The Whittier Mill District is an important part of Southern history. During the resurgence of the South, Atlanta became a thriving economic center. The mill villages were important to this movement because they allowed for a transition from the traditional rural life into the emerging urban life style. Located in Northwestern Atlanta, formerly the town of Chattahoochee, the Whittier Mill District was connected by street cars and commuter rail lines to the downtown. Within the village there were churches, schools, a settlement house, and community-oriented buildings to enhance and encourage community camaraderie. Unfortunately, most of the mill and the settlement house are long gone but the mill housing and mill tower remain. The tower and housing are very important to this community because they provide a sense of community, a sense place, and a sense of time.
The rich history of the Whittier Mill District goes beyond the creation of the mill and village itself. Before the Civil War the South was starting to emerge as a leader in the textile industry. In 1840, Georgia had the largest concentration of mills with nineteen. Over the next eight years that number rose to thirty two and by 1851 $1,000,000 had been invested into Georgia textile mills. The Civil War and the subsequant depression brought hard times to the South. The great expansion of the railroad helped pull the South together and encouraged them to rebuild what was lost.
In May 1895, the Whittier Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts purchased thirty acres from the Chatahoochee Brick Company for the construction of the southern branch of their mill system. The mill was owned by several prominent capitalists lead by Paul Butler, son of Civil War General Benjamin Butler. Even though the Whittier family never actually owned the mill they did provide the executive officers: President Helen Whittier, Treasurer Nelson Whittier, and Manager Walter R.B. Whittier.
Life for the workers was not easy. Even with the low pay there was tremendous competition for every job, "...there were hundreds of people for every job and none of them had ever worked in a factory before." According to the 1900 census there were 635 people listed as working as Whittier Cotton Mill: 211 weavers, 135 spinners, 60 spoolers, 48 dolphers, 29 carders, 23 speeders, and 20 drawers. Because the failure of the southern states to pass compulsory school attendance laws many of the workers were children. The first few decades not only saw children working in the mill but also long tiring hours. The mill would operate seven days a week with two shifts, midnight to noon and noon to midnight.
The Whittier Mill enjoyed financial success and a monopoly on firehouse yarn. In 1926, the mill site not only expanded its operations but constructed a new section of the village. This section was called the "New Village" and to this day that area is still referred as that. During the Great Depression the mill suffered as did most businesses but they also lost their hold on firehouse yarn market. Callaway Mills, a competitor, hired one of the key workers at Whittier, who took a sample and the know how with him. Soon there were three companies competing for the firehouse yarn business of the South. Whittier Mills made a comeback in the 1940's due to new management and war time contracts.
The 1950's brought even more change to the Whittier Mill District. In 1954, Whittier Mills was sold to Scott Dale Industries. Shortly after taking control the new owners started selling the mill houses to the tenants starting at $2000. Over the next few decades the mill went through many changes that eventually lead to its closing in mid-1971. Some of the reasons that were stated for the closing were the increasing imports from low wage countries and the shortage of textile areas within the region.
The mill buildings were left vacant for
the next 15 years and in 1986 a fire set by arsonists destroyed several
of the buildings. Over the protests of local residents, the remaining structures
were demolished in 1988. Only the water tower, which was used for fire
protection, and the walls of the