Elk Cotton Mills’ homecoming Sunday

Pausing for a photo during a previous Elk Cotton Mill reunion are (from left) Dale Wheeler, Marjorie Wheeler, Priscilla Mills, A.C. Moore and Peggy Moore.

The 21st Annual “Homecoming” for all Elk Cotton Mills retirees, former employees, and their families will be held Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Fayetteville Recreation Center at 1203 Winchester Highway in Fayetteville.

Fellowship, along with sharing of photos and memorabilia, will begin with a “Walk Down Memory Lane” at 11 a.m., followed by lunch at 1 p.m. Angie’s Catering of Fayetteville will provide a buffet meal. Cost is $11.50 for adults and $6 for children ages 10 and under.

Pausing for a photo during a previous Elk Cotton Mill reunion are (from left) Dale Wheeler, Marjorie Wheeler, Priscilla Mills, A.C. Moore and Peggy Moore.

Reservations can be made by contacting Margaret Syler at (931) 433-1315, Janice Mills Zielinski at (256) 539-0042, or Carol Ann Pigg at (931) 625-4164. In order to pay up-front expenses and to calculate the correct number of attendees for the catering requirements, the committee requests that participants make all payments in advance. As a bonus, all people who make their meal reservations in advance may put their names in the drawing for door prizes.

That being said, the reunion committee heartily thanks all the businesses and individuals who have, over the years, provided gifts and surprises for the drawings.

Local entertainment will be provided, and there will be both individual and group-led singing. If you have a story to tell — the only yarn-spinning allowed — a song to sing, or a musical instrument to play, contact the planning committee and let them know as soon as possible, so your name can be added to the program. In the interest of time, entertainment will be limited to a total of 30 minutes, and will be planned prior to the event.

Organizers also plan to launch a Facebook page this year to provide online access for those seeking further information.

Reunion History

In view of the longstanding impact, both financially and socially, of the corporation and its “Mill Village,” a committee was formed to honor the memory of a simpler time, a closer-knit community, and a stronger work ethic than is often seen today.

Like cotton itself, the result has blossomed into an annual event, held each year at harvest time … for over two decades!

Each year, organizers recall those who’ve gone on before us, and wish to also celebrate Ann Pigg, Gilbert King, Lila Logan, and others who’ve joined or assisted with the committee for over two decades.

Elk Cotton Mills Facts

In 1899, a group of prominent Lincoln County citizens gave much thought to the construction of a cotton yarn mill in Fayetteville, and by March 1900 the corporation known as The Elk Cotton Mills was formed.

Henry K. Holman announced its incorporation with $60,000 capital stock and a need for equipment for a 3,000-spindle plant. In order to increase its freight efficiency, the building itself was situated at Mile Post 40.1 of the now-abandoned Duck River Valley Narrow Gauge Railway, with early plans to run the mill by waterpower resulting from the damming of the Elk River some two miles north of town, if feasible.

In the event, steam power was chosen, instead and beginning in February 1901, actual operation of the mill began. It soon proved to be a major, if not the major, economic boon to Lincoln and its surrounding counties – it was at one time the county’s largest employer.

John Harrison Rees, Sr. was a founder and eventually vice president and president of the mill; his son Ernest would be promoted from agent and buyer to general manager around 1905 and would become the mill’s president by 1932.

The mills’ “economic boon” was not particularly grand on a one-on-one employee level; many workers were in fact underage children. At the time the mill was established, it was legal in Tennessee to employ children as young as 12 (Child Labor Law, 1893) in factories, workshops, mines, or mills. This was amended in 1901 to ensure no child could be employed under the age of 14.

An interesting 1900 help wanted ad underscores the issue: “…A sprightly girl of 13 or 14 years of age can learn in a week to make from 50 to 75 cents per day. Widows with large families of girls preferred…”

Ironically this aforementioned law was supposedly in full effect in November 1910 when famed photographer Lewis Wickes Hine visited the mill at Fayetteville, taking pictures of individuals, groups, and entire shifts of workers while revealing some of them to be as young as 7 to 8 years old, perhaps younger.

Fannie Sweeney (later Henderson) was one of the seven-year-olds; Leo, an 8-year-old boy, was earning 15 cents a day. It is doubtful Hine could have documented each child present in his endeavors to establish the flagrant flaunting of the law; it is highly unlikely any paperwork at the mill itself would hold the truth. How Hine ever gained entry into Fayetteville’s mill is itself perplexing – he certainly did not accomplish that feat at the Lincoln Mill in nearby Huntsville, Ala.

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