Barnett Canal historical marker

Barnett Canal (J-88)

Built near here by James Barnett in 1813. Later powered largest continuously operating textile complex in the northern piedmont.

Location: NC 770 (Boone Road) at Church Street in Eden
County: Rockingham
Original Date Cast: 1989

The area encompassed by the Spray historic district (today part of the town of Eden) is distinguished by both size and age. The district constituted the largest continuously operating textile mill complex in the northern Piedmont. The origins of the industry in the Spray area date to the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

The genesis of the industry in Spray lies with James Barnett and his construction in 1813 of a 4,600-foot canal leading to his five-story grist mill. That same year Barnett purchased a tract of almost 3,000 acres just east of Leaksville. It was upon Barnett’s tract that the canal and mill were built. Barnett, in his construction ventures, was the first to harness the power of the Smith River. A generation later John Motley Morehead became the first to tap the as yet unrealized potential of Barnett’s canal, spurring what amounted to an industrial revolution in Rockingham County and that area of the Piedmont. Though he lived in Guilford County, Morehead kept close ties with Rockingham. In 1839 Morehead, later to serve as governor, built a three-story cotton mill and several auxiliary buildings.

In time ownership of the bulk of Spray’s cotton mills passed to James Turner Morehead, the governor’s son. In 1893 control went to B. Frank Mebane, son-in-law of the younger Morehead. In 1893 the original mill burned, but this was only a temporary setback, proving to be the catalyst for a vigorous twelve-year expansion campaign yielding the bulk of Spray’s present mill complexes. Severe financial difficulties resulted in the sale in 1912 of five mills, employing over 1,300, to Marshall Field and Company (corporate ancestor of later Fieldcrest Mills management). Tangible reminders of the history behind the textile mill complex are a single building of Morehead’s dating to 1839 and Barnett’s canal from which all the subsequent development evolved.

National Register of Historic Places nomination, Spray Industrial Historic District (1986)—prepared by Claudia R. Brown
Lindley S. Butler, Rockingham County: A Brief History (1982)
James E. Gardner, Eden, Past and Present, 1880-1980 (1982)

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