Corinth's Industrial Heritage:
Enter downtown Corinth from any direction and you will likely notice an imposing three-story brick building fronting on the railroad near the center of town. Most Corinthians have passed this building at one time or another in their daily lives since 1869. When pioneer aviator Roscoe Turner took the first aerial photograph of Corinth in 1921, this building was the most easily recognizable structure in the photograph. Today the building now known as the Corinth Machinery Building survives as the oldest documented factory structure in the entire State of Mississippi.
The building is a scarce relic of a prosperous time in the history of a small Southern railroad town. The facts of its history are buried in county records, memories of various families in our community and on the front of the building itself. Having endured Civil War Reconstruction to modern day product liability lawsuits, the turbulent history of the building and its occupants reflects the heritage of the industrial giants who owned and operated it, the people who worked there and every Corinthian and visitor who has passed it by since 1869.
O. E. Spencer and Clifford Worsham scaled the building's front wall in 1990 to rediscover a brass plaque under the center window on the third floor that bears the following inscription:
R. P. Sawyers
23 Aug. 1869
M. Seigrist R.W. Richie
The architect's identity is well-established in Corinth's history. Martin Seigrist's (1825 - 1897) best known works include the Curlee House, Tishomingo Hotel (burned by the Confederates leaving town in 1865), the department store of Sekeles & Rubel (torn down in 1961) and the old Corona Female College (destroyed by the Federals as they evacuated Corinth in January 1864). Martin Seigrist and his wife are buried in City Cemetery and their descendants, who married into the distinguished family of Col. Arthur Exum Reynolds, still reside in Corinth. The builder, Robert W. Richie, is listed on the 1870 census as a prosperous thirty-six year old brick mason.
In the mid-1850's, speculators converged on the new community of Corinth, Mississippi, where the two longest railroads in the Southeast would cross. Twenty-four year old Reece P. Sawyers with his wife Elizabeth and two children arrived in Corinth from Purdy, McNairy County, Tennessee by May 8, 1858, to take advantage of economic opportunities in the area surrounding this new railroad crossing.
The 1860 United States Census for Tishomingo County lists Reece P. Sawyers as a merchant with his wife and four children, several boarders and three slaves. His real estate value is listed as an impressive $65,500 with an even more significant personal estate of $175,000. Of course, the War for Southern Independence nearly decimated his fortune. One brief biographical sketch, written in 1882 in the book about McNairy County by Marcus Wright comments on Sawyers, "He is a man…of great energy and pluck, and has several times amassed comfortable fortunes, which he has lost by reverses, but his motto is nil desterandum, and he knows 'no such word as fail.'"
After the war, Sawyers formed an alliance with William G. Ford, a native of New York who was a cotton factor in Memphis and Mobile. These gentlemen, along with Col. Arthur E. Reynolds who later owned one-half interest in the property, developed a plan for a cotton factory in Corinth called the North Mississippi Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company.
Along with numerous other pieces of real estate, the firm of Sawyers & Ford purchased Block 12 in the Mitchell & Mask Survey of Corinth on July 28, 1868, for $2,000. Martin Seigrist and Robert W. Richie probably began construction on the cotton factory building soon after the purchase date and completed the structure on August 23, 1869.
Radical reconstruction policies passed by a vindictive Republican Congress, which included unfair railroad tariffs and high taxes in the South, virtually crippled all Southern enterprise. Officially, Reconstruction in Mississippi lasted until February 26, 1870, economically, it lasted well into the 20th Century. The 1867 Military Reconstruction Act was probably the major contributory cause for the failure of the North Mississippi Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company. Both the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of 1885 and 1888 newspaper accounts indicate that the cotton factory never went into production.
Enlisting a new group of backers in 1874, Sawyers again tried to salvage his dream and recoup losses by creating a new company. A Charter of Incorporation of the Manchester Manufacturing Company was approved by the Mississippi Secretary of State, James Hill, on April 10, 1874. The company's organizers were listed as J. C. Terry, R. P. Sawyers, C. F. Sawyers, W. J. Hart, and J. D. Beck. All but the latter director were prominent in the affairs of old Tishomingo County. The capital stock of the company was listed at one hundred thousand dollars. Subscribers could purchase stock at $100 per share. However, former creditors of the North Mississippi Cotton and Woolen Manufacturing Company, many of them local, won judgements against the company and the county sheriff, J. C. Potts, auctioned off the property on July 5, 1875, for $3,210.
The new owners in 1875 were John M. Nelson, R. W. Price, J. A. Green, F. E. Whitfield, Jr., W. P. Curlee, and C. A. Taylor, the latter three investors also prominent citizens of the county. The new owners also experienced difficulties and the untimely death of William Payton Curlee (1833-1878) of Alcorn County further compromised the enterprise. The buildings and grounds were sold to J. M. Nelson, J. C. Neely and J. F. Dowdy of Memphis for $3,000 on December 10, 1879. A year later, Dowdy sold his one-third interest to J. M. Smith of Memphis. In October 1886, the property was again auctioned in a partition case and sold for $2,150 to Neely and Smith. Neely and Smith retained the property for about a year when they sold it to J. S. Solomon and other Mississippi investors for $4,250. This latter group sold it to John H. Jones and Edward M. Jones on November 7, 1888 for $5,000.
From 1869 to 1888, the cotton factory appeared to have had some machinery in it for in 1882 the local newspaper reported, "Col. Ed. Richardson, one of the proprietors of the Wesson Mills, was in the city last Saturday, seemingly, on a cotton Factory mission…he was favorably impressed with Corinth as a point for manufacturing. There is, however one grand drawback about manufacturing here; we cannot get the machinery started." Several months later, another visitor's tour was reported, "Mr. Thew, on Wednesday evening, last, who, in company with Mr. T. D. Young [of Corinth], was looking around our town. He is…considering its advantages for a Cotton Factory. He has the means, or is so situated that he and his friends can command capital sufficient to put cotton spinning machinery into operation." In 1888, George Cox, locally remembered as being the proprietor of the Cox House, became an agent for the old factory building and offered an 80 h.p. Corless Engine for sale.
By 1888, despair seemed to grip the community over the prospects for the building. The building had been largely vacant and deserted for the first 20 years of its existence. Soon after the editor of the Corinth Herald commented, "That old monument of demoralization, the factory building, has for years been a standing menace to enterprise in Corinth. Were it filled with machinery in motion, it would be worth thousands of dollars to Corinth, just for the moral effect."
The failure of Sawyers' business ventures contributed to the financial difficulties of several prominent and well respected Corinthians, among them, Col. A. E. Reynolds, Thomas P. Young, James Carroll Terry, W. P. Curlee, C. A. Taylor and others. The Corinth Herald, of 1889 reports, "The old safe of the defunct North Mississippi Cotton and Woolen association which has remained locked up ever since the company went to pieces, was opened by the Misters Jones this week, all the books and papers are well preserved and to those who were taken in by the originators of this scheme, will be interesting reading as they can find out how and for what their hard earned savings were spent."
With the property's purchase by the Jones brothers on November 7, 1888, the fate of the factory building changed for the better. A period of heavy industrial utilization began and continued for almost one hundred years, until it was purchased in 1983 by American Iron. Industries in this facility in the intervening years contributed to the prosperity of the Jones family and their successors, Corinth, Alcorn County, and the State of Mississippi.
Three months after purchasing the factory building and grounds, on January 1, 1889, the Jones brothers sold it to the Alcorn Woolen Mills for $21,000. The partners were Dr. Paul Tutor Jones Sr. (1828-1904) and his sons, John H. Jones, Will W. Jones, and Ed M. Jones. Dr. Paul Tutor Jones Jr., who figures so prominently in Corinth's industrial history, did not actively join the mill until 1893. The deed also included "…the entire outfit of a two set Woolen Mill with Boiler and Engine and all fixtures."
The Herald for November 9, 1888, ran the following, "Wool Factory -- Messrs. Jno. M. Jones and E. M. Jones of Bolivar, Tenn., have purchased the old factory building near the depot and propose to go at once about repairing the building ready for the machinery. They have for several years run a woolen mill at Bolivar, making Jeans and other goods that have a high reputation in the market. They will move their Bolivar mills here and enlarge the capacity, and hope to get in operation by the first of January next. Mr. J. S. Solomon, of Meridian, came up Wednesday and the trade for the building, we learn, was closed. The Messrs. Jones came here proposing to form a stock company, when a proposition was made them by our citizens that instead of taking stock to give them a bonus of $2,000, upon condition of them moving and running their factory here. This, after some consideration, was by them accepted. The amount has been raised by subscriptions and it appears that all the conditions are compiled with and the enterprise assured. The Messrs. Jones are young men of excellent mould, of fine business tact and have all the experience needed in their line of manufacturing. We wish them the greatest possible success and doubt not they will be pleased with the venture to this place." This appears to be Corinth and Alcorn County's first successful use of economic incentives for industrial recruitment.
The November 23, 1888, issue of the Herald stated, "The Wool Factory -- The repairing of the building for the woolen mills is progressing as fast as circumstances will permit. The roof is about completed and ground floor, which had to be taken up and many rotten steppers and planks replaced with sound timbers, is nearly finished. We learn that the machinery is expected to arrive in a few days and the lower floor in order it can be put in place while other repairs and improvements are being added."
The newspaper reported that the machinery for the Alcorn Woolen Mills was in position by January 11, 1889, but lacked the arrival of the engine to commence work. The proprietors, John H. and Ed M. Jones, planned to heat the first and second floors with steam. In the middle of February, 1889, the newspaper announced, "The Alcorn Woolen Mills will get to running in good order sometime this week. Our farmers should gather in their flocks of sheep and give them special attention, and let our people try to furnish the Messrs. Jones with all the wool they need, thereby keeping at home money which they would have to send away."
Corinth's Sub-Soiler & Democrat for October 2, 1896, presents a pleasant picture of success in a small feature, "ALCORN WOOLEN MILLS -- Most every one in this county knows the history of the Woolen Mills. The large building which they occupy was put up about 30 years ago for a cotton factory and stood 20 years before a piece of machinery turned in it. About six years Jones and sons came here and put in some machinery and with untiring energy worked the mill up to its present high standard. To stand near the mills and watch the operatives as they leave work on Saturday afternoon it seems like a girl's boarding school had just broken up and the girls had started out for a walk. About 150 girls are employed in the different departments. Some at the looms, some at sewing machines, and others at various other duties. This establishment is of great benefit to Corinth and surrounding country."
In early January 1891, in a stockholder's meeting, a dividend of 10% was declared. The editor of the Herald, visited the factory in June 1892 and reported, "On last Tuesday, we called at the Woolen Mills, and found them all busily engaged in the various departments. We first met the affable Bookkeeper -- the Maj., who met us with a smile and passed us through. On the first floor they are carding, spinning and weaving. On the 2d, cutting and making pants. Fifty-five ladies manipulate the sewing machines and make up thirty dozens per day ... On the 3d floor ... is the ironing department ... Pres. Jno. H. Jones."
Members of the Jones family married, built their homes and raised families in Corinth. After the marriage of Ed M. Jones to Miss Minnie Burge in January 1890, the couple resided at the old Agnew place at 915 Waldron at Madison Street. John H. Jones and Ed M. Jones purchased lots in south Corinth and contracted with A. Reitz to build dwellings. Dr. Paul Tudor Jones, Jr., and his wife, Annie M. (Smith) Jones built their home at 615 Second Street; for many years it has been known as the Biggers' home. They gave seasonal socials for their employees and society friends. Their daughter, Frances Ormond Jones Gaither, became nationally famous in the 1940's with the publication of her Southern novels. Grady Peerey in a 1940 newspaper sketch of Corinth industrialists wrote, "In addition to his industrial activities, Dr. Jones found time to contribute to the educational, social and spiritual life of Corinth. He conducted prayer meetings daily at the Alcorn Woolen Manufacturing Company; he was an elder in the Presbyterian Church and aided materially to building the First Presbyterian Church building at Foot and Franklin Streets; he served several terms on the Corinth school board and played an important part in the building of the old Corinth High School building on Foote and Kilpatrick Streets, razed several years ago."
Shortly before the death of Dr. Paul T. Jones Sr., on July 5, 1904, at the age of seventy-seven years, the Nation experienced a series of recessions; the Alcorn Woolen Mills failed and was dissolved. The Jones brothers changed directions with Dr. Paul T. Jones Jr. recruiting James E. Creary, R. M. Weaver, and W. T. Armistead for a new enterprise. On January 21,1904, a Charter of Incorporation of the Corinth Engine & Boiler Works was filed in Alcorn County. Capital stock was given at $50,000 divided into shares of $100 each. In the stockholder's meeting of January 26, 1904, the Board of Directors elected officers, J. E. Creary, H. E. Walker, John H. Jones, M. B. Abby and Paul T. Jones, Jr.
Creary, a native of Virginia, who served as president of the Corinth Engine & Boiler Works, was a life-long friend and former classmate of Paul T. Jones Jr. at the University of Virginia. After initial success another recession contributed to the failure of this enterprise. Hugh E. Ray and his wife's brother-in-law, Lloyd F. Garrett, acquired the land, buildings, machinery, tools and stock from the Corinth Engine & Boiler Works and organized the Corinth Machinery Company on February 8, 1912. H. E. Ray became the first president of the Corinth Machinery Company, a position he held until his death in 1940. He was seceded by Paul T. Jones III and later James C. Jones the latter being a son-in-law. During World War II, the Corinth Machinery Company reached its zenith because of the volume of government contracts for equipment, especially for their portable sawmill needed to produce lumber for the war effort.
Sawmill carriages produced by the Corinth Machinery Company were innovative and highly successful. For many years, this company's products were a sawmill manufacturing standard in the lumber industry and were shipped all over the world, even to places least expected. Deep in the jungle on a Pacific island in New Guinea during World War II, an exhausted, hungry and war weary American Soldier unsure if he was able to tread another step farther paused to rest and heard a sound coming from some machinery in the distance. Seeking the source of the somewhat familiar sound, he came upon an old and rusty but still operating sawmill. Upon closer inspection he read the words inscribed on the equipment - "Corinth Machinery Company". Leroy Worsham reported that tears came to his eyes but this chance encounter with a relic from Corinth in the jungle wilderness was an inspiration for him to continue.
Through the years, the Corinth Machinery Company continued to expand. Its officers changed and Robert E. Anderson became chairman; Hoyte B.Wilder, President and Treasurer; Ben A. Ledbetter, vice president and treasurer. In 1983, as changes in product liability laws brought vastly increased legal and insurance expenses to small equipment manufacturers, the Corinth Machinery Company was sold to American Iron.
Shortly thereafter, this company fell victim to a modern recession and the plant was closed for several years until the property was leased to two successive companies for plywood fabrication operations. A third plywood operation, privately held Timber Products Company of Springfield, Oregon, now leases the facility and is continuing the property's heritage in the wood products industry that has extended from the turn of this century.
© 1997 Stephanie L. Sandy
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS"As a teen age boy and later I worked many hours in the shop and the office building and even now I can remember the noise, the smells, the people who worked there. My production was not so important that I couldn't also act as an errand boy. When it was about ten o'clock in the morning Clyde Sweat and others would call me over and give me their orders (and the money) and I would go across the tracks to Weeks Hamburger Place and enter my order and then return to the waiting men.
Sometimes my father would give me a tracing that was to be used to make a blue print, and I would take the blue print frame to the standing seam tin roof of the three story building and expose to the sun the tracing and paper, and afterwards develop the blue print with water.
Churchill said 'we shape our buildings and then they shape us.' As an architect I have been shaped by these buildings...."
Thomas S. Jones, Architect
November 24, 1997