The Cone family history begins in 1845 when Herman Kahn (1828–1897), a Jewish-German immigrant, and his sister’s family left their home in Bavaria, Germany for a new life in the United States. Herman changed the spelling of his last name from Kahn to "Cone" almost immediately upon arrival in the United States to become more American.
Herman Cone and his brother-in-law Jacob Adler started a dry goods business in the German-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch town of Jonesboro, Tennessee. Cone & Adler sold the usual items like groceries, hats, boots, and shoes. An exception to this was that they also sold ready-to-wear clothing, unusual in the antebellum South where most clothing was made at home.
Herman met Helen Guggenheimer (1838–1898) in one of his business traveling trips to Lynchburg, Virginia in the early part of the 1850s. She was also from Germany and was of the Jewish faith. In 1856, when Helen was eighteen, they got married. Their first child was Moses H. Cone, born in 1857, founder of Proximity Manufacturing Company (original name for the Cone Mills enterprises). Their next was Ceasar, born in 1859, the co-founder.
The family showed in the pre-Civil War 1860 census that their real estate holdings and personal property holdings were an impressive $29,365. By 1861 they closed their business because of the war and put their money instead into real estate. At the end of the war they sold some of their real estate to reopen their retail business under the name Adler, Cone, and Shipley.
They engaged in the barter system to trade goods, since cash was then very scarce. They traded their goods for textiles and then resold these in the South for cash. Many times they just took credit on personal property and land. They foreclosed on many of the debts owed them, acquiring hundreds of acres of real estate in the process.
In 1870 the family, who at this point was fairly wealthy, moved to Baltimore, Maryland and started a wholesale grocery business called Guggenheimer, Cone & Company. The family at this point had seven children, five boys and two girls, Claribel and Etta, who gained a reputation as the art-collecting Cone sisters. This business owned by several relative members was ultimately disbanded in 1873 and Herman went into business with his eldest sons, Moses and Ceasar. This new firm was called H. Cone & Sons. The two eldest, Moses and Ceasar, worked with their father in his grocery business while in their teens traveling the Southeast as "drummers" (traveling salesmen). They took and bartered orders from southern merchants for their father's wares. By 1876 the business had expanded to include tobacco and leather goods.
In 1887, Moses and Ceasar Cone invested $50,000 in the C. E. Graham Mill Manufacturing Company of Asheville, North Carolina. They manufactured cotton plaids. In 1893 it became Asheville Cotton Mills. In 1888, the brothers invested in Salisbury Cotton Mills of Salisbury, North Carolina. They also invested in Minneola Manufacturing Company of Gibsonville, North Carolina. In 1891, Moses and Ceasar Cone established the Cone Export & Commission Company. The selling agent for southern textiles was called a "plaid trust" by its competitors. Chartered in New Jersey, the company's headquarters were located in New York city and Moses served as its president. In 1893, the Cone brothers then built one of the first textile finishing plants in the South, called Southern Finishing & Warehouse Company.
Moses Cone built his first denim manufacturing plant in Greensboro in 1895. It was called the Proximity Cotton Mills because of its location to the nearby cotton fields. Near the mills "Brother Moses" and "Brother Ceasar" built a facility to serve as the company's headquarters. Ceasar was its first president.
The Cone family, many of whom later were involved in Moses and Ceasar's enterprises, included Carrie (1861–1927), Monroe (1862–1891), Claribel (1864–1929), Albert (1866–1867), Solomon (1868–1939), Sydney M. (1869–1939), Etta (1870–1949), Julius W. (1872–1940), Bernard M. (1874–1956), Clarence N. (1876–1929), and Frederick W. (1878-1944).
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