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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!