BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech library archivists are studying the fabric of the former Southwest Virginia mill town called Fries — literally and figuratively.
A large collection of ledger books, business documents and even samples of textile fabrics make up a special collection that a federal grant will help properly preserve and catalog.
The special collection will bring the history of Fries out of the basement and into the public’s view, while shining a light on a unique American labor experience.
Fries is a small Grayson County town on the banks of the New River founded in 1903. The Washington Mills Company owned almost every building in the town before it closed its mill there in 1988.
The collection consists of years’ worth of documents that mill company officials simply left on office floors after the mill closed, said Aaron Purcell, director of special collections at the Tech library.
The materials — which include more than 100 boxes of documents, a number of large books and some fabric samples —take up about 150 cubic feet in Virginia Tech’s archival unit.
Things like records of trains coming and going illustrate the output of the mill and its effects, Purcell said. “We can look at things like how many loads of fabric were coming and going to piece together how this little town was connected to the country and to the globe,” Purcell said.
The key will be to have an archivist interpret the data to see how things changed at the mill over time.
Strikes and labor organizations were common in industrial Southwest Virginia in the early 20th century. One of the big questions for Purcell is why the mill in Fries never experienced a strike or acquired a union.
Only study of the documents and interpreting the numbers in them can answer that question. Tech is in the process of hiring an archivist who will manage and properly catalogue the collection. That work is scheduled to take a year and will begin in earnest this fall, Purcell said.
The collection was originally assembled by a group of Fries citizens in 1989. At that time, they temporarily loaned the materials to Virginia Tech’s library. However, it was mostly left unattended by special collections managers because Tech didn’t technically own the documents, Purcell said.
In 2016, Purcell was able to bring the collection to the attention of the Fries Town Council, he said. They voted to give ownership over to Virginia Tech, with a stipulation that the town could borrow the materials.
After that, Purcell and his colleagues applied for a special collections grant meant to preserve demographic history in the United States.
The work on that effort will open a historical window that Purcell said is worthy of study as politicians discuss jobs.
“We’re in a post-industrial world, but we still talk about this kind of enterprise,” Purcell said. “We talk about the need for these kinds of jobs, though they left in the 1980s.”