Langdale Mills Powerhouse The West Point Manufacturing Company, incorporated in 1880, grew into one of the nation’s largest producers of textiles and was an important employer and community fixture in eastern Chambers County and West Point, Georgia, for more than 100 years. Located along the Chattahoochee River, the company’s five core textile mills of Langdale, Lanett, Fairfax, Shawmut, and Riverdale and their accompanying villages were located in Alabama and its headquarters was located in West Point, Georgia. After more than a century of growth and acquisitions, the company had expanded to exceed 40 manufacturing and related facilities with more than 41,000 employees in 1989. The company gradually shrank after a failed takeover attempt about that time and because of growing international competition. The last of its plants closed in 2008.
The beginnings of the West Point Manufacturing Company date to 1866, when prominent industrialists George Huguley and James McClendon formed two textile companies, the Alabama-Georgia Manufacturing Company and the Chattahoochee Manufacturing Company, which they headed, respectively, and began construction of the mills. The companies would begin producing osnaburg woven in 1870. The worldwide economic depression known as the Panic of 1873 caused the fledgling mills to close briefly. Despite the setback, the companies attracted the attention of brothers LaFayette and Ward Crockett Lanier, who had moved to the West Point, Georgia, area before serving in the Confederate Army. Returning from the war, they established the Bank of West Point in 1869. LaFayette Lanier soon began purchasing stock in the Chattahoochee Manufacturing Company.
By 1880, the brothers owned a majority stake in the Chattahoochee Manufacturing Company, which they reorganized into the West Point Manufacturing Company. With a new supervisor, experienced English textile maker William Lang, and a new business alliance with selling agent N. Boynton & Company of Boston, Massachusetts, the mills began prospering. During this period of increasing migration to the American West, the West Point Manufacturing Company was an important supplier of cotton duck to Boynton. This durable canvas fabric, used in sailcloth and to cover wagons, proved a valuable commodity. Lang’s father, Thomas, resettled in America and managed the Chattahoochee Manufacturing Company mill for more than 20 years. He and his family endeared themselves so greatly to the company and the community that the mill and village became known as Langdale.
Lanett Mill and Village After the company’s mill burned in 1886, Boynton provided capital to rebuild the mill. Close business and personal ties existed among the Laniers and leading Boynton executives, who made annual trips to the Alabama mills. Horace Sears, a senior member of the Boston firm, joined the leadership of the West Point Manufacturing Company, becoming its treasurer in 1887. That year, the rebuilt mill began producing cotton duck, and Boynton again sold that fabric to markets near and far. In 1892, the company began to expand with the help of more investment from Boynton. A large new textile mill was constructed along with a bleachery and dye works. Named Lanett, an amalgamation of the last names of Lafayette Lanier and Theodore Bennett, a sales partner at Boynton and a close associate of Lanier, the mill began operating in 1894. By 1895, the Alabama town in which the mill was located changed its name from Bluffton to Lanett.
In an effort to more efficiently deliver raw cotton to its mills and export its finished products, the West Point Manufacturing Company invested in its own railroad. In 1895, the Chattahoochee Valley Railroad Company was incorporated and began laying track to link the mills with West Point, which was a stop for both the Atlanta & West Point and Western Railway of Alabama. Expansion continued in 1899 with Lanett Mill No. 2. Through family ties, LaFayette Lanier acquired an interest in the Alabama-Georgia Manufacturing Company once headed by his father-in-law, George Huguley. Eventually the Alabama-Georgia Manufacturing Company dissolved, and its mill, called Galeton and later Riverdale, became a subsidiary of the West Point Manufacturing Company.
Five Mills and Villages
As each mill was established, a mill village sprang up nearby. Schools and community centers, largely paid for by the company, added social and physical spaces to the fledgling villages. The company contributed one dollar for every two dollars raised by church congregations for building projects. Recreation programs, starting with baseball leagues around 1914, expanded into mill-funded recreation departments. Other supported extracurriculars included Boy and Girl Scout programs. Company treasurer Horace Sears in particular was instrumental in cultivating educational and cultural resources in the mill communities. He personally contributed 50 percent of the funds for Sears Hall, a building that functioned as a library, auditorium, and schoolhouse in Langdale, and the company paid the rest. As president, LaFayette Lanier also invested in his employees by securing company funding to build a school in Lanett in 1897, and established children’s daycares and kindergartens to help working mothers. The regular work, steady pay, better housing, and education for their children prompted many families to leave their small country farms to work in the mills. In the early years of the mills, children were employed; boys tended to be sweepers and girls worked in the spinning room.
Shawmut Mill and Village After the turn of the century, a new generation would guide the West Point Manufacturing Company. In 1898, Ward Crockett Lanier died and LaFayette Lanier’s failing health prompted his son, George Lanier, to leave his career at Pepperton Mills in Butts County, Georgia, and return to West Point in 1906. Meanwhile, other mills were built, notably the company’s first electric-powered mill, Shawmut Mill, in 1907. Shawmut also became the company’s first planned mill village community. Designed by a landscape architect, the community was centered on a public park surrounded by communal buildings, which included a school, library, auditorium, and two churches. Each building owed its existence, at least partially if not wholly, to the West Point Manufacturing Company. Shawmut’s original 227 mill houses, predominantly single-family homes with a number of duplexes, ranged in size from three to six rooms, with each cottage having a front and back porch.
Construction of Fairfax Mill and its surrounding mill village, designed by landscape architect William Bell Marquis, began in 1915. The mill was intended to produce towels, but World War I increased demand for cotton duck. Even before the United States joined the fighting in 1917, textiles from the company supplied British allies with cotton duck for tents and other war-related products. In addition, many young men working in the mills joined the Allied cause. To boost morale, the company subsidized War Service Centers in each of the five mill villages. They each employed a woman secretary and assistants who corresponded with the employees who left the mills to enter the armed forces.
Great Depression, Union Failures, and World War II
Pepperell Mill in Opelika, ca. 1933 After the war, wartime production ceased, and Fairfax Mill returned to making towels. In 1928, George Lanier, now president of the company, purchased the rights to the trademark “Martex,” a top-quality terry towel brand out of Philadelphia. During that decade, the company conducted internal reorganizations. Riverdale Cotton Mills, originally founded by the Alabama-Georgia Manufacturing Company in 1866 in present-day Valley, became a division of the West Point Manufacturing Company.
During the Great Depression, the company mills continued to operate but at reduced days and hours. Workers and their families suffered from the smaller paychecks, but the mill found ways to ease the pain. Rents for mill homes were reduced and utilities were provided at a minimal fee or no cost. At Christmastime, the company furnished each child who had a parent employed by the mills with a bag of fruit and a gift. During these lean years, employees relied on such kindnesses. The many amenities the company was providing and its practice of refusing work to anyone associated with labor unions created goodwill between the company and its employees. These efforts fended off the larger unionization efforts that emerged across the southern textile industry, embodied in the General Textile Strike of 1934, and kept the unions out of its five core mills.
By World War II, the company’s products as well as people circumnavigated the world in support of the war effort. In 1942, its mills were awarded the prestigious Army-Navy Production Award, also called an E-Award, for their wartime production. Their continued excellence in both quality and quantity of war-related items earned all of the mills five E-Awards before the war’s end. As in World War I, the company established War Service Centers in its mill villages. Also during the 1940s, the company made a large donation that helped establish the George H. Lanier Memorial Hospital, which was completed shortly after its namesake’s death in September 1948. It is now known as East Alabama Medical Center-Lanier.
On March 13, 1951, Joe Lanier, son of George H. Lanier, was named president. During the ensuing decade, the company gradually retreated from its paternalistic role in providing for the basic needs of its employees, but it did cover the costs of painting and maintaining village houses and for many years provided water and electricity at no additional charge. Employees were given the right of first refusal and generous terms if they decided to purchase their rental home when the company put the houses up for sale.
Fifty Year Club Members Joseph L. Lanier Sr.’s tenure was marked by expansion. On March 29, 1965, West Point Manufacturing merged with Opelika-based Pepperell Manufacturing Company (established in 1925) to become West Point-Pepperell, Inc., the fourth largest publicly held textile manufacturer in the United States. Expansion continued in 1966, with the construction of Lanier Carter Mills along the newly built Interstate-85. Two separate mills under one roof, Lanier Mill produced cloth for apparel and Carter Mill fabric for sheets and pillowcases. In 1971, Joe Lanier Sr. retired. In 1975, his son, Joe Lanier Jr., rose to become the company’s president and chief executive officer. Having joined the company’s training program in 1957, he brought experience and pedigree to the job. Lanier Jr. presided over the company during significant periods of change. By the 1970s, African Americans had begun to hold jobs inside the mills. Previously, they held positions of manual labor, typically in the warehouses and in maintenance positions. In 1980, the mill communities of Langdale, Riverview, Shawmut, and Fairfax consolidated to become the city of Valley.
Fairfax Mill Towel Production Despite the continually increasing volume of textiles manufactured in overseas mills, WestPoint Pepperell managed to remain competitive. But Lantuck was the first local mill to shut down, in 1978, though most of its employees found work in other WestPoint Pepperell facilities. Steadily rising in the Fortune 500 rankings, WestPoint Pepperell saw years of record sales in the 1980s. New facilities in Chipley, Florida, and Tifton, Georgia, added carpet and bedding products. In 1983, with the creation of an international division, the company established trade relations in Belgium and Germany and a shirt-sewing plant in Costa Rica. WestPoint Pepperell acquired Cluett, Peabody, & Co. in 1986, adding Gold Toe socks, Arrow shirts, and Burberry to its product line. In 1988, the company joined forces with an investment firm and the Bibb Company to take over J. P. Stevens and its plants in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, expanding the company’s bed and bath finished goods.
Takeover Bid and Decline
On the heels of the J. P. Stevens acquisition, junk-bond millionaire and Fruit of the Loom CEO William Farley made a $1.4 billion bid for WestPoint Pepperell. The community and company resisted the takeover, with efforts led by CEO Joe Lanier Jr. Farley raised his price per share to $58 and agreed to assume WestPoint Pepperell’s existing $1 billion debt. His increased bid of $1.73 billion prevailed, and he owned 95 percent of WestPoint Pepperell by 1990. But he was forced to sell off assets to pay the massive interest on short-term bridge loans used to finance the deal. Those sales, however, netted millions less than expected and Farley could not pay down the debt or purchase the remaining five percent of stock. Without full ownership of the company, he could not tap into its cash flow to pay his looming debts. He resigned as chief executive in 1992.
Consequences of the takeover reverberated throughout Chambers County and beyond. Farley dismissed many top executives and shuttered departments. In 1992, three Valley plants, TexTest, Shawmut Finishing Plant, and Langdale Plant were sold. A glimmer of hope appeared in 1993 when Joe L. Jennings, a cousin of Joe Lanier Jr. and a former CEO at Mount Vernon Mills in South Carolina, returned to the Valley area to become company president and CEO. Along with a change in leadership, the company embraced a new name, WestPoint Stevens Inc. Despite the upheaval of the Farley takeover, the company led the nation as a maker of sheets and was the second largest in towel production.
Gradually, though, the textile mills closed, and employment shrank. Lower-cost products manufactured overseas by companies that paid very low wages cut into domestic production. In 1996, the Riverdale Mill, which dated to 1866, closed. WestPoint Stevens filed chapter 11 to restructure its more than $2.1 billion debt. Corporate reshuffling continued in 2005 when American Real Estate Partners, headed by Carl Ichan, acquired WestPoint Stevens and turned it into WestPoint Home. Despite the new ownership, the local textile industry continued to dwindle. In 2006, Lanett Mill closed and after corporate downsizing, the company’s corporate office in West Point, Georgia, was put up for sale. The Lanier and Carter plants closed in 2007, and the Fairfax Fabrication and Finishing plants closed in 2008. By March 2008, WestPoint Home’s last Chambers County facility closed.
The legacy of the textile industry endures, however. A Chambers County rebranding effort in 2015 adopted the tagline “Strength Woven In” to honor the community’s past ties to textiles. Various properties related to the mills and villages at Fairfax, Langdale, Riverdale, and Shawmut in Valley were designated as historic properties in 1999 by the National Register of Historic Places and are also listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage, which is administered by the Alabama Historical Commission. Many were also documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Chattahoochee Valley Historical Society. The Story of Bluffton-Lanett, Alabama. Montgomery, Ala.: Paragon Press, 1971.
Lanier, Joseph L. The First Seventy-Five Years of West Point Manufacturing Company, 1880-1955. New York: Newcomen Society in North America, 1955.
Lee, James Lawrence. “Cotton for the Looms of West Point: A History of the Chattahoochee Valley Railway.” M.A. thesis, Auburn University, 1995.
Leynes, Jennifer Deneen Brown. “Paternalism, Progressivism, and the Built Environment: The West Point Manufacturing Company Towns of Langdale and Shawmut Alabama.” M.A. thesis, University of Georgia, 1999.
Shumway, Harry Irving. I Go South: An Unprejudiced Visit to a Group of Cotton Mills. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1930.