This mill is deeply embedded in Athens’ history, having been part of the city’s once-dominant cotton production empire throughout most of its life. Founded as the Southern Manufacturing Company, it was built c. 1900 by some of the city’s most prominent businessmen and entrepreneurs — owners and officers in the Athens Railway and Electric Company.
It remained an active manufacturing facility through several owners, including the Wilkins family (see below), who in 1953 made it the first business in Athens to integrate African-American women into the industrial workforce. The current owners, Aderhold Properties, Inc, purchased the property in 2000 and subsequently listed it for sale in 2010, after determining that the economic downturn had undermined their plans for adaptive reuse into residential units.
The mill site is largely intact without alteration from its early appearance and configuration, but it has stood vacant for over a decade. There are no intrusions on the site and the complex exists today, as it did 100 years ago, adjacent to an active railway line and the historic Boulevard neighborhood that shares its history with this significant industrial property.
The Wilkins family was the longest and most recent user of the property. Wilkins Inc. bought the property in 1953, and the buildings were in a deteriorated state. John J. Wilkins III, whose father died in 1954, took over the company when he was still in college. Over the next 10 years, Wilkins rehabilitated the buildings.
Soon after purchase, Mill #3 was stabilized and converted to a sewing plant for Big Ace Manufacturing which made overalls, slacks and blue jeans. Next, the Administration Building was reroofed and initially used to store dog food for Jim Dandy Dog Food, before being converted to office space. Wilkins Inc. dissolved in 1956 and the property became part of the family estate.
In 1963 Wilkins renovated Mill #1 to house the Bellgrade Manufacturing Co., which made blue jeans and slacks. Mill #4 has been the least utilized and has primarily been used for storage for various enterprises. In 1969 Wilkins merged Bellgrade and Ace to form Wilkins Industries. John J. Wilkins III died in 2008. His obituary, appearing in The New York Time, stated in part “Wilkins Industries, established in 1969, became one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of women’s jeanswear with offices in New York, London, and Athens, Georgia. The company was the first business in Athens to integrate African American women into the industrial workforce.”
(1st building on left as you enter the site from the east end)
This building was originally built as 3 warehouses, numbered A to C from east to west. In 1908 A-B were 1-story and C was 2-story. By 1913, the entire building was 2 stories. The westernmost warehouse has concrete floors on the ground floor and wood on upper floors. The structural system is wood post-and-beam with masonry, load-bearing walls. The other two warehouses are red brick with a steel scissors truss system. A shed runs along the south side of this building next to the railroad tracks; it was built as a platform but was enclosed by 1913.
(2nd building on left past Mill 4)
A 2-story, red brick building, the 2nd floor housed offices and the lower level is a partial, unfinished basement. Construction is wood post-and-beam with masonry, load-bearing walls. The north elevation has a non-historic entrance and exterior stairs. Many of the window openings have been bricked in. A covered cat walk connects this building to Mill #1.
Mill #1 – Bellgrade Manufacturing Company
(3rd building on left, connected to Administration)
This building has 3 levels. Construction is wood post-and-beam with masonry, load-bearing walls. Floors are concrete on the ground floor and wood on upper floors. A wooden staircase, centrally located on south side, connects all floors. With few exceptions, interior spaces are open and were used for production. The sewing room was on the top floor. The middle and bottom floors were called the “Athens Ovens.”
Mill #3 – Ace Manufacturing Company
(only building located to the right)
This 2-story building consists of 3 rectangles, connected at the shorter ends. Construction is wood post-and-beam with masonry, load-bearing walls. With few exceptions, interior spaces are open and were used for production. Floors are concrete or earth on the ground floor and wood on the upper floor.