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Richmond County History: Steele’s Mills

CORDOVA — One of the oldest facilities in Richmond County is still operating in Cordova, North Carolina.

It is currently von Drehle Corporation, but was originally built in 1898 by Robert L. Steele and was named “Steele’s Mills.” The facility took three years to build and was used to manufacture cotton yarns near Hitchcock Creek. Water power was used and produced by damming the creek. And by the 1930’s, a steam powerhouse was built to boost power.

The first addition was made to the facility in 1916, with more following in 1935, 1947, 1959, 1965, and again in 2005. However, in 1945 the facility was purchased by R.S. Dickson and Company, which was then leased to Burlington Industries. In 1957 the name was changed to Klopman Mills, but in 1984 it changed hands again, in which brothers Larry, Phillip, and Kent Hogan gained control of the facility.

It then became Laurel Hill Paper Company in which tissue paper was then produced from recycled paper. Passed along in 2007, the facility was then purchased by the von Drehle Corporation in which it continued to produce tissue paper along with toweling.

The village of Cordova which was built to accommodate the workers of Steele’s Mills, dates back to February 16, 1895. It is thought that the mill village and the post office were named Cordova for a province of Southern Spain or for the city of Cordova which is the capital of this province. The homes were owned by the facility and rented to employees for $1.50 to $1.75 per week.

Power was cut off to the homes during the day while the mill was operating.

And a company store provided a wide variety of items to accommodate the employees. The employees could make a purchase and have it deducted from their checks. James L. McKenzie Sr., “Jim” began managing the company store soon after World War I and kept the position until 1945.


When the company was sold to Burlington, he then purchased the store with his son, James W. McKenzie Jr. “Jim” as his partner. The store was then named J.W. McKenzie & Son. He operated the store for a total of 32 years. Virginia Cox, Ira B. Pitman’s daughter, served as bookkeeper for the company store for many years. Her father, Ira B. Pittman, was Overseer in carding at Steele’s Mills.

Robert Leak Steele Sr. was the first president of the corporation. Robert L. Steele Jr., his son, followed as second president. It is thought that W.B. Cole may have served next as president for a short period of time, with John W. Porter following. John W. Porter is the grandfather of Gene McLaurin, former mayor of Rockingham.

John Porter began working for Steele’s Mills as a bookkeeper in 1912 and began to purchase stock in the corporation. By 1926, he had enough stock to become elected president in which he held the position until 1945 when the mill was sold to Burlington.

Credits go to the Historical Society of Richmond County as well as Gene McLaurin for providing information.    

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