Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fries, VA - Washington Cotton Mills

A few months ago, I was so excited to find out that Lewis Hine had taken some pictures in the town of Fries, Virginia. Twenty of his photos taken there are contained in the Library of Congress’ National Child Labor Committee Collection. (Note, if you just pronounced that town’s name in your head as “fries,” try again, it’s really pronounced like “freeze,” though the ongoing local joke is that it is “fries in the summer, and freeze in the winter.”)

Fries is a good 750 miles from my home, as well as from the location of the posts I have made on this blog so far. What brought me to Fries is my mom’s hometown – Galax, VA – which is only about 6 miles away from Fries. We try to make at least one annual summer trip to visit relatives and sightsee along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Our itinerary on this past month’s journey south included a stop in the town of Fries to see what Lewis Hine saw, and to see what still exists today.

Since my mom keeps up with local news there by her subscription to the
Galax Gazette newspaper, I already knew that the Washington Cotton Mills, where Hine shot some of his photos in Fries, would no longer be there to greet me, as it has mostly been demolished, and the land where it stood is being eyed for future development, including a small strip mall with a few shops along the banks of the New River, a restaurant and a hotel, among other plans.

So, my Beetle made the short journey from the house of one of my uncles in Galax to the town of Fries, a place I had never visited even though I have been coming to the area since my very first birthday. On I went, until my Google Map directions began to lead me off of a nicely paved road onto a dirt road. Hmmm, that didn’t seem quite right, so I used my best driver’s intuition, and returned to the main road, and just a few miles later, I found Fries. It was a short drive from Galax (less than 10 minutes), by way of a few winding roads I maneuvered by downshifting to second gear to make two of the turns without stalling. The book I finished earlier this summer about another photographer,
Marion Post Wolcott, and her early solo journeys to crannies of our country in the early 1930s to take photos for the Farm Security Administration crossed my mind as I entered Fries. It’s amazing to me that she, Hine, and others got to SO many places across our country in a seemingly short amount of time, especially given the vehicles they had at their disposal at the time, and the fact that they didn’t have the luxury to avoid dirt roads as I had.

While in Fries, I know I said outloud at least five times (and mentally, more): “I can’t believe Hine was here, too!” I was amazed at this compact town, built around – and because – of its former cotton mill. After making another trip later in the week and thinking about it some more, I found that in my mind, Fries is not too dissimilar from my father’s family’s original hometown, well, technically homevillage of Manville, RI.

In Fries, similar to Manville, a town was born to support the mill. At a gift shop in Fries, I picked up a business card that was near some handmade wooden items produced from pine taken from the now-disintegrated mill building. I love the picture on the front (see middle picture below), because it shows where the train tracks ended between buildings, which is where Hine found these young workers on his visit in 1911.

Here's what that same area looks like today, without the mill:

On the reverse of that business card, there is a brief history about the town of Fries, which also reminded me of Manville, RI, and many other towns that developed in New England and elsewhere to support the population that kept mills cranking. On the brief history outlined on the card, written by Avery Bond and Martha Nichols, it says, in part, “Approximately three hundred houses, a company commissary, post offices and other necessary business structures were built for the new population. In February 1903, the mill was sufficiently built and equipped to start operation…The textile mill ceased operation in 1989.”

While in the area, I bought a book titled
Saturday…My Day to Wear the Underwear!: Memories of “Old” Fries, Virginia by Allen Jennings. I’m only about an eighth of the way through the book so far, but it’s been shedding more light on the town of Fries and the overwhelming role the mill played in the lives of the families who settled there. After I got back home and thought about this visit some more, I was taken aback by the impact the mill brought to this town (and others, again, just like Manville), and how the mill came and went in less than a hundred years’ time, leaving behind towns, still very inhabited and existing today, but without their original heart.

Below photo is by Hine, taken in May 1910, captioned "View of the Washington Mills, Fries Va. Housing conditions are fairly good, but housekeeping not very good. Working very good. Good light, fresh air."

I took this picture below, but couldn't get the same angle as Hine did, as the walkway to where those circular metal gears are, is blocked off by a "No Tresspassing" sign, the one I chose to obey on my visit to Fries.

This photo from Hine is captioned very similarly to the one above, also taken in 1911, "View of the Washington Cotton Mills, Fries, Va. Housing conditions are fairly good, but housekeeping not very good. Working conditions in the mill are very good. Good light, fresh air."

Photo below is by Hine, taken in May 1911, captioned "Tommy Bullard and his family. He has been sweeping for over a year in Washington Cotton Mills, Fries, Va. Said he was 13, but it is doubtful. Mother is a widow. Sisters in the mill too. Family came a year ago from a farm at Elkins, N.C."
The above photo Hine took was likely taken beside a house that is on what is now named "Middle Street." I'm betting that this house still stands. I noticed that many of the houses in Fries are similarly built, with brick columns as their foundations, which over time have been filled around with cement blocks, and painted. I wasn't so much on the hunt for this house, as I was for the two churches that you can see in the background from Hine's photo. I found them, but had to take their picture from the front to get the best view.


Hine photo credits in the order they appear above:

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-01878.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-02073.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-01872.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-02137.