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Token of the Month #23 -
The Mills Avenue Store of Columbia, S.C.

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Each month there is a special South Carolina token or medal that is highlighted as the Token or Medal of the Month. This month we will showcase a rare cotton mill company store token from the capital city of South Carolina and a related tale of tragedy and woe.

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Over the years I have often heard certain hard-core token collectors say that they would "kill" to obtain a particularly sought-after token for their collections. I must admit that I have even been guilty of such hyperbole. In my experience, thankfully, such remarks have always been made in jest. The other day, however, I came across a story in a local history text which related the account of a man being killed in an argument over tokens.

The book, entitled Lintheads and written by Alvin W. Byars, is a compilation of tales and recollections of life in the Olympia cotton mill village in Columbia, SC. The story that caught my eye was dubbed "Hard Times Acomin'" and related the details of the demise of B.B. Armbruster, an overworked and underpaid operative at Olympia Mills.

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A postcard view of Olympia Mills (at left) and Granby Mills (at right), circa 1910.

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It seems that Armbruster often took advantage of the payroll advance system that was made available by the mill’s management. The system, the same as that utilized by many cotton mills across the Southeast, worked like this. If an employee ran out of money before regular payday and had already worked a certain amount of hours in the current pay period, he could request an advance against wages owed him. In some South Carolina mills, this request was termed "looneying out," a reference to the tokens which were tendered to the worker in the place of cash. The tokens were usually dispensed by the mill’s cashier or his underling and the amount was then deducted from the pay the employee would receive later on payday. The tokens, sometimes called "loonies", could only be spent at the company store.

Apparently after one particular payday, Armbruster had questions about the amount that had been deducted from his paycheck. He went to the mill office and confronted Adam Hopewell, the "check man" (another reference to tokens, which were also called "checks"), who was the mill employee in charge of disbursing the tokens. Armbruster told Hopewell that too many tokens had been deducted from his account and he expected rectification in the form of more money. Hopewell stood by his figures and the discussion deteriorated into a heated argument. Armbruster then stormed out of the office, remarking to Hopewell that "you or me will go to hell before dark."

Hopewell must have taken heed of the thinly-veiled threat, as later in the day he was prepared when confronted by Armbruster a second time. This final encounter occurred in the middle of Indigo Avenue, the broad thoroughfare that ran in front of both Olympia Mills and nearby Granby Mills. The two argued fiercely again and the dispute quickly escalated into a scuffle. Gunshots suddenly rang out, Armbruster staggered away from Hopewell’s grasp, fell onto the streetcar tracks, and died.

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Spinning Room, Olympia Mills, circa 1895. Children as young as 10 often worked alongside adults.

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Now, over a hundred years later, the Olympia Mill building sits vacant as a silent monument to Armbruster’s passing. Much has changed in the immediate area. The main mill buildings of both Olympia Mills and Granby Mills are awaiting renovation as condominiums. Indigo Avenue has been renamed Whaley Street, in honor of the founder of the mills. And the mill store building, once a vibrant part of the Olympia community, also awaits renovation.

A few mill store tokens remain so that collectors can be reminded of the hard lives of the mill operatives. Two different types exist that were utilized in the mill store at Olympia. Neither one mentions Olympia Mills, however. That’s because the mill store was never actually owned by the mill itself. The first company store was called the Mills Avenue Store and it was located right across the street from Olympia Mills at 701 Indigo Avenue. It operated between 1902 and 1905 and the principal owner was W.B. Lowrance, a prominent local businessman who was a member of the Board of Directors of Olympia Mills and also one of its chief stockholders. As far as tokens are concerned, there is only a single specimen known from this store at present. The 26mm aluminum token is pictured at the top of this webpage.

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A view of the newly constructed mill store building at 701 Indigo Avenue, circa 1902.

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In 1906, the store was sold. Its new principal owner, J.S. Moore, was also general manager of Granby Mills. The name of the store was changed to Granby Mercantile Company, but it operated in the same building as the Mills Avenue Store. Tokens are also known from Granby Mercantile Company. Fortunately for collectors, their tokens are not as rare as those of the previous establishment. Both 1˘ and 5˘ denominations are known. Specimens of the 1˘ denomination are scarce, but can be located if one is patient and diligent. Only a single example of the 5˘ denomination is presently known to collectors. One of the 19mm brass 1˘ tokens is shown below.

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Copyright 2005 by Tony Chibbaro.

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Sources

South Carolina Tokens by Tony Chibbaro, The Token and Medal Society, 1990.

Lintheads by Alvin W. Byars, Olympia-Pacific, Cayce, SC, 1983.

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If you collect or have a casual interest in South Carolina tokens or tokens issued by cotton mills, lumber companies, or other types of businesses, you may want to purchase my book, South Carolina Tokens and its three supplements. To read a description of these standard references, please click on this link: Books.

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A Short History of Token Use in South Carolina
South Carolina Trade Tokens for Sale - Page 1
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Email: chibbaro@mindspring.com