The History of Proximity Cotton Mill and Proximity Print Works
Proximity Hotel and Print Works Bistro are named for two cotton mills in Greensboro. These mills were part of Cone Mills, with more than a century of history in the textile industry. Cone Mills was known as the world's largest manufacturer of denim fabric and the United States' largest printer of home-furnishings fabrics. Started by two brothers with a background in wholesale groceries, Cone grew steadily throughout its early years, concentrating on the manufacture of denim for work clothes.
Cone Mills was founded by Moses and Ceasar Cone. They were the two eldest sons of a Baltimore wholesale grocery merchant, Herman Cone, who had immigrated to the United States from Bavaria in the 1840s, changing his name from Kahn to what he considered a more American spelling. In their teens, Cone's sons worked with him in his store. By 1876, the business had expanded to include tobacco and leather goods, and Moses and Ceasar had begun to travel the Southeast, taking orders from merchants for their father's goods.
In their travels, the brothers had an opportunity to observe the textile industry of the South. Beginning in the late 1880s, the Cones made investments in three Southern cotton mills. All three of these factories used outmoded equipment to produce coarse, low quality plaids and sheeting. The fabrics enjoyed a vogue as a result of their low cost, yet in competition with the products of more modern Northern mills, they sold slowly.
Convinced that there was a glut of coarse plaids on the market, the Cone brothers persuaded their own business partners, as well as other Southern mill owners, to diversify their offerings. The Cones assigned brand names to key products, and published guarantees of quality. With these steps, sales began to rise. By 1890, the Cones had convinced 38 of the roughly 50 southern mill owners that they could benefit from hiring a selling agency to market their products.
The Cone brothers vowed to go into the fabric production business themselves. Their plans to build two mills, one for denim and one for flannel, were delayed by a financial panic in 1893, but within two years, the Cones had moved ahead, constructing a denim mill on land they owned in Greensboro, North Carolina. Since the plant was near its supply of raw materials, the cotton fields of the South, the Cones named their new factory the Proximity Cotton Mill, and set up a holding company for this plant and the others in which they held an interest called the Proximity Manufacturing Company. In 1896, the first lengths of fabric rolled off the big looms at Proximity. Ceasar Cone felt that denim, a sturdy fabric for use in work clothes, would be in constant demand as the United States expanded and industrialized.
Just three years later, the Cones opened Revolution Mills, a modern facility to weave soft cotton flannel. In 1902, a second denim plant was under construction. Called White Oak, it was named for the enormous tree that grew on its site. With ten different warehouses for cotton and its own power plant, the mill began turning out indigo blue denim by 1905. Moses Cone died at age 51 in 1908, and his brother carried on the company, opening a fourth mill, the Proximity Print Works, in 1912. This facility was designed to "finish" or print cotton with multiple colors, creating a type of cotton product new to the South.
More than just a workplace, the Cone mills became an entire world for their employees, who were cared for in a paternalistic, and some would say totalitarian, system by the mill owners. The Cones built housing near their mills, both boarding houses and single family homes, which made up segregated Cone villages. Stores sold dairy products and meat produced on company farms. For each village, the company built a school and donated land for churches. Two mill YMCAs were built to provide outlets for recreation, and the company also instituted a Welfare Office, with social workers and nurses to look after its employees.
By 1913, the Proximity Manufacturing Company owned all or half interests in seven cotton production facilities. In 1915, the company began to produce denim fabric for Levi's jeans, opening up an important new market. With the coming of World War I in 1914, Cone products continued to be in demand, both by the Allies overseas, and then, after 1917, by the American armed forces.
With the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression, the Cones refrained from any further expansion throughout most of the 1930s. The company did introduce two new cotton fabrics, a light-weight flannel called "flannelette," and a crepe called "Proximity Plisse." Despite the popularity these products enjoyed, the company was forced to curtail production at its plants as the Depression wore on. In a move that would bode well for the future, however, Cone introduced "deeptone" denim in 1936, a smoother, darker indigo fabric that was designed to appeal to wearers more than the earlier, rougher fabrics.
With the American entry into World War II, wartime production goals were implemented. In addition to an accelerated output of denim, Cone found itself producing such unfamiliar items as camouflage cloth, tent cloth, and osnaburg, for use in sandbags.
On the first day of 1948, Proximity's president announced that the company would change its name to Cone Mills Corporation. Further expansion followed this switch.
The competitive world textile industry caused the company to begin making cutbacks in the late 1970s, and it moved to diversify its product mix in order to maintain profitability. Such founding pillars of the company as the Proximity Cotton Mills and Print Works, the Revolution Mill, and the Minneola Mill shut their doors. Despite resurgence in the popularity of denim with the baby boomers, Cone Mills found itself unable to thrive in the wake of rising raw material costs, narrowing profit margins, and the changing global marketplace. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the fall of 2003 and was acquired by WL Ross & Co. the next spring. Cone Mills now operates as part of International Textile Group which also includes former competitor Burlington Industries.
The historic marker for Proximity is located about three miles east of Proximity Hotel on Wendover Avenue at Church Street.
Read a complete history of Cone Mills.