A cotton mill in Nebraska? It really happened in the 1890s. The two-story mill opened in the spring of 1892, employing hundreds of workers—many of them women and children.
The Kearney Cotton Mill was established by the Cumnock brothers (A. G., John, J. W., George W., and Walter), cotton manufacturers from the East. Charles Jenkins, author of an article on the Kearney mill which appeared in Nebraska History magazine (September 1957), observed that they had been induced to build a cotton mill in Kearney by George W. Frank and H. D. Watson. Before the Cumnocks agreed to build the mill in Kearney, they required the community to grant several concessions on city taxation and water rates, grant them a twenty-acre factory site-and pay $250,000.
The citizens of Kearney satisfied the conditions, and construction was begun in 1890. Total floor space of the completed mill was 89,587 square feet. Total cost of the mill and the equipment was $400,000.
By September 22, 1892, the first shipment of cotton goods manufactured in Nebraska to be shipped out of the state left for Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri. The mill was soon consuming 50,000 bales of cotton per year with an annual output of white sheetings valued at $3,400,000.
However, the enthusiasm which had helped establish the mill soon evaporated. The drought year of 1893 and a national business depression caused many industries to collapse. Successive owners ran the mill at a loss until it was finally sold in 1901 to a Cincinnati bank which held a mortgage on the property.
The ultimate failure of the Kearney cotton mill was due not only to unfavorable agricultural and business conditions but to several other factors: (1) the distance from raw materials and coal (2) distance from markets for the finished product, and (3) the lack of dependable local labor. As author Jenkins observed, Nebraskans “preferred the freedom of the farm to the confinement of the mill.”
Below: detail of photo at top. History Nebraska RG2178-32