The Birth of a Mill Town Kannapolis, NC

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Tony Crumbley

The Birth of a Mill Town,

Kannopolis, NC

In 1905 James W. Cannon decided to build a new factory and a mill town for its workers. To that end he purchased more than 1,000 acres of land in Cabarrus County and Rowan County, North Carolina. Mr. Cannon knew for his mill to  survive in rural farm country the workers needed housing, entertainment, health care, shopping opportunities and educational facilities. With all this in mind, not only did he begin construction of his textile mill but also the facilities needed to keep his employees happy.

By 1908, Cannon had built a plant and homes for the 840 workers he employed. In addition to housing, Cannon understood entertainment was an important part of keeping his employees working. The first YMCA was under construction by 1907, and by 1910, the facility was completed with additions already planned.

Y.M.C.A. Kannapolis, N.C.

Y.M.C.A., Cannon Mills, Kannapolis, N.C.

Y.M.C.A. Kannapolis, N.C.

A new YMCA building was opened in 1925. The building not only became a landmark, but it was also the home of the YMCA with the largest membership in the Southeast.  The 1925 structure burned in 1937, but the activities continued in a temporary facility until a new building was completed in 1940. The new facility included swimming pools, gyms, bowling, a library, and meeting space. 

Mary Ella Hall (named for J. W. Cannon’s wife) was among the several large homes built as boarding houses about 1918. This boarding house was built next to the first YMCA and served as temporary housing for female employees. There was space to accommodate 240 residents in its 120 double rooms. The amenities were unusual for that era. Included were sixteen parlors, a swimming pool, and exercise equipment. The basement included living quarters for service workers. In later years, single men and married couples were allowed.  The building was torn down in 1963.

J. W. Cannon High School

Education was important to the Cannons.  The early schools built by the Cannon family, including Central High School that was built in 1924, were constructed on six acres of donated land. It was renamed after J. W. Cannon, and later when a new school was built it became a junior high school.

Cabarrus County General Hospital

Communities of employees need to be healthy; at first the mill provided a company healthcare center and offices for doctors and dentists to practice.  Some of the larger homes were built for the local physicians.  By 1917, Cannon had full time nurses on staff. In 1937, funds for a new 55 bed hospital were made available and by the 1950s additions had increased the capacity to 300 beds.

Gem Theater

The first movie theatre in Kannapolis came in 1936, but it fell victim to a 1942 fire. As soon as building supplies were available after the war, the Gem Theater was built. Some considered it the finest movie theatre between Washington, DC, and Atlanta. The work was completed in 1948, and it is still in operation.  In its early years, it was common to have movie stars such as Roy Rogers attend the first showings.

Kannapolis War Memorial

In 1943, the mill created a memorial to all service men and women serving in the military and Red Cross. The structure was built as a replica of Mount Vernon and was placed in the park by the main headquarters and lake. There was room for 3,000 names on the wall.  A year later a porch was added, providing space for more names.  This memorial remained in the park until the late 1970s.

Today, many of the mill houses remain. Some of the schools have been refurbished and are in use. Some downtown buildings are still there, but the mill is gone.

Like many American cities, all that is left of their history are a few postcards.

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This is hardly the type of place that comes to mind with the term “mill town”. James Cannon must have been a very enlightened man. Another example of learning through postcards. Thank you Tony Crumbley.

My pleasure. It is not what it once was. as a child growing up we did not know we were poor only as adults did we know that we had not had many of the things others had.

Kannapolis, NC

Since the film “Charge of the Light Brigade” was released in 1936, it must be the case that either the original theatre was also called the Gem, or that the picture was re-released for the new movie house’s opening.

Sharp Eyes: “Secret Valley” was released in January 1937 and also a Western. I found this, which may be helpful:
Grand Opening: December 31, 1936
The Gem opened under the management of the Cannon Memorial YMCA The Gem was built by Cannon Mills Company on West First Street to replace the YMCA theatre, which had burned in 1936.

Interesting… Most of what I had heard about Kannapolis was its’ history in bootlegging and that is was the home of many NASCAR teams.

Yes there were liquor houses and Dale Earnhardt was from there. His family was involved with one Liquor house I remember. Most of the Racing teams aee located morth of there in Moorsville.

Great story. Would that more companies today would take such care of their employees and communities! We do have some notable philanthropists now but, wow, this gentleman was amazing!

Another interesting article on Kannapolis, Tony. The first YMCA was quite a fancy place!

Cannon Mills_ Hi Mr. Crumbley, It would be an honor for you to join the FB NC/SC Historic Textile Mill Villages. I am one of the founders and and admins of the group. On behalf of everyone, we’d love to learn more from you!

P.s. I shared your article in the group. 🙂

Kannapolis photographs are accurate showing Gem theater plus War Memorial- note these photos are of Murdock Research Institute- Dave Murdock, billionaire tore down nearly every historic building in Kannapolis.Mill houses were to be for employees of Cannon Mills but my family having connections my parents moved from California to Kannapolis given a Mill house on N. Ridge Ave. My parents never worked for Cannon Mills, but Cannon Mills provided electricity, water, house for $8.00 a month. My Pop, Dominick from New York City, NY never liked being in the South. Medical services at Cannon Mills only provided if your Supervisor… Read more »

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