Developed by the Jackson Fibre Company (a division of the Bemis Brothers Bag Company) beginning in 1900, the town of Bemis rose from the cotton fields of Madison County as a model company town created by the vision of Judson Moss Bemis (1833-1926) and his son, Albert Farwell Bemis (1870-1936). Though the elder Bemis was interested in building a model manufacturing community as early as 1865, it was his son Albert Bemis, following his graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) in 1893 with a degree in civil engineering, who created a model town, with the help of his college contemporaries and the resources of M.I.T.
Judson Moss Bemis founded his St. Louis company in 1865, producing cotton bagging and jute sacks for sale. By the 1890s the Bemis Brothers Bag Company had become one of the first American packing companies and one of the nation's earliest multinational corporations. Postwar southern industrialization encouraged the Bemis company to develop a new manufacturing plant in Tennessee. Bemis wanted a mill in the center of a major cotton growing region with its own gin so that the company could buy cotton directly from the farmer and avoid the costs of brokers' fees, ginning, compressing, and shipment. With the new mill located on the Illinois Central Railroad line, the Bemis company anticipated no additional costs beyond shipment of the final product. The strategy proved enormously successful; the company followed this initial experiment with the construction of another bagging mill in 1917 at Bemiston, Alabama.
Within a year a three-hundred-acre site in the open fields of Madison County was transformed into the town of Bemis. Along with the mill, sixty to seventy-five houses for mill workers rose to the north in an area called "Old Bemis." Unlike most company towns, Bemis intended for his site to become a corporate-sponsored experiment in town planning and the development of affordable housing for American workers.
The development pattern of Old Bemis gave the town the appearance of a community that had grown over time, rather than the indifferent sameness of mill villages throughout the nation. Bemis designed several "neighborhoods" around the industrial core, constructing a variety of house forms set on wide, tree-lined streets. The first neighborhoods, known as Old Bemis and Bicycle Hill, were built at the same time as the industrial facilities, in 1900 and 1903 respectively. An area of segregated housing for the town's small population of African American workers arose on Congo Street (now Butler Street) in 1903-5. As the company grew, other housing areas were added, each with site plans and house styles noticeably different from the original neighborhoods.
The basic house forms used in the earliest Bemis neighborhoods derived from familiar southern house types and included shotguns, double shotguns, cubical cottages, L-plan cottages, and hall-and-parlor cottages. The staff of Lockwood, Greene and Company, one of the South's oldest and largest industrial engineering firms, prepared at least one of these plans. The Bemis Company Engineering Department, headed by Albert Farwell Bemis, conducted the original site planning and was assisted by M.I.T. graduates employed directly by Bemis or as consultants.
The original building program included community facilities to support the town. Bemis had its own company farm, company stores, post office, hotel, boarding house, rail depot, schools, playgrounds, churches, auditorium, YMCA building, swimming pool, parks, bath house, and six-hole golf course. Unlike most company towns, the choice of residence remained with the employee and never became an obligation of employment. Regular jitney and train service provided adequate transportation to off-site residences.
The second major building program began in 1919 and lasted until 1921, producing the Silver Circle neighborhood and several prominent buildings. For this work, the Bemis Company hired the Housing Company of Boston, a town-planning and design firm created by Albert Farwell Bemis in 1918. In a notable change of procedure, a local architect, Reuben A. Heavner (b. 1875), designed the final residential area, West Bemis (called Ragtown), in 1926.
The Bemis Company's congenial relationship with its workers lasted more than a half-century; the Bemis mill closed only once for a brief strike in the 1950s. Diminishing profits resulted in the privatization of the town's housing stock in 1965, and houses sold on the basis of seniority to mill employees through a company-sponsored financing plan. In 1975 the City of Jackson annexed Bemis, which further hampered the profitability of the mills, eventually forcing their sale by the Bemis Company in 1980. The mills were operated by two other companies through the 1980s but closed in 1991. Bemis remains an identifiable town with a distinctive character, but is also nationally significant as an example of American welfare capitalism.