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Pelzer Heritage Commission Members, 2015
Front: Ola Jane Hooper, Kelly Arthur, Tina Mackey, Linda Lozano
Back: Larry Coker, Dianne Lollis, Gilbert Garrett, John Kelly
Not pictured: Shirley Pace, Pat Kelly, Margaret Jamison

In the spring of 2010, a small group of current and former residents of Pelzer, SC came together to form the Pelzer Heritage Commission. The goals of the Commission are to:

Our desire is to provide a platform through which current and former Pelzer residents can gather and share memories of earlier times in this wonderful village with others who visit or live in Pelzer, to honor the history of those men and women who shaped our lives, and to preserve those memories for the generations that follow.

In 2013, Pelzer Heritage Commission assumed ownership of the Pelzer Mill properties. Our goal for that property is to develop the land to make Pelzer once more a vibrant place to work, live and play. We continue to work toward leaving a thriving Pelzer when our time has passed and rekindle the pride and vitality in our quest to preserve and promote Pelzer history.

The history of Pelzer

Even though Pelzer is a small town, it contributed heavily to the history and heritage of South Carolina and the United States. Much of that history has been forgotten.

Pelzer originated where John Wilson, Sr. moved into the area along the Saluda River near a shoal not long after the Revolutionary War. In 1790 he petitioned the State legislature for the right to operate a ferry crossing below the shoals. It was granted and he operated the ferry until his death in 1822.

When John Wilson, Sr. died, his sons John Wilson, Jr. and Hugh Wilson inherited the property and continued to operate the ferry and maintain the plantation. John Wilson, Jr. was elected to the U. S. House of Representatives and served three terms. He died suddenly in 1828 and was buried in the family cemetery in the Monkey Park near the Community Building.

After the War and reconstruction, Charleston businessmen became interested in cotton manufacturing. Francis J. Pelzer was on the board of directors of several successful mills including Piedmont and Graniteville. In the late 1870s and early 1880 he began to purchase land near Wilson's Ferry and the ??? railroad including the shoals.

In December 1880, he along with E. A. Smyth, William Lebby, and William Smith, petitioned the State Legislature for the charter of a cotton mill. It was granted in January 1881. In early February, the men met in Charleston to formally form the company and it was named the Pelzer Cotton Manufacturing Company.

In 1880, the Pelzer Manufacturing Company was organized by Francis J. Pelzer, William Lebby and Ellison Smyth, William B. Smith, and David Lopez, all of Charleston. Ellison Smyth was elected president and treasurer and he moved to the Wilson's Shoals area along with Grange Coffin and began to build what would become the Town of Pelzer.

The upper dam and Mill No. 1 were begun in 1881 and began operation in 1883, after a pause for expansion with a total of 10,000 spindles. Another addition to Mill 1 was completed in 1886. Mill No. 2 was added in 1887 and Mill No. 3 in 1890 for a total of 52,000 spindles. These three plants were known as the Lower Plant. Mill No. 4 with 55,000 spindles was built in 1895 and was known as the Upper Plant. Pelzer goods were known world wide and exported to China, Africa, Australia, Arabia, and other regions of the Far East.

The Lower Dam, three miles down the river from the Mill 1 location, was built along with Mill No. 4 in 1895. The stone for both dams was dug from a quarry owned by the Pelzer Manufacturing Company. Bricks used in building the mills and other buildings were made on the Greenville side of the river.

Over the years, Pelzer residents enjoyed the following facilities, a park with an outdoor swimming pool, a pavilion, skating rink, and a zoo which had a menagerie and an aviary. Animals included two species of deer, badgers, monkeys, and a family of brown bears. Cubs were born in 1919 and 1920.

People came from miles around to the Fourth of July festivities in Pelzer where they enjoyed horse racing, auto racing, motorcycle races, boxing, baseball and other activities. Also, the town included the best schools, YWCA, a library, a bowling alley, and other places of entertainment. An auditorium at the school hosted plays, and other musicals. Later it would become a part-time movie theater.

Pelzer Mills were sold to Lockwood and Green for $9 million in 1923. In 1936, the Mills were bought by the Kendall Company. In 1952, the Town of Pelzer was incorporated and in 1953 Kendall sold to employees all the houses except those for mill supervisors. Only four streets were part of the Town limits. One August 16, 1972, Kendall became part of the Colgate-Palmolive Company through a merger of the companies. Kendall became a subsidiary of the Colgate-Palmolive Company.

There are a number of firsts associated with the Town of Pelzer:

  1. Mill No. 4 was the largest mill under one roof in the United States at the time of its completion.
  2. Mill No. 4 was also a pioneer of electrical capabilities, housing:
    • the first electric drives used in a cotton mill
    • the first 1,000 Draper automatic looms
    • the first incandascent lighting system installed in a cotton mill
    • the first, second, third, and fourth warp tying machines sold
    • the first fully electrified cotton mill in the South
    • the first plant in the country to use electric power generated at a distance especially for the purpose of operating a mill
  3. In 1902, Pelzer was the only place in South Carolina with compulsory education.
  4. In 1899, the first kindergarten in Anderson County was started in Pelzer. Pelzer schools were in session for ten months of the year instead of three or four months as in most other places in the state.
  5. From 1885 to 1895, Pelzer's population grew from 20 people in three log houses to 4,000 people in 700 dwellings in 1895. At one time, the population was over 8,000.

The Mills began to struggle after World War II but persevered even under the increasing threat of foreign products. As sections of the mills eventually closed, the employees braced for more hardships. The last part of the mills finally closed in 2002. In 2003, the property was sold to Greenlight Enterprises, LLC, the mills were torn down, and the property was left to crumble. In 2013, the Pelzer Heritage Commission took possession of the donated land and continues to work to see the land developed for the future of the town.