Industrial operations in the antebellum South tended to be small affairs that primarily served local markets. In the 1850s, however, the state’s largest and most profitable textile manufacturer, Mississippi Manufacturing Company, had become a significant exception. Five businessmen from Columbus, Georgia, led by James M. Wesson, asked for and received a charter from the Mississippi legislature to build a textile mill on a tributary of the Big Black River in Choctaw County in 1848. They built the first buildings at Drane’s Mill, the site of what had been a water mill. The Mississippi Manufacturing Company began with a sawmill and machine shop, then quickly added a textile mill, a gristmill, a flour mill, and a wool-carding machine. It used Mississippi cotton to produce cotton cloth and clothing, encouraged Mississippi planters to grow wheat for processing into flour, and used Mississippi timber in its sawmill. By the 1850s the company had begun importing wool from New Orleans to make clothing and marketing some of its products to distributors rather than relying solely on local planters and farmers.
Wesson ran Mississippi Manufacturing as a company town, and that town soon developed into Bankston. Wesson brought in preachers, helped build churches, and outlawed alcohol. Most of the workers in the cotton and woolen mills were white men and women, while a few slaves worked the steam engine. Wesson wrote late in the 1850s, “178 Souls are fed by labour for us in and about the Mills. All of whom have the benefit of weekly preaching, as well as sabboth [sic] school instruction, so that while the children are brought up to industrious sobriety, and taught the doctrine of economy of time, as well as money, they are instructed in letters and elevated in morals.”
During the Civil War, the Mississippi Manufacturing Company made uniforms for Confederate troops from the state and took on the job of making shoes. Union troops burned down the company’s building in January 1865.
- John Hebron Moore, The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest: Mississippi, 1770–1860 (1988)