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!

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.

Ansil T. Bartlett & A Bird

In April 1865, a young man named Ansil T. Bartlett was in Farmville, Virginia (or, as he put it, Farmsville). From what we know, Bartlett enlisted with Company D of the 58th Regiment, Massachusetts Infantry in early 1864. Although he spent less than 18 months in service during the war, his regiment was involved in action at Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, and the fall of Petersburg, among other places. On April 15, 1865, he wrote a letter home to his father.

58th in camp at Farmsville
April 15th 1865
Dear Father
I now seat myself to write you a few lines top let you know that I am alive and well and hope to find you enjoying the same pleasure it is a very hard place here. Sheridan’s Cavalry has made havoc in and about the houses. they took all that they had to eat and in some places all of the women’s clothing. that taking clothing I don’t think was just right they took everything even to the babies clothes. it looked rather hard. I am on guard at a house now while I am writing these few lines to you. give my love to all and take care of yourself and not get sick for I want you to live and see your son when he gets home and then we will try to live and enjoy our self for the rest of our life. it is a very pleasant country around here it is planting time but the niggers are all leaving for the north. I heard that General Curtain was giving no discharge all of his boys in 4 months. and I heard that Grant said that the volunteers army would all be discharged in 6 weeks but you cannot believe all that you hear this is all that I can think of now this is from your son good bye yours truly

Ansil T Bartlett
Co D 58thRegt Mass. Vet. Vols
Washington
DC
give my love to all and tell them that I expect to be at home by the 4th of July there is a good time coming

Written only days after Lee’s surrender, Bartlett cautions his father against believing any rumors about when he might be discharged, though his own post script suggests he thought 2 months wasn’t unreasonable. His letter is not uncommon in many senses: he reports on his current activities, recounts what he has witnessed around him recently, and looks forward to a life after the war. (Bartlett was actually discharged in late July of 1865.)

What really struck me about this letter the first time I saw it, though, was what came at the end–Bartlett’s drawing of a bird. 152 years later, we don’t have any clue as to why he drew it or what it symbolized to him. He doesn’t comment on it and it looks almost like an afterthought, tacked on to the close of his letter. But, it’s also write on the heels of his final reminder: “there is a good time coming.” Perhaps it was a reminder of that, and an image that represents a good future. Perhaps is meant to be an eagle, a bird used by many regiments on their flags and, at the time, at least part of the country. Perhaps it meant something specific to his father. Or maybe it’s just something he drew to fill the space at the close of his note. Whatever the case, it certainly makes Bartlett’s letter something unique.

The finding aid for this collection is available online. In addition, it has been digitized. You can see these two pages, as well as the third (which includes an addresses and some calculations) online.

The Political Record in Special Collections

Since the 2016 election was last week, I thought I’d take a look at what political items Special Collections has in our collections. We have papers of politicians, committees, and local interest groups from students at Virginia Tech to U.S. legislators. These are, of course, only a handful of the collections in Special Collections that you may find of interest if you desire to know more about politics and campaigning in the New River Valley, Virginia, and Appalachia, so come down to learn more or contact us with your queries!

William C. Wampler Congressional Papers, Ms1982-003

I mentioned previously the William C. Wampler Congressional Papers, when I discussed our offsite storage in A Look Behind the Glass Door… Part 2. A Virginia Tech graduate, Wampler served nearly two decades in the U. S. House of Representatives as a Republican from Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s-1980s. His collection contains legislative files, constituent letters, photographs, campaign material, and documents from the house committees he served. Photographs below depict just a portion of the 250-box collection while being inventoried.

Dana Harmon Papers, Ms2011-013

Special Collections is also home to the Dana Harmon Papers, who ran as a Republican in Tennessee in the early 20th century. The two-box collection contains letters, newspaper clippings, family papers, financial papers, and a scrapbook.

Virginia Tech Young Democrats Scrapbook, Ms2014-005

We also have collections related to the Democratic Party in Special Collections. First, we have the Virginia Tech Young Democrats Scrapbook. This collection contains a scrapbook put together by the Young Democrats for 1986 thru 1988. It contains photographs, event programs, newspaper clippings, certificates, newsletters, and local campaign materials. Below are items from the scrapbook.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The following is the Virginia Tech Young Democrats Constitution, c. 1986:

Montgomery County [Virginia] Democratic Committee Records, Ms1989-061

Next is the Montgomery County, Virginia, Democratic Committee Records. Dating from 1961 thru 1994, this eight-box collection consists of minutes from the county Democratic conventions, correspondence with the state electoral board, committee meeting minutes, materials about candidates and campaigns, newspaper clippings about local political issues, polling and registration information, and assorted publications. While the bulk of the material focuses on the Democratic Party’s issues and candidates, there is also literature about Republican and independent/third-party candidates as well as the League of Women Voters.

 

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 Not-So-Fleeting (aka “Ephemeral”) Broadside

Over on the History of Food & Drink blog this month, I’ve been sharing some culinary-related ephemera. Since I’m writing for both blogs this week, I’m working on a theme and to that end, located some local history pieces to share. Not sure what ephemera is? That’s okay–we can help!

Ephemera: pl. n. (ephemeron, sing.) ~ Materials, usually printed documents, created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use. (Thanks, Society of American Archivists for that helpful definition!) So, in other words, things like advertisements, flyers, tickets, or receipts. More specifically, this post is about broadsides. Not sure about that word either (we archivists sometimes like our fancy words!)?

Broadside: (also broadsheet), n. ~ A single sheet with information printed on one side that is intended to be posted, publicly distributed, or sold. Often times, broadsides take the form of flyers or advertisements for events…like these:

Floyd County Land Auction Broadside, 1859.
Floyd County Land Auction Broadside, 1859.

Crockett Mineral Springs Land and Equipment Auction Broadside, 1931.
Crockett Mineral Springs Land and Equipment Auction Broadside, 1931.

Okay, you’ve got me. The next one, since it has two sides, isn’t technically a broadside, but it is ephemeral and it is still a local auction advertisement!

Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Front)
Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Front)

Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Back)
Nelson R. Wilson Auction Notice, 1932. (Back)

Yellow Sulphur Springs Sale Broadside, 1943.
Yellow Sulphur Springs Sale Broadside, 1943.

As you may have noticed, some of these aren’t in the best of condition. Oddly enough (or perhaps not?), the oldest one, from 1859, is in the best shape. Paper-making processes in 1859 resulted in a product that was better designed to withstand time, more so than paper being made in the 1930s and 1940s. But remember, the reason we call these items ephemera is because of their expected short life span and transitory nature. Once they have fulfilled their purpose, on the surface, they may not seem to have enduring value. And to be honest, even in 1943, who would be thinking “Hey, I should really keep this flyer from that land and building sale that’s coming up this weekend in Yellow Sulphur Springs.” Lucky for us, someone did, because even ephemeral documents have research value!

Depending on the kind of information they contain, broadsides and other pieces of ephemera can be useful for a variety of reasons. Doing research on the history of a piece of land? Auction flyers might tell you about different sales over time. They’re also a great way to learn about local government officials, the closure of a business (and resulting disposition of property), and like the one from Crockett Mineral Springs, may even include handwritten notations. Broadsides don’t have all the answers, but they can often add another piece of the puzzle that is primary source research. Saved receipts can offer insight in the domestic and business purchases of an individual, family, or corporation. Tickets kept after decades can help show the change in prices or popularity of events. There are all kinds of great reasons you’ll find ephemera in special collections and archives, and it’s important to remember that your research can both take you in unexpected directions and benefit from unexpected discoveries.

So, next time you see a flyer on a building, in a community space, or on a campus, give it a brief glance. It might just be a future piece of history.

Literature in Southwest Virginia

Author Lucy Herndon Crockett wasn’t born in Southwest Virginia, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add her to the list of American writers with ties to the area. She moved to Seven Mile Ford (Smyth County), Virginia, later in her life in 1947, and worked on several books and manuscripts there. Born in Hawaii in 1914, she travelled as a speech writer and secretary for the chairman of the American Red Cross, and served as a Red Cross worker in World War II, spending time in the South Pacific and Asia. This time abroad was a strong influence the books she wrote during and after the war. Crockett was also an illustrator, creating drawings for her books and the books of others. One of her first publications, from the 1930s, was actually a short booklet on decoupage and decoration. Her interests were as varied as her subjects.

The gallery below includes images items in Special Collections, including an inscribed edition of Pong Choolie, You Rascal–! and typescripts with Crockett’s edits to published and unpublished manuscripts.

During her career, Crockett wrote 11 books and illustrated many more. Since 2011, Special Collections has acquired copies of all of her authored works (see the list below), though a few are still in cataloging. They should be available soon. Crockett’s audience varied. Lucio and His Nuong and That Mario are related books (Lucio and Mario are brothers) written for children and younger adults. Popcorn on the Ginzo, Teru, and The Magnificent Bastards reflect her experiences living in Asia after World War II, as well as her other later works, were for adult readers.

 

Bibliography
c.1930s?- Decoupage: The Pleasures and Perplexities of Decorating with Paper Motifs
1939- Lucio and His Nuong: A Tale of the Philippine Islands
1940- Capitan: The Story of an Army Mule
1941- That Mario
1949- Popcorn on the Ginzo: An Informal Portrait of Postwar Japan
1950- Teru: A Tale of Yokohama
1953- The Magnificent Bastards (Later made into a movie- The Proud and Profane)
1957- Kings Without Castles
1960- The Year Something Almost Happened in Pinoso
1963- Pong Choolie You Rascal!
Unpublished manuscript, dated 1972- “Bus Station Blues”

 

You can read more about the collection and Lucy Herndon Crockett in the finding aid online. You can also visit us to see more of the collection. There are many authors with connections to our area, and Crockett isn’t the only about whom we have papers and manuscripts–we’ve recently acquired materials by and about Sherwood Anderson, for example. However, Crockett is a lesser-known name in many circles. By preserving and providing access to these papers, we can offer a little insight into her creative experience, and hopefully, introduce her to a new audience in a new century.