Loray Mill and Village: 1900-1925
Scroll down for a virtual tour of the Loray Mill and mill village in the years from 1900-1925. Learn about the mill’s construction, and get a glimpse into the lives of those who worked there. You also can download a tour brochure here and bring it to the mill for an onsite experience. The full tour is about a mile long.
Inside the main (north) entrance, look up at the staircase that runs five floors to the top of the mill. Imagine you’re in the middle of the a shift change; hundreds of workers descend the stairs, covered in cotton fibers, heading home after a long day. Think about all the people whose hands have worn these banisters smooth. In the corner of each landing, white paint and a spittoon discouraged employees from spitting tobacco on the wall.
Pass through the brick arch and turn right, then left. Proceed past the long open wing to the right with the hanging white lights and find the wall with the large architectural drawing. In 1900, the Loray’s founding partners hired Boston engineering firm Lockwood, Greene & Co. to design the mill and village. Reproduced from the 8′ X 3′ originals, this plan shows the north elevation + details for the Romanesque Revival tower and iconic arched windows. Across the hall, the space that’s now the Alfred C. Kessell History Center was part of a ropeway that ran through all five production floors. A system of ropes, pulleys, shafts, and belts, driven by a 2500 hp steam engine, originally ran the mill’s machinery.
Circle the long wing that extends west from the history center. This floor originally housed weaving machines and the cloth room, where workers inspected the final product. Look up to see the original support beams and wood flooring overhead. Look down over the railing and notice how the columns below have beveled edges and are tapered at the top. These were some of the fire suppression techniques featured in the Loray’s “slow-burning construction.” Thick exterior brick walls, heavy timber framing, a tar and gravel roof, and three-layered, six-inch floors of maple and pine, all were designed to slow the spread of fire and limit the damage it might cause.
Head back toward the main entrance. Across the hall from the elevator, and to the left of the brick archway as you pass through the lobby, you’ll see two of the mill’s metal fire doors. The doors were mounted on inclined tracks and held open by weighted pulleys. Heat from a fire would melt a fusible link, release the weight, and cause the door to slide shut automatically, thus preventing the fire from spreading to other parts of the building.
Outside the main entrance, face north toward Franklin Blvd. The building to your left was the main office. Beyond that is the “L” shape of the west addition, constructed in 1921-22. During those years the mill expanded from 450,000 to 600,000 sq. ft. and the mill village grew from 250 to 400 houses. The area ahead and to the right across 2nd St., where there are now parking lots, once was a center of Loray community life. Three buildings housed men’s and women’s dormitories for single employees and a cafeteria. A bandstand, playground, pool, and community house provided recreation and space for social gatherings.
Head north to Franklin Blvd., then west to Vance St. Here in the commercial district known as “Greasy Corner,” Loray workers and their families patronized businesses that included a cafe, shoe store, furniture shop, pharmacy, and grocery store. Young couples and neighborhood children watched movies at the Carolina Theater. In the mid-1920s, when 5000 people lived in the mill village, this place was a hub of activity.
Head south on Vance Street. The house at 322 Vance was constructed along with the mill in 1900-01, while 319 Vance was built when the village expanded in 1921-22. Phillips Ct. and Cavney Ct. were part of a dirt alley that ran behind the houses on Vance. To the west was the grade school attended by mill workers’ children. Continue south to 4th Ave. and turn east.
Stop at the intersection of 4th and Weldon. The Loray athletic field once sat here, between Weldon & Hill St. and 3rd & 5th Ave. Both mill teams and major league teams used this ball park. Ty Cobb played here in 1919. Imagine the field on a warm summer evening, the bleachers filled with spectators cheering on the Loray team.
Head north on Weldon and turn west on 2nd Ave., then north on Liberty St. to see houses where Loray workers lived in the early 20th century. In 1920, 210 S. Liberty was home to the Painter and Deaver families, who moved to Gastonia from rural Georgia, and 3 boarders. The Fulbright and Carnes families lived across the street at 211 S. Liberty, 18 people in all.