Textile mill entrepreneurs remade the South Carolina landscape in the late nineteenth century. They surrounded their mills with villages and provided schools to educate the children of mill workers and to demonstrate to the public their concern for the community’s well-being.
Early mill schools provided elementary education for children of varying academic levels and ages. Pacolet Mills was incorporated in Spartanburg County in 1882. Its school was in operation by 1885 with around eighty to one hundred students. In 1900 the Pacolet mill school had an enrollment of 369 but only three teachers. High student-teacher ratios were common throughout the state: in 1900 the Graniteville mill school had 57.2 pupils per teacher, Tucapau had 75 pupils per teacher, and Glendale had 125 students served by a single teacher. Although schools outside of mill villages also suffered from a lack of teachers, their ratios rarely ranged above 50 students per teacher.
The mill school was a reflection of the individual community and was run with little interference from the state until the advent of the Progressive Era. Prior to South Carolina’s compulsory attendance law, children as young as nine went to work in the cotton mills, depending on personal preference or family financial circumstances. In South Carolina the Progressives focused their attention on public education as a vehicle to eliminate what they saw as the “mill problem.” Progressives argued that mill schools did little to eradicate the mores of the farm and mountain hollow that they believed were detrimental to South Carolina’s future well-being. South Carolina Progressives, led by Governor Richard I. Manning, attempted to set work age limits and require school attendance of those children excluded by law from the workplace. Both proposals met with resistance from the textile operatives, but by 1919 South Carolina had both child labor and compulsory school attendance laws.
In the area of education, the most audacious example of South Carolina’s Progressive movement was the creation of a high school in Greenville. By 1922 there were fourteen mill schools in an industrial district that lay in a contiguous arc along the western side of the city. Students wishing to continue their education beyond the eighth grade had to travel to town and pay tuition to attend Greenville High School. Few mill families could afford this option. In 1923 the state legislature created the Parker District, named for Thomas F. Parker, owner of Monaghan Mill and a keen proponent of education in South Carolina’s textile community. The centerpiece of the district was Parker High School. Lawrence Peter Hollis, welfare director at Monaghan Mill, was named district superintendent. With this new system, cotton mill owners transferred operation of their mill schools to the state. This led to central control with standardized policy and curriculum. Parker High School thrived under Hollis’s leadership and attained nationwide attention in Progressive education circles. The Parker District operated independently until the consolidation of all Greenville County schools in 1951.
Parker High School was part of a broader trend that saw the state increase its control over education. When Buffalo Mill school burned in 1925, it was replaced by a new public school complete with electric lights and indoor plumbing. The passage of the 6-0-1 law in 1924 helped solidify the role of the state in financing public education. The 1950s saw the mill village passing from existence, and South Carolina’s mill schools, by then absorbed into modern rationalized school districts across the state, also faded from the scene.
Burts, Robert Milton. Richard Irvine Manning and the Progressive Movement in South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1974.
Carlton, David L. Mill and Town in South Carolina, 1880–1920. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Dunlap, James A., III. “Changing Symbols of Success: Economic Development in Twentieth Century Greenville, South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1994.
Kohn, August. The Cotton Mills of South Carolina. 1907. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1975.