War hero son of a millionaire mill-owner, Springs was disdained by his father as a wastrel; hardworking businessman, he was also a hard-living playboy; successful author, he was sued for plagiarizing his dead friend’s diary; innovative advertising pioneer, he has been attacked as sexist and racist — faced with these contradictory statements, Elliott White Springs would probably give that charming tenative smile and say, yes, they were all true.
In the late 19th Century, southern American businessmen tried to build up a New South from the wreckage of the Civil War. Cotton textile mills were an obvious choice — the cotton was close by, all it required was transport and the burgeoning railroads provided that. So mills sprang up in the southern Piedmont, from Virginia down to Alabama and Georgia. Leroy Springs began building mills in South Carolina’s Lancaster and York Counties. One of his partners was Elliott White. Leroy Springs married White’s daughter and named their son, born in 1896, Elliott White Springs.
There was a large market for cotton cloth in the United States at the time and, with the advent of World War I, the market boomed. Leroy was a multi-millionaire, the “richest man in South Carolina”. Elliott’s mother died when he was ten and Leroy sent the boy off to school when he was twelve, first to Asheville, then to Culver, finally to Princeton.
Elliott wasn’t particularly interested in academics but he did enjoy partying and sporting around in his Stutz Bearcat. Looking for excitement, he became interested in flying and, upon graduation in 1917, enlisted as an aviation cadet in the Signal Corps. After a few practice flights in a Jenny trainer he and other cadets were sent to England for training. There the cadets found themselves without any status and nothing to do. So Elliott got his rich daddy to send some money to London and had uniforms made for the group. He appointed himself sergeant and took the lads partying.
The great ace Billy Bishop was in London after recovering from wounds and was assigned to form a squadron from the new men available. Bishop had his eye out for the best pilots and pulled a few strings to get Springs, John McGavock Grider, and Lawrence Callahan for his new unit, the Flying Foxes. While in England, he went flying with them and got into a few scrapes, such as a minor scandal caused by buzzing a boat on the Thames occupied by a cabinet minister. When the Flying Foxes finally shipped over to France in May, 1918, a good many people were pleased to see Bishop and his rowdy crew leave England. [See Billy Bishop: Canadian Hero]
They were all suffering from hangovers when they left and cracked up three planes before reaching the Channel. Springs nipped at a flask all the way across. Immediately on crossing the Channel, the group had two crash landings. On his first flight in France, Springs crashed another plane, this time right in front of a general who was inspecting the new fliers. On June 5, Elliott White Springs bought down his first German plane. He crash landed at the aerodrome and was called to account by his CO. “Springs,” said Billy Bishop, “You’ve wrecked one German plane and three of ours. Now what I want to know is, which side are you on?” Three days later, Springs brought down three more enemy planes. Ten days after, Flying Fox John McGavock Grider was killed while on patrol with Springs. “Am I to blame?,” wondered Springs.
It was live fast, die young time. Later, Springs wrote that “…he had to get killed because he couldn’t go home … [if he died] his father would have a hero for a son and he could spend all his time and money building monuments to him. … But if he lives thru it, he says his father will fight with him the rest of his life.”
The Imperial War Office decided that a live hero was better for morale than a dead one, so Billy Bishop was recalled to England to receive medals and a handshake. Springs was transferred to the American 148th Squadron. By the war’s end he had eleven confirmed victories and as many as eight more unconfirmed. He was the fifth highest ranking American ace winning both a Distinguished Service Cross and a Distinguished Flying Cross (British).
Springs was demoralized by the end of the war. He hadn’t expected to survive and now had to face the future:
The French are still dancing in the streets. But I can find no enthusiasm. I went to bed a free man but I awoke with a millstone around my neck called tomorrow which pulls and pulls and will hang there ’til the grave. . . I only scowl [at] everyone and demand another war. Peace! I find myself alive. Strange — I hadn’t considered that possibility — I must alter my plans.
Leroy Springs decided that his son had to learn the cotton mill business from the ground up. He assigned Elliott different jobs — “I never knew when I went into work whether I’d be an office boy fetching coffee or a worker assigned to a loom.” This work was unpaid. Sometimes Elliott went off flying, performing stunts like flying under the Catawba bridge or causing havoc by buzzing people and livestock. One day, when he was supposed to be working, he buzzed his father’s office. He was fired.
[Leroy] Springs crowed to the local newspapers about his son’s accomplishments in the war but continued his efforts to control his son’s future. His father urged him to live in Lancaster but Springs insisted on living in the house his grandfather had bequeathed him in Fort Mill, thirty miles away. When his son once again defied him, Leroy Springs swore he would never enter his son’s house in Fort Mill — and never did. Springs continued his wild behavior — he had shown a taste for women and alcohol both at Princeton and during the war — to his father’s lasting chagrin. When Elliott courted and married a Massachusetts heiress, the elder Springs was miffed he’d married a Northerner.
Elliott shrugged and took of for New York. He and his young wife had hosted some wild parties in Fort Mill, South Carolina, but in the Big City they really cut loose. Elliott Springs became a jazz age legend. Every once in a while he would return to South Carolina, make a half-hearted stab at the cotton business, throw a few parties, get fired, and go back to Manhattan. Meanwhile, he had begun to write stories for Redbook and other magazines, novels followed. These were a great success and Elliott was financially independent of his father.In 1926 Springs produced his most successful work, War Birds, as the diary of an anonymous aviator. It was first serialized for Liberty Magazine, then published as a best-selling book, and was purchased by Hollywood — one of several Springs properties developed for film. The book was full of the doomed romanticism that entranced post-World War I audiences. The young pilots drank too much, partied all night, and then flew out on dawn patrol against the Hun. They knew that, once they reached the front, their lifespan was measured in days. There was sex and death and glory. Leroy begged his son not to publish the book “for the sake of your family” and others wanted to ban it, including fliers like Reed Landis, but the public lapped it up and thousands of copies were sold. When the second edition was printed, Springs let it be known that he was the writer but that the book was developed from the diary of John McGavock Grider, who had been killed less than three weeks after reaching France. Immediately, Grider’s family filed suit against Springs. If this was John Grider’s diary, then it was his book and Springs was a thief. There has been a fair amount of controversy about this subject ever since. Springs never avoided a good story while he was alive and let it be known that the book was actually an amalgam of several diaries — two of them his! Springs was also a careful man who kept every bit of paper that came his way. The Springs papers (now at the University of South Carolina) show that Springs’ own diary was the basis for War Birdsbut that he imagined his dead friend Grider as the book’s hero. The lawsuit ended with the Grider family settling for $12500, probably half the net from the original serialization and the Hollywood sale combined. [Or so I calculate.]
Now it was 1928 and family troubles drew Elliott back to South Carolina. Leroy, ever on the lookout for supply, was in Gastonia, North Carolina, the town with the most mills in the South, when he was shot by a rival cotton buyer. Just to put things in perspective, as a much younger man, Leroy himself had shot and killed another fellow. That happened on home turf and Leroy got off, just as later the North Carolinian that shot him escaped prison time. Gaston County newspapers of the day sneered at Leroy as an outsider come to fleece their local businessmen. The message, I suppose, was stay home or get shot.
Leroy was a while recovering from his wounds and somehow seemed to lose interest in the cotton business during his convalescence. Elliot came south to look after the family business and his father went north to New York, where he died in 1931.
Times had gotten difficult for the southern cotton-milling business. The wartime boom was long over, there was less demand for cloth what with short skirts and all, and the mill workers were restless. New technology was complicating matters. For instance, the first mechanical cotton pickers had been introduced a year or two before Leroy’s shooting. These machines did not pick as neatly as human stoop labor, so the cotton was full of trash that was difficult to clean and added to the cost. No one expected Elliott to last very long in the business.
But Elliott White Springs rose to the occasion. Without his dour father overseeing his every move, he set out to learn everything there was to know about cotton milling. He worked all the machines, did all the jobs. He said later that, for anyone interested in machinery, an airplane was a fine thing, but it couldn’t compare to a cotton mill.
Things were bad before 1929 but when the bottom fell out and the United States headed into the Great Depression, many mills seemed doomed. Here Springs showed his business acumen. As soon as he got control of the company, he slashed dividends and managerial salaries, paying himself nothing. He re-negotiated the various debts of the company, then borrowed more to upgrade facilities and purchase a new mill at Chester. At this point Springs had a controlling interest in six mills.
The southern cotton mills had begun with a proximity to supply, but they had expanded by undercutting the costs of the New England mills which had been the industry leaders. Costs were lower because of state and local incentives in the form of railroad and other infrastructure construction and because southern mills paid less to workers than northern mills — about a dollar a week less per worker. In addition, southern mills didn’t have to worry about state legislation involving hours or conditions of work, including child labor laws. The millowners constructed company towns, or company subdivisions within existing communities, where working families lived in rental housing owned by the company. In, say, 1890, a tenant farmer could move his family from a shack into a nice house and, if the whole family worked — as they would anyway on a farm — they would earn perhaps thirty or even forty percent more than if they worked the land. They might have to pay the millowner rent, but that was nothing compared to what they had owed the landowner’s company store on the farms where they bought seed, fertilizer, tools, clothing, and food. The kids weren’t going to school anyway, so this seemed like a much better deal. For a time, perhaps it was.
A millworker had a sixty-hour work week. He or she was paid a top rate of $12 a week, much less was paid to children and untrained new workers. All these workers were white. Black tenant farmers or farm laborers moved north or accepted really menial jobs as servants or janitors who were not welcome in the white-only company towns. Even before the 20th Century, there were problems with this arrangement. Once in the city, it didn’t take workers long to hear about unions and organizing. It doesn’t take much, once you understand that you are drudging in a labor ghetto and disdained as a “linthead” by the better-off, to want more for you and for your children.
As the demand for cloth lessened, millowners demanded more from their workers. Time and motion studies were already clocking the maximum that a worker could produce and this maximum became the new norm. A worker that had tended eight spindles was now expected to handle twelve, for instance. Workers called this the “stretchout” and they hated it. Meanwhile, the company towns, some of which had been very nice, had fallen into disrepair as the landlord company quit putting rents back into the property. Union organizers found the South very fertile ground.
It was not an easy thing for a worker to join a union — it might result in his being fired and then evicted from his home. It was even less easy to become involved in a labor action — local law enforcement was going to be on the mill-owner’s side, there were plenty of people ready to be enlisted as strongarm thugs, and judges were never going to find in favor of a worker opposed to the company. Even so, workers organized because they simply couldn’t stand it any more.
After the election of Franklin Roosevelt, many people looked to Washington for relief. Indeed, the New Deal did try to bring about changes, but those measures aimed at aiding southern agriculture and its workers failed. NIRA provisions meant to assist southern millworkers included conditions of work laws, including a minimum wage, and a board to oversee the new legislation. The board was packed with millowner cronies and the minimum wage was soon re-thought as the maximum that need be paid. Incentives to cut production and raise the price of cloth were used as an excuse to cut hours of work — say a week out of every month — so that workers were soon working harder and getting much less pay.
Soon a whole lot of people decided that too much was enough and the Great Textile Strike of 1934 was the result. Half a million millworkers, from New England to the Gulf of Mexico, went out — the largest strike in U.S. history up to that time. They were met with armed force in the form of the National Guard and local vigilante gangs organized through local law enforcement, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Ku Klux Klan,all paid for by millowners. There was violence and deaths — mostly of workers — and in the end, the Great Textile Strike of 1934 was classed as a failure.
But back to our subject: what did Elliott White Springs do during this difficult time? One story has it that, when the workers at Chester were considering strike action, Springs called them together on the company baseball field and made a speech. He said that, if they proceeded with strike action, he would simply close the mill. He said, according to some stories, that he had enough money, he would just retire and take his family to Europe. This story is told approvingly by those wanting to guard the memory of Elliott White Springs and it may be partly true. But it also seems that the Chester mill was closed for a while — a week, a month — and that, as in other mills, the National Guard was called into a Springs plant or two. The thing is, wealthiest man in South Carolina or not, Springs was small fry outside of the mainstream of labor trouble — Gastonia, North Carolina and Spartanburg in South Carolina. It was in those locales that people expected the Great Textile Strike to be won or lost and most attention has been given to them. Still, the Springs Papers hold a trove of information for some student wanting to study a group of mills under a single owner at this time. Eventually, I suppose we will know more on this topic.
When a man is intelligent and thinks outside the box, as Elliott Springs was and did, you hope for something spectacular and progressive in the face of the kind of problems raised in 1934. But realistically, people do not often act successfully outside the parameters created by a given time and conditions. In Springs’ favor is that, in 1929 and after, he did not lay off workers when demand for cloth dwindled; he stockpiled the cloth instead, thus allowing folks to keep their jobs. There do not seem to be any acts of violence at Springs’ mills nor (that I know of) any instances of his organizing vigilantes or strikebreakers. And he seemed to learn certain lessons: after 1934, the company towns were phased out and Springs set up a system by which workers could buy their house from the company. The stretchout, too, disappeared over the next decade as new machinery increased worker productivity. Still, none of the Springs mills unionized and Elliott maintained a paternalistic attitude toward his workers until his death in 1959.
By 1940, the United States was preparing for war and Springs began selling all that cloth that he had warehoused a decade before. Soon, all of the cloth produced in his mills was being sold to the government. Once again, the southern mills had a boom time. Farsighted Springs bought up all the spare parts for his mill machinery that he could find. This stood him in good stead for years to come.
In 1941 Springs remobilized and joined the war effort. For a time he ran the Army Air Corps base in Charlotte, N.C. but then something happened — it’s not clear what — that triggered problems that Springs had repressed. He had a nervous breakdown in 1942 and left the service. “The doctor tells me my problems lie in 1918 and my father. He has told me nothing I didn’t already know.” Apparently the doctor didn’t tell Springs how to deal with these problems. When his son was killed in an airplane accident in 1946, Springs reacted by completely burying any memory of the boy whose name was never allowed to be mentioned in his presence.
[continued in Part Two]
War Bird: The Life and Times of Elliott White Springs, by Burke Davis
War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator
War Birds, a documentary on Springs and his flying career.
“Redeeming Time” by John Steele Gordon. An article that sees Springs as Prince Hal.
Textile workers and the Great Strike of 1934:
Southern Workers & Search for Community: Spartanburg County, South Carolina
The General Textile Strike of 1934: From Maine to Alabama
Testing the New Deal: The General Textile Strike of 1934 in the American South
A PBS documentary on the Strike.
Fabric of Defeat: The Politics of South Carolina Millhands, 1910-1948