Mill Village


One long-time resident recalls that many of the neighborhood's oldest homes were built of wood from a small forest that stood in Old West Durham. A sawmill was set up in the middle of the woods that is now Erwin Square.

As the trees were cleared to build Erwin Mills, they were sawed into planks that were used to build the earliest mill homes that line many of our streets.

According to the Durham Inventory, Old West Durham boasts several mill homes with one of three basic designs: the simple pyramid roof, L-shaped or T-shaped (your standing at the mill determined the house in which you lived). Others, like pastors and merchants, built frame homes ordered from catalogues like Sears & Roebuck and others.

Anderson added that the mill homes were, "clean, well-maintained, inexpensive (usually about twenty-five cents per room per week), and convenient. They liked the sociability of the village. They had space in their yards for vegetables and flowers... Christmas was a wonderful time. Everyone got an apple and an orange and a stick of candy."

The Durham Architectural And Historic Inventory points out that "a great number of these houses survive today in neat rows of identical forms situated close to the street, presenting a clear idea of the early character of the West Durham mill village."

Most homes sit at the front of deep narrow lots -- perfect for vegetable gardens out back. Small grocery stores dotted the residential streets as well -- including what is now Magnolia Grill and West Durham Tire. Long-time residents recall the smell of soapy laundry that would often cover much of the neighborhood -- from the mills' dye ponds along Hillsborough Road.

For years, Floyd Wright operated a grocery in the small frame building that now stands behind the Magnolia Grill -- facing West Knox Street. According to Tom Walker, long-time County Commissioner Dewey Scarboro built the existing brick building in 1947. Across the street from E.K. Powe School, Scarboro Grocery was a favorite stop for children for some 40 years. Mr. Scarboro closed his store in 1978 and an Old West Durham institution, Wellspring Grocery, sold its first produce through these doors. Today, this old neighborhood grocery store is home to one of the South's most acclaimed restaurants -- Magnolia Grill.

Old-time tent revivals were often held at Rosehill Avenue and Knox (just up the hill from Skunk Hollow and the old Wallace grocery store) where messages of inspiration were broadcast through loud speakers for all to hear. Later, one neighborhood church was torn down and replaced by an ABC liquor store.

Across the railroad tracks (near where West Main and Trent intersect today) stood a school called Southside. Situated on a hill, the school was fronted by terraced lawns and several mature trees (today, the site of the old campus is the northern embankment of the Durham Freeway). The land along this stretch of the freeway was once home to a large number of mill houses for Erwin Mills (several are still standing south of the freeway including along Case, Hull, Powe and Faber streets). Many of the children living in this area attended Southside School (ca. 1921).

Nearby was a community of blacks and whites called Hickstown. In 1978, City and State leaders sought to push the Durham Freeway through mostly African American neighborhoods. In response, a coalition of community residents and progressive whites worked to save Hickstown (now called Crest Street neighborhood) by rebuilding it near the VA medical center. This effort resulted in a $10 million settlement for the Crest Street community that, for the first time in U.S. history, used highway relocation funds to benefit an entire neighborhood instead of individual homeowners. Hickstown was named after landowner Hawkins Hicks -- whose tombstone can still be found on the eastern edge of the Erwin Mills cemetery. Today, Hicks Street (near the St. Francis Animal Hospital) stands as a quiet reminder of the old community.

Farther east was the black settlement of Brookstown (today mostly under the freeway and along either side of Swift Street). The area was once dotted with dozens of one-story frame houses including Moses Hester's house on West Pettigrew, near Swift, which served as both a carpenter's shop and a church. Residents of Brookstown worked in both the tobacco factory and Erwin Mill. Others worked at the Marvin Teer Brickyard located near Swift and Faber streets. The brickyard was later sold to Samuel Fitzgerald and operated under the name of Fitzgerald Brickyard (the old African-American Fitzgerald cemetery, next to Maplewood Cemetery, was named after this family). According to historian Alice Eley Jones, Erwin Mills (like many of Durham's factories) were built using the famous Fitzgerald bricks. The old brickyard site is now Duke's Freeman Center for Jewish Life (and if you look in the underbrush you can still see a brick or two).

The Durham Inventory describes textile mills as a "combination of paternalism and economic sanctions that included long hours, low wages, and poor living conditions... and the Erwin mill and the village that grew around it reflected many of the harsh realities of the period and the industry." And yet, William Erwin (Benjamin Duke's business partner for the mill) "earned widespread notice for reducing the work days at his factories to eleven hours and for refusing to employ underage children. He also provided the West Durham community with a park before Durham had any city parks. In 1895 he equipped the large grove across the railroad tracks opposite the mill with swings and benches. This park almost instantly became the social and recreation center of the community's life, exemplified by the brass band organized here the same year among the mill workers."

West Durham Library: The first Erwin Mills library stood near the corner of Hillsboro Road and Ninth Street. One local theory says that when the library was moved to Erwin Auditorium, the original two-story library became the home of Mr. McCauley Fields. Long-time residents say the Fields house looked like the old library. It stood just west of what is now Vin Rouge. In the past, Edith Street ended a block farther south -- at Hillsboro Rd. (Photo ca. 1918)
West Durham Library: The first Erwin Mills library stood near the corner of Hillsboro Road and Ninth Street. One local theory says that when the library was moved to Erwin Auditorium, the original two-story library became the home of Mr. McCauley Fields. Long-time residents say the Fields house looked like the old library. It stood just west of what is now Vin Rouge. In the past, Edith Street ended a block farther south -- at Hillsboro Rd. (Photo ca. 1918)

However, working conditions during the Great Depression brought relations between mill workers and management to a boiling point. In September 1934, tens of thousands of textile workers throughout the South walked off the job protesting conditions at the mills and in company-controlled mill villages. According to the News & Observer, hundreds of striking Erwin Mills workers rallied at the Carolina Theatre, marched down Main Street and enjoyed widespread community support. The General Textile Strike of 1934 ended three weeks later with some 20 workers dead from strike-related violence, others sitting in internment camps and little progress for the "lintheads," the pejorative term for cotton mill workers in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. Years later, the memory of the strike (considered by historians the largest labor revolt in Southern history) has faded along with the mill villages it helped eliminate. In a part of the country where "union" often has the status of a four-letter word, the strike showed that Southern workers can organize for change even during the Great Depression and amid the constraints of having the mill as employer, landlord and store owner.

Bill Holmes (owner of The Ideal Sundry on Hillsborough Road) tells us that mill workers and their families were even provided with free cemetery plots at the western edge of the mill village. The Erwin Mills cemetery (aka Cedar Hill) is located in what was then Hickstown. In 1957, Erwin Mills sold the cemetery to the Knights of Pythias for $1.00. The cemetery is still standing on a quiet stretch of West Pettigrew Street (in a grove of forgotten trees behind West Durham Lumber -- between the railroad tracks and the Durham Freeway). The Old West Durham Neighborhood Association organized three cemetery clean-ups to remove several truckloads of underbrush, paint the fence, install two cemetery signs and plant more that 200 daffodil bulbs.

According to E.K. Powe III, "because there was no air-conditioning, everyone sat on the porch after supper until it was cool enough to retire. Another front porch pastime was watching the train go by. There used to be a little wooden station just before the Ninth Street over-pass where passengers could board the train. You would hear the shirk of the whistle when the train was about to arrive."

Powe added that West Durham was also home to "one of the first automobiles in Durham, a Hudson with wide running boards and two spare tires at the front. [one long time resident] remembers her brother hopping out to light the headlights at twilight."

"Powe also described how when his grandfather, E.K. Powe (the mill's first general manager), walked through the mill village...", he would stop to talk to the workers in their yards and on their front porches. He invited them to band concerts in the park. He took them rose bushes to plant in their yards, many of which are still blooming in West Durham today. "When E.K. Powe died in 1929, the school on Ninth Street was named in his honor -- reflecting Powe's concern for the educational needs of the neighborhood children."

Erwin also strictly supervised the mill village, according to Powe. "If he heard that one of the daughters of an employee was acting too amorously with young West Durham men, he would admonish her parents to correct the situation, or be fired!"

This approach quickly put and end to the infamous history of Pin Hook's past. By the time Durham had reached a population of 5,000, Erwin was able to boast, "Moral conditions of my town, West Durham, are better than any in the city."

Old West Durham Neighborhood Association
Durham, NC 27705
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