History of the Mill District

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In 1892, experienced textile mill engineer and designer W. B. Smith Whaley, a native of Charleston, returned to Columbia where he opened his engineering office and undertook over the next ten years the design, construction, and operation of four cotton mills with their surrounding mill villages, which became the historic Columbia Mill District of today.

Scan of Olympia Boys Stereoscope

The cotton mill development brought the industrial revolution to South Carolina’s capitol city with prosperity for some, jobs and economic opportunity for the thousands of workers from largely rural, agricultural backgrounds, and the unique architecture and village plan of the preserved cotton mill villages of Granby, Olympia and Whaley Street. Whaley’s company built and owned houses for employees all within close walking distance of the mills. The original houses consisted of six-room New England-style “saltbox” duplexes begun in 1897 in Granby; followed by three, four, and six-room models in Olympia in 1900, with styles and paint colors alternating to avoid the monotony seen in other mill villages. Later, mill owners added amenities to the villages including a company store, athletic fields, a dairy, a clinic, a kindergarten, several churches, and a community center - now the restored and popular 701 Whaley building.

The distinct and self-sustaining design of the mill villages served the needs of the mill workers for easy, walkable access to work and leisure activities while promoting an efficient and satisfied workforce for the mill company. While work in the cotton mills was long, hard, and low-paid, it provided steady wages, housing, and a vibrant social and community life for many over the years.

The Granby and Olympia Mills continued to operate under various owners with a unionized workforce until its final closing by Springs Industries in 1996. Community efforts to preserve the significant Mill District buildings and mill houses have led to listings on the National Register of Historic Places and local design protection; as well as the successful restoration and adaptive reuse of the Granby and Olympia mill buildings, the company office building, and the 701 Whaley event space and art gallery. If you see the restored cotton mills on your way to the fairgrounds or stadium you are in the Mill District. Welcome!

"We lived on a farm so poor it would grow nothing but rocks. My daddy cut cord wood on the side to buy food. He heard about the mills opening in Columbia and one day he just decided to load up all our belongings and us onto the ferry at the Broad River and crossed. We went straight to the Granby Mill Village in 1898 and he went to the mill to get a job. I was eight years old and worked in the Granby Mill until the Olympia Mill opened and then went to work there. I was an experienced worker when I reached twelve years of age and could run eight sides. I had two new dresses and plenty of good food.”
– Lola Derrick Byers

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