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Article 3: Newry Graded School: The history of a South Carolina textile mill school.

The textile industry surged in late nineteenth-century South Carolina, quickly becoming the primary source of revenue and employment in the Northwestern, "Upstate" area of the state. The influx of industry created new job opportunities for Upstate rural farmers and sharecroppers who previously were engaged in agrarian pursuits. In order to attract labor, industry owners erected mill villages complete with homes, a company general store, churches, and schools (Phillips 1985). As the mill schools were primarily designed to feed the labor force of the village mill, most of these schools offered only a rudimentary education--often only through grades four and five (Heiss 1924; McHugh 1986). Mill owners required that laborers only be educated enough to operate machinery and handle the responsibilities of mill operation (McHugh 1986; Racine 2002). However, the South Carolina State Department of Education sought to improve the quality of these schools, eventually consolidating mill schools into a statewide system that changed not only how the schools were organized, but also the quality of the mill schools and the attitude toward education among the mill operatives. By 1925, the majority of mill schools had been consolidated completely into the state system, and those remaining schools not completely consolidated were under shared authority with local school districts. This study investigates the development of mill schools in South Carolina, focusing primarily on one particular mill village school in the Upstate region--the Newry Graded School.


Statewide universal education in South Carolina began with the adoption of the State Constitution in 1868 (Jones 1984). Although the constitution required the establishment of an educational system and compulsory attendance for children between the ages of six and sixteen, the South Carolina state school system struggled after reconstruction with disorganization, lack of funding, weak leadership and disagreement among political and educational leaders (Thompson 1927). Limited funding was provided in 1876 when the state legislature passed a two mill property tax marked for the purpose of supporting the state educational system. Most of the funding, however, never actually went directly to schools or education. Corruption was widespread and most of the funding intended to support the school system never actually went to education. Hugh S. Thompson, State Superintendent of Education from 1877 to 1882, made some inroads in the improvement of the public school system; but funding remained a serious issue well into the twentieth century. Although a few counties levied taxes to support local schools, funding to enforce the law was lacking and few counties enforced it. This lack of funding for statewide education continued and remained a problem for the administration of the educational system (Jones 1984). During the first two decades of the twentieth century, many South Carolina communities lacked adequate educational facilities, teachers and materials. Economic inequity between rural, city and urban communities exacerbated the issue, since only communities willing to supplement the meager three mill property tax could boast of adequate schools (Jones 1984).

Within this backdrop, the growth of textile villages resulted in a unique educational institution: the mill village school. Company owners used the mill village school as part of the incentive package to entice white laborers to the mills (McHugh 1986; Cann 2002). The American textile industry began in New England during the late 1700s. Early innovation in design is credited to a Scottish native, David Dale. Dale, a successful businessman, built four mills and quality stone housing for his employees in New Lanark, New Jersey. Yet, his son-in-law Robert Owen instituted several changes which impacted the future of mill villages in America (Pollard 1964). When the New England textile company owners moved much of the industry to the southern United States in search of low wages and close accessibility to raw materials, owners also brought Owen's utopian inspired design (McDonald 1928). South Carolina company owners incorporated many of Owen's ideas into their villages. In 1919, at least 173 cotton mills existed in South Carolina; mill village schools numbered 127. According to the mill school supervisor's report to the state superintendent, mill schools fell into three categories: those under the supervision and funding of local school districts, schools with shared supervision and funding between local school districts and mill companies; and last, schools owned, operated and totally funded by the company. The Newry Graded School fell into the latter category (South Carolina State Department of Education 1919). The Newry Graded School was not completely consolidated with the School District of Oconee County until 1955 (Hembree 2003).


In 1892, Captain William Ashmead Courtenay, a former mayor of Charleston, S.C., along with several investors created the Courtenay Manufacturing Company and built the Courtenay Cotton Mill and surrounding village within a year. Courtenay named the village Newry after his ancestral home of Newry, Ireland (Hembree 2003). A pamphlet published by the company in 1893 included a description of the site:

The mill site is on Little River, water of Seneca River, on the southeast side of Oconee County, about two miles from the Pickens County line. It is one and half miles from the Charlotte and Atlanta Air Line Railway.. .123 miles east of Atlanta, Ga., 70 miles west of Spartanburg, S.C., 40 miles west of Greenville, S.C., 25 miles north of Anderson, S.C., 10 miles north of Pendleton, S.C., and 51/2 miles from Clemson College (Courtenay Manufacturing Company 1893).

The total land purchased was 350 acres located on both sides of the river and included pasture and woodland (Courtenay Manufacturing Company 1893). Courtenay followed many of Robert Owen's ideas during the construction phase of Newry Mill Village--building homes, an elementary school, and installing an innovative sewage system for the mill and each dwelling (Courtney Manufacturing Minutes, October 9, 1984). According to John L. Gaillard, life-long resident of Newry beginning in 1922, as time passed additional buildings included a medical clinic, post office, company store, cinema, and pasture areas for livestock. He erected homes to accommodate mill workers and their families, originally charging a rent of "one dollar for four persons four rooms per month" (Courtenay Manufacturing Company Minutes, October 9, 1894).

On June 11, 1895, the board set aside $1500 for the construction of a village school (Courtenay Manufacturing Company Minutes, June 11, 1895). Though curriculum and organization fell under the authority of Oconee County School District, all other aspects of the school were managed by the Courtenay Mill, which was renamed Abney Mill in the early 1940s. The company owned the school building, provided housing for the teachers, and supplemented the teachers' salaries. While construction of the school building was underway, classes were held in a room above the village store (Hembree 2003). The board had the original school built on a slightly elevated hill at the main entrance to the village. The school grounds afforded a view of the village and the towering cotton mill could be seen from the school grounds [Figure 1]. The inside of Newry Graded School featured a large panel with the portraits of Robert E. Lee, George Washington, and South Carolina Confederate General Wade Hampton. Courtenay himself chose the subjects for the portraits, explaining that he wished Newry children would "have good exemplars of character and conduct before them" (Foster 1988, 120). According to John L. Gaillard, retired personnel director of the Courtenay Mill in Newry, the original school built in 1897 was later converted into a home and remains standing in the early twenty-first century (pers. comm. 2011).


Six years after Courtenay committed to building a school in Newry, administrators in the South Carolina State Department of Education expressed concern about the quality of education offered by mill schools. In particular, State Superintendent John J. McMahan worried that South Carolina mill village schools operated independent of any local or county supervision (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900). At the turn of the twentieth century, growth of the mill villages occurred rapidly and the State Education Department was facing an unprecedented situation. McMahan cited concern about rumored illiteracy among mill village inhabitants and lamented the budget constraints which prevented him from making a full, in-person investigation of the mill schools. He warned state legislators that ignoring the need for education department supervision among the growing child population in the mill villages would have serious consequences. He voiced concern that parents might allow or encourage children to work in the mills for financial benefit. McMahan saw child labor as a violation as well as a sacrifice of a developing mind and criticized parents who encouraged their children to enter the work force. Echoing similar concerns about child labor nationwide, McMahan made a plea for compulsory attendance laws and school funding using the mill village children as a warning example of the state's serious neglect (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900). Courtenay agreed with the concerns. According to McMahan, based on the suggestion of Courtenay, he composed a circular of enquiry that embarked on a full investigation of mill village schools (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900).

Even though McMahan did not visit the mill villages personally, he began a letter writing campaign to gain as much information as possible from the mill company owners. In a letter to the cotton mill presidents, McMahan requested they complete a questionnaire. McMahan sought to determine how many children attended school, how many worked in the mill, the level of literacy among the adults, as well as the method of funding the mill village schools. The response from the cotton mill presidents was meager and McMahan wrote that he "was disappointed in receiving so few replies" (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900, 137). Most company presidents gave positive reports. The president of the Pelzer Manufacturing Company, Ellison A. Smyth, reported they operate three schools. He boasted of a recent school building project. Smyth stated his company paid $10,000 to build a social hall or auditorium with a seating capacity of over 1,000 (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900). Smyth also provided McMahan with a copy of the required employee contract. The contract stated children between the ages of five and twelve who lived in the mill village were required to attend the school. While this appears to be a benevolent gesture encouraging education, a more self-serving note appeared in the following clause. Clause two of the contract stated that "all children members of my family above twelve years old shall work regularly in the mill, and shall not be excused from services therein without the consent of the superintendent, for good cause" (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900, 140). Other company presidents assured McMahan that their mill schools were the best in the state. However, Lewis W. Parker, the president of Victor Manufacturing Company in Greer, S.C. honestly stated the condition of education in his village was "deplorable" and called on the superintendent to intercede and encourage people in the community to support education (South Carolina State Department of Education 1900, 141).


The Newry Graded School flourished during the first decade of the twentieth century and Courtenay mentioned the school frequently in his yearly report to stockholders. He felt a sense of responsibility to provide an education to the children in the village. "We are trying to exert every influence in order to avoid these children being allowed to grow up in ignorance," he explained (Courtenay Manufacturing Company Minutes, October 18, 1911). He repainted the school building and devoted extra money to education funds in 1912. Courtney mused that "I only wish that we could afford to do more along this line" (Courtenay Manufacturing Company Minutes, October 16, 1912). In 1917, soon after those minor renovations and due to the growing number of children attending the school, Courtenay built a new, larger school building on the same site as the original (Courtenay Manufacturing Company Minutes, Oct. 16, 1917) [Figure 2]. This dedication to improving the quality of education for mill children was seemingly greater than many of his mill company executive peers.

Mill village schools improved significantly from 1915 to 1925 due to a new state position of Mill School Supervisor, created during the winter of 1916 (South Carolina State Department of Education 1923; South Carolina State Department of Education 1925). The Mill School Supervisor was given authority to oversee curriculum and schools, and if necessary, condemn substandard school buildings (South Carolina State Department of Education 1916; South Carolina State Department of Education 1923). State administrators conceptualized this new position as aiding in the great responsibility to provide efficient and organized educational opportunities to the large and growing population of mill village children. The new supervisors addressed overcrowding, substandard school buildings, and child labor. W. A. Shealy was appointed as State Mill School Supervisor in March 15, 1919 and worked extensively to push for consolidation of mill schools with nearby school districts (South Carolina State Department of Education 1919). In the 1920 Supervisor of Mill School Report, Shealy stated that children from 145 different mills attend mill schools (1920). Many of these schools were funded entirely by the company owning the mill (South Carolina State Department of Education 1920).

Mill school supervisors argued that community support was lacking because of the paternalistic nature of the company owners. Since the company owners always made the decisions in regards to the school, curriculum, and teachers, the village community took little interest in financially supporting the school through additional taxation. Many mill teachers seemed disinterested in their work and school superintendents cited this lack of interest as a reason for the high dropout rate. The situation at Newry seemed to reflect the state trend.

In 1913, Courtenay reported good school attendance, but complained teachers often lacked dedication to their profession. He stated some children did not attend school and blamed teachers' lack of commitment (Courtenay Manufacturing Company Minutes, October 15, 1913).


Jerry L. Durham, who attended Newry Graded School from 1947 to 1952, agreed children often attended sporadically and dropped out. Many children attending the school desired to abandon their education in order to work in the mill at Newry as soon as possible. Though company officials put children's wages in the parents' pay envelope, the child knew he or she would receive a part of their salary. The additional money enabled them to purchase desirable items at the village store or have "pocket money" (Durham, pers. comm. 2011). Betty Jo Elliott, Durham's sister, and he both point out teachers were very dedicated to keeping students in school despite the fact that children were encouraged by parents to drop out of school and aid the family financially (Durham, pers. comm. 2011; Elliott, pers. comm. 2015). Like the teachers, local trustee B. S. Boggs, one of the first members of the Newry School Board, also worked to keep Newry students in school. Gaillard, a life-long resident of Newry and Boggs' grandson, contended that his grandfather knew education was a priority for Courtenay and that Boggs closely monitored the school. Boggs, along with other trustees, encouraged attendance. If a child was excessively absent from school, the parent was called from the mill floor to the supervisor's office and admonished (Gaillard, pers. comm. 2011).

Boggs also encouraged teachers to enrich the educational process with activities and programs (Gaillard, pers. comm. 2011). In a description of one of the end-of-the-year programs of the Newry Graded School, he praised the teachers and their work with the school:

   We will now turn to things of more vital and far-reaching results,
   and that is the school at Newry, which has for the past four years
   been under the management of Miss Lidia Bowen, as principal, and
   Miss Liona Grice, as assistant teacher. These ladies have beyond a
   doubt accomplished a great deal of good since they have been here

During their end-of-the-year programs, Newry children preformed vignettes, songs, short plays, recitations and dialogues. In 1905, the short plays performed by the students were comedies--Randolph Cooper Lewis and Edwards McWode's The Bachelors Girl's Club and S. Jennie Smith's There's Not a Man in the House (Boggs 1905). Both of these were popular satirical comedies that focused on domestic issues, particularly those faced by women. The choices for the Newry Program indicate an appreciation for satire and women's issues, not often associated with mill villages.

Similar events were arranged for most major holidays, especially Christmas. Students practiced during the school days and the performances took place at the local Union Church (Boggs 1905). Teachers created, oversaw and directed the programs while helping students make costumes from paper, string, and various discarded materials. Newry Graded School students recalled the fun of being fitted with homemade paper costumes (Cater, pers. comm. 2011; Durham, pers. comm. 2011; Elliott, pers. comm. 2011). Elliott fondly recalls a year--most likely 1954-when the students made a float for the Christmas parade being held in nearby Seneca, S.C. "We made the float at school--sticking little pieces of paper, like Kleenex, into chicken wire. They were all different colors," Elliott chuckles. "My little brother, Jerry, rode on that float!" (pers. comm. 2015). Durham laughingly confirms the tale and adds, "I wore a robe. I didn't have a robe, but my teacher, Miss Kay, wanted me to be part of the float and made arrangements for me to borrow that robe" (pers. comm. 2015). Students dressed in nativity scene roles for the float including Mary, Joseph, angels, and a shepherd. Durham was the shepherd. That year, the Newry Graded School won first prize in the float competition (Rachel Price Finnley, pers. comm. 2015).

While the supplementary programs fostered community amongst the students, the Newry Graded School provided only a rudimentary academic education for the village children who attended. Subjects taught included reading, spelling, writing, arithmetic, geography, language, history, health and art, although formal grades for all of these subjects were not given each year [Figure 3]. Jerry L. Durham, who attended the school from grades one to six between the years 1947 and 1952, explained the education, though sufficient for entering the work force, did not prepare him for the rigor of Seneca High School, the high school children in Newry could choose to attend upon completion of elementary school. He surmised the curriculum at Newry Graded School was greatly influenced by the company owners and the attitude of village parents. The belief that an elementary education was sufficient for Newry residents pervaded the village. Residents expected their children to go into the mill labor force, and therefore, did not require education beyond the elementary years (Durham, pers. comm. 2011). Elliot notes that, while she attended grade eight at the local high school, her parents did not encourage her to continue, and when she asked to leave school after grade eight and work as a babysitter in the mill village, her parents agreed. "My mom said 'She'll probably be rockin' babies for the rest of her life anyway,'" Elliott laughs. "Well, it's true!" (pers. comm. 2015). Durham explained many did not consider continuing their education after graduating from Newry Graded School (pers. comm. 2011). Likewise, Gaillard, who completed grade seven at Newry in 1932 and later worked at the mill as personnel director, agreed the village attitude toward education was limited:

The criteria was for the children to get old enough to work in the mill so they could make money; like the farmer waiting for his kid to be 8 or 9 years old, old enough to work the fields or plow, The parents in the mill village needed the kids to just get old enough so they could work and bring in money, because that was the priority (pers. comm. 2011).

Gaillard recalled a series of "spinster teachers" (pers. comm. 2011) who taught at the school, including: Miss Edith Parrot, [Figure 4] Miss Emmie Ansel, Miss Watson, and Miss Lipskin. Despite the fact that academics were not a priority of the school, students respected the encouragement and care given to them by the Newry Graded School teachers. Durham's fondest memories of his experiences at the Newry School focused on quiet time after lunch. After lunch, his third grade teacher, Ms. Watson, read books like Johanna Spyri's Heidi aloud to the children. The read-alouds opened students' minds to places outside the Newry Village, and Durham noted that activities like these inspired him to look beyond the village for a meaningful life. He credited his teachers for encouraging him to "do better" in life than cotton mill work and ultimately moving him to seek employment outside of the mill in a managerial and later an upper executive position with a national grocery chain (Durham, pers. comm. 2011).

Newry Graded School teachers were expected to be good citizens and model virtue, including assisting "in the Church work and such Community work as may be desired" (Courtenay Manufacturing Company 1925). They were expected to remain involved with village life and their students even while not teaching, as their contract required teachers to give the school board notice if they planned to travel outside the village for the weekend (Courtenay Manufacturing Company 1925). The board considered this important as some Newry teachers were "from off," a colloquial phrase used by the residents of Newry as a reference to anyone not born and raised in the village (Cater, pers. comm. 2011). This practice also supported a state recommendation; the South Carolina State Department of Education urged mill school teachers to remain active in the community:

   Hundreds of mill school teachers spend only the school hours in the
   village. This is a bad condition. The real mill school teacher will
   not only live in the village, but will give her whole time,
   thought, and energy, social and religious, to the people she has
   been called to serve (1919, 179).

Newry teachers lived at Innisfallen, called the "big house" by villagers, which was the original home of William Courtenay that the company purchased from the family in 1920 (Gaillard, pers. comm. 2011; Courtney Manufacturing Company Minutes, October 19, 1920). According to John and Neil Reeves, local teachers who lived in the house during the late twentieth century, the house "contained 22 rooms and a beautiful staircase that curved in both directions at its top to the second floor" (pers. comm. 2011). The last of the Newry Graded School teachers moved out of the residence in 1967 (Reeves, pers. comm. 2011).

The Courtney Manufacturing Company offered one additional amenity that was not typical of other mill villages in Upstate South Carolina. Beginning in the late 1920s, the company provided a school bus to transport Newry students who wanted to continue their education after graduation to nearby Seneca High School. Bus driver Jim Williams doubled as the Newry constable and when he retired, his son and grandson inherited the driver's position. Jobs of responsibility in the village were often passed from father to son, mother to daughter, or near relations (Durham, pers. comm. 2011). The bus transportation continued until the mid-1950s.

The former students interviewed spanned over three decades of education at the Newry Graded School, from 1925 to 1955. While each had unique experiences, many reminisces were similar: the school pageants, the "spinster" teachers, the interconnectedness of village life and school, and the nostalgic longing for a place which provided a safe, nurturing and for them, creative environment.

In 1954, Abney Mills deeded the Newry Graded School to the local school district, which immediately sold the property to Raymond Williams (Shannon Gibson, pers. comm. 2011). Just two years later, the school shut its doors. Mill village children were bused to the new Newry Corinth School, built outside the village on Broadway Street. The school accommodated children from Newry and a nearby suburban community. Three teachers from the Newry Graded School, Ms. Lipskin, Ms. Parrot and Ms. Watson, took teaching positions at the new school (Cater, pers. comm. 2011). For the first time since the establishment of Newry Village in 1895, the mill village children attended school outside the village and were educated with children who lived outside the village. This act of consolidation finally brought South Carolina Mill School Supervisor Shealy's longstanding wish to fruition. In 1919, Shealy had argued:

There is no good reason why a separate school should be supported for the mill children. The idea is a false one and has resulted in a great waste and misunderstanding. It has done more to create, in the minds of the citizens of two communities, [city and mill village] the false idea that there is a difference (South Carolina State Department of Education).

Cotton mills continued to exert a great influence on the South Carolina economy well into the twentieth century. Due to the paternalistic relationship between the company owners and their employees, the closing of the mills in the mid-1970s and 1980s and the subsequent fragmentation of mill villages meant the loss of many amenities and support services for local residents. The amenities and support ranged from health care, company-funded recreational and social organizations, minimal rent, and company-funded home maintenance to education and job security. As the mill had always provided for them, and the natural inclination was to take a job in the company mill, the loss of mill support and mill schools like Newry had an effect on later generations of mill families. For many descendants of mill families, education remains a low priority--superseded by the desire for early employment and wage-earning. The cultural legacy of the low status given to education in mill villages may well be a factor affecting school drop-out rates in the region today.

While Newry Graded School seems representative of other southern mill village schools in terms of its low academic rigor and lack of parental support, it is noteworthy that students recall caring teachers concerned with the overall well-being of their charges. Mill village teachers were not typically thought of as overly invested in their jobs, perhaps in part because of the "very discouraging conditions" encountered because of "little or no local public sentiment back of her" (Neill 1910, 979). Newry teachers, by contrast, lived in the community where they worked; in fact, their lodging at Innisfallen was the premier residence in the village. Courtney, too, seemed to place a greater emphasis on education than some of his contemporaries. Yet despite the focus by the teachers and Courtney himself, education remained a low status in the community, performing what McHugh has called "a custodial or child care function" for parents who were both employed in the mill (1988, 64). Indeed, most Newry parents thought of the school "like a babysitter," concluded Galhard sadly (pers. comm. 2011).

Sheliah Durham and Mindy Spearman

Clemson University


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Author:Durham, Sheliah; Spearman, Mindy
Publication:American Educational History Journal
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1U5SC
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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