Thomaston Mills: Our Story of Shared Values
2021 will mark 20 years that my family has owned Thomaston Mills, a storied American textile plant located in Upson County, Georgia. Thomaston Mills along with a plant we own in South Carolina are where we manufacture American Blossom Linens. Our beautiful percale sheets are the only organic cotton bedding entirely made in the USA.
Established in 1899, Thomaston Mills was led by four generations of the Hightower family when my family purchased the plant in 2001.
In the mid to late 1990s, globalization captured the hearts, minds and balance sheets of businesspeople and politicians worldwide. Thus began the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor and fewer protections for workers, safety and the environment. After thriving through a century of industrialization, innovation, computerization and extraordinary change, Thomaston Mills succumbed to the wave of globalization that drowned nearly all of the textile mills on America’s shores. The Mill was put up for sale.
When my father purchased the Mill from the Hightower family, he found even greater value than he was looking for—a long history of people-centered business values that our families had long held in common.
My grandfather, our founder, believed that trust, integrity and kindness were the lodestars of any thriving business. Over time, all of us who worked in the family business learned the bedrock importance of these values and we strive to meet them in all we do.
The Hightower family felt the same way, and the long history of the Mill under their stewardship offers fine lessons in business ethics and the history of manufacturing in the South after the Civil War. It’s also a dramatic lesson in how business can be human and have a heart.
Providing for workers and their families was a hallmark of Thomaston Cotton Mills, so named in its earliest days. This support was shown, in large part, through the Hightowers’ development of East Thomaston, a mill town that thrived and modernized over many decades. While the business rationale was recruitment and enablement of a top-quality work force, generations of Hightowers went above and beyond, renowned for their civic generosity and charity to those workers in need.
During the Reconstruction Period, nearly all of the cotton grown in the South was shipped to manufacturers up North as local industry, capital and know-how had been devastated by the Civil War. An ample unemployed workforce existed in Upson County along with a desire to rebuild the economy by milling cotton close to where it was grown. It was a difficult beginning but Mill co-founder Robert E. Hightower had both the savvy and connections to overcome the early obstacles. The Mill gained profitability and was able to compete with much larger companies. Notably back then and for decades later, Hightower and his competitors were on friendly terms and helped each other to learn, advance and problem solve.
Over time, the Hightowers developed East Thomaston into the quintessential mill town by creating housing and services for the workers who would otherwise “commute” from rural farms by horse or on foot—which presented no way to run a reliable business. From its earliest days, the Mill developed boarding houses, homes, a hotel and stables. They provisioned workers with coal and kerosene, and even built a butchering facility for their use.
As a former working mom, now a grandmother, I was impressed that the Mill from its early years built a nursery for working mothers who were allowed to leave work at intervals to feed their babies. While the nursery made possible their labor at the mill, just imagine how much it improved the wellness and financial security of families.
The company grew, the mill town grew and the Hightowers cared deeply that workers’ and families’ important needs were met. They added a tabernacle, a primary school system, funds for older children to attend secondary school outside of the village, a police force and entertainment programs including Saturday night dances, music, a skating rink and soap box derbies.
Baseball was a particular passion decades before TV and highways made it accessible for players and fans. The Mill established and equipped an enormously popular and winning baseball team along with other sporting endeavors.
Mirroring the work of modernizing the Mill’s equipment by always sourcing the best and latest machinery, the Hightowers equally modernized East Thomaston. Eventually sewers were installed, landscaping added and streets paved. A hospital, community swimming pool and architecturally significant churches were built.
By the 1980s, life in a feudal style mill town had become a relic of the past due mostly to widespread automobile ownership and the lifestyle changes that followed. Thomaston Mills sold the homes it owned at the lowest possible cost to the workers who inhabited them and transitioned stores and services to private owners.
As the need for a Mill town began to change, so did the needs of a more independent workforce. The Hightowers were leaders in the creation of a pension plan and formal program of benefits with opportunities for advanced education and training. Georgia Tech, a key partner and beneficiary of the Hightowers’ commitment to education, became a national leader in textile engineering.
My family loved that Thomaston Mills had been known as a company with a heart. Julian Hightower was its president for 20 years beginning in 1952. When informed an employee would be fired, he replied, “No. Make something of him instead.” Each of the Hightowers who led Thomaston Mill brought differing strengths to their role but shared a common concern for the wellbeing of the workforce, often in material ways and especially to those in need.
As I’ve learned from both my forbears and the history of Thomaston Mills, profits matter greatly but profits come from people. How we behave in the world, with trust, integrity and kindness, is our firm foundation and guiding light. I invite you to read a bit more of this philosophy in American Blossom’s brand promise.
Historical notes are from the following publication:
Charles Josey, “A Historical Perspective 1899–1999, Hard Times Good Times, Thomaston Mills.” Thomaston Mills, Inc. Printed by Columbus Productions, Inc., Columbus, Georgia: 1999.