Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
INDUSTRY GIANTS SHAPED CITIES\ THE CONE FAMILY'S CONTRIBUTIONS AND MEMORIALS ARE VISIBLE THROUGHOUT THE CITY.
0 Comments

INDUSTRY GIANTS SHAPED CITIES\ THE CONE FAMILY'S CONTRIBUTIONS AND MEMORIALS ARE VISIBLE THROUGHOUT THE CITY.

  • Updated
  • 0

No wonder J.A. Odell sounded eager when two well-to-do brothers from Baltimore, Moses and Ceasar Cone, visited here in the early 1890s, interested in buying land.

``Grab hold of their coattails, boys, and don't let them get away,' declared Odell, who had bought 2,142 acres north of the city limit for a steel and iron company that subsequently failed.The Cone brothers bought that land and more, building textile mills that spun out denim, flannel and corduroy, and turned Greensboro into a major manufacturing city.

Cone itself became part of Greensboro's fabric. The imprint of the company and its founding family is stamped throughout the city, on schools, roads and hospitals.

Nearly 112 years after its founding, the woes the company faces - including possible bankruptcy and a buyout by the New York investment firm of W.L. Ross & Co - can't obscure the Cone contribution on Greensboro's economy, civic life, health care system, recreation, religious atmosphere and residential development during the 20th century.

True, the mills made the Cones super-wealthy, allowing for mansions on Summit Avenue and in Irving Park with Matisse paintings on the walls.

But something else also drove the Cones, says Benjamin Cone Jr., grandson of mill co-founder Ceasar Cone and son of former Greensboro Mayor Ben Cone Sr. He cites an 1846 letter from Joseph Rosengart to brother-in-law Herman Cone. Herman Cone, 17, was leaving Bavaria for America.

Rosengart told Cone - who would become the father of Ceasar and Moses Cone - that if his family became wealthy in the New World, ``do not let anybody call you a miser, but be known as a philanthropist.'

``I think the Cone family has honored that,' Ben Cone says.

Today, Cone Mills' Greensboro presence is a skeleton of old. Only White Oak Mill remains open, employing 1,179. The corporate headquarters has 154 people. Those numbers compare to about 6,000 total workers as late as the 1970s. Then, the company operated three neighboring mills in northeast Greensboro - Proximity, Revolution and White Oak. Until the 1950s, each mill had its own village, with mill-built schools, churches, playgrounds and stores.

Much of today's Greensboro is built on former Cone land. The family and Cone Mills once owned almost all of northeast Greensboro and a sizable chunk of northwest.

But even as competition from cheap foreign textile imports has shrunk Cone Mills, another institution named Cone has emerged as a major jobs provider. The Moses Cone Health System employs more than 7,000 people.

The Cone family provided land, money and a permanent endowment for Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital, which opened in 1953 on North Elm Street. Since then, the hospital has combined with other area hospitals and medicine-related services to become Cone Health System.

The benevolence of Cone Mills and the Cone family to its workers and the city has kept older Greensboro people loyal as the company struggles in the global economy. Charles Weill, a Greensboro real estate agent who helped Cone Mills develop land that includes New Irving Park, clings to his Cone stock.

``It jerks at your heartstrings,' he says of the company's misfortune. ``You hate to see this happen. I've been riding the stock down, but I'm not selling.'

The list of Cone's contributions to Greensboro runs almost as long as the 904-foot weaving room at White Oak, still America's largest denim mill.

For instance, when the Greensboro Patriots minor-league baseball team started in 1902, the Cones provided a field, Cone Athletic Park on Summit Avenue.

Summit Avenue, too, was a Cone creation. Ceasar Cone asked the city to build a thoroughfare to connect downtown to his mills, then helped line the street with swanky homes belonging to his younger brothers and the Cones' business partners, the Sternberger brothers. His mansion, which was torn down in the early 1960s, topped them all.

When World War I veterans in the 1920s decided to build a grand stadium to replace Cone Athletic Park, the Cones provided the land for War Memorial Stadium.

When the black community sought a YMCA in the 1930s, Ceasar Cone II donated $50,000, providing the Y was named for his maid, Sally Hayes, and butler, Andrew Taylor.

When the U.S. Army needed land to build a base for 40,000 soldiers during World War II, the Cones rented the government 512 acres off Summit for $1,500 a year.

The Cone favors also extend to art and history. The valuable Picasso and Matisse paintings at UNCG's Weatherspoon Art Museum came from Etta Cone, sister of Moses and Ceasar. Globe-trotting Etta and her sister, Dr. Claribel Cone, one of America's first female physicians, were friends of the two legendary artists.

A Cone provided perhaps the most extensive visual history of late 19th-century and early 20th-century Greensboro. Bernard Cone, a lawyer, mill executive and youngest of Herman Cone's 13 children, became an amateur photographer as a young man. He shot ballgames at Cone park, landscapes of Summit Avenue on snowy days and activities at the Greensboro fair, including the hoochie-coochie show. The photos are a valuable part of the Greensboro Historical Museum's collection.

Bernard's older brothers, Ceasar and Moses Cone, were already prosperous from a Baltimore wholesale grocery partnership with their father when the two decided to enter textiles. They had observed mills while traveling the South selling groceries.

After considering Charlotte, the Cone brothers picked Greensboro because of its proximity to the cotton fields, plentiful supplies of labor and land, and railroads from six directions.

Though Jewish people often met with hostility in the South, the Cone economic presence became so vital so rapidly that any anti-Semitic feelings were quelled. The Cones provided jobs not only for mill workers but for local businesses that provided services, machinery and materials to the mills.

Unlike in some cities, where Jews faced barriers, the Cones were invited to join the Greensboro Country Club and other elite social organizations.

'The early influential presence in Greensboro of one family, the Cones, seems to have played a crucial role in the apparent acceptance of Jews into the higher social circles of that community,' write Guilford College professor Richard Zweigenhaft and William Domhoff in the book ``Jews in the Protestant Establishment,' published in 1982.

The visionary brothers saw many possibilities in the Southern textile business. Southern mills lacked a marketing and distribution system, so in 1891, the Cones started a company to market products of 47 Southern mills. The Cones also observed the expense these mills paid to send cloth north to be finished, and in 1893, opened a finishing plant on what's now West Wendover Avenue.

The brothers' primary goal, however, was to make their own textiles. They opened their first mill, denim-making Proximity, in 1896 on what's now Maple Street. In 1899, the brothers coaxed two South Carolina friends, brothers Herman and Emanuel Sternberger, to join them in starting a flannel mill with a revolutionary process. Thus was born Revolution Mill on Yanceyville Street.

In 1905 came White Oak Mill, named for a large tree surveyors used as a marker. Almost from the start, White Oak made demin that was shipped to California to become Levi Jeans.

Moses Cone died in 1908 and Ceasar in 1917. Their brother, Barnard, served as president until 1938, followed by Ceasar's sons, Herman and Ceasar II.

Cones not only ran the mills but oversaw the villages of Proximity, White Oak, Revolution, White Oak-Newtown and all-black East White Oak. The villages totaled about 1,500 mill-built houses. The Cones supplied land and money for churches and parsonages and schools, two of which, Ceasar Cone and McIver (formerly Proximity), survive in the county school system.

The largest mill village, White Oak, offered a barber shop, beauty parlor, 300-seat theater, department store, post office (with its own ``denim branch' postmark), hotel, YMCA and a drug store with doctor's office.

A bank the Cones founded for mill workers in White Oak later merged with a Greensboro bank. When the Greensboro bank failed during the Great Depression, the Cone family made good on deposits in the White Oak branch.

The Cones hired a full-time social worker, the first in the South, and a team of nurses to serve the villages. Fresh milk arrived each morning on village doorsteps from mill-owned Textile Dairy, later the site of Carolina Circle Mall. Fresh meat came from the Cone-owned Reedy Fork Ranch on U.S. 29 North. The Starmount Co. is now turning Reedy Fork into a large residential/commercial development.

Village children spent summer weeks at Cone-owned Camp Herman, now the Lake Herman Industrial Park off U.S. 29 North.

When the city annexed the villages in 1923, mill President Julius Cone was placed on the City Council. He stayed until 1940. Later, Ben Cone Sr. served on the council and became mayor.

The company's growth and services to workers began waning in the 1950s. In 1955, Herman Cone made a prophetic speech to the Greensboro Civitan Club, warning that foreign-made fabric could threaten domestic textiles.

In the late 1950s, Cone Mills sold the village houses to workers. The White Oak and Proximity YMCAs closed.

The mills also began phasing out Cone family members. In 1959, President Ceasar Cone II implemented an anti-nepotism rule.

``I couldn't even get a summer job there when I was in high school,' says Ben Cone Jr.

In 1965, Lewis Morris became the first person outside the Cone family to serve as Cone president.

Family members were allowed to serve on the company board. Only one does today, Jeanette Cone Kimmel, the daughter of the late Ben Cone Sr.

During the 1950s, Cone Mills started selling or developing land it realized was no longer needed for mill expansion. Church Street, which ended behind Cone Hospital, was extended and developed. Houses were built on the north side of West Cornwallis Drive all the way to the new Cone Boulevard, all former Cone land.

Fountain Manor, a fashionable townhouse neighborhood, occupies the former Revolution Mill reservoir. Page High School and the city fire-training center are on former mill land.

So are the upscale neighborhoods around Buffalo Lake north to Pisgah Church Road, including New Irving Park. The Lake Jeanette neighborhood north of Pisgah Church is former Cone property.

Buffalo Lake and Lake Jeanette, built by the Cones because the city lacked an adequate water supply for major manufacturing, still supply water to White Oak Mill.

In 1978, Cone closed and demolished Proximity. Revolution Mill and Proximity Print Works shut down in the 1980s, but the buildings still stand. The old corporate headquarters building, where the Cone brothers directed the company, is gone.

Few Cones alive today ever worked for the mill. Still, they worry about the future of the company bearing the family name.

``It's a tragedy what has happened to textiles,' Ben Cone Jr. says. ``The same thing is happening to the steel industry, the furniture business and electronics. How will this economy survive without a manufacturing base?'

What would Moses and Ceasar Cone do if alive? Family member Tom Cone, a Greensboro lawyer, makes a guess.

``They'd probably be running an Internet company,' he says. ``They'd be looking for the next new thing.'

\ Contact Jim Schlosser at 373-7081 or jschlosser@news-record.com

0 Comments

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

Breaking News

News Alert