Dou­ble whammy of mill clos­ing and mas­sive fire led to Rossville’s de­cline

Walker County Messenger - - Front Page - By Mike O’Neal mon­eal@npco.com

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.

(Mes­sen­ger photo/Mike O’Neal)

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....

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