to be absent for more than a few days at a time during these ten years. I may be obliged to have a vacation in the coming spring.” But it was more than a vacation. He moved to Columbia, the state capital, where he spent the last years of his life, dying in 1908.
The mill itself closed in 1975, and The Newry Historic District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.