A member of a family that has long been prominent in western North Carolina began his career in the cotton manufacturing business nearly half a century ago.  The group of mills and other organizations of which he is president constitute an enormous volume of industrial power and productive resources, and also affords a striking exhibit of the possibilities of individual achievements and leadership on the part of the North Carolina native son.

He was born in Burke County, on the family plantation of Bellevue near Morganton, July 15, 1856, son of Col. Joseph J. and Elvira J. (Holt) Erwin.  His mother was a daughter of Dr. William R. Holt, of Lexington.  More extended reference is made in the following sketch of his father and other members of the Erwin family of Burke County. William A. Erwin attended schools in Burke County, was prepared for college at the Finley High School at Lenoir, and had two years of college work at the University of Kentucky.  He left college in order to be near his father and assist in providing educational opportunities to his younger brothers and sisters.  On returning home in December 1874, he became a salesman in the store of Holt, Gant & Holt, at what is now Burlington.  In 1878 he became bookkeeper for the North Carolina Railway Company at Burlington.  From 1878 to 1882 he was a merchant.

Mr. Erwin in 1882 embarked in the cotton manufacturing business under the tutelage and association of the late L. Banks Holt, of Alamance County, and Lawrence S. Holt.  At that time he became secretary and treasurer of the E. M. Holt Plaid Mills in Alamance County.  During the past third of a century he has been closely connected with one of the largest and most important groups of mills in North Carolina, commonly known as the Erwin Chain of Mills, and now embracing about three hundred thousand spindles and looms, and spinning about ninety thousand bales of cotton per annum. 

It was in 1893 that Mr. Erwin moved to West Durham, which he made the headquarters for the Erwin Cotton Mills Company, of which he is president.  This company has five mills, located at West Durham, Erwin, Cooleemee.  Mr. Erwin is also president of the Oxford Cotton Mills, yarn manufacturers, at Oxford, the Pearl Cotton Mills, manufacturers of sheetings, at Durham, the Alpine Cotton Mills, manufacturers of yarns, at Morganton, the Locke Cotton Mills Company, manufacturers of colored fabrics, at Concord, the Durham Cotton Manufacturing Company manufacturers of cotton fabrics, at Durham, and the Erwin Yarn Agency, Incorporated, a selling agency for the Erwin Mills, with branches at Philadelphia, New York and Providence.

Mr. Erwin was the father and founder of the following towns, where his company has established its mills: West Durham, part of the city of Durham, containing a population of five thousand; Erwin, formerly called Duke, in honor of his friend, N. B. Duke, a village with about four thousand population; and Cooleemee, with a population of about two thousand five hundred.

Mr. Erwin had the honor of building the first graded school in Davie County and also in Harnett County, the latter being only thirty-two miles from the state capital. For many years his company contributed the balance of funds required for the maintenance of these county graded schools.  About eighteen years ago Mr. Erwin built the Good Hope Hospital in the village of Erwin in Harnett County, this perhaps being the first hospital ever built and supported by an industrial corporation in North Carolina.

Mr. Erwin has been deeply interested in religious and philanthropic causes.  He is one of the prominent laymen of the Episcopal Church in North Carolina.  For many years he was superintendent of the Sunday Schools of Burlington and West Durham. In 1908 he built a beautiful memorial church in honor of his parents at West Durham, known as St. Joseph's Church.  In 1925 he completed a memorial church at Chapel Hill in honor of his grandfather, Dr. William R. Holt, of Lexington. Mr. Erwin has represented his church in the diocese of North Carolina in the last seven triennial general conventions.

Mr. Erwin married, October 23, 1889, Sadie L. Smedes.  Her father was Albert Smedes, founder of St. Mary's Episcopal School at Raleigh. Mr. and Mrs. Erwin became the parents of three daughters and one son: Bessie Smedes, who married Hamilton C. Jones, of Charlotte; Margaret Locke, who became the wife of James W. Glenn, of Winston-Salem; Sarah Lyell, who married Hargrove Bellamy, of Wilmington, North Carolina; and William Allen, Jr., who married Hilda Randolph, of eastern North Carolina.  The only son served as an officer in the American forces during the World war.  For the past ten years he has been one of his father's able assistants, being now secretary and treasurer of the Erwin Cotton Mills Company at Durham.