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!

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Some Newly Accessible Collections: A Summer Round-Up

It’s summertime in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech Special Collections, I always think that’s going to be my two-ish months to catch up on the rest of the year’s projects. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t–inevitably, I also end up launching new projects or initiatives. This summer, one of those new projects is working on our backlog of digital materials. Special Collections has been digitizing collections for reference and research long before we had our current online platform. Some images lived on our old website, some lived (or still live) in Imagebase, and some never made it as far as the world-wide web. So, this summer, we’re making more of that possible. With the help of a student, we are taking some of these digitized collections, creating metadata, and adding them to our digital site! Here’s just a taste of some new items:

First up, the  Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080). This collection includes a handful of railroad menus from Norfolk & Western passenger trains. Below are a beverage menu, a dinner menu, and a blank patron check. Note the “Apple Pie (baked on car)” on the dinner menu–train travel these days has changed a little!

 

If you’d like to see the rest of the collection, which includes menus for other meals of the day, as well as snacks, specials, and a coffee shop club car (complete with items like cigars and playing cards!). you can view it online. You can also read more about the collection in the finding aid.

Second, the letters of Joseph T. Harris to his sister, Molly Swope. Harris served with the 12th Regiment, Ohio Infantry, during the Civil War. This collection contains four letters written from parts of western Virginia between August 1861 and February 1862. Below is the letter from November 23, 1861.

 

Harris was particularly around the Kanawha Valley western Virginia and he writes to his sister about his regiment’s actions there, as well as camp life. He tells her “Harris describes his rations as being good and lists what he is being issued and getting food from the locals. ‘We have all theas things, besides what we can steal witch is a good deal. Steal did I say, well I will have to take that back for us boys have quit stealing and took to takeing a good menny things without leave.'” You can view the full collection and the finding aid online.

Last up, for the moment, is the Yonson (Johnson) Family Collection (Ms2013-020). The Yonson family was based in Wythe County, Virginia, at the end of the 18th century. The collection includes family receipts, estate bills, tax documents, and some other family papers. It’s worth noting that you’ll see variations on the spelling of the family’s name throughout the collection, though research indicates that later generations of the family eventually settled on “Johnson.”

 

You can view the full collection and the finding aid online.

Summer is also the time I catch up on student processing work. We would be lost without the help of our amazing student workers in Special Collections. Often times, they help organize and describe collections faster than I can get them finished and posted online, so I’ve also been spending time on that. Here are a few of my favorite newly processed manuscript collections:

  • Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA], n.d. (Ms2019-002). This collection includes a Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA] with typed cocktail recipes and directions for their creation . Different sections include lesson plans for specific types of drinks, suggesting this was used in a bartending school or for bartending instruction. Some pages have handwritten notations or illustrations. Finding aid available online.
  • Herschel A. Elarth-Charles S. Worley, Jr. Architectural Firm Drawings, 1955-1961, undated (Ms2019-036). Related to both the personal and professional papers of Elarth and Worley, who were Virginia Tech faculty and architectural firm partners, this collection includes drawings from selected local projects. Finding aid available online.
  • Jaffe-Lankes Family Correspondence, 1930-1942, 1980-1985 (Ms2019-014). This collection contains two main sets of materials: Correspondence between Louis I. Jaffe and J. J. Lankes from 1930 to 1942 and correspondence between Alice Jaffe (Louis’ widow) and J. B. Lankes (J. J.’s son) from 1980 to 1985. In addition, there is a small folder of notes and letter excerpts created by J. B. Lankes in the early 1980s. We processed this collection as part of the Sherwood Anderson online exhibit that launched in April 2019. Finding aid available online.
  • Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection, 1926-1971 (Ms2019-009). The Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection includes materials from 1926-1971. The collection contains information relating to the operation of the sanatorium from 1918-1965. The collection contains administrative papers, published works of doctors, ephemera, and images. Finding aid available online.

We’re always processing new materials and making new materials online, so we always encourage you to check out our resources, but since this is on my mind lately, it seemed a good time to do a round-up/reminder. You can usually view our most recently posted finding aids online in upload order and see our most recently collections on our digital collection site’s “Browse Collections” page.

The Life and Architecture of Smithey & Boynton

After several years, I recently finished processing the Smithey & Boynton, Architects & Engineers Records, Ms1992-027. Partner in the firm, Kenneth L. Motley purchased the firm in 1992 and donated the firm’s historical records in 1992 and 1994. About 30% of the collection was made available before I arrived at Virginia Tech in 2014, but the oversize, rolled architectural drawings and blueprints were not (although I must thank my predecessors for labeling and locating the rolls, which helped me significantly). Over the past four years, I arranged, described, and boxed up nearly 1,500 project drawings, totaling over 220 cubic feet and including over 920 boxes. (This isn’t even the largest collection we have in Special Collections!)

Louis Phillipe Smithey and Henry B. Boynton formed the Smithey & Boynton partnership in 1935. Smithey & Boynton built and renovated thousands of buildings throughout the state of Virginia. They designed Lane Stadium and several other buildings on the Virginia Tech campus, buildings for the Norfolk & Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern), and the Lyric Theatre and Armory Building in Blacksburg. The firm became best known for building public schools, even using the same basic layout for numerous schools. They had nearly 150 school design commissions from 1945 through 1953 in at least 19 counties and 10 cities in Virginia.

Drawings of the Armory Building in Blacksburg, designed by Smithey & Boynton:

Louis Phillipe Smithey (1890-1966)

Smithey graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 1910, before attending both Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was an engineer for Virginia Bridge & Iron Company from 1916 to 1920. He then opened his own practice, before partnering with Matthews H. Tardy, as Smithey & Tardy from 1922 through 1932. Smithey again had his own practice, occasionally working with Henry B. Boynton, before they partnered as Smithey & Boynton in 1935. Smithey was a registered architect in Virginia and West Virginia, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and served as president of the Virginia chapter of the AIA in 1940. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War I and World War II. Smithey married Dorothy Terrill in 1938, and they had one daughter.

Photos and drawings of the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, designed by the firm of Louis Phillipe Smithey:

Henry B. Boynton (1899-1991)

Boynton graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1923, before taking classes at the University of Illinois (now the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign). He worked for Carneal & Johnston, Architects & Engineers, from 1924 to 1928. (We previously wrote about Carneal & Johnston on this blog in “A New Collection and a New Look at Virginia Tech’s Architectural Style.”) Boynton joined Smithey’s practice in 1929, becoming a partner in Smithey & Boynton in 1935. He was a registered architect in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania; held several positions of the Virginia chapter of the AIA; and served as the Governor’s appointee to the State Registration Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors from 1962 to 1972. Boynton also served on the VPI Alumni Board of Directors from 1969 to 1979 and the VPI Education Foundation, Inc.’s board from 1978 to 1982. He also served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the World War II. (Special Collections also has the Henry B. Boynton Papers, Ms1992-002, which include some records from Smithey & Boynton.)

Drawings of the Norfolk & Southern Railway’s General Storehouse in Roanoke, designed by Smithey & Boynton:

For more, I recommend reading “Smithey and Boynton and the Designing of Virginia’s Modern Architecture” by Mike Walker, which is about Smithey & Boynton’s work and includes photographs of some of their buildings, primarily in Covington, Virginia.

The Western Lunatic Asylum

Insane Asylums have been a part of horror movies and ghost stories for decades. From shows like American Horror Story to Shutter Island, there are many portrayals of what it was like to be treated for mental illness in the 1800-1900s. However, when it comes to the real story about old asylums, not all institutions were set up for jump scares.

The Western Lunatic Asylum was founded in 1825 by the Virginia State Government. It was the second mental health facility established in the Commonwealth and took patients that could not function in society but had hope of recovery. The first director of the hospital was Dr. Francis T. Stribling, who was also the first graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School. Stribling believed in humane treatment for those suffering from mental illness and applied the concept of “Moral Medicine” to his practice. Appointed in 1836, Stribling served as the director of the asylum until his death.

The Western Lunatic Asylum collection currently consists of an annual report from the asylum from 1903 and numerous letters written to Stribling between 1840 and 1868. This collection gives you an insight into what everyday life was like for the patients and family who were connected to this institution. It strips away all the haunted hallways and creaky doors and tells the stories of brothers, sisters, parents, and children whose loved ones are under Stribling’s care. It also gives you the chance to see into the mind of patients who were treated at the asylum when they write back to Stribling to discuss their condition.

Western State Hospital Annual Report 1903

The annual report (pictured above) introduces this collection perfectly. Situated in the first folder of 14, it acts as an exposition chapter, setting up the scene. While the report is from a few decades after Stribling’s death, it helps you understand how they ran an institution like this. Some of my favorite highlights of the report are the section titled Occupation, Recreation, and Amusements which talks about how they “divert the disordered minds of [their] patients again into normal channels” by alternating their schedules between jobs around the asylum and entertainment like weekly dances, concerts, and games. The statistical tables are also fascinating, detailing information about how many people were admitted, what they were admitted for, and how long it took to cure those who recovered.

As mentioned above, there are two main types of letters in the collection: The Families and The Patients.

The letters from families range from those appealing to the doctor to admit a new patient to those asking about the status of current patients (Above). Many of those with family members in the asylum also mention sending money or clothes. Letters from former patients are primarily written to Stribling to update him on their status after being released from the hospital. Some are thriving and thankful, but most seem to write the doctor when they are experiencing symptoms of relapse like the one pictured below.

There are also a few business letters like the one below that informs Stribling of a woman that had “been examined according to laws & found to be a fit subject for the Lunatic Asylum at Staunton.”

This collection really feels like a window into the past. After months of scanning and transcribing these letters, it feels living in a way, and that isn’t just because we find new letters to add every other month causing it to continuously grow. Each time a new one comes in it’s a privilege to be able to read them and add that person’s story to the rest of the collection.

Denim Day: A Triumphant Return

My job here at Virginia Tech is Community Collections Archivist & Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator for the University Libraries. I forgive you if you got lost in all that. Essentially, the part of my job that is archival in nature is to engage with traditionally marginalized communities around their histories. I help them preserve and make available documentary evidence of their existence so that history will better reflect the full human experience. This post is about a project that fell squarely within that scope – and helped me really see what doing this work can mean.

Nancy Kelly smiling
Nancy Kelly, “The Instigator”

About a year ago, I got a request for a meeting with Nancy Kelly, a lesbian alumna who wanted the university to acknowledge the early history of the Gay Rights Movement at Virginia Tech. At the time, I assumed this would be a fairly standard discussion with a potential donor about materials they had and whether Special Collections would be interested in adding them to our collections. I was wrong. Nancy, certainly had some wonderful documents and we talked about the donation process. But, Nancy had a vision. She wanted us to document her experience as a lesbian at Tech during the birth of the publicly visible LGBTQ+ community here. And, she wanted it done on video. And, she wanted us to document the experiences of all of her friends and fellow alumni from that same time period. And she wanted the university as a whole to celebrate the events of 40 years ago and publicly display support for the LGBTQ+ community here. This seemed an impossible dream at the time.

Having some familiarity with the events of January 1979 from the coverage in the Collegiate Times, I wasn’t about to say no. It’s a fascinating exploration of late-1970s attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. At the time, I had no idea how I would make a video oral history project a reality. I had no personal experience as an oral history interviewer. I also knew we had limited storage space and that video files are huge! Still, this was a project with potential, so I said yes. No conditions. No mentioning all the potential issues. I just said yes. Luckily, the university made Kaltura available institution-wide for video hosting about the time I needed to put the interviews online.

What happened over the next year was a mixture of serendipity and perseverance. Working with Jessica Taylor, Assistant Professor of Oral and Public History, and Luis Garay Director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, we held an oral history workshop in late November specifically targeted to the LGBTQ+ community and preservation of its history.

Oral History Workshop banner ad

At that workshop, I found out that Joe Forte, Shelving Supervisor with the University Libraries (and an amazing DJ for Stacks on Stacks, the University Libraries Radio Show), and Slade Lellock, PhD candidate in Sociology, were very interested in recording some interviews. I also met Adri Ridings, a student who was similarly interested in helping to document LGBTQ+ history.

From there, we began recording interviews with alumni who hadn’t engaged with the university in 40 years. It was emotional. It was cathartic. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. Nancy did the work to engage them and tell them we could be trusted. Without her, there would be no interviews because these alumni had no reason to trust someone from Virginia Tech to care about their experiences and sharing them honestly.

While I worked with the alumni to preserve their stories, Luis Garay, from the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Latanya Walker, Director of Alumni Relations for Diversity and Inclusion, Mark Weber, from the Ex Lapide Alumni Society, students from Hokie Pride, the LGBT Faculty and Staff Caucus, and more were all working on putting together an amazing schedule of events for a 40th anniversary commemoration of Denim Day combined with Pride Week and Queer in Appalachia, an annual event celebrating what it is to be queer here in appalachia.

Pride Week 2019 calendar

Meanwhile, we were busily recording and transcribing as fast as possible to get as many interviews online as we could before Pride Week and the planned #VTDenimDayDoOver. I worked with our media folks to create a cool promo/intro video (linked below – click on the picture) for the collection.

Screenshot of a video player showing the starting shot from the Denim Day 2019 promo/intro video.

As the Denim Day events grew near and we had recorded almost all the scheduled interviews with the alumni from 40 years before, I worked with Susanna Rinehart, Chair of Theatre and Cinema in the School of Performing Arts on content for Jeans Noticeably Absent: The Story of Denim Day 1979 which combined theatre students reading newspaper articles and letters reacting to Denim Day with clips from the oral histories.

Overall, this experience has been amazing and triumphant. We gathered great oral histories and engaged the community. Nancy and her fellow alumni were celebrated by the university that had once ostracized them and called them an embarrassment. We were in the VT News, and the Roanoke Times. We were on the home page of the university – for 2 days running so far!!!! (see picture below)

Screenshot of the vt.edu homepage featuring the VT News article.

We had the main university Twitter account tweeting about us.

Screenshot of Tweet featuring a short video of the VT Denim Day Do Over event.

We had departments from across the university sending out messages of support even though they couldn’t attend our coordinated commemoration photo.

Screenshot of a tweet from the VT Department of Dairy Science.
Screenshot of a tweet from VT Rec Sports.

We also got more members of the community to sit down and record their own stories for our collection.

There’s still a ton of work to do to process the material we’ve gathered related to these efforts. There’s also a ton of work needed to engage the parts of the community not represented by the story of Denim Day: those members who aren’t white, cisgender, gay, or lesbian. Hopefully, the work we’ve done here will be a step toward showing that we care enough to do this work honestly and with respect.

To see the collection we built about Denim Day (in progress) and our broader documentation of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech visit here and here.

A New Group for Archivists of this Region

Logo of the Appalachian Studies Association
Logo of the Appalachian Studies Association

This year, a new standing committee will be making an appearance at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA), to be held next month at the University of North Carolina, Asheville (UNCA). There has been no formal organization of Appalachian Special Collections archivists and librarians since the Appalachian Consortium disbanded in 2004, but due to an effort headed up by Gene Hyde (UNCA), this absence has now been remedied. Initial interest in the formation of this group was received from archivists representing Appalachian State University, Mars Hill University, Western Carolina University, East Tennessee State University, University of Kentucky, Berea College, Virginia Tech, Marshall University, Radford University, West Virginia University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Morehead State University. Rachel Vagts of Berea will serve as the new committee’s first chair.

While there are regional organizations of archivists defined by the boundaries of states or groups of states—Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), for example, includes states from New York to Virginia, while North Carolina and Ohio have organizations of their own—the Appalachian region cuts across these boundaries. Also, these are organizations, overwhelmingly, of, by, and for archivists. By having an increased and formal presence within the Appalachian Studies Association, archivists of the region will gain an opportunity to create a larger profile for themselves and their repositories among scholars of the region and share more directly in the exchange of ideas among people working in the region.

In part, the new group will update and continue the work of the Special Collections committees that existed under the Appalachian Consortium. This work may include identifying and providing information about Appalachian repositories, facilitating the exchange of information between repositories, assessing the needs of larger and smaller repositories, and providing information and services to repositories. New tasks may include offering workshops, exhibits, and sessions at future ASA meetings; exploring external funding sources for shared projects; and encouraging and recognizing new scholarly work in the area that uses primary source materials.

One task that has already begun is the rejuvenation of the Appalachian Curator newsletter. From 1986 to 2004 this newsletter existed as a print publication under the direction of the Appalachian Consortium. The new version will go online next month, in time for the ASA conference, March 14–17. A new editorial board is in place. Articles and news items are being collected. The URL for the newsletter will appear here as soon as it goes up!

A Not-So-Buried Grayson County Treasure Trove: The 1931 Farm Family Study

In the early years of the Great Depression, a team of 15 men and women visited the homes of more than 300 families in Grayson County, Virginia to ask residents dozens of questions—some rather personal—about their homes, their farms, and their lives. The questions solicited data for a survey conducted by the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Bureau of Home Economics. Conducted over the course of nine weeks in Grayson County’s Elk Creek and Wilson Creek districts, the survey formed part of a larger study of social and economic conditions in the southern Appalachian highlands. The resulting report was to “form the basis for the development of effective and much needed home extension work as well as furnish valuable information of use to the departments of education, public health, the state traveling library, and other agencies …” (Annual Report of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Agricultural Experiment Station, 1931). The collected data was later used in Faith M. Williams’ 1935 report, “Variations in Farm-Family Living” (in United States Dept. of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication 205, “Economic and Social Problems and Conditions of the Southern Appalachian Highlands,” available online here.)

Here in Special Collections, the original survey records may be found in the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Grayson County) (Ms1940-023). Nearly 90 years after the survey’s completion, the responses generated by it remain a rich source of raw, granular data for a sizable chunk of Grayson County’s rural population at that time. Comprising a painstakingly meticulous record of a community in the southern Appalachian highlands, the survey data could today be used in examining any number of social, economic, agricultural, or other trends.

Today, however, we’re going to look at the collection from a different angle. For Grayson County local and family historians, the survey responses can provide an unintended wealth of information. Here in a single place are detailed records of 300 of the county’s families, providing data on their employment, income, education—even how many pairs of underwear they made or purchased in a year. As an example, I’ve chosen a single family at random to see what the survey can tell us about them. All of the information that follows is derived from the survey itself, with no outside sources consulted:

On June 29, 1931, surveyors T. M. Dean and Amelia H. Fuller visited the Birkett F. and Ruth Sutherland Taylor family of the Comers Rock area in Grayson County’s Elk Creek District. The Taylors were asked to provide information for the 12-month period ending on March 31, 1931. Given the number of questions asked, the visit must have taken the greater part of the couple’s day.

Birkett Taylor, 42 at the time of the study, was the son of Freel and Bell Harrington Taylor. Ruth Sutherland Taylor, his 38-year-old wife, was the daughter of Alex and Eliza Comer Sutherland. Both Birkett and Ruth were natives of Grayson County, as were their parents. Birkett had attended four years of high school, while Ruth had attended 14 years of school, averaging 16 weeks per year.

In this first section of the survey, the Birkett Taylor family is identified by name. Subsequent pages identify the family only by the record number, 122, assigned to them here.

Birkett and Ruth had been married for 19 years and were distantly related by blood, being fourth cousins. The Taylors had a rather large family, with four daughters (ages 17, 10, 3 years, and 13 months) and five sons (ages 19, 15, 13, eight, and five). Also living in the household was Birkett’s 62-year-old mother. The family had no boarders or hired help living with them. (They seem to have had frequent guests, however, having provided an estimated 416 meals to guests during the year.)

The Taylors’ two-story, 1500-square-foot frame house had been built in 1881 and was remodeled in 1901. Valued at $2,222, the mortgaged home had a sound metal roof and a single-layer, unfinished floor. Stretching across the full front of the home was a porch, seven feet deep; a smaller, 30 x 7-foot porch was attached to the back of the house. The weathered home had 12 rooms including a kitchen, dining room, and parlor. Birkett and Ruth shared their bedroom with three of their children. Four sons shared another bedroom, and two daughters were in a third. Birkett’s mother, Bell Taylor, had use of the fourth bedroom. The surveyors gave the home a poor rating in terms of cleanliness and neatness. Surrounding the house was a picket fence in poor condition. The yard included shade trees, rosebushes, peonies, and lilies. Nearby were the family’s cellar and a vented privy. The home sat on The Taylors’ 210-acre farm, with 102 acres in pasture and another 55 acres devoted to crops.

In addition to two fireplaces, the house was heated by a woodstove and a coal stove. The family cooked on a woodstove, and the home was lit with kerosene lamps. (The Taylors had spent $50 on 50 cords of wood during the previous year and a dollar on five gallons of kerosene.) A handpump at the sink drew clean water from a spring 500 yards from the house. For bathing, the Taylors used one of two galvanized washtubs in the home, and the family had a gasoline-powered washing machine for laundry. Clothing was pressed with one of three stove-heated irons owned by the family.

The Taylor home was furnished with 15 straightback chairs, five rocking chairs, five tables (in addition to any tables in the kitchen), and a desk. For bedding, the family had five feather ticks, nine straw ticks, and two mattresses. The Taylors also owned three clocks, a piano, a foot-powered sewing machine, and a radio (purchased within the previous year for $30).

There had been no deaths in the Taylors’ immediate family during the previous year. Reporting on serious illnesses in the family, Birkett mentioned that he’d had pneumonia, as had the couple’s 15-year-old son. Ruth reported having had a baby. During the previous year, the Taylors had spent $20 on dental work and $75 for medical services, and they had received free vaccinations.

The Taylors were members of a church and had tithed a total of $10 during the year. They’d paid $4 in income tax and $4 in poll taxes. Other expenses included $2 on cosmetics, $2.60 on toiletries and barber visits, $13 on tobacco, and $3.60 on photography. The family had spent nothing on gifts throughout the year, except at Christmas, when two dollars’ worth of food gifts were distributed within the family. Other Christmas food gifts—valued at five dollars—were given from what the family had themselves produced during the year. No gifts were given outside the immediate family. For the year, total expenditures on recreation and leisure amounted to $42.60.

The Taylors’ children helped significantly with the farm work, the older boys performing the milking, livestock care, field work, and vegetable gardening. The eldest girl, meanwhile, helped to care for the younger children, cleaned, cooked, and did laundry. The children also picked berries during the year (30 gallons total) and gathered nuts (150 pounds total). With the help of her eldest daughter, Ruth canned 194 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 40 quarts of jams and preserves, 120 quarts of fruit butters, four quarts of jelly, and 122 quarts of meat. They dried another 10 pounds of fruits and vegetables and pickled 44 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 10 quarts of sauerkraut, and 25 quarts of cottage cheese. They’d also made 96 pounds of sausage and 122 pounds of lard. The Taylors’ teenaged sons had assisted in the butchering of four hogs and one steer and had also hunted wild game, bringing home 12 squirrels and 36 rabbits. The boys had also caught four pounds of fish.

The Taylor farm had produced 75 bushels of apples in the previous year, at a value of $75, as well as two gallons of cherries, valued at $2.00. Other harvested produce included 1200 pounds of white potatoes ($20.00); 112 pounds of beets ($2.00), 5 pounds of carrots ($5.00), 5 pounds of onions ($5.00), 40 pounds of turnip greens ($2.00), 400 pounds of cabbage ($8.00), 20 pounds of lettuce ($1.20), 192 pounds of cucumbers ($4.00), 15 pounds of tomatoes ($15.00), 528 pounds of string beans ($22.00), 120 pounds of dry beans ($7.00), 32.1 pounds of peas ($5.00), and 360 pounds of green corn ($6.00), in addition to many other crops omitted here. They’d also collected 250 pounds of honey, valued at $50.

In addition to farming, Birkett Taylor worked as a miller and carpenter. He earned little as a carpenter during the year (just $50) but made another $410 in lumber and in another unspecified business. The two eldest Taylor boys, meanwhile, had brought in another $100 by working on local roads. The boys earned an additional $284 in hauling, and three of the boys sold some of the rabbits they’d killed, for $7.20. The Taylors’ daughters had not worked outside the home but sold some of the nuts that they’d gathered, for $7.80. The family’s total income for the previous year totaled $1093.00.

The family supplemented their garden harvest with produce purchased with cash or trade, mostly at the Comers Rock store, three miles distant. During the year, the family purchased 120 pounds of watermelons for $1.50. They’d also purchased 12 pounds of string beans ($1), three pounds of prunes ($.30), 6.56 pounds of raisins ($1.05), two dozen oranges ($.60), 1.59 pounds of peanut butter ($.60). Among the family’s other food purchases were 25 loaves of bread ($22.50), 6 boxes of crackers ($.30), 7.5 pounds of oatmeal ($.90), 6 boxes of prepared breakfast foods ($.60), 24 pounds of rice ($2.40), 12 pounds of macaroni ($3.60), 500 pounds of sugar ($30.00), 25 pounds of brown sugar ($1.50), and candy ($10). They bought no tea and only three pounds of coffee ($.60), but consumed 24 pounds of Postum ($6.00) and three pounds of cocoa ($.90).

From a page in the survey we learn that the Taylors (identified here simply as family unit 122) spent just $10 on candy and other sweets during the year. The family undoubtedly used some of the 500 pounds of sugar purchased during this same time period for homemade treats.

The Taylors made most of their own clothing. For the year, they reported spending $46.87 for clothing or materials on female members of the family; $188.65 on the males. Many of these items were purchased at Long Gap, in Wytheville, or through mail-order catalogs, these being cheaper alternatives to the store in Comers Rock.

In the interest of brevity, I’ve omitted here much of what the survey tells us about the Taylors. Other survey responses reveal, in detail, the number of times each family member journeyed away from home and for what purpose, the quantity and cost of each article of clothing spent on each family member, the number of pillowcases and screens in the home, which newspapers and magazines were read by the family, and, well—the list just goes on and on. No less interesting is what the survey tells us about what the family didn’t have. For example, one blank response tells us that the Taylors, like many of their neighbors, didn’t own a car. Other blank table cells tell us which crops the family didn’t raise, which products they didn’t purchase from the store, which types of plants weren’t in their yard, etc.

The image of the Taylors that emerges from the survey is remarkably detailed. Without using a single photo or a word of narrative, the survey responses give us a portrait of one southwestern Virginia family,  based entirely on objective data provided by the family itself and the observations of the surveyors.

I should perhaps note here that the data is not easily retrievable. The survey records contain hundreds of individuals sheets divided among several volumes, each volume comprised of several sets of questions, all arranged first by question, then by record number, not by family name. Nor is the survey infallible. (In seeking more information on the Taylors, for example, I found this page on findagrave, which revealed that Mr. Taylor’s name was “Birket” rather than “Birkett.”)

Despite the cumbersome arrangement of the records, they would prove an invaluable tool for any genealogist or local historian who’s looking for information on an area family and is willing to undertake a little digging. Moreover, the survey continues to hold inestimable value for its original, intended use. Extending this gleaning exercise over the entire survey, an interested researcher could develop any number of projects from the meticulous records created by 15 workers during that summer of 1931.

More on the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Ms1940-023) may be found in the collection’s finding aid.