James W. Cannon (1852-1921)

Written By North Carolina History Project

Born in Mecklenburg County in 1852, James W. Cannon revolutionized the cloth industry and towel manufacturing.  His entrepreneurial adventure produced the largest towel manufacturer in the world (Cannon Mills) and, according to one historical account, “the largest unincorporated town in the world.”

As a child, Cannon worked on the family farm until the last year of the American Civil War.  That year he turned thirteen and started a full-time job at a Charlotte general store.  Two years later, the sixteen-year-old started working at Cannon, Fetzer, and Wadsworth (his brother’s firm), and at twenty-one, the young Cannon became a partner.  While working at the firm, Cannon believed that the south acted as a quasi-colony and served northern interests.  He set out to change this and make a personal profit.

In 1887, he borrowed money from northern banks, consulted northern industrialists, and started Cannon Manufacturing Company.  A year later the plant manufactured cloth.  Although the plant was small, Cannon’s products were desired; they created a unique cloth that made cleaning easier.   During the mid-1890s, Cannon realized that only the upper classes purchased towels, for others could not afford it.   So in 1898, Cannon and his company, according to textilehistory.org, “produced the first towel finished in the South.”

In time, Cannon Manufacturing Company specialized in towel production and the town of Kannapolis was established in 1906.  The mill town had every community service.  According to historian Brent Glass, the town included churches, schools, parks, and the largest YMCA in the South.  In a year, the mills workers produced approximately 300,000 towels.  As a result of Cannon’s good marketing and his preferred product, Cannon Manufacturing Company established plants across the Southeast.   

In 1921, James W. Cannon died, and his son, Charles, continued the operation.