By Taylor Boyd
With more than 100 years of rich history in manufacturing, Patrick County is a prime example of the development of work in the South.
Before the 1920s, the county was a primarily agricultural-based community.
Dean Goad, a member of the Stuart Town Council, said the staple work was “farming, apples, tobacco, and lumber,” with wood-based businesses like Bassett Furniture and Blackard & Cockram Chair Company employing many in textile work.
The latter sector grew during the 1920s, he said, with the expansion of the railroad system to Stuart. The Danville and Western Railroad (D&W) connected Stuart to Danville and the Mount Airy and Eastern Railway connected Mount Airy, N.C., and the Ararat area. These connections to larger areas allowed products to be shipped outside of the county at a faster rate, which increased Patrick County’s economy.
Before the railroad came to Stuart, travel was difficult, he said, adding that 1925 marked the first hard-paved road to Stuart from Martinsville. A nine-mile road to the North Carolina state line was created in 1929. The road to Hillsville was completed in 1932.
“Businesses were started along the rail lines,” Goad said. Manufacturing centers like Stuart Furniture Chair Factory, Stuart Lumber General Mill, and Stuart Cooperage Company, which produced wooden barrels, were built along the D&W rail lines.
The western portion of the D&W railroad was forced to close in summer of 1942 due to the United States’ involvement in World War II.
“They got all the iron from the railroad tracks. They used it because of the need for it” during the war, Goad said, and added that July 31,1942 was the final time a train departed from the Stuart station.
But, Goad said, manufacturing was not hindered by the loss of the railway, with companies like Eli Thomas Lumber Company, Stuart Lumber Company, Bassett Walker, Pannill’s Knitting Plant, and a cotton mill, opening in the county.
“A cannery opened in the train station after the trains left, and a milk processing facility opened where W&W (W&W Produce) is now,” Charlie Bowman, a Ruritan Club member added.
Organizations from outside the county, like United Elastic Corporation and Easthampton Cut Rubber Thread Company from MA, also located operations to Stuart.
The turning point for manufacturing came during the 1970s when Ronald Reagan was president, Goad said.
“His philosophy was that he was going to lower the tax rate on all the corporations in the United States, and they would make more money, and that way they would invest the money and create jobs” in the U.S., he said.
Instead, corporations began to create jobs in third-world countries to pay their workers lower wages while keeping the costs of goods the same. This allowed the companies to increase their profits, he said.
“They exported the jobs out. All those jobs are gone and never really came back because of cheap labor overseas,” Goad said, adding some companies, like the Pannill Knitting Plant, did not move, and that “resulted in them going out of business.”
When Easthampton shut down in 2002, about 300 people lost their jobs.
“Part of my job went to Australia, part of the other guy’s jobs went to Ireland,” Bowman said.
“It really hurt the middle class in Virginia and all over the whole country,” Goad added.
Narroflex Inc., Worley Machines, and Hanesbrands Inc. are some of the few manufacturing companies still operating in Patrick County today.
Hanesbrands has said it will close its Woolwine facility. Goad said those jobs also are headed overseas.
Rebecca Adcock, executive director of the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce, said she is grateful for the companies that have continued to invest and remain in the county.
(Editor’s note: Manufacturing companies that remain in Patrick County will be featured in a series of stories in upcoming editions of The Enterprise. The series also will be available online at www.theenterprise.net.)