Virginia Tech gets grant to preserve history of Fries cotton mill

Published: Aug. 30, 2018 at 6:00 PM EDT
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Virginia Tech is working to weave a story out of the remnants of a once booming cotton mill. The history of the lives of hundreds of people tucked away in a small southwest Virginia town is getting a second look.

It starts in a department on the bottom floor of the Newman Library at Virginia Tech.

"It's pretty daunting when you're looking at 150 feet of material and not know where to start," said Aaron Purcell, with one town's entire history spread out on a table in front of him.

“IT was boxed up very haphazardly, and we’re still finding things in the boxes that we are surprised by including some textile samples," he explained. "Your traditional ledger books, a few odds and ends with images of different mills that the company was connected to.”

Purcell heads up the university's Special Collections department which is unboxing the history of the Washington Cotton Mill in Fries.

“It’s like December 25th sometimes, when you wake up you see the box, you have no idea what’s in it other than a one word description and then you get into something that has amazing detail of the people who worked in this town and lived there their entire lives through multiple generations," Purcell said with a smile. "To be able to uncover that information that you know no one has looked at in many many years is very exciting.”

The department now has a $68,722 grant to hire one person full time for a year to organize and archive these items and the history of the people who used them.

"This is evidence of a time that is no longer here and people that are no longer here," Purcell said. "We serve as the caretakers of this information and we want it to be accessible long after we're gone as well."

That includes the families of Fries native, Marie Isom, council woman and manager of tourism and town parks.

"My father was a minister as well as working in the cotton mill," she said, noting her mother and grandfather also worked in the mill.

Isom remembers life here when the mill ruled all, noting it owned the town and would manage daily needs of the people who lived there.

“Bud Nichols during my time was the gentleman that run the drug store and everybody loved Bud and you’d go down there and get a soft drink or a hot dog or whatever," she said with a smile.

Isom said the mill's closure in the late '80s hit the small town hard. But she claimed they remained resilient despite going from one of the southwest Virginia's wealthiest towns to, at one time, the poorest town in the whole state.

"And it just seemed like we were a community, but more than a community it seemed like we were a family."

It's a family history that might be lost with the cotton mill itself if not for the thread now tying it together at Virginia Tech.

"We don't want this just sitting in boxes unorganized," Purcell said. "We want people to use it."

Isom said the town is now small but fiercely proud of its history. In fact, locals are in the process of preserving the old mill's bell, sitting on a hill atop the main plaza.

And for Isom, the preservation work by the collections department is a reminder that the lives she and others lived in this small, Appalachian town won't be forgotten.

“To be able to preserve that and to know that my children and my grandchildren will be able to look on that and say, 'well I knew, you know Grandma was a part of that or great grandma was a part of that,' that means a lot to you to be able to have that in a place or in a position where they can refer back to that and see what took place years ago."

Purcell said the collection will remain on Tech's campus until future decisions about its whereabouts are made. Part of the grant will also allow them to digitize cornerstone documents for anyone to access. Purcell also said anyone is welcome to take a look at the collection anytime they would like.