The Iredell County Public Library will be hosting a special program on the “Long Island Mill Village” by Gerald Robinson of Troutman on Monday, Oct. 16, at 7 p.m. at the library in Statesville. Mr. Robinson is gathering information on Long Island for a future exhibit at the Catawba County Museum in Newton. During the program he will present a slide show of rare historical photographs of the area and lecture on the information he has gathered.
Avery M. Powell, a doctor, and John J. Shuford, an attorney, erected a cotton mill on the Catawba River around 1852 that would become known as the Long Island Cotton Mill. The mill was built on the western bank of the Catawba River on the Catawba County side about a mile above the East Monbo Cotton Mill on the Iredell County side. Today there is a Long Island Road on the Catawba County side and an East Monbo Road on the Iredell side. Both mills were operated by water power from the Catawba River. Once established villages around the mills developed as workers moved into mill houses and began forming communities.
At the heart of these villages was the mill itself where whole families of men, women, and children worked. Wages were low. In The Heritage of Catawba County, Vol. I, James G. Williams Jr., described how his grandmother was forced to move her six children to Long Island after the death of her husband. The mother and her older children could earn 10 cents each for 12 hours of work while the two children between eight and ten were paid 10 cents as one employee. They only received cash one week a month. The other three weeks they were paid in what was called a due bill which could only be used at the company store. Reading about this widow with five daughters and a son I could not help but think of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song “Sixteen Tons” with the line, “I owe my soul to the company store.”
Everything in a mill workers life centered on the mill and the mills owner. On June 14, 1888, The Western Sentinel out of Winston-Salem reported that James Brown of Merchantsville (Riverton), New Jersey had purchased the Long Island Cotton Mills. Brown had purchased the mill for $5,500 from Wilfred D. Turner and Columbus L. Turner of Statesville. James Brown was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, England about 1838. On Feb. 23, 1861 he married Alice Aspin, also of Lancashire. Two years later on July 27, 1863 the couple arrived at New York harbor after a ten-day voyage. In May of 1888, Brown moved with his five children to Catawba County after the death of his first wife. Long Island had a textile mill, cotton gin, telegraph office, and up on a hill sat the company store.
It was in that store that Superintendent James Brown on Thursday, September 27, 1894, lay in the dark on a pallet behind the counter. He had been sleeping there every night since Sunday. Someone had been robbing the store at night and Brown was determined to stop them. It was stormy outside and still dark when he heard someone enter the front door. Brown remained hidden in the dark with his pistol in his hand listening. Shortly after daylight Mr. Brown’s daughter Essie, who clerked at the store, arrived and found the front door unlocked. When she entered she saw her father lying dead on the floor in front of the counter with his head toward the door. Her father’s body was still warm. Beside him was his pistol with three rounds fired.
On Oct. 18, 1894, The Landmark newspaper reported that arrests in the murder had been made. James Brown’s son George H. Brown of Statesville had hired Detective William H. Deaver of the Pinion Detective Agency in Asheville to look into the crime. Deaver went to Long Island pretending to be an insurance investigator and learned from a worker named Elmore Burris that a man named Elam Josey had talked of robbing the store a week before the murder. Burris thought he had been joking. Deaver confronted Josey with Catawba Deputy W.W. Bridges and accused him of the murder. Josey denied the crime, but after being arrested he admitted to having robbed the store previously and named Tom Covington, son of the foreman at the mill, as being the killer.
On Feb. 3, 1896, Thomas F. Covington, confessed to the murder in front of witnesses including Catawba County Sheriff Theodore Lafayette Bandy. Covington began by saying, “I will say that I am the man who killed James Brown”. In his confession he described how he and Elam Josey had made a duplicate key which they used to alternately enter the store to steal. On the night of the murder he entered the store and was confronted by Brown. The two struggled with Covington saying, “He was trying as though he was going to shoot me and I jerked the pistol out of his hand and when I done that he got to hollering so it scared me, so I shot him through a scared passion. I did not do so willingly”. He shot him three times. After the third shot the Englishman from Lancashire said, “That will do,” and fell to the floor.
Thomas F. Covington was sentenced to hang while Elam Josey was sent to prison. On Feb.13, 1896, Catawba County Sheriff T.L. Bandy (1894-1898) placed a rope around Covington’s neck and led him from his cell to a gallows that had been built at the rear of the jail. An enclosure had been placed around the gallows to prevent spectators from gathering. The law at the time required a hanging be in private and witnessed by not less than 16 and not more than 36 people. Covington, who was 26, married, and had a seven-year-old daughter knelt to pray before a black cap was placed over his head. He died quickly from a broken neck. Long Island villagers at Olivet Baptist and Concord Methodist Church would not allow Covington to be buried in their graveyards so the family buried him on the farm of M.A. Abernethy not far from where he grew up.
Osborne Brown, who along with his brother George witnessed the execution, was working in Statesville at the time of his father’s murder. Afterward, he took over the Long Island Cotton Mill and operated it for 36 years before selling his interest to Superior Yarn Mills on April 3, 1929.
Joel Reese, Local History Librarian
Iredell County Public Library
This article was published in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Iredell library program to shed light on Catawba’s Long Island” on Oct. 13, 2017