Created By: Brandon Inabinet
While this site may not look like much today, it was once one of the most robust and successful mills in the upstate. As you scroll through the photos on the right side of the page, you will find one of the mill in its prime, before a 2003 fire left it in its current, dismantled state. Constructed in 1902, this mill possesses a history that is shockingly cheery, especially when compared with some of the area’s other mills. John Arrington, the mill’s owner for many years, worked his hardest to make Union Bleachery a community. Although the bleachery was one of the smallest mills, Arrington ensured that it was complete with schools, churches, a community building with meeting rooms, a playground, plenty of water fountains, and even a duck pond and a nine hole golf course. Employees and their families engaged in sports, school plays, Christmas parties, barbeques, and more.
Rodgers was just a young girl at the time of the mill’s flourishing, but she still remembers loving the mill village and its owner. In fact, she wrote an entire book, Between the Mill Whistle and the Church Bell, about her time there as one of the employee’s daughters, and she described Mr. Arrington as a “caring, compassionate employer, always interested in improving the welfare and living conditions of employees... a true friend.”
It was said that Mr. Arrington knew all of his employees’ names. And when they got sick or needed help, he aided them. According to Judith Bainbridge, one of Greenville's leading historians, one of the employees’ wives became sick with appendicitis, and he did not have enough money to afford her care. When Mr. Arrington heard of his predicament, he called the man’s doctor and appealed to him until he lowered the fee by $50 (a very large sum at the time). Ms. Bainbridge reports that working at the Union Bleachery in these early years was “like being part of a family.”
And while other mills struggled, Mr. Arrington’s wits kept Union Bleachery very much alive. For instance, when World War I came, many mills were forced to lay off workers and slow production – but not Union Bleachery. Mr. Arrington, foreseeing the difficulties ahead, ordered large amounts of European supplies ahead of time, according to Ms. Bainbridge. The mill then proceeded to have its best year yet in 1915, while others in the area were fighting just to stay open.
All of these factors made Union Bleachery one of the best places to work. The Upstate Business Journal records one longtime employee as having said, “If you got a job at Union Bleachery, you had it made.” In fact, unions were always trying to weave their way into Union Bleachery life, but the employees would not have it. They voted, on two separate occasions, firmly against unionization. As one newspaper article puts it, these votes were “most gratifying [votes] of confidence and faith in the management of Union Bleachery.”
Not only this, but interracial relations were also surprisingly strong in such a discriminatory time. The "colored village," although separate from the "white village," contained a school, church, a field for sports, and several nice, four-room homes. Due to the size of the village alone, we can find that Union Bleachery probably employed more African-Americans than most of the surrounding mills. Lois Rodgers remembers her family and others hiring nannies, and being allowed to play with the black children as well. One of the most shocking and telling incidents can be found in an edition of The Greenville News from 1942, when children from the colored school met with Red Cross officials and began a project to make toys for white children.
You may have found it difficult to get a good look at this building due to fencing and shrubbery on the perimeter. These blockades are for your protection; unfortunately, the site’s present-day story is not as merry as its historical one. Sold from Union Bleachery to Aspinook Corp, and then becoming Cone Mills in 1952, and then American Fast Print in 1994, owners sacrificed environmental protection for fast cash and poor protections. Soon after the mill was burnt down, environmental issues started coming to light. Like several of the mills on this tour, years of chemical usage have left the site dangerously contaminated. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency added it to a list of “national priority sites” in 2011, and they have since been working to clear it of asbestos, chromium, and more.
The chemical legacy left by these mills is sometimes devastating, unlike the prosperity they may have once brought.
"US Finishing/Cone Mills." EPA Superfund Citation.
Lois Rodgers, Between the Mill Whistle and the Church Bell, 1998.
"Union Bleachery." Judith Bainbridge, article in Parker Sewage District Repository, 1995
Greenville News, May 23, 1942 and September 23, 1966.
"Union Bleachery." Upstate Business Journal, 2016
This point of interest is part of the tour: Milling Around Greenville, South Carolina