The University Libraries’ Special  Collections department received a $68,722 grant to preserve and make accessible decades of materials that tell the complex story of Fries, Virginia, and its textile mill.

The grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grants-making arm of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, will fund a one-year archivist position to process the collection, organize community events, and promote the town’s history through outreach and exhibits.

The project, “They’re Closing Down the Textile Mill: Creating Access to the Fries Textile Plant Records at Virginia Tech,” illuminates the history of a small company town and its contributions to the American experience.

“The plant operated for 85 years, employing multiple generations in the town and the surrounding area. This collection reflects the rise and fall of the entire American textile industry during the twentieth century,” said Aaron Purcell, director of Special Collections and co-principal investigator of the grant.

In 1903, Col. Francis Henry Fries founded the town of Fries and constructed the textile plant in Grayson County, Virginia. He was president of the family-owned Washington Mills Company and used his political and business influence to build a connection to the main branch of the Norfolk and Western Railroad and a dam on the New River to generate power for the mill (Bond and Nichols, History of Fries).

“The Washington Mills Company owned nearly every building in town, which flourished in the early 20th century with a population of more than 1,700 by 1910,” said Purcell. During the early 20th century, entire families worked in the mill. “Employment at Washington Mills in Fries peaked after World War II with more than 1,200 workers. It was a major player in the textile mill industry with the latest equipment and technology to be had at the time.”

Fries textile mill employees work on the latest technology of the time, 1971.
A photo dated 1971 from the Washington Mills Company collection in University Libraries Special Collections.

“This collection gives a unique perspective of the company town. This mill is the reason the town existed. It’s rare to have decades of payroll records, ownership records for employee residences, the sales records from the company store, and even maintenance records for public amenities the company built to keep the employees happy,” said Laurel Rozema, archivist in Special Collections and co-principal investigator of the grant.

As a result of increased international competition in the textile industry, the mill closed in 1988. In 2016, the Fries Town Council officially donated the 150 cubic feet of company records to the University Libraries’ Special Collections department.

“This grant gives us an opportunity to protect this singular snapshot of American history and make it available to the public in a way that is most useful to researchers, students, and interested community members,” said Rozema.

“It tells the story of the men and women who for generations worked tirelessly in the textile industry hoping to advance professionally and create better opportunities for their children,” said Purcell. “This collection reveals the effects of a globalized post-industrial society on hometowns across America.”