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What was Delgado?

Ben Steelman
StarNews

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.

User-contributed question by:
Wayne Killian

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6 Responses to “ What was Delgado?”

  1. On October 3, 2009 at 10:08 am A.G.(Al) Murray Sr wrote:

    Thank you for this article.I originally was born and raised
    in Wilmington.All the names of the area bring back fond
    memories.I remember the mill and that area well.This
    article means a lot to me.I remember going to church
    with some of the people that worked there at the Mill.
    Also I remember going to school at Tileston and
    Chestnut street school.Thanks for the article.Keep up the
    good work.
    Al Murray Sr

  2. On October 3, 2009 at 11:18 am Martha Harrelson wrote:

    MY GRANDMOTHER, MRS. W.O. FICKLING WAS PRINCIPAL
    AT THIS SCHOOL WHEN MY MOTHER AND HER FAMILY WERE YOUNG LIVING ON THE CORNER OF WRIGHTSVILLE AND PENDER AVE. SHE WAS HIRED FOR THIS SCHOOL WHEN SHE WAS HEADMISTRESS OF THE KENANS GIRL SCHOOL IN KENANSVILLE. SHE LATER TAUGHT FOURTH GRADE AT DELGADO SCHOOL AS SHE ONLY HAD A B CERTIFICATE WHICH SHE HAD TO RENEW EVERY FOUR YEARS AT WAKE FOREST. DURING HER LATER YEARS, SHE TRANSFERRED TO CAROLINA BEACH SCHOOL WHEN SHE MOVED TO KURE BEACH.

  3. On October 7, 2009 at 11:30 pm Diane wrote:

    My dad worked/lived there. There get together/reunion that they have every year with pictures,food, and lots of stories and memories. I went with my dad last year for the first time and it was amazing. You felt like you were going back in time as people talked. Afterwards we drove around that area to see the old haunts.

  4. On October 14, 2009 at 10:24 pm John Walker wrote:

    In mid-September, 1934, our family moved from Delco, about 19 miles from Wilmington, to Delgado and Daddy began working in the mill. I started first grade at Delgado School that October and my older brother, James, started in Mrs. Ficklin’s class. Three years later, in 1937, I was in her class. Both of us remember well Mrs. Ficklin, mentioned earlier in this column by her granddaughter, Martha Harrelson. We had 46 pupils in the class and she had her hands full. She was a very caring teacher whose aim was to help every student stay in school and get an education. Many students in that class went on to finish high school, college and had successful careers.

  5. On November 16, 2009 at 11:08 am Vince Hagerty wrote:

    My grandmother, Ina DeVane, taught at Delgado in the 1950s. She taught school I believe for 30 years starting in SC. My mother and I would pick her up in the afternoon. She lived with us on Perry Avenue. We knew Mrs Ficklin and visited with her from time to time in Kure Beach. We moved to Jacksonville FL in 7/60 with the ACL Railroad.

  6. On January 7, 2012 at 11:39 pm Wendy Adams wrote:

    I really enjoyed the article. My grandparents worked at the Mill and i have grown up on the new hill when i stayed with my grandma Marie Holleman and my grandpa Julian Holleman. I have been eagar to find out as much as possible so i can figure out what their lives where like. my dad goes to the reunions with my uncle and i hope to go this year for the first time. i hope there are pictures because i am fascinated by this entire story. I love the post and i hope to read more.



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