top of page
  • Writer's pictureHistoric Columbus

From the Bibb Mill to Oliver Dam: The Industrial Archeology of Columbus (Part IV)

SOURCES: Industrial Archeology of Columbus, Georgia: A Tour Guide for the 8th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial Archeology, April 1979 by Dr. John S. Lupold, Columbus, Georgia 1828 - 1978 by Dr. John S. Lupold, the Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress, and The West Georgia Textile Heritage Trail by Center for Public History at the University of West Georgia, 2015.


The Columbus Plant of the Bibb Company (a Georgia-wide corporation with sizeable Columbus investors) started as a typical 300-foot southern textile mill in 1901. Then, a 200-foot extension (1915-1916) and a 500-foot addition (1920) made it, according to the company, the largest mill in the South "under one roof." Originally, this mill only spun threads and yarns. (It operated mule spinners until 1907, an atypical operation for a southern mill, illustrating the high skill level of Columbus workers.) In l9ll, the company added a weave shed (and larger ones in 1924 and 1949) where it manufactured tire fabric and cord and then, in the 1940s, phased into the production of sheeting. Following the general trend of many Bibb mills in Georgia, the company, in 1903, established Bibb City, a well-planned village, with 101 houses (over 300 by 1930). The paternalistic company, seeking a stable, loyal work force, provided a variety of social, educational, and recreational activities: social clubs, bus trips, an auditorium, school, nursery, gymnasium, and swimming pool (but never a company store). Bibb City residents developed a sense of community that continued even after the company sold the houses in the 1960s, primarily to the residents. Bibb City remained a separate entity with its own mayor, council, policemen, and lower rate of taxation until it consolidated with Columbus in 2001.

African Americans experienced the textile mill world very differently than white families. Mills did not offer the same work opportunities to Black men and women as they did for whites. Life in the mill village was also restricted, and Black workers typically had to seek housing and recreation elsewhere. Mill policies regularly forbade African Americans from living in the mill villages; instead, many lived just outside the boundaries. When mills did provide housing for African American families, it was separated from the rest of the mill village. Owners offered African American men only the dirtiest and heaviest work. Most commonly, they unloaded cotton bales from wagons in the mill yard. Some also worked in the boiler, picker, or opening rooms. Many were employed in the construction of the mills and mill houses. Although there were not many opportunities, they often made the most of the few they had. Some men were able to move slowly up the job chain to better positions. Still, most would almost never receive the highest paying jobs. The mills afforded African American women even fewer opportunities than men; African American women almost never found employment in the mills. Rarely would the mills employ African American women to clean bathrooms or floors. More often, they worked in the village, taking care of other families’ homes and children.

Pictured above: (Left) c.1903 section of the Bibb Village (Right) c. 1920 section of the Bibb Village designed by Earle S. Draper, noted landscape architect.

Constructed at the same time as the North Highlands Dam and Bibb Mill, Columbus Manufacturing Company (3201 First Avenue) was designed to consume electricity produced by the Columbus Power Company. Columbus Manufacturing built its plant to take advantage of the surplus power from the dam that the Bibb and Columbus Power Company could not consume themselves and decided to sell. Frederick B. Gordon, who organized the Columbus Manufacturing Company, became the first and largest power customer of the hydro-development. Columbus Manufacturing was organized in 1899. Originally, 5500 volts, a.c., served two General Electric synchronous motors (400 & 600 horsepower) which turned the drive shaft of an English rope drive system (individual strands). The ropes, within a 20-foot wide (north to south) beltway which transversely bisected the 300-foot mill, powered sheaves on all four floors. The company phased out the rope drive in the 1930s, but still ran some carding machines from line-shafting as late as 1977.

Early image of Columbus Manufacturing Company

Both local and northern capital built this sheeting mill (25,000 spindles and 500 looms, probably all automatic Draper model "Es"). Local directors of the company were Frederick B. Gordon, W. C. Bradley, J. Rhodes Browne, and E. P. Dismukes - all local industrialists. Foreign capital included money from Wellington and Sears, who were selling agents for the mill; this was a typical arrangement. All outside capitalists were from Boston. Additions included a 240-foot extension (1910) to the main structure, a one-story weave shed (ca. 1920), and later, small modifications. In 1946, West Point Pepperell bought the facility to produce industrial sheeting. In the early 2000s, the mill was purchased and adaptively re-used as apartments.

Aerial of the Columbus Manufacturing Company in mid-twentieth century

In 1906, Edward W. Swift, A. Illges, and other local investors, organized the Swift Spinning Mills (3224 Second Avenue) to take advantage of the electrical power coming from the North Highland Dam. This "sales-yarn" mill began production in 1908. Starting with 10,000 spindles, it operated 37,000 in 1937 and 76,000 in 1979. Its yarns included cotton, woolen, synthetic, and a variety of blends. The last addition, made in 1965, was a combed yarn mill to manufacture 100% cotton for knitted goods. Some of its products supplied other Columbus factories but most of them served the national market. Fieldcrest purchased the mill during the 1960s. It spun thread in its original building until 2001 when that site was closed. The mill was later demolished. Below is an image from the 1970s looking north on Second Avenue with the mill on the right.

The two-block long, two-story high complex began in 1905 in the Northern Liberties section of Columbus (1250 29th Street) as two hosiery knitting mills, both financed by local investors. The larger one on the southern end, Perkins, produced yarn and knitted, while the smaller Topsy bought yarn from its neighbor and only contained knitting machines. Perkins absorbed Topsy by 1912, and in 1938, the entire plant was reorganized as Jordan Mills (pictured below). The knitting operation ceased about 1946, and the mill began manufacturing upholstery fabric {the entire process from carding to weaving). In 1968, it shifted to carding, twisting, spinning, and heat setting carpet yarns. Its product remains basically the same (a synthetic yarn spun from fibers with a seven-inch staple), although it was sold in 1975 to Cartersville Spinning, a division of World Carpets, Inc. Even though this mill had its own village, Jordan City (which it sold in the early 1960s), and despite its apparent length, this plant remained relatively small when compared with the Bibb or Fieldcrest mills. The mill burned in 2005.

The Dillingham Street Bridge (1910 – 1912) is a reinforced concrete bridge with Melan arches consists of five equal 128-foot clear spans. The pier footings rest on bed rock with a dimension of 62 by 23 feet tapered to 17 by 17 feet. The Concrete Steel Engineering Company of New York designed this structure with B. H. Hardaway of Columbus serving as the contractor. This was the site of the initial Chattahoochee River bridge in the Columbus area. The city council financed the construction in 1832 of a covered Town Lattice bridge, erected by John Godwin and Horace King. The Confederates burned this span in a futile attempt to defend the city. In 1866, King replaced the original structure with a similar one which served until 1910. In 1910, The American Bridge Company of New York built the Upper Southern Railway Bridge, a deck plate-girder structure with 11 spans resting on ten concrete piers. (The eight which span the river have ashlar foundations) The first railroad bridge (1855) into Columbus crossed at this point and carried the Columbus & Western Railroad (later controlled by the Central of Georgia) which ran to Opelika, Alabama (adjacent to Auburn). There the line connected with the main route from Atlanta to Montgomery, Alabama. The wooden bridge, rebuilt after the Civil War, was apparently a wooden deck truss structure.

Meritas Mills, financed by outside investors, began in 1911 with 9,900 spindles and 170 looms. By 1927, several expansions brought its capacity to 64,000 spindles and 1,360 looms. The company closed during the depression, and the Bibb Company purchased it in 1937 and renamed it the Anderson Plant. It continued to weave tire cord after such production had stopped at Columbus Plant of the Bibb. The Anderson Plant received dyed yarn from the Columbus Plant and wove plaid shirt- and dress-weight material and is beginning to manufacture drapery material. Anderson Village was comprised of 169, small two- and three-bedroom brick cottages. The cottages were sited close to each other, and the neighborhood centered on a park in the middle of the development. Many of the residents of the neighborhood worked in the adjacent Anderson Mill or the Bibb Mill located on the banks of the Chattahoochee River at 38th Street. Uniquely, the houses in Anderson Village were constructed of solid brick rather than a veneer on a wood frame due to a lumber shortage resulting from wood being needed during the war effort. Another interesting piece of history related to the housing is that all of the homes were owned by the Bibb Manufacturing Co. until 1964. City Directories show that between 80 – 90% of the tenants became homeowners when the Bibb Manufacturing Company offered the homes for purchase. On average, the homes sold for $6,000.00 at 6.5% for 20 years. The average house payments were around $40 per month. One of the suspected reasons for disposing of the company housing was likely pressure from the Federal government to integrate housing. Even by the 1960’s, no African Americans had been given the opportunity to live in Anderson Village, even if they worked at the mill. So, in opposition to integrating the housing, the company chose to sell the homes to private buyers. Today, there are many homes in Anderson Village that retain their original footprints. The houses remain affordable and efficient. Local housing developer Neighborworks Columbus is working to renovate some of the long vacant homes and help place affordable mortgages on them for new owners. Additionally, Neighborworks is putting the final touches on a new multi-family development on the site of the Anderson Mill.

By 1930, Marshall Morton, the city manager, wrote that Columbus needed no more textile mills until the entire industry could pay higher wages. "I feel like a woman with fifteen children," said Morton in discussing the city's mills: "I love those I have, but I wouldn't give a thin dime for another one." Unlike other southern mills that became part of larger regional or national chains, the Columbus mills remained locally owned until after World War II. Other industries besides textiles did develop in Columbus, but the regional and national factors encouraging large-scale production and geographical specialization certainly influenced the industrial development of the city. By 1920, the city's economy was proportionately less diversified and had fewer small manufacturing firms than during the 1870s. Grist milling, especially of wheat, declined. Local breweries and cigar manufacturers disappeared. Industries like brickmaking (i.e., Bickerstaff Brick Yards) which served a local market continued to flourish. Two large foundries (Columbus Iron Works and Goldens' Foundry) replaced earlier, smaller operations and fulfilled local demands and also shipped specialty items, as did F. H. Lummus Sons & Co. with their cotton gins. The last two mills to be constructed in Columbus were both located in the Northern Liberties area on Talbotton Road across from the Jordan Mills. They were also both hosiery mills.

This plain brick, one-story structure on Talbotton Road housed Shannon Hosiery Mill (above) from 1939 to 1957. The shift from seamed to seamless hose doomed this and other local knitting mills. The building was then adapted to several non-industrial uses. In 1958, the Columbus School Board wanted to create a junior college, and to qualify for state aid it had to be functioning by September of 1958. So, the board purchased the vacant mill and converted it into a small college. In the early 1960s, Columbus College moved to its own campus (where it is now a four-year college with masters' degrees in business and education). The mill next served as a junior high school and now houses the headquarters for the Junior ROTC program in the public schools. Archer Mills (below) started on Front Avenue as one of three small hosiery-knitting operations which began in Columbus during the 1920s. (The other two apparently failed within a few years.) In 1929, Archer Mills moved to this modern two-story facility on Talbotton Road designed by Lockwood, Greene and Company. This locally owned company stopped operating in 1971.

Stone and Webster, the Boston Engineering firm and holding company, controlled the Columbus Power Company until 1930 and designed this facility. From 1910 to 1912, Hardaway Construction Company of Columbus built this 70-foot-high concrete gravity structure with a 193-foot intake section, 973 1/2-foot spill way, and 390 feet of non-overflow sections. A tunnel runs the entire length of the dam from the Alabama to the Georgia side. Goat Rock Dam forms a 940-acre lake. The powerhouse utilizes six 53-inch S. Morgan Smith horizontal reaction turbines (4800 horsepower each). By 1920, those wheels turned four generators (two 3,000 - kilowatt and two 5,000-kilowatt capacity). In 1955 and 1956, Georgia Power Company added two more 5,000 - kilowatt generators. The construction of this dam marked the beginning of large-scale interconnection of the Columbus Power Company with Georgia and Alabama cities to the north.

The 5,850-acre Lake Harding formed by the Bartletts Ferry Dam (pictured below) acts as a storage reservoir for the Goat Rock, Oliver, and North Highland generating plants. Stone and Webster designed, and Hardaway Construction built the concrete gravity dam (120 feet high and 900 feet long). Penstocks (15 feet in diameter) fed S. Morgan Smith single-runner vertical Francis-type turbines. Between 1926 and 1928, three 15,000 kilowatt generators were installed and, in 1951, Georgia Power added a fourth 20,000-kilowatt unit. Oliver Dam (70 feet high and 2,021 feet long) impounds a 2,150-acre lake. The powerhouse contains three 18,000 kilowatt generators and one with a 6,000-kilowatt capacity which are remotely controlled from Bartlett's Ferry Dam, 14 miles upstream. Clapp’s Factory, the first local textile operation (1834-1838), began at this site. A small dam between an island and the eastern bank powered a yarn mill, a tannery, and a grist mill. Workers lived in the surrounding village. The company reorganized and rebuilt after the war but went bankrupt in 1885. The abandoned, wooden structure, erected in 1866, burned in 1910. The dam, c. 1957, now covers the old mill; however, the area south of the dam where operatives' houses once stood (and their cemetery) remains little changed.

During the 1920s, the economy became more diversified--a trend which continued after World War II. A local bottling firm began producing Chero-Cola in 1912, NEHI in 1924, and Royal Crown Cola in 1935. Tom Huston Peanut Company started in 1925. The major change in the 1920s was the transition of the temporary World War I camp into Fort Benning in 1922. It became the city's largest "industry." By 1930, the city's relationship with the river had changed. River navigation had virtually disappeared. The power of the river was being transmitted to other cities in the form of electricity. The hydroelectric dams north of the city (Goat Rock, 1910-1911, 16,000 kilowatts & Bartlett's Ferry, 1924-1928, 30,000 kilowatts) supplied power to new mills in West Point, Newnan, LaGrange, and even to the city of Atlanta. In 1930, the local power companies, earlier consolidated by Stone and Webster of Boston, merged into Georgia Power Company. After that time, the power of the Falls of the Chattahoochee served all of Georgia, and the river no longer represented Columbus' prime asset in attracting new industries. Next Week: We will celebrate Black History Month with a new series on the story of the emigration of 500 African Americans in the Chattahoochee Valley who started new lives in the West African Republic of Liberia. Our History Spotlights will be taken from the book Emigration to Liberia: From the Chattahoochee Valley of Georgia and Albama, 1853 - 1903 by Matthew F.K. McDaniel, 2013.

639 views0 comments


bottom of page