GREENVILLE - The chip landed on Don Koonce's shoulder soon after he moved here and heard people dismiss the historical significance of the many textile mills that helped Greenville become South Carolina's most populous county.
That was more than three decades ago, and Koonce, a Citadel graduate and creative director for Ferncreek Creative, has spent countless hours documenting, interpreting and preserving what so many others have ignored.
He gives tours to those interested in understanding the mills and their accompanying villages; he shows vacant mills to developers in hopes it will stir their interest; and he is working on a documentary he hopes will air on PBS and bring the story to a far larger audience.
The attention comes as the mill history is slowly slipping away. Poe Mill burned in recent years and had to be torn down. Most of the mill village schools and community centers were razed around the time their owners would have had to integrate them,
Still, most of the mills survive, as do their village's Baptist and Methodist churches and more than 2,000 modest homes - all built within a three-mile radius of the city's Main Street.
"My concern, and I've been involved in the future of Greenville for a long time, was the fact that Greenville had turned its back on that whole part of town," he said. "Somebody needed to do something, and I couldn't get anybody to pay attention."
There are textile mills and towns scattered throughout Upstate South Carolina, but Greenville saw many more mills developed along the five railroad lines that converged on the city.
"Most of the towns worked hard to keep competition out," Koonce said. But in Greenville, it was the opposite, with mill owners not only welcoming each other but serving on one another's boards, even though some were making the same kind of cloth.
"Most of the guys had absolutely no experience in textiles," he added. "They just did it."
Perhaps the greatest example of this can-do spirit was Bennett Geer, who got a doctorate and headed the English Department at Furman University.
When his older brother John died, Geer left academia and took the reins of five textile mills. His success was helped by his friendship with New York tobacco magnate and financier James Buchanan Duke, who first kept Geer waiting for three days before agreeing to see him. Koonce said Duke asked Geer how a Shakespeare scholar could possibly run a mill, and Geer replied, "I keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open."
Geer's mills also were among the first to work with rayon and synthetic fibers.
By the 1950s, the city's Chamber of Commerce launched a campaign to brand the area as the "Textile Center of the South." By 1960, Greenville grew more audacious and started billing itself as the "Textile Capital of the World."
"And nobody disputed that around the world," Koonce said.
Perhaps the mills' history has not been publicly popular because for many of the early employees - known then as "operatives" - working in a mill was a form of indentured servitude.
Before 1930, many mill workers received an envelope instead of a paycheck, and it listed their wages and then deducted their rent, utilities, spending at the company store and other deductions. If those deductions didn't erase all the earnings, mill workers would receive tokens for use at the store. If they did, then their pay envelope was empty and contained a written squiggle, which Koonce said became known as "drawing the worm."
"At a lot of these mills, the employees all became indebted to the company store," he said. "They all spent more than they had because they didn't make much. It was a very cruel system."
Still, Koonce said the plight of textile workers often was better than some trying to eke out a living in the mountains or than cotton farmers battling the boll weevil.
The workers were housed in modest but decent homes. Koonce said the architectural styles varied from village to village and was a main way to see where one village stopped and another began. Koonce describes some of these styles as "old salt box," "slantback," and "brokeback." "These are not architectural terms, these are textile terms," he added. "Architects go nuts when I take them on tours."
The mill companies also built churches, schools and community centers, as a sort of enlightened paternalism. Some, like Woodside and Brandon, incorporated into towns.
Lawrence Hollis was hired by Monaghan Mill in 1905 and helped introduce basketball there, while another mill built a log cabin for the state's first Boy Scout troop.
The peak and valley of Greenville's textile industry may best be seen in the career of John. T. Woodside, who built a mill with his two of his brothers in 1902, and it could hardly keep up with demand. It expanded twice before 1914 and was the largest textile mill in the world under a single roof -about 300 yards long and five stories tall.
"You tell the size of the mill by the number of spindles," Koonce said. "Woodside had 112,000 spindles."
The brothers also joined with their fourth brother, Robert, to create a bank that later became Woodside National Bank. In 1923, the bank moved into a new 17-story building downtown - the state's tallest building at the time. John Woodside had a major role in building the Poinsett Hotel, which opened two years later.
The brothers even bought 66,000 acres in Myrtle Beach, including 12 miles of oceanfront, and opened the Ocean Forest Hotel. Their timing could not have been worse, as the hotel opened just four months after the stock market crash in 1929.
John Woodside sold his mansion in an attempt to hold onto his mill, without success. He eventually opened a country store, lived upstairs and died nearly broke. "Talk about riches to rags," Koonce said.
Woodside Mill was sold and continued to operate until 2006. Today, it is one of several historic Greenville mills that are endangered because of their age and condition - and the sheer size of investment needed to bring them back to life.
The mills' decline stemmed from a number of reasons. Koonce said even before cheaper foreign competitors emerged, the old, multi-story mills had not been modernized and were no longer as efficient.
Kelly Odom, Greenville County Historic Preservation Commissioner, said Koonce is a key figure in drawing attention to this part of the city's history.
Odom, who is working on his own book about Greenville's textile history, described Koonce as "definitely the go-to guy on textiles."
But he is not alone. The Greenville Textile Heritage Society formed in 2006 with representatives from six mill villages, and it has grown into a nonprofit with more than 200 members from 12 mill villages. It collects artifacts, documents and photographs, holds Christmas concerts, networks with individual mill historical societies, and runs the website scmillhills.com.
Don Harkins, president of the society, said most of its members grew up or worked in the various mill villages around the city, and they're working on creating a Textile Heritage Park and Museum.
"Those of us who formed the group realized that we were the last generation that experienced life on the 'Mill Hill,'" he said, "and if we did not attempt to preserve the textile heritage, it would not get done."
Koonce said he sees many other signs that the apathetic indifference he first encountered about Greenville's mills is fading fast.
Mills Mill has been converted into condos, which quickly sold out. Monaghan Mill, another four-story brick mill building, has been renovated into apartments. The vacant Brandon Mill recently was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and West Greenville -a small downtown area that served textile workers - is bouncing back as an artists' haven.
Also, a few of the mills are still in business. One of them, Southern Weaving, made the special strapping used to hoist the Confederate submarine Hunley to the surface off Sullivan's Island in 2000.
Koonce said the legacy of the mills extends far beyond the villages themselves to the hospitals, hotels and other current institutions that these industrialists also built.
"They are the foundation of the real leadership that caused Greenville to be what it is today," he said. "Those men decided to build an empire. They decided to build a community."
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.