A New Beginning
Out of a desolate grove of once bountiful pecan trees on the banks of the Oconee River grew a complex of buildings which changed the face of life in Laurens County forever. On a cool St. Patrick's Day morning in 1947, bulldozers began clearing the site for the location of one of the most modern woolen mills in America. For six decades, the men and women of J.P. Stevens and Company and later Forstmann and Company went to work. With a pride unrivaled anywhere else in the community, these folks, our folks, produced the finest textile materials in the world. This is the story of the beginning of the "Woolen Mill," and its impact not only on the styles of our garments, but the styles of our lives. (
The construction of the Stevens mill in East Dublin was supervised by Colonel John Baum. In the year after the end of World War II, John Baum (LEFT) was sent to survey cities in the South for the company's first mill outside of New England. Baum, a member of Georgia Tech's Baseball and Engineering Hall of Fame, oversaw every single element of the construction of the mill, which was completed in the fall of 1948. The owners of the company chose the location because of its proximity to the Oconee River and the assurance of abundant labor by local leaders. The local leaders weren't lying. Nearly two thousand two hundred applicants besieged the workers in the temporary employment office. By January 2, 1948 the applications were so voluminous that a notice was printed in the newspaper that no further applications would be taken.
The company knew that in order to succeed the workers, who had little or no industrial experience, would need to be trained to work the textile machinery before and after the plant was up and running. Six looms were shipped in and installed in a dairy barn. Walter Anderson oversaw the training program which began on August 18, 1947. Within a matter of seven weeks, the first twelve pieces of woven cloth were shipped from the training room. Production continued on a small scale until the plant became fully operational.
Baum wrote of his new employees " The attributes they have that outweigh their knowledge of textile manufacturing are their desire to learn, their educational background, their natural ability and their interest in the community and the organization that will mean so much to the economy of this community." Many workers yearned to learn more about their new job and volunteered to pay half the cost of correspondence courses while the company picked up the other half of the bill. Every applicant was carefully screened and given a physical examination before being considered for employment by the department supervisors.
Of the initial one hundred and sixty three employees hired, 58% percent were men and 42 percent were women. The average worker was white, male, and twenty-nine years old. He was a native Georgia Baptist who completed two years of high school. No one under 18 was hired and the oldest worker was a 60 year old woman. All trainees earned a starting salary of sixty cents per hour, with a dime an hour increase after a four-week training period. The production employees worked eight hours a day for six days a week, earning one full day of time and a half for Saturdays.
The highest salary paid to the most productive workers was a whopping $1.05 per hour. Six people, five men and one woman, made more than $70.00 a week.
Safety was a big concern in the mill. Each employee had it drilled into his mind the necessity of safety in the workplace. In the first year of operation no time was lost due to the sixteen minor accidents on the job.
Col. Baum's key personnel were his office manager Herbert C. Ervin; James E. Powell, Walter W. Anderson, Foster Blue, Milton Christie and Edwin Head, Jr. in the Gray Goods Department; Donald C. Johnston, (Of far left in group) C. Flannery Pope, Jr. and Duncan C. Weatherall in the Dyeing and Finishing Department and Plant Engineer Luther O. Swint. By the time the mill went into full operation, George P. McIntyre, John Sims and John A. Smith joined the staff. Though the key employees had technical training, absolutely none of them had any technical experience in the manufacture of woolen cloth. Each of them underwent rigorous training in other mills in the East, where they taught that quality and quantity were of the utmost importance.
At the end of the construction phase late in 1948, Col. Baum reported to the company that there were numerous problems that would need to be addressed in the coming months. The most critical of these was the transportation of materials into the plant and finished goods out. With utmost confidence in his employees and people of Laurens County, Baum concluded that after a careful study, a satisfactory solution would be found.
(Left: Don Johnston, presenting check to prize employee).
In January 1949 an open house was held and thousands came to see where thousands wanted to work and where only one in two were lucky enough to get a job. A second plant, named "The Nathaniel Plant," was opened in 1956. Named after the founder of the company, Captain Nat Stevens, the Nathaniel Plant manufactured yarn-dyed or patterned, woolen fabrics. By 1960, the Dublin Woolen Mills were ranked as the third most productive mills in the textile industry.
One of the unique features of the Dublin plant is the cornerstone. Fashioned from a piece of granite from Capt. Nat Stevens' mill in North Andover, Massachusetts, the corner stone bears the date of 1813-1947. The Dublin-Laurens Museum is now the repository of many items of Stevens and its predecessor, Forstmann and Company.
For decades men, women and children across the country and throughout the world wore coats, sport jackets, blazers, dresses, pants and hats made from cloth made right here in Laurens County. The champions of the Master's Golf Tournament donned green jackets made from Stevens' green cloth. Major league baseball players played in hats made in the mill. But J.P. Stevens and its Forstmann descendants was more than just a mill. It was a family - a family of dedicated and hard working employees who were a part of all of our lives. They were our families, friends and neighbors.
In 2007, after sixty years of operation, the mill is silent. But it is not forgotten. Thanks to the generosity of the plant managers, many of the items of memorabilia of the history of J.P. Stevens/Forstmann are now on display in the Dublin-Laurens Museum. Included in the collection are scrapbooks, photographs along with samples of the first woolen yarn, first bolt of woolen cloth and the last bolt of woolen cloth made at the Woolen Mill. The trowel used by company officials to lay the cornerstone in 1947 lies in a display case, also donated by the company. The public is cordially invited to visit the museum to view these items and many more which reflect the two hundred years of Laurens County's history.
1952 FAMILY DAY
1954 FAMILY DAY
1956 FAMILY DAY
RIGHT: Uncle Ned Stripling
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