The Johnston Mill: The mill that almost never was

The Johnston and Mecklenburg mills have been neighborhood landmarks for the better part of a century. The Community Builders’ (TCB) update at the March NoDa Neighborhood & Business Association meeting means they will be the driving force of NoDa’s future, too.

TCB announced they still intend to renovate the Johnston Mill into apartments. Some of the apartments will offer affordable housing units, of which the neighborhood is in dire need. With all of the news on the mills, the Back in the Day Committee thought it would be the perfect time to revisit the history of Mecklenburg and Johnston mills and how instrumental they were to building our neighborhood’s character.

Back in summer of 1905, our neighborhood was known as North Charlotte. The city was in the midst of a textile boom and three local businessmen decided to join the fray. Robert L. Tate, S. B. Alexander, Jr., and B. Lawrence Duke, a relative of the Duke Power founder, completed the Mecklenburg Mill that summer.

The mill made an immediate impact in the area, and not just because of the structure itself. The owners also built a village of homes for the mill workers and a small pond (now drained) around where the Colony apartments and businesses now sit. The pond supplied water to a steel freestanding water tower in front of the mill, which fed the mill’s Grinnell sprinkler system.

The mill you see today remains largely unchanged from its original design, as few updates were made to the building’s exterior. As local historian Tom Hanchett noted, “Only the Hoskins Mill, across town off Rozelles Ferry Road, rivals the Mecklenburg Mill as a well-preserved early textile mill.”

Over the years, the mill changed owners, who in turn renamed it several times. For instance, it was known as Mercury Mill for a number of years around World War II.

The Johnston Mill was built around 1916, and one of its principal investors was Charles Worth Johnston. Charles was also one of the investors who built Highland Park Mill #3. He became a local textile magnate, heading 13 mills in North and South Carolina when he passed away in 1941.

Dr. William H. Huffman pointed out in his article for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission that the mill looks a bit odd at first glance. He stated, “It was built rather late for most Mecklenburg mills, was built on the land of an existing mill, and had no associated mill village.” But it was built when the need for mills was at its peak.

World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and created a huge demand for uniforms and bandages. The European textile industry lacked the workers to meet the orders and there was a shortage of supplies. This offered an opportunity for textile plants in the neutral (at the time) United States to step in and meet the demand.

New mills were being built across the textile region and operated around the clock. A December 1915 Charlotte Observer article titled “Amazing Activity Among the Mills” declared, “There is greater activity in cotton mill construction circles just at present in and around Charlotte than there has been in a decade, according to the statements of the best informed mill architects and engineers of this section….It has been figured that it has been ordered and put under way more than $3,000,000 worth of work in and around Charlotte within the past few months. There is also well founded talk of the plans of Mr. Charles W. Johnston and his associates in the Anchor Mills at Huntersville, of building another mill or an addition to the present one at Huntersville.”

But he decided to build one in North Charlotte instead, largely due to its proximity to the rail line and its spur lines that existed along the Mecklenburg Mill. Thus, Johnston Mill was born instead of becoming the mill that never was.

The proximity to Highland Park Mill #3 and Mecklenburg Mill, both of which were owned by Charles’ company (Charles acquired Mecklenburg shortly after it opened), was instrumental in his decision as well. Charles could lease the land for Johnston from extra property the Mecklenburg Mill was not using. He also did not have to consider building an additional mill village because the surrounding area had by then been built up with mill houses, stores, and other amenities.

The Johnston Mill continued to prosper throughout the war and even into the boom times of the 1920s. Additions were made to the mill in 1926 that included the picker room at the rear of the main mill. The cotton warehouse was also expanded at this time.

Charles stepped down as president in 1938 before passing away three years later. His son, R. Horace Johnston, led the Johnston interests until he passed in the early 1950s. In 1951, David R. Johnston (C. W. Johnston’s grandson), built the Johnston Memorial YMCA in memory of his father. David was the last president of the company, which began to dissolve shortly after WWII when the Mecklenburg Mill shut down and was only used as a warehouse thereafter.

In June 1969, all textile manufacturing ceased at Highland Park #3 and the Johnston Mill would only survive a few more years. When it closed in 1975, more than a building closed. This mill was the last operating textile mill in Mecklenburg County, and its closing marked the end of an important era in Charlotte’s illustrious history.