Many Virginians have heard of 18th century New River Valley frontierswoman Mary Draper Ingles, who is now part of the Virginia Women’s Monument unveiled this month in Richmond.
Few outside of Smyth County, however, had heard of another woman who is on the monument: Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver.
Today both of them, cast in bronze, stand on Richmond’s Capitol Square representing the grit and innovation of Southwest Virginia women.
The monument, titled “Voices from the Garden,” was dedicated on Oct. 14. There, statues of seven women who made important contributions to the commonwealth over four centuries were unveiled, including Ingles and Copenhaver. Five additional statues are planned for the $4 million project.
Ingles was famous in her day and remains so for her escape from Shawnee captivity and 500-mile trek through the Appalachian wilderness to get home.
But Copenhaver’s story — that of a teacher, Lutheran lay leader and early entrepreneur from Marion who employed the region’s farmers and weavers in the hard years of the Great Depression — had faded from view, until now.
Copenhaver died in 1940 at 72, but during her life she built a company in Marion called Rosemont Industries that lifted the economy of Southwest Virginia and outlived her by decades.
Her story is “an example of someone who saw a need her community and found a creative way to help address it and really made a difference through using local women and their traditional skills to create products that could be marketed … across the country, and in fact the world,” said Sandy Treadway, librarian of Virginia and a member of the Virginia Women’s Monument Commission.
From teacher to businesswoman
Born in 1868 in Columbus, Texas, Laura Lu Scherer moved with her family in 1871 to Smyth County, where her father worked as a Lutheran minister. Later he opened Marion College, from which his daughter graduated and where she taught for more than 20 years. She married Bascom Eugene Copenhaver in 1895.
Active in Lutheran outreach, Laura Copenhaver is still known within the denomination as the lyricist for a well-known Protestant hymn, “Heralds of Christ.” But it was her business acumen and work as an entrepreneur that set her apart.
In 1920, World War I and an influenza epidemic had taken its toll, and the country was sliding toward economic depression. As a Smyth County worker for the newly-formed American Farm Bureau, Copenhaver looked for solutions to a wool surplus that had pushed down prices for area farmers.
She hit on an idea: to build a cooperative that offered farmers good prices for their wool and employed women to use it in hand-weaving textiles for sale.
They began making coverlets in traditional patterns taken from the antique textiles of the region and selling them through women’s clubs and parent-teacher associations. The coverlets caught on.
Eventually Copenhaver organized the endeavor under Rosemont Industries, named for her Marion house. Women working for the company produced bedspreads, canopies, fringes and hooked rugs, both in Marion and in their homes.
Demand for their work was so great that Copenhaver contracted with Clinch Valley Blanket Mills in Cedar Bluff, which had a power loom. That partnership expanded employment to men, according to Appalachian historian Kathleen Curtis Wilson.
“Rosemont was one of many places trying to help the economy by supporting local craftwork,” Wilson wrote. “The business lasted much longer than many of the craft centers and was known for the beautiful house, hospitality, and fine quality crafts. People traveling though the region often stopped in Marion to visit Rosemont and buy gifts to take home.”
Copenhaver marketed the products nationally and even expanded into other countries, overseeing the business until her death in 1940. Her family continued the company, reorganizing it in the 1960s as Laura Copenhaver Industries.
It’s unclear how many people Rosemont employed over its history. But Rita Copenhaver, whose husband Tom, Laura’s grandson, continued the business until 2013, said the family contracted with women working across Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee and North Carolina.
“We talk about value-added agriculture, and this is what she was doing before we had the term,” said Emily Edmondson, who today represents Smyth County on the board of the Virginia Farm Bureau.
Copenhaver understood the economy of the time and found a way to help farmers and put people to work, Edmondson said. “She was just really an extraordinary woman and an inspiration to entrepreneurs.”
After learning of Copenhaver’s work the Virginia Farm Bureau gave $100,000 to cover half the cost of her statue. The balance came from Copenhaver’s family and other donations to the Virginia Capitol Foundation.
About 30 of Copenhaver’s descendants attended the dedication ceremony in Richmond this month.
“To think what she did to bring up women for what they could do at the time and display their skills,” said Katy Copenhaver Davidson of South Carolina. “I’m in awe of those women.”
Room for the future
The history of the monument itself is one of bold action by pioneering Virginia women.
The first of its kind in the nation, the effort was begun a decade ago by Em Bowles Locker Alsop, then in her late 80s. The Richmond native spent her early career in New York City where she became a sought-after public speaker, a journalist for national media and a public relations consultant.
A decade ago, she and a group of her friends descended on the General Assembly to advocate for a monument to the contributions and achievements of Virginia’s foremothers.
“They articulated that they had been active all their lives doing so many things,” state librarian Treadway said. “And yet they had this feeling that they were marginalized, that nobody valued those endeavors ... and they just felt that was wrong.”
Treadway said Alsop was impressive in her boldness, lecturing legislators in committee about the importance of women to the commonwealth’s evolution. The legislature approved the monument in 2010.
“They passed that resolution overwhelmingly,” Treadway said. “No one was going to take that on because they knew she was right.”
But Alsop didn’t get to see the monument she prodded into existence. She died in 2015 at 98. The next year, the House of Delegates passed a resolution honoring her life.
The 19-member Virginia Women’s Monument Commission, with support from the Capitol Foundation developed a plan to add a granite plaza and 12 life-size bronze statues of women to the square, which until now had been dominated by statues of a dozen men. It also includes a glass “Wall of Honor” listing 230 other notable women.
Five of the 12 statues remain to be erected as funding allows, but even then, it will not be finished, Treadway said. The glass wall reserves space for new names.
“That means a young person looking at the monument can say: ‘My name could be up there someday,’ ” Treadway said. “And that’s exciting.”