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September 1, 2014

On Labor Day, I think about hometown’s old factories

I started the eighth grade with 150 in my class and graduated from Luray High School with 83. Many dropped out at 16, went to work at the Blue Bell and got married pretty soon thereafter.
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Marvin Richards applied the air brakes and swung open the door of his bus at Mechanic and Hawksbill streets before dawn each weekday.

Gathered beneath the streetlight, neighborhood men exhaled cigarette smoke and toted lunchboxes as they climbed aboard. Driving the big silver and red vehicle he’d bought used from Trailways, Mr. Richards made several other stops around town before starting the 24-mile drive up Route 340 to the Viscose plant at Front Royal.

He built a business ferrying some of the 2,500 people who kept the big, rayon-fiber plant running. About 140 Page County residents worked there.

Luray’s factories also hummed during my childhood.

From one of my bedroom windows, I could see those men at the bus stop each morning. Out the other window, I got a full view of the low-slug, red-rick front façade of the Luray Textile, which stretched for several hundred feet along North Hawksbill Street.

Just across the Hawksbill Creek, a tall brick chimney marked the Virginia Oak Tannery’s spot in the local economy.

Farther east, the huge Blue Bell jeans plant covered several acres. And, the newest factory in Luray, Wallace Business Forms sounded almost high-tech when it opened north of the rail line in the 1960s.

Those four plants provided about 1,400 jobs in a town of 5,000 souls. Between the Blue Ridge and the Massanutten ranges — a valley within the Shenandoah Valley — Page County never would qualify as “rich” in the economic sense. Those mountains east and west made truck transport difficult, as did Route 340, the hilly, narrow, winding north-south highway that connected Page County to Front Royal and Elkton.

But, Luray’s factories provided reliable jobs and health insurance. Two-paycheck couples could buy modest homes and save enough to send the town’s brightest kids to college.

That reality prompted some to forego education. I started the eighth grade with 150 in my class and graduated from Luray High School with 83. Many dropped out at 16, went to work at the Blue Bell and got married pretty soon thereafter.

The most ambitious at that plant — later to become Wrangler — did “piece work,” which rewarded greater productivity.

They bought pickups and muscle cars from Charlie Clark at the Luray Motor Co. and Mac Ruffner at Graves Motor Co. Schewels Furniture provided easy credit to furnish ramblers on “The Boomfield” and trailers in the country.

The town also had developed a booming tourist trade, thanks to Luray Caverns, which attracted 500,000 a year and Shenandoah National Park, which drew a million or more.

Then, in the early 1970s, the Sottosanti family put the South Fork of the Shenandoah River on city slickers’ maps. The entrepreneurs bought some land north of Bixler’s Ferry, a couple of old school buses and dozens of aluminum canoes. They started running ads in The Washington Post Magazine.

Pretty soon, one could almost walk across the river on canoes during busy weekends as Shenandoah River Outfitters hosted thousands each summer.

Between the seasonal tourist trade and local industry, Luray’s economy seemed stable.

The Baughan family built the new East Luray Shopping Center. The A&P, Leggett’s and Virginia ABC stores moved from downtown. Safeway built a new store on the same end of town.

But, the Center Market and Mic or Mack — independent groceries with full-time butchers — did OK as well.

In the heart of town, Ben Franklin and H&H continued to hum as “5 & 10s,” even after the new Silco opened on Main Street. Doug Marston’s Firestone and Lloyd Kibler’s hardware store prospered near the main intersection. McKim & Huffman and Butler’s Pharmacy took care of prescriptions and other health care supplies, as the Virginia Gift Shoppe remained the go-to place for weddings, birthdays and other special occasions.

For something really special, a family might drive 35 miles to Harrisonburg or 45 to Winchester.

But, Luray provided most of what one needed or wanted, with Main Street stalwarts Montgomery Ward and Sears shipping in what other stores didn’t stock.

None of it seemed incredible.

In my senior year of high school, Clara Broyles — the demanding, respected if not beloved government teacher — started a new course: Economics and Sociology, with one semester devoted to each.

Somehow, I ended up in the class of seven.

In mid-fall, Mrs. Broyles took us on a field trip to the tannery, and my real education began.

There, we watched men walk on 12-inch wide concrete walls between vats of acid into which they dipped raw cowhides, attached to pipes. The acid stripped fat and hair to prepare the hides for tanning.

The image of that part of the tannery, lit with bare incandescent bulbs, remains etched in my mind.

Those jobs paid the best wages in Luray’s “manufacturing sector.” They also posed great risk, as did the tannery itself.

Its wastewater flowed directly under Route 340 and into the Hawksbill Creek two blocks from our house.

Upstream, around and under the Main Street bridge, we kids waded into the clear water and caught tadpoles and fish. But, nobody entered the creek below Mechanic Street’s Dyke Bridge, named for a former mayor.

About six miles north of town, the confluence of the Hawksbill and the Shenandoah told a stark story. The creek presented itself as a wall of reddish-brown water where it entered the clear, storied river.

By the time I started college, the fledgling State Water Control Board rightly targeted the tannery.

The factory cleaned up its effluent but gradually faded and closed.

The Avtex Fibers — formerly Viscose — plant at Front Royal soon became one of the first U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, thanks to devastating pollution of the river with PCBs and other chemicals.

It closed and a multimillion-dollar, decades-long cleanup started.

About 140 Page County residents lost well-paying jobs.

Still, the remaining plants in Luray kept humming.

In fact, Wrangler kept expanding. Stone washing created a new niche for the huge denim-wear company. The town borrowed $2 million to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant to handle the new process.

Fourteen miles to the west, across the Massanutten, the Interstate 81 corridor boomed, with new factories and distribution centers that took advantage of America’s massive trucking industry to move goods rapidly.

The mountains and roads excluded Page County from that boom.

But, new opportunities developed in poultry. Suddenly, it seemed everybody with five acres or more slapped up a massive chicken house — or several of them. Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride or another big company made it easy, with financing, feed, a strict production protocol and a guaranteed market.

Within a few years, those gazing west from Pinnacles, Skyland or Big Meadows along Skyline Drive looked down on a landscape that resembled a huge checkerboard. Poultry houses dotted the Page Valley floor.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Outside Magazine listed Page County among its top 10 places in America — thanks to the cleaned-up river, mountains and opportunities for recreation.

Even as Luray and Page County grew more popular for cyclists, hikers and paddlers, the local economy began to decline.

Independent businesses dwindled as Harrisonburg and Winchester’s big boxes drew more customers.

Then, “globalization” began to take the factory jobs.

In 1985, the Luray Textile closed, laying off 400 and shipping its looms to Honduras, Indonesia or some other nation with cheaper labor costs. The textile opened in 1941 and expanded four times in four decades. It had a peak workforce of 450.

The much larger Wranger plant went through several rounds of downsizing until local manufacturing finally ceased in 2003. From the outside, the big plant still looks busy, with dozens of 53-foot trailers backed up to the cargo bays just off East Main Street.

But, the plant serves only as a warehouse for jeans that come back to the U.S., awaiting shipment to Walmarts up and down the East Coast.

Speaking of Walmart, Luray got a Supercenter more than a decade ago, making thousands of Page County residents very happy and selling a pair of Wrangler men’s jeans for as little as $16.77. The Walmart stands behind a huge parking lot with other stores that have moved to the west end of town, with the Massanutten Mountain range looming in the background.

The East Luray Shopping Center, on the other end of town, struggles. And downtown has lots of empty storefronts, despite a well-organized Virginia Main Street Program affiliate and special financing for those who rehab buildings in what government bureaucrats say qualifies as a “blighted” area.

Wallace Business Forms, of course, also lost its place in the economy.

Chicken litter, from those poultry houses, polluted local wells before the state adopted regulations to manage the waste. Then, “agribusiness” consolidation and wild fluctuations of the global poultry market cut into local producers’ income. Wedded to corporate giants, they have little to no say in how their farms operate. The years of fat checks long ago faded.

As local manufacturing declined, construction in the Washington, D.C., region and in the I-81 corridor boomed.

So, many of those former factory workers and their sons got jobs in the building business. To my way of thinking, homebuilding essentially became outdoor factory work, with fast-paced, production methodology.

Steady streams of men in vans and pickups headed east through Thornton Gap and west through New Market Gap to earn their way. Through long, costly commutes, they kept providing for their families and kept their roots in Page County.

The Great Recession of 2008, of course, proved devastating and especially to those workers.

Some construction has begun to come back.

But, Page County struggles mightily.

The New York Times recently published an interactive map of the hardest places to live in the United States. Page County shows up as a lonely orange dot on that map — unusual in the state’s northern half and more like the coalfields of Southwest Virginia or the Delta of Mississippi.

Unemployment in the winter frequently exceeds 10 percent. Page One and the community’s other charitable, safety-net organizations can’t keep up with the demand for food and rental and utility assistance.

Thomas Friedman and other famous analysts explain that globalization’s “creative destruction” leads to new jobs with high skills and compensation. The cheap goods at Walmart benefit American consumers who have greater buying power.

Like my hometown, thousands of U.S. communities have lost manufacturing jobs to the global economy’s brutal efficiency. Rick Bragg in “The Most They Ever Had” and, more recently, Beth Macy in “The Factory Man” explain it with far greater eloquence and knowledge than I.

But, on this Labor Day, I continue to wonder what comes next for our nation of 320 million citizens. Manufacturing accounted for 28.5 percent of the American workforce in 1958. That has fallen to 10.4 percent.

What brings us back to sustainable employment?

I rank it ahead of all other challenges we face as a nation. My lifetime has produced stark changes in my hometown.

And, I still admire the men from my neighborhood who caught the bus to Front Royal each morning.
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TodNehman · September 4, 2014 at 3:30 pm
Thank you for this amazing article. I think is the best article I have read here. Kudos! I love Luray and go there often. I can see it struggles but it is such a wonderful place. I may retire there to get away from some of the hub bub of NOVA but still be in the area. Thanks for the link to that map. Really interesting. PLEASE more articles like this about local places!
csoaper · September 1, 2014 at 7:49 pm
Well written! I think it's the story of many communities, but because of Page County's location, it may have suffered worse than other places. It's not an easy commute to the northern Virginia area from Page, and larger paychecks. My husband and I have been discussing retiring to Luray because there doesn't seem to be a way to earn much of a living wage there at the moment for us.
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