It’s time for another stop Along the Great Wagon Road, WFAE’s series exploring the history of the Charlotte region with Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South. In this installment, the story of a car company in an unexpected place.
In 1881, the first cotton mill opened in Rock Hill, South Carolina—the first in the state to be powered by steam. Over the next 15 years, the town’s population would grow more than seven times over. By the early 20th Century, that mill would have an unusual neighbor: the Anderson Motor Company.
The vision for the Anderson Motor Company starts with a man named Adley Holler, who built many of the mills in the Rock Hill area, including the first. But, he had other interests, and he had the money to invest in them. In 1886, Holler went into the buggy business with his son-in-law, John Gary Anderson.
Anderson’s great grandson, Walter Hardin, says at the factory’s peak, The Rock Hill Buggy Company was churning out a buggy every 20 minutes.
“They would take the buggies, and they’d take the wheels off, and they’d band them down into a package, flip the seats over and put them onto rail cars, and when they were doing that, the paint was still sticky,” he says.
Anderson was a forward-looking man. He installed Rock Hill’s first telephone line—from the train station to his office, so he would know when supplies had come in. Tom Hanchett explains when a new mode of transportation started growing in popularity, Anderson shifted the buggy company’s focus.
“When cars began to be the new technology, they started their own automobile company in the 1910s. The automobile was an upscale competitor of the Model T," he says. "And the slogan of their car, if you look at the radiator really closely, it says, ‘a little bit higher in price, but made in Dixie.’”
That’s a little bit of an understatement: Andersons started at around $1,700, compared to $345 for a standard Model T Ford.
“The Model T was kind of the Walmart of automobiles; they just kept cutting the price and cutting the price and cutting the price. And if you wanted fancy and high-quality, the Model T was probably not the way to go,” Hanchett explains.
In the 1920s, Henry Ford's factory was producing a Model T every 10 seconds. Anderson, on the other hand, finished a car about every 15 minutes. There were as many as 250 people working at the plant. The Anderson workers used their experience hand-building buggies to make the cars very luxurious, explains JoAnne Zeise, history curator at the South Carolina state museum.
“They put in mahogany, and South Carolina hickory, and the finest leather you could have. They put all that experience in creating the Anderson car and the beautiful bodywork,” she says.
And the cars’ paint stood out from the Model T-black, says Winthrop professor Eddie Lee, who wrote a book about Anderson and his car company.
“You could get an Anderson car in any color…they were green, and they were purple, and they were white, and they were blue," Lee says.
Andersons were also the first cars to have power convertible tops and headlight dimmer switches in the floor panel. They featured a shiny hood ornament connected to the radiator that doubled as a thermometer visible to the driver. And they reached a top speed of 38 miles an hour.
But another new technology didn’t pay off for Anderson… the aluminum engine block.
Great grandson Walter Hardin explains,“They had an engine block that wasn’t really hard, and they put a cast iron head on it, and the rates of expansion were different. So the blocks began to crack, and they had a lot of engine trouble.”
Anderson recalled the aluminum engines, but the fallout from the trouble along with the car’s high price led Anderson to bankruptcy in 1926. Even without the aluminum engine problems, Tom Hanchett doubts that the Anderson Motor Company would’ve survived.
“Detroit had the background of machinists and material suppliers and the iron ore nearby and the big shipping and all of that stuff that no one else in the South had. So you’ve got Anderson points for trying to compete. But it was a tough row to hoe for anybody in the South, anybody in a small town, and ultimately Anderson didn’t make it,” Hanchett says.
The Anderson factory was absorbed into the cotton business, becoming part of a bleachery that processed the fabric produced at the mill.
In its 8 years in business, the Anderson Motor Company built more than 6 thousand cars. Only 12 are known to exist today.
One of them sits behind a glass barrier inside the entrance to the old mill, now a restored office building, just yards away from where it was produced more than 90 years ago.
CORRECTION 6.19.14: The original version of this story referred to Walter Hardin as the great-great grandson of John Gary Anderson. He is Anderson's great grandson and Adley Holler's great-great grandson.