Founded in 1897, the textile manufacturing company closed its doors in July 2006, unable to compete with foreign textile manufacturers and unable to recover from a January 2005 train accident in Graniteville, S.C.
According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Avondale Mills spanned the rise and fall of Alabama’s industrial history, and its most notable owners, the Comer family, became some of the most powerful people in the state.
In 1897, Braxton Bragg Comer built the first mill in the Birmingham neighborhood of Avondale, hence the name Avondale Mills. He went on to become governor in 1906.
When Donald Comer assumed management of Avondale Mills in 1907, he continued his father’s business success. He expanded the company into Sylacauga, building the Eva Jane plant in 1913. In 1919, he constructed Salle B. No. 1 and Catherine mills and completed Sallie B. No. 2 in 1926, although some sources said it was in 1922.
Avondale plants were overseen by other male Comers and often bore the names of female Comers; for example, the Eva Jane plant was named for B.B. Comer’s wife.
These and other Avondale plants typically turned out rope, hosiery yarns, sheeting, indigo denims and heavy twills.
When Avondale Mills arrived in Sylacauga, it was described by a local historian as the most important event in the town’s history.
Avondale’s impact on Sylacauga was heightened by the presence of five plants in Talladega County. The Catherine Central Plant and the Eva Jane Plant employed almost 3,000 people.
In its 109-year history, Avondale Mills expanded to include plants throughout Alabama. By 1947 and 1948, Avondale Mills had reached its apex in Alabama, with 7,000 employees. The company later branched out into Georgia and South Carolina.
In 1986, Walton Monroe Mills Inc. purchased Avondale Mills. The two merged in 1993 to become Avondale Incorporated. Three years later, Avondale acquired the textile assets of the Graniteville Company. Then in January 2005, the train accident occurred near the Graniteville plant. Sixteen freight cars from one train and one car and a locomotive from another train derailed. Sixty tons of chlorine gas was released in the wreck.
The Graniteville plant was closed following the accident. From then on, repercussions of the wreck ripped through the company until July 2006, when Avondale Incorporated ceased operations and sold three of its plants.
Avondale closed three mills in Sylacauga and one each in Alexander City, Pell City and Rockford, laying off more than 1,300 workers. In Sylacauga, Avondale generated an annual payroll of $35 million the year it closed.
At the time of its closing, the Eva Jane Plant used approximately 1 million pounds of cotton each week, while producing 900,000 to 1 million yards of cloth.
When Avondale Mills closed in late July 2006, Sylacauga Mayor Sam Wright said, “Losing Avondale is like losing a friend. It’s so sad.”
Now, the town and county are losing a part of history with Avondale’s destruction by fire Wednesday.
On Feb. 14, 2008, the Pell City plant faced a similar fate as Sylacauga’s plant. It caught fire and was destroyed.
Contact Denise Sinclair at firstname.lastname@example.org.