Chilhowie Milling Company and Benefits of Business Records

Here at Special Collections, one of our goals is to acquire materials that people use for research and personal interest. On the blog, we talk a lot about different formats of collections, different topic areas represented, and even different uses for those collections. When we work with researchers, especially students, we talk about collections as primary sources: first hand accounts of events, place, people, etc. One of the forms that these primary sources can take (and one we don’t talk about quite as much as personal letters or diaries, for instance), are business papers. But, collections of business papers (letters, ledgers, account books, and the like) can tell you plenty. This week, I thought I’d share one such collection: the Chilhowie Milling Company Correspondence from 1916 and 1917.

You can view the finding aid for this collection online, though it isn’t one we have had a chance to digitize in its entirety just yet. You may notice that the finding aid says this collection was previously processed, but in 2015, we did some additional organization and description. We don’t have the time and opportunity to revisit every collection, but when we can, we like to try and improve access. In this case, there was a brief description of the collection, but no contents list or detailed notes. Plus, we discovered that the collection had originally been described as the Chilhowie Mining Company Correspondence. The milling company corresponded with a number of mining and ore related companies, but its mission wasn’t mining.

So, why look at a collection like this? It can tell you about business in the context of local history (or local history in the context of a business)–in this case, a business that existed in Smyth County, Virginia for over a century. You can get a sense of what it took to run a large business, the corporate partners and/or suppliers needed, the raw materials gathered, and, in this, what it took to renovate and rebuild. In a two year period, the Chilhowie Milling Company wrote back and forth with nearly 40 different parties. To name a few specialized companies, this list included:

  • Bank of Glade Springs
  • B. D. Smith and Brothers Printers
  • Bristol Door and Lumber Company
  • Crystal Springs Bleachery Company
  • Ferger Grain Company
  • Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills
  • Gruendler Crusher and Pulverizing Company
  • Invincible Grain Cleaners Company
  • Millers National Insurance Company
  • Norfolk and Western Railway Company
  • State of Virginia Dairy and Food Division
  • Virginia Iron, Coal, and Coke Company
  • Virginia Leather Company
  • Virginia Portland Cement Company
  • Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company

In the cases of some other business history materials at Special Collections, there might be even more to be learned! Interested in the personnel rosters of a textile mill? The account ledgers of a local grocery store? Records from a Saltville salt supplier during the Civil War? You might want to stop by and see us. You never know what new tidbits are to found, what reflections you might find on a given economic situation, or even what family history you can discover in business records!

The Agitator

Charles Taylor Adams Played the Provocateur as Both Student and Alumnus

The title of the Herman Bruce Hawkins Papers (Ms1974-014) is a little misleading. While the materials in the one-box collection do relate to Hawkins (who graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1910, had a  successful 50-year career in the power industry, remained actively involved in Virginia Tech’s alumni association, and was awarded Virginia Tech’s Distinguished Alumni Citation in 1961), the overwhelming focus is on Hawkins’ VPI classmate, Charles Taylor Adams.

A native of Richmond, Adams entered VPI as a sophomore in the school’s horticultural program in 1908. Adams became known on campus for his verbose and iconoclastic nature and his relative lack of interest in the discipline and protocol of a military school. The blurb below his picture in the 1910 Bugle sums up Adams (known more familiarly by his middle name) in this way: “Taylor has the hot-air supply of Montgomery County cornered, trussed up and stored away. And that isn’t the worst of it. If he’d keep it where he’s got it, we would not object so strenuously. But he always has it on tap … and you never can tell what is and what isn’t true.” Taylor also seems to have had a reputation for  excessive idealisism and was sometimes known to friends as “Quix,” short for Quixote.

In 1909, Adams was named editor-in-chief of The Virginia Tech, forerunner of today’s Collegiate Times. Taylor presented a number of tongue-in-cheek editorials and soon began running a regular feature, “Asbestographs,” so-called because the column was intended to cover “red-hot matter,” too incendiary to print on paper. Not quite living up to its stated purpose, the column usually featured gripes about mundane aspects of campus life: the stench from campus incinerators, the inefficient laundry service, and the lack of heat in the dorms being among the many grievances aired. Adams’ diatribes were often directed against his classmates, whom he castigated for their lack of enthusiasm and involvement.

The paper’s editorials took on a more weighty subject on January 26, 1910, when Adams addressed a  local issue. Some students had taken a dislike to a local Italian immigrant who had been peddling peanuts and popcorn (and, according to some, anarchism) and had pelted him with firecrackers. According to Adams (in language not politically correct), the Blacksburg mayor had paid an African-American Blacksburg resident to act as witness against two innocent cadets against whom the mayor held a grudge. The case was ultimately thrown out by the grand jury, but it came at a time when other issues were straining town-gown relations, and Adams’ editorial apparently received some negative attention from school authorities. In protest, Adams published the following week  a “Spotless Edition” of The Virginia Tech. The issue contained only advertising. The sections that would have held news stories and editorials were intentionally left blank.

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The front page of the Virginia Tech’s “Spotless Edition,” February 2, 1910

Adams remained editor-in-chief and seems to have completed the school year, but records indicate that he never graduated from VPI. He did, however, go on to a successful career, working for several prestigious New York advertising firms.

In 1959, classmates Adams and Hawkins reconnected through correspondence.  The letters between the two served as an outlet for Adams’ views, and he wrote of his great regret  for having spent his years in advertising, rather than being a communist activist:

Did I ever tell you that I once met John Reed [the American journalist who chronicled Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution] and talked with him? (and how shamed I am now that his words moved me not, and I put him down as a wild eyed young radical).  It was in 1914, I think, in some smoke-filled bistro in Greenwich Village, and I was down there with some of my friends, and Reed came over to greet one of them … and not long thereafter he went over and was in the October Revolution … When I think that I might have done that, or something like it, I am shamed and deeply sick in spirit. For what have I done, in the seventy years I have had? … Advertising to make people buy things they do not need, at prices far beyond their true worth …

Remembering with fondness their time as classmates, Hawkins saw Adams as a frustrated idealist:

Your unhappiness though is, I suspect, that of so many intellectuals who expect too much of people. And with the people being what they are throughout the world, I wonder just where you might go to find happiness. In thinking back over the years I can recall now that you were a revolutionary from the start during our early years when we roamed the campus together at Blacksburg … You are though my favorite revolutionary and though it would have been thrilling to say, “I knew him well – he was one of my dearest friends” – I’m really glad that you didn’t distinguish yourself in the same way that John Reed and Lenin and Castro did.”

Taylor Adams (left) and Herman Hawkins are pictured as classmates in the 1910 Bugle.

During the next few years, the two men occasionally exchanged letters that present in microcosm the contrast of opinions on the overarching issues of the day—civil  rights, nuclear arms, and the Vietnam War—Adams  espousing views that at the time were considered fairly radical and often sharing printed materials from such organizations as the NAACP and the Congress for Racial Equality, while Hawkins held on to prevailing conservative opinions, such as his take on Adams’ activities as a speech-writer for the NAACP:

I do believe that you are being unrealistic for the highest hurdle the Negro has to clear is that of prejudice[,] and what you are doing through the N.A.A.C.P. – the writing of speeches for the traveling educators being sent through the plague ridden Southern States – will do nothing more than harden and heighten this barrier of prejudice.

Hawkins abruptly cut off correspondence in 1962, though Adams apparently made at least one more attempt at contact. Adams, having  retired from advertising, continued to use much of his free time in sharing his opinions with whomever would listen. The Hawkins collection contains several opinion pieces that Adams contributed to publications both large and small.

In 1969, perhaps recalling the reaction that he’d been able to provoke as editor of the student newspaper 60 years earlier, Adams placed three advertisements in The Virginia Tech. In the first, he exhorted students and their parents to protest a raise in the school’s room and board rates. In another ad, Adams offered a five-dollar reward to the first person answering two questions: “How many Negroes are on the academic (not sports, dance, or Home Ec.) faculty of VPI?” and “Give name and brief description of all academic courses in Negro History, Culture and related specifically Negro subjects.” It was Adams’ third ad, however, that caused a stir.

Learning that U.S. Army Chief of Staff General William Westmoreland would be delivering an address at Virginia Tech’s ROTC commissioning ceremony on June 7, Adams  place an ad in the Tech calling for recruits for a “guerilla battalion” to protest the event. The ad generated a brief firestorm of controversy, and the Hawkins collection contains a number of opinion pieces against Adams specifically and school protests generally. In the end, Adams claimed that the ad was a joke. According to a May 22 article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “He said he ran it because he wanted ‘to stick a pin’ in the people at VPI, a school which he contends is behind the times.” Citing poor health, the 80-year-old Adams did not leave his home in New York to attend the event. A small, peaceful protest was, however, staged at the ceremony. (You can see footage of it in this Youtube video.)

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Taylor Adams’ ad in a 1969 issue of The Virginia Tech

Adams continued writing about issues of the day into his 90s and died in 1981; Hawkins died that same year.

The Hawkins papers would of course be of interest to anybody researching Hawkins, and especially his involvement in the alumni association, but much more importantly, the papers provide a small glimpse into the private, conflicting opinions of two Virginia Tech alumni on some of the bigger questions confronting the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.

“With reluctance I seat myself…:” A Mother on the Home Front

March is Women’s History Month. Over on the History of Food & Drink blog, I’ll be profiling women who made contributions and influenced American culinary history. Which got me thinking about our other manuscript collections, women who lived through American history and women whose words are on our shelves. If you had the time to look through our nearly 1800 collections, you would find many women’s names. Most of them aren’t famous, but their letters, diaries, architectural drawings, cookbooks, and other papers can be important both as individual objects and in the larger context.

That being said, I thought I’d share Nancy B. Harbin’s letter. Written in the second year of the American Civil War, Nancy writes from Calhoun County, Mississippi to her sons in Richmond, Virginia. Jack, John, and Edward all served with Company F, 42nd Regiment, Mississippi Infantry.

As with many mothers, her concern is first and foremost for the well-being of her sons. Her letter is really two letters: one to Jack and a second to John. She doesn’t write Edward directly, which may be the result of his being “so near death.” It is unclear if he was sick or injured. (Our research on the family wasn’t as fruitful as we might hope–which sometimes the case–and we don’t know if any of Nancy’s sons survived the war. ) On the one hand, this is a letter from a mother to her children, providing them updates from home, sharing her concern and love for them, and encouraging them. On the other, the very fact that it has survived 152 years makes it an important part of the larger body of Civil War materials in our collections and far more than a simple letter from mother to sons. Because Nancy’s concerns are what we might expect from such a letter, it is both specific to her family and a representative voice of the Civil War home front correspondence of the time.

We have other home front letters from women (and men!) in our Civil War holdings, and if you were to keep reading, you would see similar themes, regardless of location, relationship, or loyalty. If you’d like to do so, come visit us and we’ll be happy to help!

Alexandria and Fairfax Counties Civil War Correspondence

Today I finished up the first phases of work on a great collection of Civil War correspondence.  The collection includes 19 letters by 18 different authors. Unless there’s a connection (usually family, business/organization, institutional, or something along those lines), we tend to name and organize collections based on the creators. So, under “normal” conditions, if such a thing exists (one of our favorite phrases in the archives world is “it depends”), these letters might have ended up as 17 collections (two of the letter writers are brothers). These 19 letters, though, have something else in common: location. Each was written in or around Alexandria and Fairfax counties in Virginia. And each was written within the first 16 months of the Civil War. As a result of that, we’ve decided to treat them as a single, cohesive unit. This group of letters offers a unique perspective on the early experiences of Union and Confederate soldiers around Washington DC in the early months of the war. There are number of common elements: regiments cutting down trees to build up defenses, skirmishes between forces, the need for food and clothes from home, and a frequent hope that soldiers “hope to be home soon.” 

You can see the finding aid for the Alexandria and Fairfax Counties [Virginia] Civil War Correspondence (Ms2013-029) online here. The contents list of the finding aid includes links to the digitized letters and, when available, the transcripts. You can also go straight to Omeka (our emerging digital content platform) and see the letters and transcripts here. The digital images all have links back to the finding aid, as well. The idea is that we’re creating online connections to help our researchers move back and forth from digitized primary sources to context for those materials easily.

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Franklin B. Lukens served in Company E of the 3rd Regiment, New Jersey Infantry. His December 9, 1861 letter to his parents mentions that there is a man missing who has not been found. He talks about a woman who is a Secessionist and her slaves. He closes by asking them to write soon.

This collection remains a work-in-progress, as we expect new materials from the donor in 2014 and into the future. As new materials arrive, we’ll continue digitize them and update the finding aid. We’ll be able to offer new insight into early war-time conditions and experiences as the collection continues to grow.

The Alexandria and Fairfax Counties [Virginia] Civil War Correspondence (Ms2013-029) is not the first collection we’ve placed in Omeka (https://omeka.lib.vt.edu/), nor is it the first one we’ve digitized, but it’s the first one to go through acquisition, digitization, processing, and addition to the web in sequence and within a short period of time. We hope it will help us create and shape our workflow for the future as we digitize more collections. It may not be a speedy process, so we also hope you’ll bear with us as we create new material to share. We promise, it’ll be worth it.

Victoria Cross & Other Pseudonyms

Virginia Tech Special Collections may not be known for our literary collections, but we have our fair share of literary surprises among the stacks. And we constantly find new ones. We have a wonderful selection of British and American first editions on our shelves, including a first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses and a signed Langston Hughes’ A New Song. Although I am an archivist at heart, my background is in literature and the long 19th century of British writing. One day, perusing manuscript collections from the days before VT had a Special Collections department, I found a letter written by Victoria Cross. Her name may not sound familiar, but the letter says something about an author who was considered racy and bold in her own time.

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July 20, 1909

Dear Mr. Morris

I am sending you an autograph copy of Life’s Shop window and I should be so glad if you will read it through carefully from beginning to end and form your own opinion on it. People who are jealous of me always howl at my writings the reproach that they are immoral From my own point of view I have never written a single immoral line in my life. I am immensely proud of my books and would read them aloud to a jury of Bishops with the greatest of pleasure any time.

It is most important for you to feel the same confidence as I do in them and to know personally the contents of one at least so that you can combat the rediculous [sic] statements made about me. I know how extremely busy you are but if you will make time to read it carefully, I know when you are in the U. S. and can speak with authority on my work, you will feel the time spend in reading it was not wasted.

With so many thanks for all the trouble you have taken for me already

Yours sincerely

Victoria Cross

Victoria Cross was one of several pseudonyms of Annie Sophie Cory (1868-1952), a British writer in the late 19th and early 20th century. She also wrote as Victoria Crosse, Vivian Cory, and V. C. Griffin. Cory was born in India and educated in England. She never married, and traveled extensively– two things that put her outside the normal expectations of her gender and place in society. Both are aspects of her life that influence her writing, likely leading to declarations of her “immorality” mentioned in the letter. And yet she, and a score of other late Victorian “New Women” writers helped to shape the next generation of women authors.

Despite the claims of their scandalous, exotic, or “immortal” nature, Cory’s works were well-read and popular in many circles. After all, how many readers are tempted by the novel that they are told isn’t appropriate reading? Life’s Shop-Window, the book she mentions in her letter, was first published in 1907. You can read it online through the Internet Archive. In 1914, it was even made into a movie! If you’re seeking a slightly shorter introduction to “Victoria Cross,” I recommend her first published short story, “Theodora: A Fragment” which appeared in The Yellow Book in 1895. Contemporary morals may be different, but you’ll still be in for a treat.

And as for us, well, we get to keep a little piece of that progressive, confident, “New Woman” history in our Special Collections.

Love in Wartime

I dont know how much pleasure it affords you to go over these days of the past, but to me they will ever be remembered as days of felicity. And how happy the thought that years increase the affection & esteem we have for each other to love & be loved. May it ever be so, and may I ever be a husband worthy of your warmest affections. May I make you happy and in so doing be made happy in return. A sweet kiss and embrace to your greeting.

But maybe you will say it looks ridiculous to see a man getting grayhaired to be writing love letters, so I will use the remnant of my paper otherwise…
Yours affectionately H Black

Harvey Black (1827-1888) was a physician in Southwest Virginia. When the Civil War broke out, he was attached to the 4th Virginia, 1st Brigade, known as the Stonewall Brigade. In 1863, he wrote a love letter to his wife Mary (who he affectionately called “Mollie”)  in Blacksburg, recalling their courtship. The quote above comes from the last few lines. You can see a transcript of the letter online, and you can read more about the Black family and their papers at Special Collections here.

Happy (early) Valentine’s Day!