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.


  1. Actually, the Town of Fries is looking for developers for the old mill site.
    Plans include a small strip-mall with a few shops along the banks of New River, a restaurant and/or lodging facilities in the parking lot area just above and overlooking where the old mill stood, and possibly a new fire department building in one corner of the parking lot.
    A small tent campground with walking trails has been mentioned for the town-owned property just across the highway (Rt.94) from the mill parking lot.
    The recreation area is to be downriver from the current Town Park which is located at the Red Caboose and will be between New River and the New River Trail. Construction is scheduled to begin in April 2009.

  2. Thank you for setting that straight, and now that you mention the proposed restaurant and lodging, I remember seeing a sketch of that in the Gazette.

    It's quite a town, and I look forward to visiting there again!

  3. I updated the text of this posting a bit to more correctly reference plans for the former mill site as the above reader provided.

  4. I live in Spartanburg, SC where Hines took photos of some of the local mills, workers and mill villages. I've been working on histories of some of these mills. You can check out my blog. Look for the categories on the right hand side and look for "cotton mills". I have photos of some of the mills that I took in the last month.

  5. My grandparents met while working at the mill. They married and 1 year later my father was born. My grandfather was an electician so he lived half way up the hill. his family originated from Cripple Creek, close by.

    My father became a pilot so we lived all the US and Japan. I chose to live near Independence, just a few miles from Fries....we came full circle.

    I love reading about Fries, it is a facinating town.

    Thanks for your photos.

  6. My father was also born in Cripple Creek in Wythe County. My grandfather was a machinest in the mine at Cripple Creek. When the depression hit and the mine went bust they moved to Fries around 1930. My grandfather was a 3rd shift machinist and did various other jobs like "watching" over holidays and weekends. My grandfather was also the sextant (handiman) for the white weatherboard church (Fries First United Methodist Church).
    Interesting facts: the plant manager when the plant shut down in 1989 actually came to work for the textile company I worked for in Concord, NC. The writer of the book My Day To Wear the Underwear was a friend of my father's while growing up. They played ball together. In Fact the author's wife actually took my mom home from college (Bowman Gray Medical School) where she met my dad while he was home on leave from the Air Force in 1948.
    Despite roots of child labor, the town actually became a great place to live and raise a family since the mill provided housing, power, water, sewer, as well as leasure activities. Not a bad way to live when times were hard and considerably better than the surrounding mountains. My mother is retire and lives in Galax.

  7. I live in fries and i must say that it is a very fascinating town. I honestly can say that i do get board often, but I cannot seem to find something to do that I like. As far as i know.. its october and nothing has been done to the land where the precious mill once sat. I will say that they have closed down the corner cafe and the "Stretch a Dollar" store, due to an explosion. If you ever come back to fries... they have currently renovated the houses up infront of the fries YMCA..on the backside that is.... fries just wants to be loved... if you come in the fall you could be in time for thr fall festival. Thanks..

  8. Thanks for the comment! I got back to Galax in early July, but with so many relatives to visit while I'm there, unfortunately, I didn't make it back to Fries, but had been wondering how progress on the mill site had been going. You live in an interesting place! I would like to stay at one of the inns sometime in Fries and spend more time there. Would love to stay at the campground, but I think that would require a camper, or at the very least a tent, both of which I don't have!

  9. while i look at these pictures with my grandaughter explain how the cotton miller worked tears go down my face as i remember how proud me and my family was to have such a good job in cotton mill to raise family.

    Gertrude bates (me), lonni bates (dad), bessie bates (mom), jimmy bates (brother)

    i may live in baltimor now but my heart will always be in fries i can remember as a child sitting on the bench in front of the cotton mill as my mom and dad stood in the window of the cotton mill waving at me as i waited for shift to change. As i think of those days and the pride i felt for my parents is over wellming. My dream was to work there when i got old enough in hopes they would feel that same pride for me.

    At the age of 18 i began to work in the winding department i had left the cotton mill i believe in the begining of 1982.

    The heart break of not knowing if you were the next to go as the process of shutting down the cotton mill, it was great deal of stress cause it was so many people life and seeing friends and family go and knowing the pain they felt.

    For the people who take the time to post pictures and comments thank you from the bottom of my heart for carring as most of my family have past away and went to better place just as the memories of my family as well the memories of fries and the cotton mill will never die but they will forever dwell in my heart.


    thanks for taking to time read this.

    with great love
    gertrude bates williston

    you can email me at

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Thanks to everyone for posting on here. My aunts & uncles lived there yrs ago. They were Mabes & being the youngest in the family, I have missed out on stories of Fries, I would love to hear from anyone that knew them or has pictures, I understand that Frances Mabe had a beauty shop that at one time & that Lefty Mabe was a great ball player in school. Molly Mabe kept my dad alot during his growing up days. They are all gone now so I am looking for any info. Thanks, God bless Fries, Va

    1. goodyearfreckles@gmail.com3/7/15, 3:45 PM

      I remember Frances. She cut my hair a few times when I was really young. She had a little seat that rested on top of the arms of the adult chair. She loved to laugh. She was definitely a character. I believe her grave marker is inscribed "One Of A Kind". From what I recall, that was true. If you want to message me, I will see what else I can find out for you. Unfortunately, it has been a while since you posted here.

  12. Such a very fine post and i lile it. thanks for sharing with us...

  13. Clayton Hensley6/25/10, 11:23 PM

    I lived in Fries for 4 years and was a member of the FHS Class of 1988. There was only one more graduating class after mine. This town will always hold a special place in my heart. Wonderful to see the old pictures as well as the more recent ones. It is a place rich in history and beauty.

  14. Check out this site.

    Thousands of old Fries pictures and such.

    Don Bond

  15. Fries, Va. has a website under Fries High School. Lots of local stories, updates, events and photos posted.

  16. My mother was born in Fries. Edna Gilley. Her parents are buried there in the local cemetery. My sister, niece and I visited for the first time about a month ago. I was so happy to see such a lovely place, that my mother grew up in. She has been gone for almost 40 years, but I felt close to her in that little town. Thanks Fries........

  17. The weekend of November 4,2014 I visited Fries for the first time in probably 30 years. My great grandparents, Howard & Maude Reedy lived there from approximately 1901-1910. Howard's mother Rebecca Jane Peak Reedy is buried there, as well as some of their infant children, including 2 sets of twins. They moved there from Speedwell/Camp/Cripple Creek area so he could help build the mill & the mill houses. He was a carpenter, as well as his brother-in-law John Fulton. Howard's sister Sarah Jane Reedy married Nat Hester & they had 3 children, Wilmer, Ruth, & Harry. Sarah & Harry died in the 1918 flu epidemic. A younger brother Charles Ford Reedy died the next day. I had the pleasure of meeting Nat's 2nd wife Myrtle 30 years ago, & was very close to Nat & Sarah's daughter Ruth Hester Cornett. So many people I knew as a young child were born in Fries & always spoke often of the people there. In November, I stopped in Fries again, & was just in awe of the place. So much history, so much beauty. I envy the residents there. I meet brothers Harry & Larry, caretakers of the cemetery, & Jill Hill, town treasurer. Super nice people. Everybody I met there was so friendly. You don't see that anymore. I love my town of Altavista, but could definitely see myself living in Fries one day. While I walked along the riverside & simply watched the water & geese, looking at the Fall colors on the hills all around me, I wondered how they could have ever left. I will definitely be visiting there again soon, probably before the end of the summer. Brian Sisk.