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!