Fulton Cotton Mill: Past Meets Present
Driving along Boulevard in Southeast Atlanta, one cannot overlook the massive
structure known as the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts. Built in the 1880s, the Mill was once one of the Atlanta’s largest employers and an important landmark. The smokestacks, which still surge towards the sky like old-growth redwood trees, could be seen from miles around, pumping out a billowing smoke stream six days a week.
Today, I had the absolute pleasure of participating in the Historic Jewish Atlanta Tour—Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill, which was in partnership with the Breman Museum, The Patch Works Art & History Center, and with Phoenix Flies presented by the Atlanta Preservation Center. The Mill’s history is a complex arc that traces a rapidly evolving city, region, and Jewish community. Walking around the well-tended complex and buildings, it’s hard to imagine the difficult working conditions factory employees faced prior to labor and child labor laws. As the factory grew, Elsas built shotgun-style craftsmen bungalows for the workers in the surrounding neighborhood, known as “Milltown”—which lacked indoor plumbing, electricity, and paved roads—and today forms the backbone of the vibrant in-town neighborhood, Cabbagetown.
About 50 people showed up for the walking tour despite a blustery day with sleet-gray skies. Some of the participants had grown up in the traditionally Jewish neighborhood by the old Braves stadium. One person recounted how she used to ride the trolley up-and-down Atlanta Avenue. Back then, the trolley could not turn around, so it had two separate controls at either end depending on the direction they were traveling. She chuckled recalling how the conductor would let her and her friends ride for free as long as she helped turn the seats around at the last stop.
Jake Elsas, the great-great-grandson of the factory’s founder, also joined us for the tour, which was an incredible addition. Elsas and his wife live in a condo on-site and explained the complicated decision of moving back to the neighborhood. Although he initially worried that the descendants of the factory workers’ still living in the neighborhood might harbor hard feelings towards his family, these fears proved unfounded. Through his work at The Patch Works Art & History Center, Elsas has found common cause with them to “preserve, sustain, and maintain the historical identity, relevance, and integrity of Atlanta’s Cabbagetown,” according to its Facebook page.
I asked Jeremy Katz, the Breman Museum’s archives director, why today’s Jewish community should care about the Fulton Cotton Mill. He said: “The Elsas Family is the classic Jewish immigrant success story. They were early [benefactors] of the Jewish community, helping form the Hebrew Orphans Home as well as Georgia Tech. The Mill helped Atlanta become the capital of the New South, and, today, Elsas’ descendants have come back to live in and help revitalize the neighborhood” for a new generation. Four generations later, the Elsas family and the descendants of factory workers now band together to bolster their shared connection to the neighborhood and the deeply cherished memories passed down across three different centuries. History lives through them, and it urges us to reflect on the changes taking place today in the neighborhood and the Jewish community so that we can envision and work towards a sustainable and equitable future rooted in community empowerment. For me, the tour was an important reminder of how the past constantly influences the present, which we can harness towards informing our vision of Atlanta and the Jewish community that we strive to build.
I invite you to join the discussion and share your thoughts, feelings, and responses!