Double whammy of mill closing and massive fire led to Rossville’s decline
Editors note: This article first appeared in the 2016 edition of Past Times magazine.
Unlike a phoenix that rises anew from its funeral pyre ashes, Rossville never recovered from a 1967 fire that burned for days and consumed roughly a third of a 1.5-million-squarefoot complex that was formerly a textile mill.
“Up to the point of the big fire everything was running smoothly,” Doris White said. “But after that, there was nowhere to turn.”
White and her husband, Hoyt, had moved from Fyffe, Alabama, in 1951 to work at Peerless Woolen Mills.
Peerless was founded and Rossville was chartered as a city in the same year: 1905. And for three score and more years, the fate of both were intertwined.
As Peerless Woolen Mill grew to become the world’s premier producer of woolen fabric, Rossville’s population and prosperity grew.
“Money was to be made in the plant,” White recalled.
During World War II nearly every military blanket, and mile upon mile of woolen uniform material, was shipped from the Rossville plant. In addition to covers and clothes, its fabric was used to upholster automobile interiors both before and after two World Wars.
But the mill owned by John L. Hutcheson did more than put bread on the tables and shoes on the feet of its employees. Hutcheson’s largesse added greatly to the quality of life for the mill workers and the town.
‘The mill drove the town’
Today’s Cornerstone Hospital in Fort Oglethorpe, previously known as Hutcheson Medical Center to honor Peerless’ owner, began life as Tri-County Hospital and was funded in large part by payroll deductions taken from Peerless and other area textile plants.
Peerless built a community center, complete with a bowling alley, for its employees, fielded industrial league teams in softball, baseball and basketball — once even bringing the
Harlem Globetrotters to town for an exhibition game. There was also a companyowned recreation area on Lake Chickamauga, north of Chattanooga, for Peerless workers.
“The mill drove the town,” White said. “Working there, it was like an extended family.”
That “mill” that employed as many as 3,000 during its heyday was sold to Burlington Industries in 1952, but changes throughout the Eisenhower years were few.
The city had fashion boutiques, jewelry stores, groceries, variety stores, service stations and even a branch of the Chattanoogabased Loveman’s, a department store chain.
“We had everything we needed in Rossville,” White recalled, adding that the city’s prosperity spread across the state line as far as Chattanooga’s East Lake community.
But Rossville’s decline and fall was foreshadowed when Burlington shut down its production lines in 1961.
The United States textile industry changed radically throughout the 1960s with many jobs in “thread mills” throughout the South going to lower cost producers in Asia, Central or South America.
Reports from the time vary, but the prospects of unionization at the former Peerless facility were factors in Burlington’s decision to close.
“The reason they gave for closing was that we were operating in the red (losing money), but everyone knew that wasn’t the reason,” White said.
She said that even after the mill closed, the merchants worked closely to keep Rossville a vibrant place. Civic organizations, elected officials and an active development group helped during a transitional period for the city — “it was different, but still vibrant” — but then came the fire.
Lifelong Rossville resident and historian Larry Rose Sr. said he remembers the relocation of the original John Ross House — where the Cherokee chief had lived until the Trail of Tears exodus of 1838 and later used by both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War — as the most important, historically, event of the ’60s.
But the fire was a gamechanger for both Rossville and nearby Chattanooga and East Ridge, Tennessee.
Rose agrees that Rossville and its mill were synonymous.
The city wasn’t just a bedroom community for Chattanooga, he said, “it was a miniature big city,” but one destroyed by fire.
“It seemed like everything went away at the same time,” Rose said. “Moving the mill operations to Cleveland, Tennessee, was hard, but it was just gone after that (the fire).”
This time was different
After Burlington liquidated it assets and laid off as many as 1,700 workers, a group of local business leaders formed the Rossville Development Company and brought 15 smaller businesses to the 27-acre site.
The fire White and Rose refer to occurred in the wee hours of June 10, 1967, when a shorted-out electrical transformer sparked a blaze — still considered one of the largest industrial conflagrations in U.S. history — on the second floor of the Heritage Quilts factory.
Sprinklers failed and low water pressure made it nearly impossible to contain an inferno that roared through a building whose floors were saturated from decades of wool lanolin and machine oil.
Firefighters from 10 of the surrounding area’s volunteer and municipal departments — from as far away as Hixson, Tennessee, to the north and Rome to the south — rushed to join in fighting a fire that raged out of control for more than eight hours. Walls collapsed and waves of intense heat forced firefighters to keep their distance from the four square blocks that were involved.
Shortly after sunrise on a Sunday morning the worst was over, but throughout that day and into the next crews stood ready to beat back any hot spots that reignited.
Rose said records show 10 of the businesses — Rossville Yarn and Processing, Southern Universal Processing, Heritage Quilts, Beauty-Tuft, Rossville Carpet Dyeing, Quilted Textiles, Borg Fabrics, Rossville Spinning, Moccasin Bend Carpet and O.W. Jorges and Son — were either destroyed or heavily damaged.
Yet for all the destruction, there were no fatalities and only one minor injury reported.
On the Monday following the fire, Gov. Lester Maddox led a group of state officials to survey the scene. Those officials came to offer help to those whose workplaces were reduced to smoking ruins, saying that they would receive unemployment compensation and find new jobs.
Similar assurances had followed the Peerless closure and most, if not all, had continued with the jobs and crafts they were accustomed to.
But this time was different. The damage was done. Rossville had been beaten down again, and this time it stayed down for the count.
White went on to have a successful career in the banking industry, headed the Rossville Professional Women’s Club, served as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, was the 1984 Walker County Citizen of the Year and remains, a fixture on the boards of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations throughout the area.
And like many who recall the glory days of Rossville High School athletics, when its Bulldogs were a regional powerhouse, or retirees who remember when Rossville had a zero unemployment rate, White never strayed far afield.
“My heart was always in Rossville,” she said.
Now, with new ownership atthe mill and a resurgence of residents and business owners wanting to revive their community, the city may again restore its luster as a Georgia gem.
An overview, looking westward from McFarland Avenue, showing the derelict remains of the once thriving Peerless Woolen Mill in Rossville. The mill and its 27-acre site was sold at auction on June 15.
What was once the nation’s largest factory for the production of woolen fabric, the Peerless Woolen Mill was recently purchased by Steven Henry. Plans for its future are undetermined, but there is a possibility of development rather than demolition....