By Geoff Hunt, Audio and Visual Curator, The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
Texas has changed quite a bit over the years, as is readily seen in our vast photograph and postcard collections. To help bring some of those changes to life, we’ve created a “Texas over Time” blog series that will illustrate the construction and renovations of buildings, street scenes, and more. Our collections are especially strong on Waco and Baylor images, but look for some views beyond the Heart of Texas, too.
The Miller Cotton Mills Main building on South First Street, Fred Gildersleeve image, 1920. General Photo Files-Miller Cotton Mills; recent photo of same by G.H., 2020.
Cotton was once Waco’s biggest industry. The rich soil in and around McLennan County, having Blackland Prairie’s, facilitates the growth of this once abundant local crop. The city had multiple cotton mills, yards, and a railroad system to transport the crop across the country for domestic consumption, and to ports for overseas shipping. One of these former Waco mills has served multiple uses in its 100-year history (1920-2020), and is better known as the L.L. Sams Church Furniture building. However, prior to that, it was the Miller Cotton Mills, in Waco, Texas.
The main building on South First Street in Waco, was completed in 1920, as a multi-story, 5,000-spindle, textile manufacturing facility. In an Austin-American Statesman, November 27, 1921, Miller Cotton Mills advertisement, the company states: “The location of the mill assures a plentiful supply of long-staple cotton. The labor situation, the shipping facilities and the fuel supply are all favorable. The [Waco] plant is the most modern in construction and up-to-date in equipment in the United States.” In 1922, it was a thriving operation with 200 employees, and a weekly payroll of $3,600.00. Production was constant with 2, 10-hour shifts, operating daily creating 100,000 yards of cloth weekly.
By 1923, production had nearly doubled as the demand for Miller cotton, especially denim, increased. Some of this demand was created by the need for overalls, typically worn by working people for their durability. By January of 1925, demand exceeded what the Waco facility alone could produce and 2 other plants were purchased in McKinney, and Dallas (Love Field), Texas; in 1926, a subsidiary plant was even constructed in Mexico. With the consolidation of the three Miller Cotton Mills in Texas, they had a combined spindle count of 33,000, between them. The material they manufactured was shipped throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba, South Africa, and Europe. Shipping was facilitated with the Waco mill’s main building being placed within a few yards of the S.A. and A.P. [San Antonio and Aransas Pass] railroad line.
By 1926, the Miller Cotton Mills, across its 3 Texas locations, employed 350 people. That year, the Waco Chamber of Commerce News reported: “its production for one year of eight and one half million yards of denims requires approximately nine thousand bales, or 4,500,000 pounds of cotton, most of which is bought in Waco. The payroll for one year amounts in round numbers to $260,000.”
Up to 1929, Miller Cotton Mills was a formidable manufacturing firm in in the Texas textile industry. However, with factors such as the Great Depression, foreign cotton imports, and the boll weevil, the cotton boom of the 1920’s was unsustainable. As a result, the Waco mill’s owner, C.R. Miller Manufacturing, resigned and the company went into receivership in February of 1929. The Dallas banker, R.L. Thornton, oversaw the company’s financial commitments until the Waco mill and those in north Texas were liquidated. Not long after, The Waco News-Tribune, of May 11, 1929, lists for sale: “…Real Estate consisting of 30 acres…at the intersection of Brazos Street and S.A. and A.P. [San Antonio and Aransas Pass] railroad….[with] Main mill building 5 stories, 22,500 square feet, [with] reinforced concrete and steel construction.” Among equipment for sale from the same were “9576 spindles, 320 32-inch looms…suitable for the manufacture of denims…” This included Miller Twine Mills, “on the adjoining property with 6 acres, and 3,536 spindles,”
The once-busy cotton mill sat unused for many years until L.L. Sams and Sons Church Furniture bought the structure in the late 1940’s. Its large size was ideal for the construction of church pews and large interior furnishings. L.L. Sams moved to Cameron, Texas, after using the building for approximately 50 years. In 2020, at the age of 100, the structure is still adorned with the names of its former occupants: “Miller Cotton Mills” and “L.L. Sams Church Furniture,” as what is now the L.L. Sams Historic Lofts building pays homage to its rich industrial past.
“Regular Village is Sprouting up About Miller Cotton Mills Soon to Open Here,” The Waco News-Tribune, November 25, 1919.
Advertisement, Austin-American Statesman, January 12, 1922.
“Excellent Business Data Greets Mill Stockholders.” The Waco News-Tribune, February 5, 1922.
“Miller Cotton Mills to Continue Operation.” The Waco News-Tribune Times Herald, February 24, 1929.
“Magnet of commerce and the air mail Center of Texas population,” 1929. The Texas Collection, Baylor University.
“Waco Chamber of Commerce News.” The Texas Collection, Baylor University.