Chester Martin: Remembering The Dixie Group: Textiles And Floor Coverings In Chattanooga

Saturday, December 1, 2018 - by Chester Martin
Workmen officially changing the company’s original name at the Lupton City plant
Workmen officially changing the company’s original name at the Lupton City plant

Just as Chattanooga had risen from near annihilation after the American Civil War, we were again in need of economic resuscitation following the conclusion of World War I, some 53 years later. Today is a very appropriate time to reflect on that very destructive event - especially, as the centennial celebration of its ending has just passed: November 11th of this year.

Earlier, when the Civil War ended in 1865, Chattanooga was an absolutely broken and destitute city; it would take a lot of money and vision to pull us out of our war-time dilemma.

Vintage photos (as found in John Wilson's many books on Chattanooga) show a city that looked like what we see in movies of the "Old West", where alternately muddy or dusty streets are unpaved, and sidewalks - if any - are crude boardwalks of rough lumber. (Our Market Street was notoriously muddy because of flooding before TVA came into existence around 1940). Formerly thriving family farms all around Chattanooga had been wrecked and stripped of all their edible crops by both Northern and Southern armies as they foraged through the area. Impoverished farm families were left as refugees on their own land. 

Slow to recover from its Civil War wounds, Chattanooga was overdue for a good infusion of money and creativity to bring new industries and jobs. For by 1920 the barely surviving local farms found themselves to be too small to compete with the much larger farms of  the "wide open spaces" of Texas and Kansas (as witnessed by my own family). The main cash crop was still cheap cotton, as it had been for well over 100 years. My dad, born 1884, had seen his farmer-boy cousins move west to Texas, and later saw himself virtually forced out of farming, deciding instead to follow another cousin into postal work in Chattanooga. Dad gladly gave up the plow  (and still un-married at age 29)  hustled off to work at the Chattanooga post office (for 41 years!). He remembered that he hired into that job for the grand sum of 30 cents per hour, tripling his 10 cent per hour farm wage! That was in 1913, and a few years later he was delivering mail to all the important businesses around town, including to the brand new town called "Lupton City".

One of our new industries - as of 1920 - which probably came into existence in large part due to the plentiful labor provided by returning World War I veterans, was "Dixie Mercerizing Company", located at that newly created place called Lupton City.  Dixie certainly needed "associates", as employees were euphemistically later called, just as much as the returning war vets needed steady work. The very word, "mercerizing" must have had a curious effect on local people of the day, signifying something new and wonderful - much as the words "digital" and "cyber" have had on my own generation.  But what did it mean in the first place? As an octogenarian I can remember that original name, "Dixie Mercerizing Company", but had no clue as to what "mercerizing" meant until doing research for this story: it seems that a self-educated British chemist, John Mercer, had taught himself the new process back in Dickensian times. Using a chemistry textbook, he taught himself how to refine the texture of raw cotton from rough to smooth while strengthening the fibers in the process. This treatment also encouraged the fibers to accept permanent dyes more readily than in the past. All these factors were to change the textile industry forever: the new process appropriately became known as "Mercerizing" in honor of its discoverer. Cotton was plentiful  and very cheap  in the Tennessee Valley of 1920, as was water transportation. These factors, all working together, made Chattanooga an easy candidate for becoming a new industrial hub of textile production. Thanks to both Mercer and Dixie, Milady could now have an expensive looking pair of "silk" stockings, which were in reality made out of much less expensive cotton!

Some well-known local hosiery executives, principal among them the owners of Dixie Spinning Mills, soon joined the Lupton family to form the new company. Luptons provided land for the new plant in its North Chattanooga location. A small town in its own right, it included some 72 homes, a company school with playground, and even a new post office known as "Lupton City". As of December 29th, 1920, Dixie Mercerizing Company, Inc., went online officially in the "Textiles and Apparels" industry. J. Burton Frierson, company treasurer in the 1920's and later company president after World War II, expanded the company and set new goals. One such expansion was into the area of carpet weaving with the purchase of Dalton Candlewick, already one of the country's most advanced manufacturers of yarn for carpets. Candlewick's carpet yarns would ultimately lead Dixie into its most productive years. Other acquisitions were yet to come, and that story alone could supply Hollywood or Netflix with enough new seasons of series-worthy scripts to last for years! When J. Burton Frierson stepped down from his long tenure as CEO, the company leadership was handed off to son, Dan Frierson, who is still at the helm. as Chairman of the Board. The original strategy of these two men seems to have been to simply dress "old" traditional cotton in new clothes - to make it more appealing to both see and touch. Along the way they learned how to make it stretchable, as well - a really great feature in my own personal opinion. (I still prefer the soft feel of slightly stretching cotton material to all other clothing fabrics). But Dixie was gradually creating a totally new new area of expertise for itself: that of floor coverings.

Something I very much like about present Dixie Chairman Frierson is his uncanny ability to tell about the inevitable failures and mistakes the company has suffered through the years.  That ability has probably been much to their advantage, however, as they have been able to face adversity with a clear eye. A good amount of creativity also went into both Friersons' work: the ability to see that when Asian markets were threatening, and underselling, Dixie's products they did not try to compete with them in "cheap", but simply promoted their high end products instead, In that process, they also found that they could save 10-15 percent by such useful maneuvers as simply manufacturing their own threads and yarns.

Dixie Mercerizing Company changed its original name to Dixie Yarns in 1964, and later to The Dixie Group. They found profitability more recently in various niche markets such as mats and carpets for mobile homes, RV's, etc. Early acquisitions, such as one with North Carolina's Durham Hosiery Mill (1936), helped Dixie remain afloat during the Great Depression. This new company later experimented with and developed "miracle fibers" which supplied millions of shoe laces to the fighting American soldiers of World War II, and long before Velcro was ever dreamed of! The Dixie Group became so successful through its acquisitions that entire fleets of trucks were needed to make pick-ups and deliveries among all their far-flung locations.

In looking through some of the company's literature I am astounded to learn that in 1980 Dixie Yarns had about 5,000 workers employed in 17 plants scattered through five states. By 1999, the Dixie Group had acquired an army of four powerhouse companies: Masland (of Mobile, Alabama), Carriage Carpets (of Calhoun, Georgia), Bretlin, (also of Calhoun, Georgia) and the already mentioned Candlewick Yarns (of Dalton, Georgia). 1999 was the year, however, that Dixie severed its long association with "textiles" to re-invent itself as a source for quality floor coverings. Long on the way, old ties were broken and the company entered a brand new era........

This story was inspired originally by the re-discovery of an ancient wooden spindle given to my mother by a dear maiden aunt who worked for Dixie in its earliest days. That aunt, "Linnie" Smith, was active as a seamstress, mainly, in both the former Miller Brothers and Lovemans department stores, but was employed for some time at Dixie Mercerizing Company in Lupton City. The old spindle became a fixture in my mom's sewing box as some of the original thread was still in place, and short pieces of it could be used for mending socks, etc. It has endured numerous  puncturings as a pin-cushion as well, plus the destructive tendencies of a small boy (me!) many decades ago. That same ancient spindle from "Dixie" might yet inspire another story in the future: who knows? The entire "Dixie" story is so long and so diverse that many another "episode" could be spun off at any time - and I would like to be the one who writes them!

~Chester Martin

Ad for movies at the plant’s private “Dixie Theater”
Ad for movies at the plant’s private “Dixie Theater”

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