Also known as “Mill Hill,” Delgado was a well-identified and tightly-knit mill village on the outskirts of Wilmington in the early 1900s, covering much of the area around modern-day Wrightsville Avenue from Gibson Avenue to the south and east. A number of small cottages still standing in the area were built as mill housing. Originally owned by the mill and rented to workers, these are now in private hands.
The name comes from the Delgado Cotton Mill Co., incorporated on May 25, 1899, which soon bought a 102-acre tract on the north side of the Wilmington and Coast Turnpike, as Wrightsville Avenue was known at the time. A cotton mill complex was soon built, at an estimated cost of $300,000, on the site of the present Creek Apartments. On Jan. 10, 1900, a local newspaper reported that “the first blast of the Delgado Cotton Mills whistle echoed across town last night, even though the mill was two miles from the river” (the Cape Fear). On Jan. 23, 1900, the Morning Star described the area as “a pretty village of 500 people.” At its height, the area housed more than 750 workers and their families.
The mill was named for the former Dolores Delgado Stevens of Charleston, S.C., wife of Delgado Mills president Edwin C. Holt. (Holt’s grandfather, Edwin M. Holt, had founded North Carolina’s first cotton mill in 1837.) The original board of directors for the new business included such prominent figures as Col Kenneth M. Murchison and James H. Chadbourn, as well as Julian Shakespeare Carr, the Durham mill operator for whom Carrboro, N.C., was named.
A 1927 textile directory listed the mill’s output and equipment as “fancy dress ginghams, 46 cards, 900 narrow looms, 24,032 ring spindles, dye, bleach, finish, 4 boilers, steam and electric power.” The work force that year was listed as 650. Nearby were 106 mill-owned houses, renting for 25 cents per room per week (later raised to 40 cents in 1940). Except for a few houses belonging to supervisors, none of these houses had indoor toilers until well into the 1930s.
Later, in the 1930s, 67 more mill houses were added east of the Atlantic Coast Line rail tracks, in the vicinity of modern Spofford Circle. This area became known as the “New Hill” while the original houses were called “Old Hill.”
Pay was low, even by standards of the day. In 1930-1931, a loom fixer would earn a total of $19 for a 60-hour work week. By World War II, with the introduction of the 8-hour day, the minimum wage was increased to 40 cents per hour. William Jennings Blanton, a former Delgado boy who later became a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, recalled earing $20.80 for a 48-hour work week as a “sweeper” in the mill — that total included time-and-a-half overtime for working on Saturday.
Still, workers enjoyed certain amenities. Management organized company baseball and softball teams, opened an open-air swimming pool for workers and their children in 1934 (at the time, the only other public pool in Wilmington was at the YMCA downtown), and threw oyster roasts and other socials.
The village had its own churches: Gibson Avenue Baptist Church (still active at 2037 Wrightsville Ave., Wilmington [Map this]), Delgado Presbyterian Church and, for a while, an Episcopal mission called St. Luke’s. Workers shopped at a company store, and the Delgado area had its own barber shop and its own company-run clinic, staffed with a doctor and a nurse. Mill children attended Delgado School on Colwell Avenue (now on the National Register of Historic Places) for the first four grades. (Fifth and sixth grades were added in the 1935-36 school year.) After that, they attended Hemenway or Tileston school before heading on to New Hanover High School. (Except for custodial staff, mill employees were white.)
Many boys in the neighborhood made extra money working as caddies at the nearby Cape Fear Country Club.
Old Mill Hill residents recall considerable rivalry with non-mill neighbors, who called Delgado families “lintheads.” (They retaliated by calling the outsiders “clamdiggers.”) One former Winter Park boy recalled pedaling his bike really fast through Delgado territory to avoid fights.
In 1931, the mill was acquired by a conglomerate headed by maverick financer Samuel Insull and renamed Spofford Mills, in honor of textile executive George Spofford. The Delgado name persisted, however, and survives on some contemporary addresses.
In 1933, Wilmington banker J. Holmes Davis acquired the mill and ran it with his son, J. Holmes Davis Jr., a talented amateur golfer who once played with Ben Hogan. The Davises made themselves popular with employees, in part by living in the Delgado/Mill Hill area.
In 1955, Spofford Mills was sold to M. Lowentstein & Sons of New York, who operated it until 1967, when the plant was closed down. The mill buildings were demolished in 1972. The mill office building, at 2231 Wrightsville Ave., Wilmington [Map this], still stands. (The small creek that runs between the mill office and the modern Creek Apartments site was known for decades as “the Dye Ditch,” since it was often polluted with dyes.)
Former Delgado/Spofford workers, their children and grandchildren, began holding periodic reunions in 1998. The Delgado/Spofford Mills Association, a preservation and heritage group, was organized in 2001. It maintains a mailing list and Web site.
Date posted: October 2, 2009
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