Textiles - Thomaston Mills & Martha Mills
In December of 1899 Thomaston Cotton Mills was granted a charter and in 1900 Robert Edgar Hightower, Sr. became president and took over management at the shareholders’ unanimous request. In the Early History of Upson County (Nottingham and Hannah) it is stated, “The inspired leadership and foresightedness of Mr. Hightower has built from that humble beginning, a mammoth industrial enterprise.” His family continued to lead the company. The city of East Thomaston was incorporated as a separate municipality for Thomaston Cotton Mills and the surrounding residences of the employees of the mills.
By the time of World War II Thomaston Mills was comprised of Thomaston Cotton Mills (1899), Peerless Mill (1919), Thomaston Bleachery (1924), and the Griffin Mill was purchased ca 1930. Early products included osneburgs, sheeting, and tire cord. During WWII Certificates of Necessity were issued by the government for war material such as tire cord (vast amounts were shipped to England and within the U.S.), industrial fabrics, and yarn and fabrics for uniforms, and these had to be fulfilled before orders from customers. Even with hundreds of mill employees called away to serve their country, Thomaston Cotton Mills met this challenge by working 48 hour work weeks, and applying skilled workers to manage equipment that could not be replaced with newer parts during the period of scarce resources. Throughout the years Thomaston Cotton Mills adapted to market changes as well as technological changes.
As the mills expanded with increasing number of employees, building houses to accommodate them was an ongoing activity of the company within the East Thomaston Mill Village. In 1919 with the building of Peerless Mill, the company hired Draper and Co. to layout the grounds of this mill village as well as West Point Iron Works to build new houses. Existing houses were renovated. In its earliest days, Thomaston Cotton Mills provisioned its employees, many commuting from rural farms by horse or on foot, with kerosene and coal and developed boarding houses, homes, hotel, stable, and butchering facility. With East Thomaston Mill Village clustered around the 3 divisions of TCM, it numbered approximately 624 houses with its own mayor and council, police force, mill operated school system employing teachers for grades 1-8. In 1926, TCM built the Martha Mill and its southeast mill village with grounds laid out in a landscape plan by E. S. Draper, beginning the development of Silvertown. By 1929 the BF Goodrich Co. exercised its option to purchase and now owned and expanded Martha Mill and the Silvertown Mill Village.
In September, 1945 Thomaston Cotton Mills dropped the word cotton from its name, reflecting that some synthetic yarns, as well as cotton, were being used, becoming Thomaston Mills, Inc. The company continued to diversity its product lines and adapt to ever changing technology, markets and business conditions for over 100 years. It finally succumbed to global pressures. By 2001 the company sold its name, Thomaston Mills, Inc., to ADT American along with a warehouse and automated sewing operation, which continues to operate.
In April, 1926, executives from the B.F. Goodrich Rubber Company, from Akron, Ohio, began a tour of the South in hopes of finding a suitable textile mill to produce tire fabric for their company.
News broke two weeks later that Thomaston Cotton Mills had struck a monumental contract with the Goodrich Co. as well as Fisk Rubber Company. In a recorded history of Thomaston Cotton Mills, Hard Times, Good Times, author Charles Josey quotes a report from the Atlanta Journal, dated April 28, 1926, which labels the act as ““the greatest textile deal in World’s History,” one that would make Georgia the producer of 60 percent of the country’s tire fabric and 50 percent of all used.” The contract entailed the building of a new three-million-dollar textile plant in Thomaston, equipped with 35,000 spindles which would produce cord for B.F. Goodrich tires. It was slated to last 10 years with the contract total at an estimated worth of $100 million dollars.
Work was to begin immediately on the new textile factory, named “Martha Mills” for Hightower family matriarch and R.E. Sr.’s wife.
Once the purchase culminated, Martha Mill became the official textile division of the B.F. Goodrich Company. Original specification booklets housed in the Thomaston-Upson Archives show that Goodrich immediately began the task of creating a community village for the workers of their Martha Mill. Numerous cottages, schools, churches, and a community center building were planned in 1929 alone. Again, Chip Robert’s firm, Robert & Company Inc., was listed as the architect in the specifications. The reason for building the new community was simple. At the time, the local workforce was dominated by farmers. If the company wanted to compete with the benefits offered to workers through sharecropping, they would need to provide similar incentive. Thus, through 1936, B.F. Goodrich built 840 houses, three schools, two churches, a shopping center, a filter plant, and an athletic field for its workers and their families. The company also utilized the land for peach growing, branding the product as B.F. Goodrich Peaches. Ultimately, the company was building what they referred to as a “world model” textile village.
The new mill village was aptly named Silvertown in January, 1929, after a popular brand of B.F. Goodrich tire. Two years later, it was incorporated by an act of Georgia Legislature as the City of Silvertown. With the cottages and community buildings still underway, Goodrich also undertook the task of hiring a landscape architect to design the environmental aesthetic of Silvertown. Nationally renowned City Planner, Earle Sumner Draper, based in Charlotte, N.C., was brought in. Drawings housed in the Thomaston-Upson Archives show Draper’s masterplan for the city, dated March 8, 1929.
During World War II, Silvertown’s Martha Mills, along with East Thomaston's Thomaston Cotton Mills, played an important role in overseas war production. By the 1940’s, the mills were producing both cotton and rayon cord. The cord’s application was evident in the following materials: bomber, jeep, and tank tires, life rafts, marine suits, assault boats, fabric “life-saving” belts, barrage balloons, oil hoses, conveyer belts, and possibly most notable were the fire hoses which are referenced to have helped extinguish fires during the London Blitz. Martha Mill’s General Manager, Wayne Hempstead, noted that, “almost daily, we (Martha Mill) have requests for additional material so vitally needed for the war effort.” In addition to material production, Martha Mills employees also assisted with the war effort in manpower. By 1944, over 500 mill employees were stated to be in the armed services.
After WWII, B.F. Goodrich began selling cottages to Martha Mills employees. In a resolution presented to the Silvertown City Council, on November 15, 1957, Goodrich gifted by way of deed, the following to the City of Silvertown: streets, roads, highways, alleys, parks, parkways and sidewalks, along with the Community Center school and West Village school. The resolution further states that the City of Silvertown does hereby dedicate to public use the streets, avenues, roads, highways, alleys, and sidewalks shown by said deed of gift. On March 18, 1958, an election was held in Silvertown over the possibility of repealing the city’s charter. In total, 701 registered citizens voted to repeal the current charter, while 373 voted against it. One vote was left unmarked. With the results, Silvertown’s charter was thus repealed and the city was annexed by the City of Thomaston.
The Silvertown Mill Village is now in the National Register of Historic Places.