Coker's mill and process had a significant influence on the future development of the southern pulp mill industry. In the years following, Coker expanded the firm as it supplied pulp and paper products throughout the country.
Entrepreneur, engineer, industrialist. Coker was the eldest son of James Lide Coker and Susan Stout. He was born at Society Hill on November 23, 1863, as his father lay seriously wounded in Chattanooga following serious injury in the Battle of Lookout Mountain. The senior Coker survived the war and began to develop various business enterprises in Hartsville and Darlington County. His son took an active part in these businesses as he grew older, including service with the main family enterprise, J. L. Coker and Company, a large mercantile establishment.
Coker’s practical aptitude for mechanical things led in 1884 to his attending Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he graduated with an engineering degree. In his senior thesis he studied the process of making paper from wood pulp and conceived the idea of substituting the cheap and readily available southern pine for the hardwoods then in general use. On September 10, 1889, Coker married Vivian Gay, daughter of the landscape painter Edward Gay. The couple had three children.
When Coker returned to Hartsville after college, he convinced his father to help finance experiments on his scheme, no one having previously attempted the pulp process with pine timber. Working with the American Sulphite Pulp Company, which held a patent of the sulphite process, Coker built an experimental pulp mill in Hartsville in 1890 and, with his father, formed the Carolina Fiber Company. After much difficulty, Coker proved the process effective and began manufacturing the first wood pulp made from pine. His mill and process had a significant influence on the future development of the southern pulp mill industry. In the years following, Coker expanded the firm as it supplied pulp and paper products throughout the country. A man of remarkable mechanical ability, Coker invented much of the machinery and developed the new processes needed in the southern pulp mill industry. Best known as an inventive engineer, he was less adept as a daily business manager. Here the financial acumen of his father and the hiring of good subordinates proved important for the company’s ultimate success.
Heavily involved in the cotton and textile business, the Coker family soon expanded the paper-product line into the production of paper cones and tubes used in the spinning process by textile mills. The Southern Novelty Company was formed in 1899 to produce and supply such products to the textile industry and was an example of the Cokers’ ability to develop regional enterprises from local needs. Southern Novelty was located alongside the fiber plant, and the two firms had a symbiotic, as well as familial, relationship; James headed Carolina Fiber, and younger brother Charles eventually led Southern Novelty (renamed Sonoco in 1923). In 1941 the two separate operating companies combined. James Coker died on December 23, 1931, in Hartsville, where he was also buried.
Simpson, George Lee, Jr. The Cokers of Carolina: A Social Biography of a Family. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956.