Henderson County, Kentucky


Washington Street facility once employed up to 1,000 workers

For 100 years it stood, a giant on the east-end skyline. And for nearly a century it was one of the venerable factories that formed the foundation of local industry.

In its impressive history, it went by four different names and had two different uses, but some things remained the same no matter what the name or product.

Whether it was the Henderson Cotton Mills, Consolidated Textile Corporation, Bear Brand Hosiery or Audubon Hosiery, many of the people who passed through the weathered doors of its three "towers" and punched in at its time clocks claimed there was a family feel to the place.

A woman who worked at the hosiery mill (under both its names) for 36 years said, "You made friendships there that lasted a lifetime." There are, in fact, still groups of former employees who get together once or twice a year to talk about old times and catch up with each others' lives.

The place began in 1883 with a $400,000 investment - some of the money from investors in the East. HOLTZCLAW Brothers of Washington City served as general contractor for the massive project on Washington Street.

When at last the complex was completed and the charter employees took their places at the looms in September 1885, the mill was hailed as a commercial wonder.

Historian Edmund STARLING wrote, "The engines that move all this vast machinery are unsurpassed in strength and finish. The entire system of machinery is of the latest and most improved known to the manufacturing world."

The mill consisted of a 324- by 95-foot main building that was three stories high; a 40- by 60-foot boiler house; a 30- by 60-foot engine room and a 60- by 40-foot picker room. The first floor of the main building was used for weaving, the second floor for spinning and the third floor for carding. There were seven huge boilers and a brick stack 142 feet tall.

The mill was illuminated with electricity, otherwise known as "Edison's Incandescent." A total of 200 men, women and boys had been hired and they turned out 160,000 yards of what STARLING called "fine sheeting" every week. The quality of the work was such, the historian wrote, that the crews couldn't keep up with the customers' demands. "Their goods are sought for from Cincinnati to San Francisco and North and Northwest," he said.

James RANKIN was president and W. C. CUMNOCK superintendent of the plant that had a weekly payroll of $2,650.

Some of the workers didn't have far to walk when their shifts ended. The company owned 32 double brick tenement houses directly across the street from the mill and made them available to the plant's "operatives."

For 37 years the cotton plant apparently operated as smoothly as silk, but its president was getting on in years and in 1922, when he turned 75, the business and its building were sold to the Consolidated Textile Corporation. Consolidated operated until 1931 when the black cloud of the national depression enveloped that industry along with most others.

For six years the buildings were idle and silent. In 1937, however, the complex began its third chapter, this time as Bear Brand Hosiery. According to historian Jack HUDGIONS, on March 15 of that year A. J. KRUSE was sent here from Bear Brand's Kankakee, Illinois plant to open a "school" on North Main Street where 20 men and women learned to operate knitting and looping machines.

A month later, the deed to the Washington Street plant was turned over to Henry POPE, Bear Brand president, and Henderson had a new industry. From 20 employees in 1937 the payroll grew to 332 workers by early 1951.

In 1969, the fourth and last chapter of the aged complex began. In that year, Elmer KORTH - who had been plant manager under Bear Brand for 18 years - began Audubon Hosiery. Audubon Hosiery made 26 styles of socks that were sold mostly under Wigwam and J. C. Penney labels and required some 35,000 pounds of yard a week.

In late 1982, the plant's 130 employees said goodbye to the work site that had put bread on the table for so many families for so many years.

In 1985, it was razed, with most of its estimated 13 million bricks and its strong poplar beams salvaged for a second life in other buildings in other places.

Reprinted with permission
Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Judy Jenkins

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS