History of Lowe Mill

1810 -1900 Cotton, Cotton Everywhere: Setting the Stage for Lowe Mill

Look around you, now. How did these giant red-brick buildings get here? Who built them and the villages around them and why? How did this building, which once housed hundreds of “Lintheads,” get here? Why did investors from Massachusetts invest in a mill in the middle of the South? And how did that textile mill go to a cotton warehouse, to a shoe factory and finally the South’s largest artist collective? This is the story of Huntsville’s Lowe Mill.

Lowe Mill was built in 1900 by New England native Arthur Lowe, who wanted to bring the cotton mills to the cotton. Until then, cotton was picked in the South and shipped to the North where the giant mills made textile products into everyday products. Lowe sought investors to build a textile mill just outside of Huntsville, Alabama. And Arthur Lowe wasn’t the only entrepreneur building mills in sleepy Huntsville.

To understand how a textile mill in Alabama built by a Massachusetts entrepreneur became the South’s largest collaborative art center, we have to understand a little about Huntsville, a little about the Civil War, a little about cotton, a little about labor strikes, a little about army boots, and a little about art.

Huntsville was settled in 1805 by Revolutionary War veteran John Hunt moving from Tennessee into what was then the Mississippi Territory. Hunt settled around what is now Big Spring Park, within sight of Lowe Mill. In 1811, Huntsville became the first incorporated town in Alabama. In, 1817 Alabama became a territory and in 1819 Alabama was granted statehood.

From 1810 to 1860 several cotton mills sprouted in Madison County outside of Huntsville along the Flint River. In 1817 the Cabanas Cotton Spinning Factory became the first mill in Madison County and in Alabama. In 1819 the Horatio Jones Cotton Spinning Factory, which relied on slave labor, began operation and eventually became Bell Factory. Bell Factory became the most widely known antebellum mill in Alabama due its high production. The Flint Manufacturing Company opened in 1850 and the McFarland Mill began operating sometime before 1860.

On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began when Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina’s Charleston Harbor. On April 11, 1862, a year into the war, Gen. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, a curly haired, staunch Unionist and astronomy scholar, captured Huntsville and severed the Confederacy’s vital Memphis-Charleston Railroad link. Gen. Mitchell captured the small town of Huntsville and its population of less than 4,000. Huntsville remained in Union control until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Because it was under Union control, most of Huntsville’s infrastructure was preserved unlike many Southern cities burned to the ground by the advancing Union Army.

In 1879 Mr. Lowe, with others, formed the Parkhill Manufacturing Company for the manufacture of fine ginghams. Lowe managed the little mill, which at its inception had only 30 looms but grew to be one of the largest of its kind in the country.

City leaders decided in the 1880s that Huntsville should have its own textile mills. That way, instead of sending Madison County’s cotton to other cities, local textile mills with local workers could turn Madison County’s cotton into woven cloth. City leaders visited mill owners and investors in the North and asked them to open factories in Huntsville.

The Huntsville Cotton Mill Company, the first cotton mill Huntsville, opened in 1880 financed by Northern investors. Between 1892 and 1900, Huntsville gained three more cotton mills; Dallas Manufacturing Company, West Huntsville Cotton Mills Company and Merrimack Manufacturing Company.

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1900 – 1945 The Textile Era, From Cotton To Cloth

At the turn of the century, in 1900, Arthur H. Lowe, president of the New England Manufactures’ Association, arrived in Huntsville. Lowe planned arrangements for the incorporation of Lowe Manufacturing Company and the construction of Huntsville’s fifth mill but left abruptly. It was Pratt, in 1900, who incorporated Lowe Manufacturing Company. Soon after Pratt and O’Shaughnessy agreed to terms for the construction of Lowe Mill – the fifth cotton mill in Huntsville. On August 14, 1900, T.W. Pratt telegraphed to a local mill investor J.R. Boyd, “Have closed Lowe Matter. Will deed at once. Work to commence at once T.W. Pratt.” On Sept 8, 1900 The Lowe Manufacturing Company papers were filed in Madison County, Ala. probate court.

Lowe Mill opened for textile production in 1901. D.C. Finney was put in charge acting as agent for Arthur Lowe. The company provided housing for mill workers, whose job was to spin local cotton into fibers and yarn for the textile industry. The following year, Eastern Manufacturing Company completed a weaving mill on the adjacent property. This new enterprise utilized the output from Lowe Mill to produce high-grade clothes and linens. Its 25,000 spindles help turn locally grown cotton into high-grade gingham and cloth for shirts. At the same time, Tracy Pratt, a Minnesota-born banker turned mill investor, started building a village for the factory workers. Supervisors and skilled laborers get the nicest houses.

In 1903, Lowe Mill absorbed Eastern Manufacturing Company and in 1904 the North building was constructed and connected to the earlier portion which is currently called ‘The Connector’. In 1909, Arthur Lowe sold his interest in the plant to Columbia University astronomy professor Charles Poor, the first of many New Yorkers who would figure in the factory’s future.

After the turn of the century, a growing labor moment began taking hold at mills and factories around the country and Lowe Mill was no exception. The degrading conditions of industrial labor sparked strikes across the country. Labor strikes occasionally disrupted work in Huntsville’s cotton mills throughout this decade. The final two decades of the 19th century saw over 20,000 strikes and lockouts in the United States. Industrial laborers struggled to carve for themselves a piece of the prosperity lifting investors and a rapidly expanding middle class into unprecedented standards of living. In 1919 one of every five workers walked out in wave of nationwide strikes, including national clothing, coal and steel strikes, a general strike in Seattle, and a police strike in Boston.

Mill work was dangerous. Mill employees worked hard, long hours. They often stood on their feet much of the day or night. Workers faced dust, deafening noise, and until the mill was air-conditioned, extreme heat. Brown lung, an ailment from the long-term inhalation of lint, hearing problems and an array of other medical problems were common. In the mill, a master switch controlled all the machinery. Shutting the machine down shut down the entire production line. When the line restarted abruptly, the result could be broken bones, scalping, maiming and even death.

Children were a key source of labor for the early textile mills and were always present. Mills hired children simply to save money.The passing of the Alabama Child Labor Act in 1907 seemed to fall on deaf ears. Not until 1915 did child labor decline, mainly because of willing adult labor.

In October 1929. the U.S. stock market collapsed triggering the Great Depression. Three years later, on Dec. 1, 1932, Lowe Manufacturing Co. declared bankruptcy at the height of the depression.
The sounds of the textile mill started up again on January 13, 1933 with a new name, Lowe Mills Inc., and new leadership. Donald Comer, head of Birmingham’s Avondale Mills, was majority owner, holding 285 of the 300 available stock shares.

In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) protected the rights of workers and union membership spiked from 40,000 to 270,000.

July 17, 1934 – Some 4,000 Huntsville textile workers walk out when leaders of the Alabama branch of the United Textile Workers of America (UTW) called for a general textile strike. By June 1934, there were more than 250,000 UTW members striking. It was the height of the Great Depression, and more than 4,000 textile workers in Huntsville had walked off the job. The workers’ bold actions spurred a textile strike that spread from Alabama to Maine. The strikers fought for better working conditions, pay and rights. The move triggered a national strike of textile workers that quickly spread beyond the South’s cotton mills leading to the largest labor conflict in U.S. history.

Over the next few days, there were frequent clashes between police and striking workers. One observer noted the city looked like an “armed camp” after dark. A letter written August 13, 1934 by Judge Paul Speake in Huntsville to Gov. Benjamin Miller in Montgomery, asked the governor to step in. Judge Speake described the strike at a local company, where “strikers are walking around, armed with shot-guns, pistols and rifles.” Tensions were high in August when strike organizer John Dean was kidnapped from his hotel room at gunpoint, beaten and dropped off in Fayetteville, Tenn. An angry mob descended on the Maysville Road home of Reuben Chapman, rumored to be involved in the kidnapping. The crowd leaves when Chapman’s wife swears her husband is not there.

The strike was over on September 26, 1934 after the unsuccessful nationwide strike which began in Alabama ended. Newspaper headlines read, “Mill Whistles Sound, Workers Back on Jobs”. The strike failed to do much to improve working conditions at mills throughout the country.

In 1936. Lowe Mill Superintendent Owens bought the six-room house at the corner of First Street and Ninth Avenue from Lowe Mill for $400. That would be about $8500 in today’s money.
Textile manufacturing ended at Lowe Mill despite an attempt to rescue the mill from failure with an ownership change in 1936. Lowe Corp. is dissolved March 15, 1937, and the mill’s weaving and spinning machines fall silent.

The plant is sold to Walter Laxson and becomes a cotton warehouse. While Lowe Mill was a sleepy cotton warehouse, activity at the red brick mill was more aligned with the seasons of cotton than the daily activity of mill workers. However, the winds of war brought change to Huntsville and the mills around Huntsville. In 1941 the U.S. Army arrived in Huntsville. The U.S. Army’s Huntsville Arsenal is established, becoming Redstone Arsenal in 1943. Then, in 1945, the space program arrived when Wernher Von Braun, after signing a contract with the U.S. Army, was brought to Huntsville, Alabama from Germany with his Paperclip team of German rocket scientists and engineers. Huntsville began to emerge as Rocket City, USA, leaving the cotton fields and textile mills for rockets and space.

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1945 – 1978 Genesco Era, Boots on the Ground

At the end of World War II, on December 1, 1945, Nashville-based Genesco opens a shoe factory in the old mill. 1946 General Shoe Company (founded as the Jarman Shoe Company of Nashville, TN in 1924, changed to General Shoe in the 1930s and became Genesco in 1959) began to manufacture shoes. In the ’60s, during the Vietnam war, Genesco produced the majority of combat boots for US soldiers. Genesco continued production until 1979, and many US soldiers in Vietnam wore boots made at Genesco’s Huntsville factory. At its peak, the plant employs 800 people.

On September 11, 1962, President John F. Kennedy visits Huntsville and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. At the same time, Kennedy formally announces that the United States will increase aid to South Vietnam, which would include the expansion of the U.S. troop commitment and lead the the United States putting ‘boots on the ground’ in Vietnam. By 1969, most U.S. soldiers in Vietnam wear combat boots made at Genesco’s Huntsville factory.

1978 Genesco, which turned the ancient Lowe Mill textile plant into a prolific shoe factory after World War II, closed down, putting about 700 people out of work. When Genesco closes, the Downtown Rescue Mission opens a homeless shelter and soup kitchen nearby on Ninth Avenue. Soon after, Martin Industries turns Lowe Mill into a warehouse for residential and commercial heating systems.

1978 – 1999: Dark Days for Local Textile Mills

The following years were dark days for Huntsville’s old mill buildings.

In February 1980, Lincoln Mills oldest two mills built in 1924, along Oakwood Avenue, were destroyed by fire. One of Huntsville’s largest fires destroyed most of the Huntsville Industrial Center (formerly The Lincoln Mill Complex).

On July 24, 1991 Dallas Mill was destroyed by a fire. Law enforcement sources told The Huntsville Times that a state prison parolee charged with setting fire to two Huntsville homes in 1990 claimed to have set the mill fire with gasoline. The fire burned for three days.

Merrimack Mill (Huntsville Mfg. Co.) shut down in1989 and the two mills were demolished in 1992, and the land today is Brahan Spring Park.

And finally, in 1995 J.C. Brown General Merchandise, a general store which had been the heartbeat of the mill village and a part of the everyday lives of the Lintheads, closes. The neighborhood store was founded by Jesse Charles Brown, a native of Falls Mill, Tennessee. The general store, opened in 1898 as J.C. Brown General Merchandise was a hub for economic and social activity on west Huntsville where business was thriving with the development of the textile mills, including Lowe Mill.

Brown’s original store was on the east side of Pike Street, now known as Triana Boulevard. In the early 1920s, the store burned, and Brown moved to the west side of Triana Boulevard at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Ninth Street. J.C. Brown died in 1939. William Albert Brown, an aspiring doctor, assumed operations of the store instead of attending college. He was brought here because someone saw him perched on a fence post; then a universal symbol at the time that someone was in need.

The Huntsville textile industry, much like the southern textile industry as a whole, began slowly, accelerated suddenly, and reached its peak almost as quickly. After the climax, local and southern textile industries, if not on the decline, maintained the status quo. Cotton mills did not pay high salaries, end monocrop agriculture, or diversify industry. They perpetuated poor wages, dependence on cotton, and reliance on one industry–textile manufacturing. Yet mills remained a fixture in the city, fueling the local economy, employment, and population for decades. They were also a part of the southern textile industry, which, despite an array of problems, managed to dominate the national market.

Moreover, the mills, while not stellar employers, did in many ways better the lives of their workers. Providing houses, churches, and schools, mills gave villagers “town life,” an alternative to sharecropping and tenant farming.

By the time the last mill shut its doors, the Redstone Arsenal and the Marshall Space Flight Center, not textiles, had long since become Huntsville’s major economic forces. The age of textile mills had ended decades before, but its rich legacy of enterprise and endurance remained. Had the chemical and ordnance plants and von Braun’s rocket team not arrived, Huntsville, without its many textile mills, would probably have reverted to its preindustrial roots.In 1999, Huntsville commercial real estate agent Gene McLain buys the decaying mill.

2001 – Present: A New Life, A New Look

In 2001, Jim Hudson, the founder of HudsonAlpha and Research Genetics, purchased Lowe Mill at the corner of Seminole Drive and 9th Avenue and had a dream for what had been Huntsville’s first suburb.

Hudson’s dream was an arts center where photographers, sculptors, painters and potters can live and work. If he gets his way, the project will also include shops, music, a culinary school and space for quirky exhibits – even homemade robots. Hudson worked with Huntsville’s artists and creative communities to build a space where the public could interact with visual artists.

In 2002, Flying Monkey Arts, a grassroots community artists’ collective, began having pop-up performances and markets on Lowe Mill’s second floor south and having regular events in the Lowe Mill connector space. By February 2003, Catherine Shearer, on the board of Flying Monkey Arts, arranged to lease the entire second floor of the three-story building. Flying Monkey Arts then occupied Second Floor South, the First Floor Connector and the Second Floor Connector. The flying Monkey contained a theatre, studio space for working artists, specialized workshops, visiting artists, and community collaborations. Performances included visual and performance art with an emphasis on experimental works for mature audiences. The first shows on Sept 15, 2004 included Troubled Hubble, The Show is the Rainbow, American Astronaut, and the Flying Monkey Poo Fling.

In 2006 Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment is founded and began transitioning from the organic, homemade look of the second floor to the more finished look you see today on the other floors. The transition took time and happened floor by floor as more artists and makers joined Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment. But what inspired entrepreneur Jim Hudson to create Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment, an artist’s collective in a century-old textile mill?

It was a chance visit to the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Virginia.

Jim Hudson was in Arlington, Virginia for a medical exam. “There was a beautiful piece of fabric art in the in the lobby of the hospital. The art piece was ten-foot square and it was quite striking 3D sort of a fabric sculpture and I asked the lady there do you know who made it? They said that they had bought it from this place called the Torpedo Factory.” And so the next time Jim got a day pass he checked out of the hospital and went to the Torpedo Factory.

Jim met some of the artists there and liked the Torpedo Factory. “At that point in time it was a very crude, but really fun place. It was bare concrete, no conditioning. Artists studios were separated with chain-link fence,” said Hudson. “They had a couple of sculptures and sculptors in there, as well as other artists and they were making noise and dust and so forth. But yeah, it was fun place. I really liked it.” Hudson went back a couple of times to visit (The Torpedo Factory) when he would return for treatment. He got to meet the artists there and really enjoyed the conversations with the artists.

“That was it, it was just inspiring,” said Hudson.

The Torpedo Factory’s model was if you’re an artist there you must be there half the time that its open and you must interact with the public. The artist can’t close their door and be in solitude. Basically, the artist had to educate the public about their art and why they became an artist.

“So I spent a lot of good times being educated and talking to those artists. I kind of logged it back in my mind, would it be great at this point like this in Huntsville?” Jim Hudson didn’t think much about it until he sold Research Genetics, a Huntsville biotech company. Hudson recalls, “Gene McLain came to me almost immediately after I sold the company and said I’ve got something I know you’re going to want to see. It’s just for you.”

Gene McLain brought Jim Hudson to Lowe Mill.

Martin Stamping and Stove was using it as a warehouse for a long time. Martin made wood burning stoves. Lowe Mill was just a warehouse for Martin Industries. But Gene had bought it from them and it was completely empty except for some old lumber. Lowe Mill, once a thriving textile mill, was a dirty warehouse for wood-burning stoves.

“But for me it was perfect. I mean I walked around with him and instantly thought of the Torpedo Factory and this was the opportunity to do that here,” said Jim.

“We brought the Flying Monkey here and we did just exactly what I’d seen,” said Jim “with the chain link fence separating the studios. Flying Monkey leased the whole second floor. “

“So, I mean, that’s why I did it. It’s all about trying to recreate Torpedo Factory in Huntsville Alabama,” said Hudson.

Soon after Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment began to open it’s studios, Concert on the Docks Series began on June 9, 2007. The first concert on the Dock, organized by Matt Crunk, was the Cigar Box Guitar Extravaganza. The concert featured Huntsville’s own Microwave Dave as well as others including Ben Prestridge, Johnny Lowebow, Gerry Thompson, Shane Speal, Timothy Renner, David Williams, Bluebook Jag, Leaving Miss Blue, Low Country Messiahs, Doctor Oakroot, and Buckeye. The bands played until 3:00 a.m.

Concerts on the Dock grew from a small gathering of music lovers listening to spinning records on a turntable on the loading dock to an institution in the Huntsville music scene. Lowe Mill A&E’s Concerts on the Dock is a free concert series and an opportunity for our community to take in a variety of family-friendly acts and local musicians. This laid-back event happens every Friday night during spring and fall under the iconic Lowe Mill A&E water tower. Folks just grab a lawn chair or blanket, a few cold drinks and maybe even the dog and end their week with fun and eclectic music.

Starting in 2008, the expansion of studios in the century-old textile mill began in earnest with more floors opening almost every year. First, the studios on the second-floor connector (the building joining the South facility to the North) opened for business. Then in 2009, Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment opened its 17,000 square feet of third-floor studios, adding 27 new art studios.

The growth continued into the next decade and in 2010 when the First Floor South building studios are opened to the public. In February 2012 Railroad Room 3 is finished for Vertical House Records. Railroad Room 7 opens for Tangled String Studio in April 2012. A specialty chocolatier joins the Lowe Mill recipe when Pizzelle’s Confections opens in Railroad Room 4 in Feb 2013.

In 2014, Lowe Mill A&E opened the second floor of the North Building. The 37,000-square foot expansion added 31 new studios, a gallery and the center’s first dedicated 72-seat art classroom for public and private use. The expansion increased the center’s footprint by 30 percent.

This addition made Lowe Mill A&E the nation’s largest privately owned arts and entertainment facility, totaling 158 public studios and over 200 working artists. Lowe Mill A&E’s old textile mill has 190,000 square feet for artists is the equivalent of or about the size of 3 1/2 NFL football fields. Lowe Mill sits on 18 acres, almost the size of land the White House sits on in Washington, D.C.

Visitors will find every area of visual art from drawing and painting to textiles to jewelry, pottery, and more. While here, guests can indulge in the culinary arts with options like crepes, specialty sandwiches, vegetarian fare, popsicles, and pizza, as well coffee, tea, and whiskey. Lowe Mill A&E is host to a variety of entertainment options from kid friendly events, Concerts on the Dock, cult films and date night options like swing dance, couples workshops, and comedy shows.

We invite the public to enter studios by following our open door policy— if the door is open just walk in to explore Lowe Mill ARTS & Entertainment studio by studio.