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ARTS AND HUMANITIES: A winning formula: Fort Mill makes concerted effort to maintain its identity

May 17, 2019

With a growth rate of nearly 60% in the last decade, Charlotte, North Carolina is one of the fastest growing cities in America. It is not surprising, therefore, that the metropolitan area would be expanding, inexorably swallowing up the neighboring communities. Such is the case of Fort Mill, across the South Carolina border about 19 miles south of Charlotte. New residential development has threatened to make the former textile town – its 2017 population was around 18,000 – no more than a bedroom community for those who work in Charlotte.

Many local residents, however, are intent upon preserving the town’s unique identity by celebrating its past. On a recent visit to Fort Mill as part of the annual humanities festival sponsored by S.C. Humanities, our state’s program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, I had a chance to sample some of those efforts.

My visit began with the Fort Mill History Museum, housed in an 1869 Victorian residence that was moved from its original location on Main Street. The first floor contains three attractively arranged galleries, including one devoted to Samuel Elliott White and the 130-year history of Springs Industries, which was once a world leader in textile manufacturing. Today all of the actual production work is done in the company’s Brazilian facilities – all the manufacturing plants in South Carolina were closed by 2007 – but our state retains some of Spring Global’s administrative offices and distribution centers.

Avid readers will probably be most interested in the fact that the grandson of the company’s founder was Elliott White Springs, a World War I ace who wrote popular short stories and a thinly disguised memoir of his combat flying experiences titled “War Birds.” At first a reluctant inheritor of the family business, Col. Springs eventually modernized the mills until by the time of his retirement in 1958, the company was the world’s largest producer of sheets and pillowcases. He himself was the principal architect of the humorous and sometimes risqué advertising campaigns for “Springmaid” sheets.

Our tour guide for the visit was Rudy Sanders, a museum board member whose enthusiasm for his hometown is contagious. After our perusal of the museum’s artifacts, Sanders took me and my travelling companion Michael Budd on a ramble down Main Street, which is just around the corner from the museum. Roughly two blocks long, the town’s principal commercial street has been memorialized in an informative brochure that offers commentary on 46 sites. Copies can be obtained at the museum; interested individuals can also arrange for a guided tour by calling 803-802-3646 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

Our Main Street walking tour culminated at what is popularly known as the Founder’s House, roughly two blocks off Main Street. This impressive, two-story brick mansion incorporating both Italianate and Second Empire styles was built around 1872 and occupied by Samuel Elliott White, planter, Civil War veteran, and the first president of the Fort Mill Manufacturing Company in 1887. It was also the setting for the public announcement of the impending nuptials of White’s daughter Grace and Leroy Springs, who himself owned a cotton mill in Lancaster. Thus, the White family joined with the Spring family, and a textile dynasty was established.

For over a hundred years thereafter, the White-Springs families transformed Fort Mill, and their personal history is thus entwined with that of the town. On the lawn to the left of the mansion facing the street is a two-part statue by Bruno Lucchesi erected on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Springs Mills to symbolize “respect for history.” Thereon the figure of a young man in casual attire, a book held in his left hand, looks up on the life-size image of Samuel Elliott White, who more than any other individual was responsible for Fort Mill’s prosperity in the 20th century.

This brings us to one additional way that Fort Mill has tried to fight off suburbanization and maintain its identity; and this extra means, just like the commemoration of its unique history, is also tied to the town’s most prominent family. It is the conservation of green space. In 1995, the family of Anne Springs Close, the daughter of fighter pilot and textile tycoon Elliott White Springs, donated over two thousand acres of lakes, forests, and pastures for public use, thus keeping the property out of the hands of developers.

With a combination of historic preservation and environmental conservation, Fort Mill seems to have discovered a winning formula for the future.