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date: 24 February 2021

Cone, Moses Hermanfree

(29 June 1857–08 December 1908)
  • Dale L. Flesher

Cone, Moses Herman (29 June 1857–08 December 1908), textile entrepreneur, was born in Jonesboro, Tennessee, the son of Herman Kahn, a Jewish wholesale grocery merchant, and Helen Guggenheimer. Cone’s father was born in Bavaria, and his mother, though born in Virginia, was of German heritage. When Cone’s father moved to the United States, the family name was changed to Cone. Cone was the eldest of thirteen children and spent his formative years in Jonesboro, where his father owned a grocery store. The family moved in 1870 to Baltimore, Maryland, where Cone attended the public schools.

In 1870 Cone’s father founded a wholesale grocery supply business, which with the addition of the four oldest sons became H. Cone & Sons in 1878. The firm soon did a sizable business with several southern cotton mills. Moses and his brother Caesar were full partners by 1878 and spent the next twelve years traversing the South in search of sales. They rode trains to the extent possible, but much of their travel was on horseback. The cotton mills in the Carolinas served their employees with mill towns and company stores. It was the company store that was the customer of H. Cone & Sons. Because of the financial difficulties of their customers, the Cones were soon accepting baled textiles and yarn in payment for groceries. The experience gained from the wholesaling of these textile goods led the Cones to become commission sales agents for some of the textile companies. Moses realized that marketing by southern textile mills was limited because their products were not standardized, and they lacked an organized selling organization. He spent much of 1890 attempting to get several southern mills to form a selling organization that would make products more uniform. The result was the 1891 formation of the Cone Export & Commission Company in New York City. The main office was moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1893. About forty-seven mills in the Carolinas and Georgia eventually joined the organization; there were only about fifty mills in the South at that time. The Cones signed five-year contracts with the mills wherein the brothers had exclusive selling rights at a 5 percent commission.

In 1895 Cone and his brother Caesar began a denim mill, Proximity Manufacturing Company, the first of several such mills, on the outskirts of Greensboro. The company was named Proximity because of its close proximity to cotton fields and gins. The Cone mills were soon the world’s leading producer of denim, corduroy, and flannel. By the time of Cone’s death, his mills were producing one-third of the world’s denim. Greensboro was chosen as the site for the mills because of the city’s excellent infrastructure (including railroads going in six directions) and the availability of cheap land. The defunct North Carolina Steel and Iron Company had bought thousands of acres of land for a steel mill, but the nearby ore deposits proved unworthy of production. Initially, twenty-five acres were offered free to the Cones. The brothers subsequently bought 2,142 additional acres from the steel company, including land along the main line of the Southern Railway. The brothers bought additional mills throughout North Carolina, including the Ashville Cotton Mills, Salisbury Cotton Mills, and Minneola Manufacturing Company in Gibsonville.

Not only were the mills successful, but the Cones used a portion of their profits to make life better for employees living in the company towns. If anything, it was the attention to employee needs that led to Cone’s undying fame. Besides providing subsidized housing, as was characteristic of many mills, the Cones provided large lots for gardens, grape vines, and fruit trees and even free seeds each year. The company plowed the gardens each year and gave prizes for the most attractive yards and best gardens. Schools were also important to the Cones. Before the Proximity mill ever opened, Cone had surveyed the local school situation and found it lacking in both duration and quality. Whereas the local schools in Greensboro had little equipment and were open only four months a year, the school at the mill village was well equipped and open nine months a year. Cone personally urged all employees to send their children to the mill school and offered to buy shoes for any children whose parents could not afford them. To get the best teachers, Cone paid his teachers 50 percent more than did the public schools in Greensboro. The schools were also open at night for the benefit of employees who wanted an education.

In 1903 Cone and Caesar’s Greensboro mill, Proximity Manufacturing Company, became the first textile company to hire a social worker, a college graduate named Pearl Wyche, to live with mill families and teach them about sanitation and cooking. Wyche set up a model house in the company town from which employees’ families could draw ideas and instruction. Other mill towns soon followed by hiring social workers to teach nutrition, sewing, health, and civics to employees and their families. The Cones also threw huge Fourth of July parties for mill-town residents. At the 1906 party, more than 5,000 attendees ate 2,000 fried chickens, 700 pounds of mutton, 1,000 pounds of ham, 250 gallons of ice cream, and many cases of other foods. The mill band played, residents performed in a minstrel show, and Cone showed workers the latest technology by setting up his Victor talking machine. At the end of the party, employees showed their appreciation by giving each Cone brother a present. An early historian of the company, Carl J. Balliett, stated, “The Cone Mills are communities, not factories. Their success has been based upon a humanitarian policy, upon the development of character, skills and loyalty in the upbuilding of a great organization.” Still another author alluded to the fact that the Cones built their empire on goodwill that they earned along with their fortune, rather than on the backs of their employees and customers.

Cone married German-born Bertha M. Lindau of Baltimore in 1888. They had no children. In 1901 the couple acquired a 3,750-acre estate near Blowing Rock, North Carolina, where they grew an apple orchard. By the time of his death in Greensboro, the estate, which later became a state park located off of the Blue Ridge Parkway, had been expanded to 35,000 acres. Cone adopted the Blowing Rock schools and made contributions to what is now Appalachian State University and served on its board. An early death denied Cone the complete fulfillment of all of his ambitions, but his enterprises long stood as enduring monuments to a great name. One of these monuments is the Moses H. Cone Hospital in Greensboro, which was established under the will of Moses Cone. His obituary in the Charlotte Observer called him “a benefactor of the best type” (9 Dec. 1908).


Information about the Cone family’s early history and the establishment of the mills is available in Carl J. Balliett, World Leadership in Denims (1925); Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Jews in the Protestant Establishment (1982); and Cone: A Century of Excellence (1991). Information on the Cones’ mill towns is available in J. M. Fenster, “The Trouble with Company Towns,” Audacity 3, no. 3 (Spring 1995): 51–61.