The largest cotton mill under one roof when it opened in 1899, Olympia Mill is over 550 feet long with 53 bays along Heyward Street. Its four towers with orange brick and terra cotta detailing each contained a reservoir of 15,000 gallons of water. The mill was one of four local textile mills in the southern fringes of Columbia built by Whaley Smith and Company from 1895 to 1900. In its heyday, the mill produced cloth that was 36 inches wide with 5-1/2 yards weighing one pound, or 38 inches wide with 7 yards to the pound. The mill operated under a number of different owners until finally closing in 1996. Olympia Mill was listed in the National Register in 2005 for its significance in industry and architecture. It is part of the Olympia Mill Village Historic District, listed in 2018, including some of the workers' housing, churches, and schools built to the south of the mill by the mill owners. The mill building and its nearby counterpart, Granby Mills, have been renovated into apartments designed for local college students and young professionals.
Backstory and Context
Olympia Mills is one of four local textile mills designed and built by a Columbia firm near the turn of the twentieth century. Said to be the largest cotton mill in the world under one roof in 1899, Olympia Mills housed over 100,000 spindles and 2,250 looms on a property covering 104 acres. The rectangular, four-story brick structure is 553 feet long and 151 feet wide. Twin towers on the north side rise 65 feet above the fourth floor and contain arched entrances; two more towers are on the rear of the building. The towers contained stairways and toilets with a water reservoir/ sprinkler system in the uppermost portion. A terra cotta sign reads "Olympia Cotton Mills." The rear of the mill includes appendages including a powerhouse with a tall brick tower.
The textile industry was part of the New South strategy that began after the Civil War and reached a peak near the turn of the twentieth century. The goals included making the South less economically and socially dependent on agriculture. Unlike antebellum South Carolina where yarn and cloth was typically produced on a small scale, the textile mills of the New South employed hundreds in one facility. Steam power and electricity freed mills from the need to locate near a water power supply. Columbia, with its railroad network rebuilt after the Civil War, and a hydroelectric plant on the Columbia Canal, became an attractive place to set up textile milling. By 1910, South Carolina - with 167 cotton mills - was second only to Massachusetts in the number of cotton mills. By 1920, one in five White workers in South Carolina lived in a mill village, where housing and community resources were built by mills for their workers and their families.
William Burroughs Smith Whaley was a mechanical engineer educated in the North who returned to South Carolina in 1893. In 1894, Whaley and Gadsden E. Shand, a local civil engineer, set up a company in Columbia specializing in mill design and construction, W. B. Smith Whaley and Company. The firm built and managed four mills in Columbia: Richland Cotton Mills (1895), Granby Cotton Mills (1897), Olympia Mills (1899), and Capital City Mills (1900). The four enterprises were known as a group as Whaley Mills; the Granby Mills building is situated only feet away, to the west of Olympia Mills. By 1907, over 2,000 people worked in Whaley Mills. The law outlawed children under twelve working in a factory, mine or mill but the rule was not always followed; less than half of the children living in the Olympia Village in 1907 attended school. Southern textile workers usually earned on average 60 percent of the wages earned by their New England counterparts.
After repeated changes in ownership and downsizing, Olympia Mills closed its doors in 1996. The mill building was listed in the National Register in 2005. The arch motif repeated on the building is one of the distinctive architectural features of its Romanesque Revival style, as well as the tall towers. Two one-story brick gatehouses along Heyward Street are part of the mill complex. The mill building also is part of a NRHP historic district listed in 2018, Olympia Mill Village Historic District. The mill stands at the northern edge of the district. The new apartment complex in the renovated mill building is now accepting leases for fall of 2020.
Hamilton, Cynthia Rose. NRHP Nomination form, Olympia Mills. Washington, SC. National Park Service, 2004.
Martin, Jennifer F. . Theos, Nicholas G.. Olympia Mill and Village, Upper Richland County, South Carolina. Raleigh, NC. Edwards-Pitman Environmental Inc. for Richland County Conservation Commission & SCDAH, 2002.
SC Dept. of Archives & History. Olympia Mills, SC Historic Properties Record. January 1st 2015. Accessed December 18th 2019. https://schpr.sc.gov/index.php/Detail/properties/12901.