It was in the early 1700s that the first settlers arrived in the Cape Fear Region of what is now Cumberland County. A land office for the region opened in 1724 when there were already settlements beginning along the Cape Fear River and its creeks.
In 1761 a committee appointed by the Governor’s Council determined that the area at the mouth of Rockfish Creek was not a fit place for erecting a town, as the landing was very steep, the back roads unfit, and a very expensive bridge would be necessary. However early land grants show that settlers, who were mainly Highlanders from Scotland, had begun living along the roads built in the area, most of them upon or close to rivers and waterways, the Little Rockfish Creek being one of them. By the mid-to-late 1700s a large saw mill had been built along the Little Rockfish Creek. There is evidence that gristmills, sawmills, lumber camps and pottery ovens existed along the banks of the creek.
The 18th Century was a period of booming trade in the Colonies. 1787 was a landmark year for the nation when the national constitution was written by some forty Americans who met in the Philadelphia Statehouse. By 1789 the country had established itself as an independent nation and had its first President.
That same year, 1789, the first permanent settlement was organized on Little Rockfish Creek. By 1830, the cotton industry had begun developing in the South. In 1839 the first cotton factory on Little Rockfish Creek – Rockfish Factory - was completed. The mill was constructed in approximately the same place an old saw mill and gristmill had been located, next to a dam on Little Rockfish Creek. By the mid-1840s this factory was the largest cotton mill in North Carolina in terms of capital investment and the value of production.
In 1841 a mill was constructed on Beaver Creek, about one and a half miles northwest of Rockfish. This mill was known as the Bluff Mill as it was located at a bluff near the intersection of what is now Camden and Hope Mills Road.
As the textile industry flourished, so did the Rockfish Factory village, with a company store and rows of houses built for the families of those who worked in the cotton mills. With the advent of the Civil War, General William T. Sherman’s troops burned eight cotton mills in Cumberland County, including the Rockfish Factory, in March 1865. In their haste to depart from an approaching calvary, the Bluff Mill was spared. However many dwellings as well as bridges, were destroyed throughout the county.
By 1868 the Bluff mill was back in operation. However, the Rockfish Factory property, including the Rockfish village property owned by the mill, was sold in 1871 to a private investor. A year later, the property was sold back to a newly-incorporated Rockfish Manufacturing Company. After much rebuilding, renovation and replacement of machinery, the mill was re-opened in 1872, and became known as the Hope Mill. In 1885 the name of the settlement on Rockfish Creek was officially changed to Hope Mills.
In 1888 a second mill was constructed by the Hope Mills Manufacturing Company, on Big Rockfish Creek. The mills became known as Hope Mills Number One (on Little Rockfish Creek) and Hope Mills Number Two .
By 1890 the village of Hope Mills was the second-largest community in Cumberland County. In 1891 the community itself was incorporated as a town, known as Hope Mills Number One. Mr. S. H. “Sim” Cotton, superintendent of the mills, was its first Mayor.
By this time, the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley Railway running from Wilmington, North Carolina to Bennettsville, South Carolina, ran through Hope Mills. This railroad was later purchased by the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The proximity of rail service greatly enhanced the growth of the mill industry in the area. The Railroad Depot, which was located at the juncture of the railroad and Trade Street, has since burned and is no longer in existence.
As the mill industry flourished, the mills expanded. In 1899 the Bluff Mill became part of the Hope Mills Manufacturing Company, and was designated as Mill Number Three. In 1904 Mill Number Four was constructed in the town near the railroad tracks. There was also a mill at Cumberland, and later Elk Mill on Legion Road. Today, none of these textile mills are in operation. They either have been destroyed or converted to other uses.
The textile industry is a large part of our past history. Without this heritage, however, there may not have been a Town called Hope Mills.
(Summarized by Pat Hall, Chair of the Historic Advisory Committee, from Hope Mills Heritage by Eddie Dees, various church histories, and newspaper articles.)