Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection: All Plugged In

I began work on processing the Avery-Abex Metallurgical Collection at the beginning of November 2019, and boy has it been a rollercoaster so far. This collection, which spans 248 cubic feet, consists of case files, general company records and correspondence, photo negatives, glass plate negatives, photographic prints, and some 40,000 metal samples encased in resin plugs (more on these later). The collection has largely been languishing in Special Collections since it was acquired in the mid-1990’s. 

Over the years, several student employees have chipped away meaningfully at portions of the collection, but the majority of the boxes remained untouched. Because my time to process this collection is limited, I will need to strike a comfortable balance between getting all the work done on the remaining boxes before the end of July- a high priority- and processing the materials to the highest useful level- also a high priority. (Note that I did not say “to the highest possible level”. There is a point of diminishing returns to optimizing arrangement and description, and archival resources are scarce enough that frequently this equation must favor a more rough-and-ready processing style in order to reduce backlog and make more collections accessible faster.)

This balance is especially important to consider, given the large size of the collection. The boxes that much of the material arrived in are significantly bigger than the standard sized archival record carton, which necessitates a certain amount of space planning for both pre-and post-processed containers. The increased volume makes them very heavy and awkward to handle, and so much more prone to accidents when retrieving them from shelves.

I haven’t dropped any yet, but hauling them around really makes me appreciate the elegantly dainty standard sized boxes I’m moving the records into. This is infinitely more so the case with the boxes of glass plate negatives, which are substantially heavier than their paper-holding counterparts and have the additional challenge of being very fragile. Let no one tell you that the life of an archivist is boring or sedentary.

Another quirk of this particular collection is that the boxes were more or less put where they would fit in the offsite storage facility when they were first acquired about 25 years ago, without recording their shelf locations, which makes finding the boxes a bit of a scavenger hunt. Pictured is one of three aisles of shelves at the storage facility. Attempting to process the boxes in any particular order would be a waste of time as a result, and so I’ve had to change my approach to arranging this collection. 

Instead of refoldering and replacing the records into their final resting places, I am processing box by box, keeping careful track of what ends up where, so that I can rearrange things as needed once I finish and have a better idea of what order best suits the materials. This way is much faster on the frontend than doing the boxes in order, and the surprise of not knowing what’s going to be in the next box has proved a lovely diversion from the occasionally tedious tasks of pulling boxes, refoldering, relabelling, and filling in spreadsheets.

My favorite part of the collection so far has definitely been the metal samples. There are approximately 40,000 squat resin plugs, each with a small chunk of metal embedded in it with one surface exposed for testing, and a serial number etched on the outside. They are quite unique, in my experience, and are an instant point of interest for anyone who sees them. Their quantity, their different sizes and shapes, and the complete obscurity of their purpose to the uninitiated, makes them a valuable showpiece for the collection. However, these characteristics also make them a challenging processing project. Several have sprouted highly colorful oxidation growths over the years, which are fascinating and delicate. I have not yet decided whether they are more valuable remaining intact, or if I should attempt to clean off this reaction residue, knowing full well that it will likely grow back in time, as the fresh metal is exposed to air and humidity.

Another slight wrinkle in processing that I’ve encountered was the significant presence of mold on the cabinets housing the metal samples in the basement storage room used for some Special Collections and University Archives materials. The samples themselves were not in immediate danger, because resin and metals do not tend to support mold growth, but the mold would need to be killed and the plugs cleaned before they could be moved into appropriate archival boxes and placed near other, more vulnerable materials. I had planned to process the plugs first, but this had to be put on hold until the mold issue was dealt with. Luckily, we managed to employ a company specializing in mold remediation fairly quickly, and the problem was taken care of before it could spread to other collections being stored in this space. Now, the work of cleaning and boxing up the sample plugs can commence.

Fries Textile Plant Records Processing Project Post-Mortem

Here I am, on the final day of my grant-funded project to process the records of the Fries Textile Plant. It’s been a fun year, and I’ve truly enjoyed working on this project. Wrapping it up the past couple of weeks, I’ve found myself quite pleased with the amount of work I’ve managed to accomplish. Go me! 

Shameless self-promotion aside, I’d like to do a sort of post-mortem on the past year. More and more new (or not-so new) archivists are finding themselves in time- and scope-limited jobs, which require a different set of skills than the endurance race into posterity that is the lot of the traditional archivist. Rather than thinking about the long term health and wellness of the archives as a whole and wearing a variety of necessary hats as a result, we temporary members of staff are typically asked to execute very particular orders along a strict timeline, and then- frequently- to leave, occasionally with our work unfinished. It can be heartbreaking, and freeing, and terribly restrictive, and wonderfully lax. 

Ultimately, the success of the project- and your own success as a project archivist- depends on the project you’re employed on, the team you’re working with, and your personal career goals. Unfortunately, almost none of us can afford to be picky these days when hunting for archival work. While I understand the temptation to take the first job offered in the field (boy howdy do I, but that’s another story), often it is the jobs taken out of desperation that lead to the worst fits professionally.

Luckily, that is not the case in this instance. I have loved working with the textile mill records, the other staff in Special Collections and University Archives, and the people of Fries. I have learned an enormous amount about the region, the textile industry, and being an archivist from my time here. I liked it so much, tomorrow I’m embarking on another collection processing project here at Virginia Tech, this time with the records of a defunct metallurgical company. To put a nice bow on the past year, though, I offer the following summary and thoughts.

The majority of my time this year was spent in processing the records. Previous student employees had made a dent in this work, but there still remained a large number of boxes as-yet untouched. The day-to-day of processing involves a certain tolerance for repetitive tasks, but the frequent discovery of interesting documents in this particular collection kept me engaged and happy with my job. Processing is often the bulk of project positions such as these, so it’s a valuable skill to be able to find joy it.  This photo shows a (tiny) fraction of the staples I pulled this year, a task which does not give me joy but which does offer a certain small satisfaction.


By far the most rewarding part of the project has been working with the people of Fries, and bringing this collection back to them in the form of 3 community events I put together over the course of the year. The Fries-ians are warm, passionate, and deeply committed to their town, which was both refreshing and touching. They were wonderfully eager to interact with the collection and learn more about the place that they lived in. It has been an honor to facilitate their historical interest. This picture was taken of attendees at the first event I put on in Fries, March 30, 2019.


My work also involved a small digitization project, resulting in a digital exhibit hosted on the Special Collections and University Archives site, which can be found here. I am pleased with the result, overall. I gave several presentations on the project and my work for peers within Virginia Tech and the larger archival community as well, to make them aware of the collection and share what I had learned. I love being able to share my efforts, and I hope that these presentations have shed light on what we do in the archives and helped those facing similar processing projects. 

Finally, I’d like to close with some thoughts about what I’d do differently, if I had it to do over. First, I would put more effort into the community engagement with the events I put on. My points of contact for setting up the events were frequently busy, so relying on them to spread the word in town about these events led to a poorer turnout than I had hoped for, given the deep interest in town history that I knew many residents had. In future, I will do more advertising for community events to make sure that everyone who might want to attend knows about them.

Second, I’d have liked to take more careful notes on items within the collection that I wanted to digitize. Several times, I found myself with such helpful comments as “Folder 7, really neat”, with no further context. In the haze of processing, I had prioritized moving on to the next folder over giving my future self any but the vaguest clue. This led to several instances of poring through folders, looking for the particular document I had been referencing. I will save time in the future by taking a few extra seconds to describe the materials I found “really neat”.

Lastly, I would have liked to do more digitization. I got the necessities done, the fascinating and the context-giving documents featured in the online exhibit, but ultimately I wish the whole collection could be made available online. I know that this is rarely feasible and occasionally not particularly desirable, but with this collection, I want very much for the people of Fries to be able to look through it at their leisure without needing to come up to Tech and sit in the reading room. Personally, I believe that as an archivist, access is my highest calling. In an ideal world, this small town would have its entire history to peruse at will. However, this is not that world, so I must be content with the circumstances as they lay. 

All that being said, I am proud of what I’ve accomplished here, and I hope the next project will be even more successful. 

Processing the Fries Textile Mill Collection

The Fries Textile Mill was established in 1903 by Col. Thomas Fries, then the president of Wachovia Bank. He built the mill on a bend in the New River, which he had dammed in order to provide power for his new venture. He also built a town nearby to house, educate, and supply the employees of the mill. For 85 years, the town of Fries and its people were overseen by the company administration, which owned and operated the school, the stores, and the housing. The mill processed cotton from large bales that were brought in via train into a variety of finished fabrics, which they sent all over the country. Through the years, this fabric was used to make gloves, fine garments, military uniforms, and many other industrial and commercial goods. 

A young girl with her dark hair in a bun wearing a dress, stockings, and leather shoes monitors a bank of cotton spinning machines in the mill.
One of the youngest spinners, Hettie Roberts, in the Washington Mills Company textile mill, Fries, Va. The photo was taken by Lewis Wickes Hine in 1911. Photo credit

The mill managed to stay open during the Great Depression by dramatically cutting hours without firing workers in order to keep at least a little money coming in for all of its employees, and stashing the fabric produced in a warehouse the company owned in New York. This plan worked out for the Fries Mill, it managed to stay open and running through the lean times of the late 20’s and 30’s. It also meant that it had plenty of stock on hand for World War II, when textiles were in high demand and many mills had closed. The 40’s and 50’s were a boom period for the mill. It was employing more people than ever and utilizing the most state-of-the-art technologies and techniques to create high quality cotton-based fabrics. 

Unfortunately, as time wore on the mill began to decline. The infrastructure necessary to maintain a competitive edge in the textile industry was expensive to acquire and maintain, and pressure from a globalizing market made it all the more difficult, so a series of owners decided to simply sell the business on. After several such transfers, the mill finally closed in 1988. Because the company had effectively owned the town of Fries for the better part of a century, the reactions to its closure were understandably negative. The binding force of the community had disappeared, and the town suffered. However, many residents chose to stay and forge a new way of life around that bend in the New River. The mill building itself was torn down not long after, and now all that remains is a bare patch next to the dam. 

A large red brick building complex and several smaller white outbuildings under a slightly cloudy sky, with a wide driveway in the foreground and a small grassy hill running off the right side.
The mill as it once looked. This image was taken from a business card of a Fries gift shop. Photo credit

Because of the terms under which this collection was given to Virginia Tech, it had largely sat in the backlog at Special Collections since it was acquired in 1988, although an inventory was conducted and several boxes of papers were partially processed in the interim. The work of Special Collections and the town of Fries, as well as a recent grant from the NHPRC, has allowed me to finish processing the entire collection (165 boxes!) revealing a trove of information about 20th century textile mills and the industry in general, mill towns, and life in rural Appalachia.

A closeup of a pile of several hundred rusty staples on a desk.

This processing included removing damaging metal fasteners (pictured is a small fraction of the staples removed from collection materials), rehousing the documents, getting intellectual control over the collection by creating a detailed inventory of folder titles, dates, and interventions, and evaluating any preservation or privacy concerns for the materials. The finding aid, which will be available soon, has a folder-level description of the contents of the boxes.

The collection includes records illustrating the work of the mill, including production reports, textile samples, and company correspondence, but also materials that give insight into life in a mill town, such as housing repair documents, letters to and from pillars of the community such as the town doctor and the school, and oral histories from residents and former residents of Fries.

For the first image- Yellowed and stained paper with the following written on it in blue ink:
"Washington Mills- Fries, Va.
Sirs:-
Recently I saw some samples of white curtain material that you had sent, at her request, to Mrs. [Maryane] Hutchens of Roanoke, Va. The one I liked particularly was priced at 22 cts a yard. Please send me a sample of this material and any others suitable for bed room curtains. Also send, please, samples of material in pale yellow  to go with the yellow flower in enclosed wall paper sample.
Thank you.
Mrs. Jack L. Epps
2501 Grove Ave.
Richmond Va."
For the second image- The following list typewritten on yellowed paper in black ink:
"Report of Needed Repairs of Fries High School
Session 1941-1942.
1. Window shade cords (for about 1/2 doz. windows)
2. Baseboard and moulding (beginning to decay) near boy's toilet.
3. Outside door (down stairs- facing river) needs repairs. Also ceiling of porch over this door.
4. Bell cord breaking where cord is placed into wooden handle.
5. About six or eight desks need repair and shelves placed in them.
6. One bowl stopped in girl's toilet.
7. Electric bell an one electric light in hall and lights in Miss. E. Smith's room needs repairing.
8. Electric clock needs installing.
9. Perhaps - well to check drainage from furnace to prevent future trouble. 
10. I am sure you know the condition of stove in Home Economic Cottage.
11. Three or four arm chairs need arms repaired.
[handwritten]12. 1 section of shelves in Library (Phoned by Mr. Garrison)
Signed: A. L. Garrison"
A letter requesting fabric samples and a list of repairs needed at the Fries High School

We have also recently acquired another 2 large storage bins worth of blueprints from the town, as well as about 20 decks of slides. These new materials are currently being processed, after which I will add them to the finding aid. They were being stored in the basement of the Recreation Center in Fries, and were discovered entirely by coincidence on a visit to the town (picture three excited archivists spreading blueprints over every flat-ish surface in a basement lounge area while several bemused residents look on). The building that the bins were in had severely flooded not long before, but the blueprints were unharmed by the water, thankfully. It is entirely possible that we will continue to receive similar trickles of mill-related items as more materials are discovered and we continue to engage with the community.

A line of people in front of the stage in a middle school auditorium talk to each other and look at copies of historical documents. Red auditorium seating fills the foreground.
Members of the Fries community examining collection materials at an event at the Fries Middle School on March 30th, 2019.

Sadly, the picture is not complete. We only have the materials that were left at the mill when it closed, which heavily favor the early years of operation, and certain kinds of records. It is unclear whether the missing documents were destroyed as part of a regular records management cycle, or whether they were taken at some point. Despite the gaps, the collection offers a valuable look at life in a 1900’s mill town. Starting August 22nd, there will be an exhibit up in the Special Collections reading room of selected materials from the collection illustrating the broad influence of the mill administration on the town, stop by and check it out!