In 1852 Gillen, Webb, and Company established Sylvan Mills on the Duck River outside of Shelbyville as a woven cotton fabric mill. It produced fabric from raw cotton throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During the early 1920s, the mill changed ownership and became known as Shelbyville Mills. It produced cotton fabric to make tops for the Model T and other automobiles as well as cotton cord to make rubber tires stronger and more durable.
The quality of the materials produced at Shelbyville Mills caught the attention of the United States Rubber Company, and in December 1933 Shelbyville Mills became a branch of United States Rubber Company’s Textile Division. The purchase and expansion of the Shelbyville Mills brought new jobs to Bedford County, which had been hard-hit by the Great Depression. For many new employees, the mill provided the first paychecks in years. Shelbyville Mills also built a company town, complete with a fully stocked store, a neighborhood school that included one of the first gymnasiums in the county, and homes for many employees.
Shelbyville Mills became an integral part of the defense manufacturing efforts of World War II, producing materials for military tires. In the postwar economic boom, the mills made additions to the facility and produced new types of cord. In 1955 Shelbyville Mills began producing synthetic cords. A totally new technique, the “hot stretch” process for producing synthetic cords, was added in 1963.
Market and process changes in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in the decline of the Shelbyville Mills. The U.S. Rubber Company consolidated all phases of work and changed its name to Uniroyal. In the process Shelbyville Mills lost its unique identity. Finally, in 1982, Shelbyville’s Uniroyal plant closed when it became clear that economic and technological changes made the plant unprofitable.