MILLS OF ROCKINGHAM      October 17, 2008       Myrtle Bridges

Great Falls Mfg. Co.
Rockingham is a lively little town built on high sandy knolls 
between two ever flowing creeks. These creeks flow from the 
piney wildwood, east of the town and are formed from the clear 
waters of numerous springs that gush from the sandy hills of 
Rockingham. These waters as soon as they gush from under these 
hills begin racing down the sanded slopes towards the Pee Dee 
River, one comes tumbling over shoals and down steep falls to 
the right of Rockingham, the other makes a mad rush over shoal 
and down even steeper falls to the east of the town. As they 
rush over the high … dams at Roberdel, Pee Dee, Great Falls, 
Midway, Steele's and Ledbetter's, they chant a mighty volume of melodious activity that seems 
to inspire the thousands of spindles and looms to whirl with renewed buoyancy.

Rockingham manufactured cotton away back in the long ago at Great Falls, in 1836, a dam was built, 
a company organized named the Richmond Manufacturing Company, and a cotton millthat appear in the 
directory of this old company are, to a large extent, the same that appear now in the management 
and directories of the half dozen mills which make industrial music for Rockingham. 
Capt. W. I. Everitt, Pres. Great Falls Mfg.
In a book of records of the Rockingham Manufacturing Company, which book is now in the 
possession of Col. Robert L. Steele, is recorded the minutes of the first and all the 
subsequent meetings of this old company. The first president of the company was W. F. 
Leak. In the list of the board of directors appear the names of Robert J. Steele, W. F. 
Leak and James P. Leak.

At a meeting held in 1837, R. J. Steele was instructed to go to the New England States 
and buy machinery. He went, bought machinery, and ordered it shipped to Fayetteville. 
The mill was started in 1838 with W. G. Webb, a native of Rocky Ford, Connecticut, as 
Superintendent at a salary of $400 per year. Later on the company made a contract with 
during the years 1862,'63'64 and '65 are exceedingly interesting. At a meeting held 
Sept. 20, 1862 a Webb to spin the yarns at a cost of two cents per pound. The minutes 
of meetings held resolution was passed appropriating $375 as a Thanksgiving Day offering 
to the operatives and $500 was appropriated to build a church. At another meeting it was 
ordered that bacon and other provisions be sold to soldiers families at cost. At another, 
five hundred bunches of yarn was donated to soldiers' wives. At another, a motion was passed to sell no yarn 
except on magistrates' certificate. This was done to keep the yarn out of the hands of the speculators, and 
to provide for its sale only to those who were needy and deserving.
S. W. Steele, Supt. Great Falls Mills
Prior to the beginning of the war the Richmond Mills don't seem to have been very 
profitable, as few dividends were declared, but during the war profits were enormous, 
meetings were held every month and dividends were declared almost every meeting. The 
accumulated profits were in provisions and cotton yarn and these things were 
distributed instead of money. At the last meeting, held February 1865, all provisions 
and yarns were ordered to be divided among the stockholders with the request that it 
be removed immediately. A few weeks later the wisdom of this order was demonstrated, 
for, with the coming of Sherman's Army, the mills were set on fire and entirely consumed.

In 1869, four years after the war closed, and a third of a century after the first 
cotton mill meeting in Rockingham, another meeting was held. At this meeting appeared 
the Leaks, the Steeles and others, not the same men who met in 1836. Many of them had 
passed over the river, but their mantles had fallen on worthy shoulders, sons and 
grandsons who were minded to take up the industrial weapons laid down by their ancestors 
and continue the fight for industrial victory. At this meeting the Great Falls manu-
facturing Company was organized. The old Richmond factory site was secured and in a few months on the ruins 
W. B. Cole, Secretary Great Falls Mfg. Co.
of the old antebellum mill was reared the large four-story brick building in which the 
Great Falls Mfg. Co. has ever since had its busy and prosperous home. This enterprise 
started with 2,000 spindles. It has increased from time to time and now had 4,512 
spindles, 30 looms; employs 115 people; has just added new lappers, new cards and 
other machinery of latest design; consumes 1,000 bales of cotton annually, and 
manufactures thousands, yes, millions of yards of brown sheetings. This product 
has a name from one end of the land to the other. The Great Falls sheeting has 
been on the market now for more than two dozen years and has made friends out of 
consumers at home and abroad. There are 75 shareholders in the Great Falls Company, 
mainly native Rockingham, people.The energetic and efficient management of the mill 
comprises the President and Treasurer, Capt. Wm. I. Everett; the secretary, Mr. W. B. 
Cole, and the superintendent, Mr. S. W. Steele. These gentlemen are all experienced 
mill men. The enterprise is situated immediately off the main line of the Seaboard 
Airline, at a point where the waters of Falling Creek fall a distance of forty-three 
feet down a rocky-faced precipice, making one of the finest and most reliable water powers in the State. 
The operatives at Great Falls have schools, churches and other advantages, and they inhabit a cheerful 
suburban village of Rockingham that seems to be fanned with breezes of good health, good morals and good 

W. C. Leake, President Pee Dee Mfg. Co.
The mills of the Pee Dee Manufacturing Company are located on the banks 
of Hitchcock's creek in the northeastern suburbs of Rockingham. This company 
operates 6,000 spindles, 300 looms, gives employment to 275 operatives, consumes 
2,200 bales of cotton per annum, has 60 share-holders and $125,000 capital invested. 
These 6,000 spindles and 300 looms are whirling away day in and day out, making the 
South's great staples into the latest styles and designs of plaids and cottonades. 

The Pee Dee plaids have crossed State line after State line unto today they are at 
home on the shelves of store keepers and in the ware-rooms of jobbers and exporters 
all over the country. They have helped to build the State's reputation on this class 
of cotton fabrics and every day aiding in extending and maintaining that reputation.

The Pee Dee Manufacturing Company was organized in 1876. The mill was erected and 
began operations in 1877 with 2,000 spindles. It has been increased from time to time, until 
it now has the splendid plant, designated the Pee Dee Mills. The Company had been systematically, 
economically and intelligently managed, and there-fore, they have been uniformly successful and 
steadily growing. It is surrounded by high picturesque hills, and on these the Pee Dee village 
sits, peopled with the mill operatives and their families, all living in cozy, comfortable homes, 
William Entwhistle, Supt. Pee Dee Mfg. Co.
surrounded by grassy lawns, gardens and truck patches, with here and there 
churches and school buildings in which preachers and teachers are teaching and 
preaching mortal and intellectual excellence.

The officers of the Pee Dee Manufacturing Company are W. C. Leak, President and 
Treasurer: Geo. P. Entwhistle, Superintendent. The Pee Dee Mills have added 
prestige to the town and section in which they are located, and evidently added 
to the well-merited glory of the South in its march of industrial progress.
The beautiful euphonious name "Roberdel" was coined from the name of that 
sturdy patriot, Col. Robert L. Steele, of Rockingham, whose genius and 
grit has done more, perhaps, than any other individual force to make Rockingham for a 
quarter of a century hum with the music of the spindle and the loom. The same old Steele 
home that gave to the industrial history of the State the achievements of Robert L. Steele 
gave to the State also that giant statecraft and oratory, the late lamented Walter L. 
Steele. The maternal branch of the same house gave also to the State's galaxy of successful 
financiers the late Stephen W. Cole, one of the most successful bankers in the State.  He 
was, from the time of its organization to his death, the president of the First National 
Bank of Salisbury.
Roberdel Mfg. Co.
The splendid cotton mill plant located two miles northeast of Rockingham 
on Hitchcock's creek, known as the Roberdel mills, is an ever growing 
monument to the business sagacity of it eminent namesake, Col Steele, 
who is a mechanic, a civil engineer, a financier, a farmer all in one, 
and the good judgment displayed by him and those with whom he has been 
associated, in locating the cotton mills in and around Rockingham is 
evidence of a high order of mechanical and engineering genius. Col. 
Steele is a modest man and if he were present, as I write these truths, 
he would bid me stop, but when I find A North Carolinian whose locks 
are frosted and along whose cheeks are the furrows of ripening age, even 
though his step is a elastic and his eyes as bright as are Col. Steele's 
today, whose life has been so fruitful of business successes, whose enterprises have kept busy so many hands 
that might have otherwise been idle, and clothed and fed so many people who might have sought in vain for 
remunerative work, my pencil gets unruly, and takes its own risks.
R. L. Steele, Jr., Supt. Roberdel Mfg. Co.
But of the Roberdel Mills. I find here a stately building of brick stretching along the 
banks of the busy stream, with story piled on top of story, and each filled with modern 
machinery, each piece of which seems automatic and animate. Six thousand hustling spindles 
and three hundred looms, all in the midst of nearly three hundred happy and cheerful men 
and women spinning and weaving the famous Roberdel Southern silks-fabrics that, although 
made from the fleecy staple of the South, was so perfect in texture, in color, in smooth 
and glossy finish, as to justify the name they bear, fabrics that have made for themselves 
and for their manufacturers reputation and renown.

The Roberdel Manufacturing Co. was organized in 1881, and the mill was erected in 
1882 and began operations with 2,000 spindles. It has been enlarged and increased 
from time to time until now it has 6,000 spindles, 300 looms, lappers, carding 
machines, storage and dry houses-indeed it is a thoroughly equipped cotton manu-
facturing establishment, increasing in size and in it annual production as the 
years go by. The machinery is turned by a steady volume of water flowing down against asolid stone dam, 
18 feet high and sufficient at all times to keep the machinery going. Surrounding the mill and situated 
on a little plateau of gently rolling hills is a village of  comfortable, nicely painted, well arranged 
houses for operatives with churches and schools with preachers and teachers whose salaries are in the 
main paid by the Roberdel Company. It is a charming location for a manufacturing enterprise, and is 
fanned by the healthful breezes that blow through the long leaf pine forests of this beautiful section.

The officers of the Roberdel Mfg. Co. are Robert L. Steele, President and Treasurer; R. A. Johnson, 
Secretary; Robert L. Steele, Jr., Superintendent.

Two miles from Rockingham, towards the Pee Dee River at a shoal just below the confluence of Hitchcock 
and Falling creeks, is situated the Midway mills owned and operated by a company incorporated under the  
H. Clay Wall, Esq., of Leak, Wall & McRae, Rockingham, NC
name of Leak, Wall and MacRae. Of this company Mr. James R. Leak is President and 
manager, and Messrs. T. C. Leak, H. C. Wall, James R. Leak and Mrs. Jennie MacRae 
are the incorporators and principal owners.

The Midway Mills have followed in the lead of their Rockingham predecessors 
and have done their part towards making the cotton mill interest in the thriving 
community in which they exist potent and powerful. They are an important link in 
that chain of mills located on the banks of busy Rockfish Creek.

The Midway mills are equipped with 5,000 spindles and make chain warps that are 
sought for at fair market values by weave men all over the country.

Mr. James P. Leak, the manager of the enterprise, is a gentleman of sterling 
integrity and a trained mill man, who knows the details of warp and yarn making, 
and who combines practical knowledge with executive genius. To him and his 
efficient management is due the success that has attended the establishment and 
operation of the enterprise.
James Pickett Leak, Supt. Midway Mills, Rockingham, NC
The mills are built along by the side of Midway Shoals of Rockfish Creek and the 
machinery is turned by the waters that have already set in motion the thousands 
of spindles and looms at Great Falls, Pee Dee and Roberdel. From Midway it rushes 
on to Ledbetter's and Steele's mills, thus keeping in motion the machinery of six 
cotton mills in a distance of a like number of miles.

Steele's Mills have been known as Steele's Mills for lo! these many years. It 
was the old Steele homestead, the property of the late Robert J. Steele, father 
of Col. Robert L. Steele and the late Col. Walter L. Steele. It is located on 
Rockfish Creek, three miles west of Rockingham. It is a magnificent water power, 
but has for many years been flowing to waste but it is now being harnessed, ready 
to turn the wheels of a bran new cotton mill.

A new company has recently been formed, known as Steele's Mills, of which 
Col. Robert L. Steele is the head. The plans are all matured, the capital 
subscribed and at this moment fifty or more workmen are building on the siteof the old Steele 
Mills. The new Steele Cotton Mills, will in a few months be industrial prosperity that enliven 
Thomas C. Leake, of Leak, Wall & McRae, Midway Mills
equipped with 6,000 spindles and 300 looms, and joining in the chorus of 
the breezes up and down this busy little 
river. The first spade of dirt was thrown a few days ago by Col. Robert L. 
Steele, the second spade was thrown by Robert L. Steele, Jr., and the third 
spade by Master Robert L. Steele, Jr., Jr.,--thus three generations joined 
in the inaugural exercises of the formal beginning of an important industry, 
and re-dedicated the home of their departed forefather to modern usefulness 
and prosperity.

It is positively inspiring as well as pleasant to witness the unanimity 
with which the people of Rockingham join in industrial pursuits. There 
are no jealousies existing in Rockingham, there are no efforts on the 
part of one to out-do the other. They work in unison. When a scheme is 
proposed, having for its object the building of an enterprise that will 
build up their town and community, they go their length. The Steeles and 
Leaks, the Walls, the Everetts, the MacRaes, the Ledbetters, the Entwhistles-they all join 
in. There is no scramble for positions on boards of directors, nor for official positions. They 
assume these responsibilities when it is necessary and each works to help the other. The result 
is that Rockingham is going forward-not booming nor boasting but building on solid, substantial 
foundations and steadily advancing the manufacturing and commercial interest of a section that 
has for a century been noted for the honor, the integrity and the enterprise of its people.
Midway Mfg. Co.
There was an effort made in Rockingham, at the site now 
occupied by the Pee Dee Cotton Mill to spin cotton by 
power very early in the century. Even then the advantages 
of water power on which the present prosperous mills are 
now located was appreciated far and near.  The first effort 
was made in 1814 or 1815 by some parties from Charleston-
Englishmen, if we mistake not, Mitchell, Stubbs and Gray. 
Col. Robert L. Steele says that he has seen the machinery 
and that the effort was a failure.

The value of the cotton mills located at Rockingham cannot 
be over estimated. There is not an inhabitant in the town, or a farmer who raises truck, poultry 
or anything else that men eat who is not helped by the enterprise of the owners of Rockingham 
Mills. They are al conservatively yet progressively managed, and are run for business. But the 
managers also seek to develop every other interest of the community, and are in truth the back-
bone of Rockingham.

Towns are built in these days by great enterprises that give employment to many. If the man who 
Robert L. Steele as a boy, President
Roberdel Mfg. Co. This picture was drawn by a traveling artist at the old
Steele home in Richmond County in 1830.
makes two blades of grass grows where formerly one grew is a 
benefactor to his race, what shall be said of the man whose 
energy and wise investment makes a hundred hands busy where 
formerly most of them were idle, or employed in un-remunerative 

Like a good deed in a naughty world, the enterprise of these 
Rockingham factory owners shines far and near. It has stimulated 
its neighbors to enterprise and activity, and proven a stimulus 
to progressive men in every section of the Commonwealth.

The tribute of Rockingham to our Cotton Mill Edition forms a 
galaxy of individual collective forces of which few towns or 
communities have the equal. Every mill is distinctive and every 
man a distinctive force, but there is a blending of harmony 
and of united activity that is attractive and powerful in the 
inauguration, erection and management of these great Rockingham 

The Steeles, the Leaks, The Walls, the Everitts, the McRaes, the 
Covingtons, the Ledbetters, the Entwhistles, are men of vim, men 
of brains and of wealth, and these three forces are continually at work.

Pee Dee Mfg. Co.
The Great Falls Mills, the Pee Dee Mills, the Roberdel and 
the Midway Mills, the Ledbetter Mills, and the new Steeles 
Mills have come into existence one after another as a result 
of the tenacity and the progressive spirit of these men. The 
products of these enterprises have gone out into the trading 
world, commanded the attention of dealers and consumers, and 
made the very name of Rockingham famous whenever durable cotton 
fabrics are appreciated.

Source: The News and Observer, (Raleigh, NC), November 28, 1895, pg 20, Issue 100, Col A. 
Transcribed October 10, 2008 by Myrtle Bridges

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