Notes on S. B. Tanner
From The Making of a Southern Industrialist: A Biographical Study of Simpson Bobo Tanner
By Gerald W. Johnson, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, N. C. 1952
Tanner and his fellow-manufacturers, by popular consent, were called textile barons, and the title was appropriate, for, like the barons of feudal times, they not only owned, they ruled.
Among them were some who are to be classed with those holders of castles along the Rhine in the Middle Ages; they were robber barons, and their sensational exploits have attracted greater attention than the more important work of quieter men. But they were not typical. The baron who made history was a man who brought order out of chaos, who in return for service sheltered and protected his people, who built great works, established the reign of laws, and laid the foundations for a finer civilization than he could create.
Those nineteenth-century cotton mill men qualified. Barons they were in fact, if not in heraldry, and their lives and work were so important a part of the history of the South that the region cannot be understood unless they are taken into account. S. B. Tanner has been studied here as representative of the type. That is why there is so little of his personal history in these pages. His strictly individual wars and loves and tastes and desires might be interesting to a psychologist, and might be entertaining to a romantic, but they mean nothing to the world now that he has been dead for a quarter of a century. His work, on the contrary, does. The industry he helped create has profoundly modified North Carolina, not merely in its economy, but in all its ways of thinking and acting and living.
One reason for this is the fact that he was a constructor of men as well as of mills. Tanner had no faith whatever in industrial democracy, but he had great faith in industrial justice. Under no circumstances would he sell an employe stock in his enterprises. He had no objection to paying high salaries to exceptionally valuable men, but there was no taking them into partnership At the same time, he thought it both wrong and foolish to try to hold a good man down. Time after time he encouraged his best men to go into business on their own account, even when their business would compete with his. He went further. Again and again he put up his own money to help get them started, buying stock in their new companies and sometimes serving as a director.
In the long run he lost nothing by this. Now and then death, or some other catastrophe, intervened and caused him to lose an investment, but he was never known to back a fool. Most of the men he helped get started made good in a big way and Tanner’s venture paid off handsomely. But what is more to the purpose of this study, this custom spread his influence far beyond the borders of his own property. Men whom Tanner had trained and helped were strewn throughout the textile industry and helped put his impress upon corporations in which he never owned a share of stock.
This is not to be construed as an assertion that he was invariably successful in human relations. He and one of his original partners, R. R. Haynes, who had owned the site of the first mill, quarreled, and there grew up in Rutherford County a legend of a blood-feud fit to make the quarrel of the Montagues and the Capulets look like a polite difference of opinion. This was more folklore than fact. Tanner and Haynes did disagree, and there is some evidence that each made pious and persistent efforts to skin the other in business deals. But the notion that each thirsted for the other’s heart’s blood is sheer melodrama. The truth seems to be that Haynes was simply too tough a nut for Tanner to crack. However, the incident does show that the man was not capable of getting along with everybody. S. B. Tanner was thoroughly human, with plenty of human failings. (p. 73-75)