Fort Payne’s population at the beginning of the new century was approximately 1700, as compared with over 3500 in 1890. Most of its citizens realized that the city’s future prosperity would depend upon small industries and the surrounding agricultural area.
The industry for which Fort Payne became best known first came in 1907. It was that year, October 16 at 6:30 a.m. that the doors to the Florence Knitting Company opened for business. It housed 30 machines that knitted the socks. The building they began operations in once housed a Hardware Manufacturing Company in the late 1800’s during the discovery days of coal and iron ore in the hills and ridges of DeKalb County. It would later, and to this day, become known as the W.B. Davis Hosiery Mill, when March 15, 1915, Davis decided to increased his 10% share and be the major company stockholder.
The W.B. Davis and Son Hosiery Mill could probably be deemed the single most important manufacturing plant impacting the post 1890 boom economy of Fort Payne. It was the progenitor of an industry, which now makes Fort Payne the largest single location of hosiery manufacturing in America, and thus the title of “Sock Capital of the World”.
The mill was the largest industry in DeKalb County for many years, its payroll providing the principal cash flow for the area. Since boom days, DeKalb County had been dependent on agriculture, with cotton as the mainstay.
Davis acquired the old industrial building in 1915. Built in 1889 by the Alabama Builders’ Hardware Manufacturing Company it was intended to produce an extensive line of all grades of builders’ hardware. But the business failed to materialize before the boom era ended.
W.B. Davis was half owner of the United Hosiery Mills in Chattanooga during the first decade of the century. That mill was referred to as “Buster Brown Mill No. One,” after the trade name of its products. The Fort Payne mill began operation in 1913 under the name Buster Brown Mill No. Two, with Davis’ brother-in-law, James H. Witherspoon in charge. Davis later traded his stock in the Chattanooga mill for complete ownership of the one in Fort Payne. Coming to this city on January 1, 1915, he changed the name of the mill to the Davis name and began operating it with his son Robert E. Davis.
During World War II, the Davis mill played an important role in supplying socks for the military. Robert E. Davis perfected the cushion sole sock, and during the war produced and delivered over eight million pairs to the army alone.
During the peak of operation, W.B. Davis employed approximately 1,100 people. They were paid from $.10 to $.17 per hour in the early days. Although a dime an hour seems extremely low at this time, there were no other industrial jobs in Fort Payne and men working on farms were paid as little as 50 cents a day. Money was so scarce that employment at the mill was often considered a great opportunity.
Today the hosiery industry has countless machines operating in over 100 plants around the county.