House of Robert Bloomfield, President of Athens Manufacturing
For thirty five years, Robert L. Bloomfield was the agent and controlling stockholder of the Athens Manufacturing Co., Athens’ oldest textile company. Opened in 1833, and running with enslaved black and free white labor, the Athens Cotton and Wool Factory (also known as Athens Manufacturing or the Athens Factory), was the first textile mill in Athens proper. It operated for 115 years, making it Athen's longest running mill too. It also had lots of bad luck. It burned twice and flooded once in the first half of the nineteenth century, at a time when you couldn't buy insurance for buildings. Rebuilt out of brick after the 1857 fire, the mill building is now part of the University of Georgia School of Social Work complex. Robert Bloomfield wasn't there at the building's start but he was arguably its most important manager. Arriving in Athens from New Jersey in 1849, Bloomfield sold ready-made clothes. In 1863, he bought out one of the mill’s investors and became its agent. Under his direction, Athens Manufacturing expanded, helping to make Georgia the third most important producer of cotton cloth in the nation after Massachusetts and New Hampshire. As a transplanted northerner, Bloomfield was not permitted to serve in the Confederacy, but the mill sold cloth to the Confederacy, flannel for underwear, wool fabric for uniforms, and cotton "duck" for tents. Business boomed. In 1870, five years after the war ended, Athens Manufacturing purchased the Cook & Brother Confederate Armory and turned it into a second textile mill. Having made a name for himself as a businessman, Bloomfield got involved in developing Athens itself. That didn't go so well. Bloomfield used company funds to finance a city electrification scheme, which drove the company into receivership in the 1890s. In 1897 Bloomfield retired. Bloomfield’s house can be seen here at 365 Church Street. West of Church Street and east of Milledge Avenue, one can also find Bloomfield Street, named after the man himself.
Backstory and Context
Robert L. Bloomfield was heavily influential in Athens, but his influence hinged on the economic prowess of the textile manufacturing industry. Textile manufacturing was a big industry in the antebellum American South, but that was not the case when Athens Manufacturing was originally constructed. Before the Embargo Act of 1807, it was not at all a viable industry. Cheap imported textiles were very prevalent, making local production of textiles very inefficient. After the Embargo Act, the War of 1812, and the 1828 “Tariff of Abominations,” American manufacturing grew, even overtaking the cottage manufacturing operations that many southerners initially preferred.
Athens Manufacturing was among these operations. Launched in 1833 by a collection of Athens citizens, its intent was expressly stated to be textile manufacturing. Robert Bloomfield would arrive in Athens in 1849, and within less than twenty years he would be effectively running Athens Manufacturing. Robert Bloomfield was already involved in the business of selling clothing, but as he steadily amassed tracts of land and capital in Athens, his power and wealth increased. As the outbreak of the American Civil War loomed, Bloomfield moved his entire stock of clothing into Atlanta and continued business in the South during wartime. In 1864, he purchased a controlling stock in Athens Manufacturing and became chief agent. He continued to operate as president of the company for thirty three more years. In 1897 (at age 72), he declined to run again for president of Athens Manufacturing, having run the company into debt with an electrification scheme bankrolled by company money. Ashbury H. Hodgson took his position. Ultimately, Athens Manufacturing would continue to operate until the late 1940s.
Although Athens Manufacturing would fall into receivership under his watch, Bloomfield's maintained his reputation as one of Athens' leading citizens. An article in the Atlanta Constitution appropriately called him “a citizen who [had] done his full duty in building up the material interests of Athens.” Not only was he a pioneer in the textile business, but at several points, Bloomfield showed himself to be a dedicated member of the Athens community. He owned a successful pottery, which made sewer pipes among other things, in addition to the textile mill, and he bankrolled the construction of St. Mary's Church so his employees would have a place to worship (R.E.M.'s first performance was in the church in 1980). Bloomfield expanded Athens Manufacturing to the Confederate Armory building (now UGA Surplus) in 1870, helping Athens restart its economy the wake of the Civil War, and Bloomfield's extensive land purchases allowed him to lay the foundations for some of the more successful new neighborhoods in the area. For example, in the 1880s, he was responsible for setting up a popular suburb (named after him) east of Milledge Avenue. Today, Bloomfield Street still stands as a testament to the role of Robert L. Bloomfield in the economic development of post-Civil War Athens.
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