In the early days of the cotton mill, people came from all over not for the high-grade fabric being produced, but to catch a glimpse of something they’d never seen in action: electricity. The lights of the mill shining each night were symbolic of what the building would come to mean to the city of Starkville: a tiny dot on the map named Boardtown that was unaware of the journey it had just begun.
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Few things were as important to the cotton mill and to the city as the moment J.W. Sanders decided to buy Starkville’s mill and make it part of Sanders Industries. Under his guidance, the mill became one of the most successful of its kind across the country and was an economic driver in both the city and the state. The Sanders family proved to be among Mississippi’s most powerful and influential groups.
After over a decade of success, Sanders made the decision to expand the cotton mill and increase production to meet the booming demand for their signature “Starkville Chambray” thread. By the time expansion was complete, the mill was producing the Chambray at a rate of 1.5 million yards annually, one of the largest providers in the United States.
Following his father’s passing, then-G.M. Robert David Sanders took over Sanders Industries, beginning an even greater expansion in the work and influence of his family’s company. With the younger Sanders at the helm, the company began producing clothing and assorted items made from the Starkville Chambray, and it was his campaign “What Mississippi Makes, Makes Mississippi” that helped change perceptions of the growing industrial state.
When World War II hit the country, demand for fabric grew to an all-time high. By the time the war concluded, the cotton mill was producing 160,000 yards of fabric per week, running 24 hours a day on three eight-hour shifts. The mill had become the center of town with its own community of houses surrounding the area, complete with a church, hospital, school, weekly meat market and even a fire station run out of the tower seen today at the front of the building.
After 60 years of a mutually beneficial relationship between school and mill, Mississippi State University bought the recently-closed cotton mill and re-named it the Cooley Building, home to the school’s physical plant. For decades MSU had been a pipeline of trained workers for the mill, making it fitting for the university to save the building and keep it intact for its soon-to-be-realized future.
Over a century after the cotton mill first opened in Boardtown, The Mill re-opened in Starkville to once again take its place as the city’s economic hub, a center of commerce and community re-shaping the town and ushering it onward just like it did 100 years before. The cotton mill then and The Mill at MSU now both represent a gateway to the university and a bridge to the community.