Origin of the Mills
Although South Bend citizens remembers the Stephenson Underwear Mills as men’s and women’s underwear makers, the company started as a wool mill. In 1855, Alexander C. “A.C.” Staley and Jeremiah Sowry started milling wool -- converting raw wool from sheep into finished textiles -- in an attempt to open trade for farmers in nearby Plymouth, Indiana. Going solo, Staley grew his prospects by relocating to South Bend’s East Race waterway in 1863. The business was an early adopter of water-powered machinery. Staley wasn’t alone in the local wool milling business. His competitors included Mishawaka Woolen Manufacturing Company, dating to 1838, and South Bend Woolen Company, established in 1869.
The Staley mills turned into a family business when Staley’s three sons joined him as partners in 1881. During this time, the three-story facility solely made yarn. Focus did not shift to underwear production until 1888, the same year the first of the Stephenson brothers, Clinton B., joined the company. A change in leadership occurred a year later, when A.C. Staley passed away and his son Marion B. Staley inherited the company.
Forming South Bend’s Memory
The Stephenson Underwear Mills officially came to be when the four Stephenson brothers bought out Staley in 1907. They continued to build on their riverside site and in 1916 broke ground on Building Number 6. Designed by the Chicago engineers Lockwood, Greene & Company, it used reinforced concrete and maple floors. This building connected to the rest of the plant via a bridge, forming a nine-building complex.
The company once again transformed in the 1920s as Stephenson increased their marketing efforts. No longer worried about expanding their production capacity, instead they focused on advertising their products for wholesale. They successfully provided long underwear called “Union Suits” and other undergarments throughout the United States and fulfilled military contracts in WWI. However, the company’s finances were not strong when the Great Depression hit. Heavily indebted, the second generation of Stephensons, Albert and George, abandoned the mill for other employment opportunities. Stephenson Underwear Mills became another business that could not make it out of the Great Depression.
Building No. 6
The Alexander Company gave Building Number 6, the only remaining Stephenson Mills structure, a second life in 1994. It was repurposed into 39 apartments known as the Stephenson Mills Apartments. Many original features, like exposed concrete, brick walls, and wood plank ceilings were reincorporated in the remodel. Additionally, it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on September 28, 1995. This residential transformation paved the way for more of South Bend’s factory buildings to serve new purposes.