Nestled in between two of the state's top universities, Clemson and USC, Pelzer, South Carolina is a quiet southern mill town located near the Saluda River. This particular mill area, founded over one hundred years earlier by a group of elite gentlemen from Charleston, SC, was the first place in the world to ever have electricity generated at a distance specifically for manufacturing purposes. It was here that a flicker of success exploded into a new way of doing business in the textile industry.
The first successful electric powered mill was built in Columbia, SC. Today, the Columbia Mills building houses the South Carolina State Museum. It may be said that the success in Columbia directly influenced the success in Pelzer. Historically, Columbia and Pelzer are often referred to together. The founding men of Pelzer included Francis Joseph Pelzer, Captain Ellison Adger Smyth, Augustine T. Smythe, William Lebby, William B. Smith, David Lopez, William Ashmead Courtenay, and Grange Simmons Coffin. Other prominent men involved in this history of electricity were first President of General Electric, Charles Albert Coffin, Sidney B. Paine, Thomas Edison, Charles P. Steinmetz, and Arthur R. Bush. The original Pelzer powerhouse with generators created by GE continues to operate today.
The Pelzer Manufacturing Company, organized in 1880, owned all the land in the area and was intrinsically involved in the aspects of mill life. Provision was made to produce a thriving healthy “model” mill town. Remarkable historic facts remain such as Pelzer producing the first kindergarten in Anderson County and enforcing compulsory education before it officially became law. There were other “firsts” in Pelzer including that Pelzer had the first incandescent lights installed in a mill and the first 1,000 Draper Automatic looms sold to Captain Smyth and installed in Pelzer. There were spectacular celebrations that happened such as “The Fourth” around July, considered to be one of the largest events in the South East. Famous persons came from Pelzer, such as founder of Ryan's Restaurants Alvin McCall and the first President of the National Singing Convention in 1937, Adger M. Pace, also connected with the Southern Gospel Music Association. Some played in Pelzer, such as Shoeless Joe Jackson and his family, and lived in the Pelzer area, such as legendary blues musician Mac Arnold. Others who lived in the Pelzer area were world renowned author Phyllis Tickle and years earlier, South Carolina's first and famous Playwright William Ioor. John T. Woodside was Pelzer's most prominent merchant. He later moved from Pelzer, initiated Woodside Mills, and founded Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Samuel M. Derrick supervised the Pelzer schools early in his career. He became a professor at the University of South Carolina in 1923, wrote The Centennial History of the South Carolina Railroad in 1930, and was named head of the USC Department of Economics and dean of the USC School of Business Administration in 1946. One of the Pelzer High School Superintendents, after serving at a young age in Pelzer, became prominent in law and later named the historic building currently housing the History Department of USC, after his sister the late Dr. Mary Latimer Gambrell. He was Enoch Smythe Gambrell of Atlanta.
Captain Ellison Adger Smyth served as President and Treasurer of the Pelzer Manufacturing Company for many years and seemed to have had the most influence in the Pelzer area. Born on October 26, 1847, of prominent Scotch-Irish heritage, he was an effective influential Pioneer, said to have been involved in over ninety mills of the South. His father was Rev. Thomas Smyth of the Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston, SC. Ellison's mother, Margaret M. Adger, was daughter of wealthy merchant and banker James Adger, also of Charleston. Historic research shows that Rev. Thomas Smyth's aunt, Martha Magee, founded Magee College located in the University of Ulster. Ellison's grandfather, James Adger, was responsible for starting the first steamship line between Charleston and New York among other great accomplishments.
Young Ellison at the tender age of fifteen witnessed the firing on Fort Sumter. He later received his “Captain” while serving in the Washington Artillery Rifle Club through the time of General Wade Hampton. This club was an elite group of about 350 gentlemen who literally held Charleston together during the Reconstruction. Wade Hampton is recognized today in our Capitol as representing the state of South Carolina. Captain Smyth was appointed to the Industrial Commission by President William McKinley and served as President of the American Cotton Manufacturer's Association. According to Professor Judy Bainbridge, he was responsible for the beginnings of many of Greenville's social clubs such as the Cotillian Club, Greenville Musical Association, Poinsett Club, Sans Souci Country Club, and Greenville's Rotary Club. “The Captain” as Ellison was affectionately called, contributed directly to the success of electricity in Pelzer. He retired with his family for leisure to the Flat Rock estate Connemara, which he thus named after where his ancestors were from. Known today as the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, the estate welcomes visitors from near and abroad.
Although it wouldn't be until later around 1923 when they would move forward to purchase the Pelzer Mills, history reveals that Lockwood Greene of Boston were directly involved in the beginnings of the Pelzer Mills. Other owners of the Pelzer Mills included Kendall Company and Gerber. Bricks and lumber from the Pelzer Mills began to find their way by business into homes and properties across America. Some people currently purchase “lumber from the Pelzer Mills”. It is safe to conclude that this Pelzer history continues to be recognized today in the USA.
References and Resources from CPHS Archives:
Current and former residents of Pelzer, SC
Contact with the descendants of the Founders and their associations
Old Mississippi Brick and Heart Pine—Tom Green
The Pioneer by William Plumer Jacobs
Lockwood Greene The History of An Engineering Business 1832-1958 by Samuel B. Lincoln
University of South Carolina
South Carolina A History by Walter Edgar
The Administration of Industrial Enterprises by Edward D. Jones, PH.D.
Men of the Time by Garlington
From “Rock Hill” to “Connemara” The Story Before Carl Sandburg by Louise Howe Bailey
South Carolina Department of Archives and History
Anderson County Museum
Mac Arnold and Belinda Humphries
Upcountry History Museum
SC Confederation of Local Historical Societies
Antebellum Charleston Dramatists by Charles S. Watson