Martinsville and Henry County:  Three Major Job Transitions and the Future of Jobs

Martinsville and Henry County:  Three Major Job Transitions and the Future of Jobs

By Dr. Barry M. Dorsey

From its inception in October 1776, Henry County—and the entire region–have undergone at least three major job transitions, along with several “lesser” changes.  The region is still adjusting to the last of the changes.

The Early Years

Prior to and immediately following the Revolution, large estates dominated the region.  The George Waller estate, which was in the vicinity of what’s now Fieldale, was said to include some 30,000 acres.  Patrick Henry and one of his siblings owned 10,000 acres in the Leatherwood area and Henry lived there for about five years after completing three terms as the first elected Governor of Virginia (the terms were one year each) in 1778.  George Hairston, who lived at Beaver Creek, initially had 30,000 acres and is said to have eventually amassed 238,00 acres. Joseph Martin, who was prominent in Virginia politics, a liaison with the Indians, and the person for whom Martinsville is named, also had 10,000 acres.

The Tobacco Era of Jobs

According to the publication “Martinsville & Henry County: Historic Views,” published by the MHC Woman’s Club in 1976, [early] “Virginia used the same money as England but it was not plentiful, so for many years tobacco was used as money.”  By the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, tobacco, an “in demand” crop, was raised abundantly in the Martinsville-Henry County area.  Between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, some 80 years, Henry County along with the rest of the South, had its “Golden Age,” according to “Our Proud Heritage,” a pictorial history of Martinsville and Henry County produced by the Bassett Printing Corporation in 1969.

The periodical continued, “Whereas the deep South grew rich on cotton, it was tobacco that allowed Henry Countians to live the abundant life.  Henry County had its small farmers, with one to 500 acres.  But it also had its large landowners,” citing George Hairston and Joseph Martin as examples.  Devastated by the Civil War, the region again looked to tobacco after the War to be the chief source of income for Henry Countians.  The period of tobacco manufacturers continued until at least 1906.  The area became known for its plug tobacco.

Before 1882, tobacco manufacturers were scattered throughout the County, according to the former publication.  They included B.F. Gravely at Leatherwood; H.C. Lester at Figsboro; W.A. Brown & Sons, W.T. DeShazo & Sons, English Belcher & Company and George O. Jones at Ridgeway; and Stultz & Blair, Zentmeyer Saunders & Co., and Penn and Watson in Martinsville.  When the railroad came to Martinsville (the Danville and Western or the Dick and Willie, as it became known) many of the manufacturers as well as those in surrounding areas re-established themselves in the town, which was incorporated in 1873.  (At the time, Martinsville had less than 300 residents.)   But by 1906, the publication noted, almost all of the manufacturers had either gone out of business due to the “panic of 1906” or been absorbed by larger firms which became the industry leaders. Still, tobacco continued to be the money crop for farmers in the area.

The Furniture-Making Era of Jobs

In 1902, John David Bassett, who reportedly for 35 years had struggled for a minimal existence, looked at the trees he was cutting down along the Smith River and envisioned the furniture that could be made from them.  With his two brothers and his brother-in-law, he organized the Bassett Furniture Company, growing it into the largest manufacturer of wood furniture in the world.  In 1906, two other men, A.D. Witten and C.B. Keesee, who were former tobacco manufacturers and reportedly knew nothing about wood- making, founded the American Furniture Company.  In 1924, Thomas B. Stanley, who later would become Governor of Virginia, founded Stanley Furniture Company.  That same year, Clyde B. Hooker gave Martinsville another furniture factory by founding Hooker Furniture Company.  Two years later, the Gravely family founded the Gravely Furniture Company in Martinsville.

The Textile Era of Jobs

Henry County’s textile industry actually began in 1909 when the Martinsville Cotton Mill (which later went bankrupt) was organized.  But the shift to textiles began in earnest when Marshall Field & Company started construction on Fieldcrest Towel Mills; in 1917, the area around the plant took the name of Fieldale in honor of the company.  In 1925, a man described by the “Our Proud Heritage” publication as a “visionary with business acumen,” William L. Pannill, founded the Pannill Knitting Company for making low-priced long underwear.  At the beginning of the Great Depression, another textile plant was organized: the Jobbers Pants Co. was established in 1933 and eventually employed over 1500 people in three plants.  Then In 1937, Pannill’s son-in-law, Ernest A. Sale, organized the Sale Knitting Company. In 1942, yet another Pannill son-in-law, Frank M. Lacy, set up a textile factory, Lacy Manufacturing Company.

Several of the companies changed hands over time (with such names eventually as Tultex, Sara Lee, and Pillowtex), but the Martinsville area eventually became known as the “Sweatshirt Capital of the World.”

The labor force created by the combination of employees in the furniture-making and textile industries– and augmented by several other smaller companies– formed a giant industrial complex in this area of more than 23,000 persons that continued after World War II, gradually dissipating by the early 2000s. In fact, one of the last of the textile giants, Tultex, closed its doors after announcing bankruptcy in 1999, putting over 1700 employees out of work, according to newspaper reports at the time.

Ultimately, the combination of lower labor costs, NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) along with other trade agreements, and new technologies forced the globalization of these industries.  Several became bankrupt, a number consolidated their factories, and many moved some of their operations offshore.  Their loss was a striking blow to the area.

Other Major Job Industries

Nylon—In 1941, the E.I. DuPont de Nemours Company built on the Smith River the largest nylon plant in the world.  Initially, the plant produced the company’s new product, women’s nylon hosiery, with the first pair of stockings going to Eleanor Roosevelt.  But it soon turned to the war effort, churning out items from parachutes to B-29 bomber tires. The plant employed approximately 4600 employees and greatly influenced the economic as well as the cultural life of the city and county.  Its employees included engineers, scientists, and technicians. Following boom times in the 1960s, there was a sharp economic downturn.  After several years of downsizing, the plant closed completely in 1998.  Many of the employees retired in Martinsville and throughout the Henry County area.

Mirrors—In 1913, M.R. and N.S. Schottland opened a mirror factory in Martinsville, the Virginia Mirror Company.  It continues in operation today and was, at one time, noted as the largest mirror plant under one roof in the nation.

Lumber—In 1914, Lester Lumber Company moved to the Martinsville area.  It was founded by G.T. Lester at Dyer’s Store in 1896.  Cap’n Till, as he was known, also launched the first airport project in the area by sending steam shovels out to level Liberty Heights in 1934.  His son, G.T. Lester, Jr., was the first to own an airplane in Martinsville.  After a fire destroyed the company in 1919, Cap’n Till had it re-built and added a 2 million-gallon water reservoir, which later was converted to be used also as a swimming pool.

Another lumber-associated industry is Nationwide Homes. Organized in 1959 by Ralph C. Lester to build and finance homes on an owner’s property, the company began to manufacture modular homes in 1969.

Both of these businesses continue in operation today. The Lester Lumber Company has extensive real estate holdings throughout Virginia.  In recent years, Nationwide Homes have even built modular hotels.

The Future of Jobs in Martinsville and Henry County

Martinsville was approved by the General Assembly as a Virginia city in 1929; it had a population of over 7000.  Since that time, the city grew to 19,653 (U.S. Census of 1970), but instead of gaining further population, the city lost it—not unusual for a rural city, especially one which saw a demise of its manufacturing base in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. According to an article in the Bulletin on July 2 of this year, the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia projects a decline by the year 2045 in Martinsville’s population to 9500 (from the 2010 census of 13,821), while Henry County can expect a decrease to 41,328 (from the 2010 census of 54,151) by that same year. The area also has an older population. The county’s population was 22% “persons over 65,” according to the 2010 census.

The city and county currently own two industrial parks (a third is coming online) with defined revenue to the two governmental entities.  Some of the businesses in the parks seem to be doing exceptionally well, such as Drake Extrusion or Monogram Foods.  The variety of businesses in the industrial parks is indeed impressive, everything from West Windows to Georgia Pacific to Blue Ridge Aquaculture to J.G. Edelen & Co’s “Knobs and Pulls.”  A review of the Chamber of Commerce’s current list of members (more than 600) shows a great deal of diversity in the businesses/industries in the industrial parks as well as in the area.

This brief article doesn’t begin to discuss the myriad businesses that have called this area home over the years.  The banks, newspapers, radio stations, etc., which have begun in the area and then merged with other entities is impressive indeed.  (For example, one of Virginia’s largest independent community banks, Carter Bank & Trust Co., is headquartered just outside Martinsville.)  The area also has several businesses/industries which have been here for many years, including Eastman Chemical Company, which produces window film and has been owned by several different companies in the past.

This area has much to commend it.  A potential resident would be hard-pressed to find another small population region with, for example, a Piedmont Arts organization, a state Virginia Museum of Natural History, or a community acting company (Martinsville has two: TheatreWorks and the Patriot Players).  It would also be difficult to locate another foundation, such as the Harvest Foundation, dedicated to championing and funding local causes.  And, of course, the area has the Martinsville Speedway, which has been an economic driver since 1947 and which continues to put Martinsville “on the map.”

Another impressive local group of organizations is the non-profits, not only the cultural organizations (some of which might be left over from the DuPont days), but entities such as Grace Network, United Way, Boys and Girls Clubs, Charity League, Boy and Girl Scouts, Community Foundation, MHC Historical Society, etc. People jokingly say that the same population contributes to all the non-profit organizations.

Yet the area lacks a single business or group of businesses—such as textiles– which employ large numbers of Henry Countians.   In this void, residents and governments alike seem to be coalescing  around three areas:  Education (with Patrick Henry Community College, New College Institute, a revamped public school system, and a private, college-preparation institution), Healthcare (with a reorganized hospital into a regional arrangement, SOVAH, the Piedmont Virginia Dental Health Foundation, and the MHC Coalition for Health and Wellness), and a Regional Farming Network.


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