Established by six local men on the banks of the Dan River in 1882, Riverside Cotton Mills expanded rapidly, with four mills built within the company’s first decade of operations. In 1895 a group that included five of the six original founders also set up the Dan River Power and Manufacturing Company so that they could develop the water power of the Dan River. In 1909, Riverside and Dan River merged to form the Riverside and Dan River Cotton Mills. By then, annual production of cloth had risen to more than 78 million yards, up from just 2 million yards in 1884. The company continued to expand, in particular by moving into the manufacturing of sheetings, ginghams, and chambrays.
Even before the merger, Riverside Cotton Mills in Danville was the largest textile mill in the South. Like most southern textile companies at this time, Riverside developed a mill village for its workers, providing housing in order to retain labor that had been recruited from the surrounding areas. Named after three brothers who had helped to found the company, the mill village of Schoolfield was independent of the city of Danville until annexation in 1951. Although conditions in Schoolfield were harsh—it did not have a sewage system until it was annexed by Danville—many residents embraced the close community that existed in the old mill village.
In the 1920s, Riverside gained national publicity through its efforts to implement “industrial democracy.” The brainchild of company president H. R. Fitzgerald, the scheme was modeled after the federal government and it allowed a workers’ House of Representatives to introduce legislation that addressed their grievances. Although industrial democracy did help to address small issues, its limitations were exposed when the company began to cut wages late in the 1920s, and the scheme itself was terminated in 1930. Seeking higher wages and more autonomy, workers joined the United Textile Workers of America in large numbers, eventually walking out on strike on September 29, 1930. The dispute generated a considerable amount of violence and bitterness, especially as some strikers were evicted from their company-owned houses. After four months, the strikers returned to work, partly because the union was running out of funds to feed them. In addition, many workers had broken the picket line even before the walkout was abandoned.
Dan River Mills at Its Peak
Following the lean years of the 1930s, in which net earnings averaged less than half a million dollars per year, the mills thrived during World War II (1939–1945) by fulfilling orders for the military. By 1942, the company operated twelve weaving and spinning mills, together with dyeing, bleaching, finishing, and power plants. These mills contained nearly half a million spindles, allowing the company to easily retain its position as the biggest textile firm in the region. At this time, the mills dominated life in Danville, employing 14,000 workers in a town of about 40,000 people. When the war ended, the newly chartered Dan River Mills Incorporated continued to thrive by fulfilling pent-up civilian demand for textiles. After making several acquisitions in the 1950s, the firm began to operate manufacturing facilities in other southern states, moves that pushed company-wide employment levels to more than 18,000 in 1956. Following passage of the, which prohibited racial discrimination in employment, the company also hired more African American workers and gradually placed them in a range of positions that had previously been reserved for whites.
Hoping to capitalize on the strong economic position that prevailed across the industry, the Textile Workers Union of America called a strike across the South in the spring of 1951. As a traditional wage setter for the industry, Dan River Mills played a crucial role in the walkout, which affected mills in seven southern states. The company’s refusal to grant the union’s demands for a 12 percent base pay raise exposed the TWUA’s weaknesses and ensured that it largely lost the ability to influence wage levels in the region. At Dan River itself, the local union, which had been organized during World War II, survived the strike but it never again had the same level of power, especially since the company now refused to deduct workers’ dues automatically.
Recent History: Decline and Dissolution
For Dan River and other U.S. textile makers, the good economic times did not last. Starting in the 1960s, imported textiles gradually began to take away market share from American textile makers. Like other companies, Dan River initially responded by investing heavily in new technology in order to stay competitive. In the 1990s and early in the 2000s, however, the industry collapsed, hit by a surge of imports from Latin America and Asia. Ignoring the industry’s calls for protection, U.S. policymakers signed a series of free trade agreements with developing countries, insisting that these deals would help exporters and lead to cheaper prices for consumers.