Bellemont Mill Village | The Earliest Extant Mill Village in Alamance County

Bellemont Mill Village | The Earliest Extant Mill Village in Alamance County

The Bellemont Mill Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

The Bellemont Mill Village Historic District is comprised of the three-story brick mill building and the twenty-three associated one and two-story frame mill houses, one of the most intact examples of a late nineteenth century textile mill village in Alamance County.

With its textile-manufacturing industrial base, Alamance County was in the forefront of industrialization of the North Carolina Piedmont in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bellemont Mill Village was built in 1879-1880 by brothers L. Banks Holt and Lawrence S. Holt, major figures in North Carolina’s post-Reconstruction textile-based industrial revolution. Bellemont is believed to be the earliest extant mill village in Alamance County from this post-Civil War period.

Bellemont Mill Village is architecturally significant because of the early modern construction techniques, including the use of circular sawn framing timbers, utilized in the mill and in the distinctive I-house dwellings built for the mill operatives. The mill is architecturally significant because of its “slow-burn” construction method, decorative corbelled pendant cornice and segmental arched windows. Both the mill and the houses retain their architectural integrity, and the village retains its rural setting. The period of significance for the Bellemont Mill Village Historic District extends from its construction date, 1879-1880, until 1937 when the village was first subdivided and some of the houses were sold to private individuals.

Historical Background

When brothers L. Banks Holt and Lawrence S. Holt built the Bellemont Cotton Mill in 1879, they drew on forty years of successful family experience in the Alamance County textile manufacturing industry. The Holt family had lived near Great Alamance Creek since c.1750 and had grown wealthy and powerful by dominating the county’s primary industry, textile manufacturing. Banks and Lawrence Holt’s father, Edwin Michael Holt (1807-1884), recognized the untapped potential of Great Alamance Creek and in 1837 established the Alamance Factory which produced bundles of cotton yarn.[1] This successful factory was pivotal in the establishment and growth of Alamance County’s cotton textile manufacturing industry and was the “mother” mill of the some two dozen Holt family-operated mills constructed between 1837 and 1919. Measured by its impact on the county’s subsequent industrial development, the Alamance Factory was by far the most important of Alamance County’s antebellum mills. About 1845 Edwin Holt expanded his mill, enlarged the dam and mill races and installed a large water wheel. He installed 528 spindles, and the first power looms were in place by 1849. Edwin Holt drew his mill’s workers from surrounding farms and provided dwellings for them near the mill. In 1849 antiquarian Benson Lossing visited the mill and recorded that it had 1,350 spindles, 12 looms and that “around this mill was quite a village of neat log houses occupied by the operatives…and everything had the appearance of thrift,”[2] (Neither the Alamance Factory nor the log mill houses survive.)

Edwin Holt’s Alamance Factory prospered and in 1853 he and his son Thomas learned the dyeing process and introduced “one of the South’s first brand name fabrics,” Alamance Plaids, the first colored cotton cloth woven on power looms in the South.[3] The mill’s success was assured and by 1850 Holt was the richest man in Alamance County. The mill, which employed 53 women and 8 men, ran throughout the Civil War producing substantial amounts of yarn and cloth for the Confederate troops.[4]

Construction of the Bellemont Mill and village was a joint venture of L. Banks Holt (1842-1920) and Lawrence S. Holt (1851-1937). They located the new mill on the Great Alamance Creek about three miles east of their father Edwin’s Alamance Factory. Both Banks and Lawrence Holt received their early education at home and then at nearby schools (Banks at Dr. Wilson’s School, and Lawrence at Melville Academy) before entering military schools. (Banks attended Hillsborough Military Academy and Lawrence attended the Horner Military Academy in Oxford, N.C.)

L. Banks Holt

Banks served with distinction during the Civil War and after the war returned to Alamance County to farm and work in his father’s Alamance Factory. He also held a large interest in the Holt-owned Carolina Mill. In addition to the Bellemont Mill, Banks was a partner in the E.M. Holt Plaid Mills, sole proprietor of the Oneida Mill, and a partner in the Altamahaw Mill. With his father and brothers (in particular, Lawrence, who proposed the idea) he founded the Commercial National Bank (now North Carolina National Bank) in Charlotte in 1874. In addition to his manufacturing and banking ventures, Banks operated the 1,400-acre Oak Grove Stock Farm where he raised prize-winning cattle, sheep and pigs.[7]

Lawrence Holt

Lawrence Holt attended Davidson College for a short time after graduating from military school, but withdrew to work in his father’s Charlotte wholesale grocery store. Lawrence returned to Alamance County about 1875 to clerk in his father’s textile mill. In the late 1870s he established a tanyard in Company Shops (now Burlington) which produced leather belting for driving pulleys in cotton mills.[8] In 1879 Lawrence assumed management of E.M. Holt’s Sons Mill and Carolina Cotton Mill. In 1883 Lawrence invested his profits from Bellemont Mill in the creation of another factory, the E.M. Holt Plaid Mill. The next year he and Banks bought the Altamahaw Cotton Mills on Haw River near Elon College. In 1885 Lawrence purchased Lafayette Mills in East Company Shops and changed the name to Aurora Mills.[9] (Lawrence Holt’s sons Erwin and Eugene continued the operation of Aurora Mills until the early 1930s.) Lawrence’s principal philanthropy was the Episcopal Church and he is largely responsible for construction of St. Athanasius Church in 1879 (National Register listed) and the Church of the Holy Comforter in 1909, both in Burlington.[10]

Banks and Lawrence Holt hired contractor and mechanic Berry Davidson to construct their Bellemont Mill.[11] The April 8, 1879 edition of the local newspaper,The Alamance Gleanerreported on the construction of the mill and village:

“Messrs. Lawrence and Banks Holt, of the firm of E.M. Holt’s Sons, some weeks ago bought the property and water power at Eflins’ bridge, on Big Alamance, from P.F. Holt, and they have gone to work to build a new factory at that point. We notice wagons loaded with lumber for operatives’ houses passing through the village and very soon we shall have another cotton factory in full operation in the county. The factory building itself is to be of brick and a comodious (sic) proportions.”[12]

The massive sills and floor joists of the mill were cut on a circular saw, a relatively new and superior type of saw. “Ten years earlier, these framing members would have been hand hewn. By 1880 there were five saw mills in the county each operating with one or two circular saws.”[13] The large oak sills of the mill houses were also cut with a circular saw.

By mid-January 1880, Bellemont Mill was completed and ready for the installation of equipment. The Gleaner for January 14, 1880 reported,

“…the machinery for the new factory of L.B. and L.S. Holt at Bellemont, four miles from the village have been put down at the building and very soon will be put in place and the factory started.”

On March 17, 1880 the same source reported that 2,000 spindles were in place. The newspaper went on to report that

“…only part of the machinery is in place, the balance not being obtainable before next fall. This is the neatest, prettiest factory in the country, and is intended for spinning alone. The building itself, the store, the tenant houses, and all the surroundings are neat as a pin and are pleasing to look upon.”[14]

Over the next two years additional equipment was installed at Bellemont Mill as evidenced by these items from the Gleaner:

August 8, 1881:

“Messrs. L.B. and L.S. Holt had four or five wagons hauling new machinery for their factory last Saturday, and have not got it all in yet.”;

September 5, 1881:

“More cotton machinery went to Bellemont Mill last week.”;

April 17, 1882:

“Messrs. L.B. and L.S. Holt, proprietors of Bellemont Cotton Mills, hauled more than 20 new looms to their factory last week.”[15]

(The Holts apparently had changed their intentions in regard to “spinning alone” since the new looms produced plaid cloth.)

Bellemont Mill was one of the last water-powered textile mills built in Alamance County.[16] Prior to the development of steam-powered mills in the early 1880s, a cotton mill’s site was largely determined by the availability and location of water power. Water-powered mills were often located in rather isolated rural areas. There the mills were built first, and villages grew up around them. Mill workers drawn from surrounding farms to these rural mills had to be housed; mill owners constructed dwellings for them, as well as schools, churches and stores. “They created small communities around themselves, almost feudal in character.”[17]

Generally speaking, mill owners in the northern states built dormitories to house workers, while the southern mill owners constructed individual houses. Most of the Bellemont mill houses are two stories with a hall-and-parlor plan, a plan which was already antiquated when it was incorporated into the layout. “Although the plan was traditional, the method of construction was modern…the frame throughout was constructed with circular sawn lumber. Mantels, window sash, doors and interior sheathing were all products of the saw mill.”[18] (The Bellemont company store, originally located across the street from the mill, does not survive, nor does the house which formerly served as the village school.)[19]

Many of Bellemont’s residents and the mill’s workers were women. Sometimes three or four sisters or cousins lived together under the supervision of a housekeeper, often an older, widowed female relative. For instance, the 1880 Alamance Census Population Schedule records that in the Bellemont, Saxapahaw and Carolina Mill villages, the majority of heads of households were women. The 1880 Census recorded that Bellemont mill village was home to fourteen households. Typical occupations listed included “spinners,” “spoolers” and those listed as “keeping house.” Other occupations listed included “painter,” “brick maker,” and “farm worker.”[20]

A forty year long period of steady textile manufacturing industry growth in Alamance County followed construction of the Bellemont Mill. Between 1879 and 1883 eight new mills joined the seven Holt family mills already in operation; between 1886 and 1894 nine new mills were constructed, and between 1901 and 1904 four others were built.[21] The last Holt family cotton weaving mill was built in 1919 by Edwin C. Holt and Paul Stevens and incorporated as Stevens Manufacturing Company.[22] Until the late 1890s Alamance County ranked either first or second among North Carolina counties in number of spindles; in total number of looms, it held first place until 1916; and it was first in the ratio of looms to spindles until the late 1920s.[23]

After Banks Holt purchased his brother Lawrence’s partnership share of the Bellemont Mill in 1897, he operated all his mills as proprietorships until 1909 when he established the “L. Banks Holt Manufacturing Co.” and transferred ownership of the properties to the Holt family-run corporation. With five mills under its ownership and control, the L. Banks Holt Manufacturing Company was the largest producer of cotton fabrics in Alamance County.[24]

Banks Holt died in 1920 and the corporation was operated for several years by his heirs. L. Banks Holt Manufacturing Company began to dispose of its mills during the mid-1920s when the production of cotton goods became less profitable and cotton was replaced by rayon and other synthetic fabrics. In 1927 the entire village of Alamance, including the Alamance Factory, was sold to Standard Hosiery Mills.[25] Bellemont Mill remained a part of the L. Banks Holt Manufacturing Company until 1933 when E.M. Holt Plaid Mill, Inc. purchased the mill and village and converted the mill to rayon manufacture.[26] During the 1930s many textile mill owners, faced with the high cost of maintaining a mill village, sold the houses to their former tenants.[27] E.M. Holt Plaid Mill, Inc, subdivided Bellemont village in 1937 and sold sixteen of the houses to five individuals.[28] Burlington Milling Company, now Burlington Industries, purchased the Bellemont Mill and the remaining houses in 1939.[29] As part of Burlington Industries’ operations, the mill was renamed Bellemont Weaving.[30] Burlington Industries operated the mill until the late 1950s, but sold all of the remaining mill houses between 1942 and 1944.[31] In 1958 Hazel Knitting Mill, Inc., owned by Charles Foster and William S. Foster purchased Bellemont Mill.[32] After William Foster’s death in 1973, the mill was leased to his son, William S. Foster, Jr., owner of Flexon Fabric Inc. Flexon produced polyester double-knit fabric, and employed approximately fifty workers at the former Bellemont Mill.[33] Foster purchased the mill in 1977 from First Union National Bank of North Carolina, the executors of his father’s estate.[34] Foster opened Flexon Fabrics there until 1981 when he moved the business to his Haw River plant.[35]

Tasker Industries ofGreensboropurchased the Bellemont Mill in 1981 and are the current owners of the mill; the mill building has remained vacant since that time.[36] Currently several of the mill houses are owned by retired mill employees; other are owned by employees of other Burlington area industries or by real estate investors.

Bellemont Village Mill Today

When architectural historian Dr. Carl Lounsbury surveyed the county’s historic architecture in 1979-1980, eight former Holt family controlled mills survived in various states of intactness. Since Lounsbury’s survey was completed, the Bellemont Mill has ceased operation. The mill village continues to be a viable community. A North Carolina developer has expressed a strong interest in adaptively reusing the Bellemont Mill building for residential development. The Alamance County government is supportive of this type of project for the mill building. Other local real estate developers have renovated some of the mill houses, as have various Bellemont home owners.

To date no archaeological investigations have been conducted within the Bellemont Mill Village Historic District, but given the undisturbed condition of the land and the number of relatively intact structures present, it is likely that significant archaeological remains may be present.

Alamance County has an active Historic Properties Commission and in 1985 this group was accorded certified local government status. As part of its preservation planning efforts, Alamance County requested the nomination of the Bellemont Mill Village Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places.