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WOYM: Carpet plant part of 20th century rebound of Rockbridge County's Glasgow
What’s on Your Mind

WOYM: Carpet plant part of 20th century rebound of Rockbridge County's Glasgow

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The previous report dealt with the star-crossed early history of the Rockbridge County municipality of Glasgow. Now for more cheerful developments since.

First, a brief recap of the town’s optimistic origins followed by the sober realities of the business cycle that arrived with a dull thud soon after.

If location is the key to real estate sales and timing to the launch of any enterprise, Glasgow would have seemed to have it all as the 19th century drew to a close.

A booming Gilded Age national economy had sparked hopes of rapidly expanding industrial growth for several of Rockbridge County’s localities, fledgling Buena Vista and hardly-anything-at-all-yet Glasgow being prominent among them

The potential for each of the locations was written on water and rail. In Glasgow’s case, the flowing waters came together there at the confluence of the mighty James and Maury Rivers, the latter shared with upstream neighbors Buena Vista and Lexington. The rails came courtesy of the crossing of the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond and Alleghany Railroads.

Surrounding hills and vales contained a wealth of resources from the tips of the trees to the ore deep in the ground.

Enter a consortium of business interests convinced that Glasgow was a bonanza in waiting, never mind the population of 20 before the boom commenced booming. The hopes of the Rockbridge Co. and partners crackled loudly with sizzle.

“They were calling it the Pittsburgh of the South,” said Barbara K. Slough, manager of the Glasgow branch of the Rockbridge Regional Library System and an authority on local history.

A town was laid out — streets, sidewalks, the whole shebang — with the municipal limits extending to Natural Bridge Station 3 miles away. By 1890, the population had swelled to 800 and a dozen industrial plants were either in operation or being built. A grand hotel was planned for a prominent rise overlooking the town.

The hotel and its 200 lavishly furnished rooms opened to an international clientele in 1892. Soon after the grand opening gala’s orchestra stopped playing, bank regulators arrived with ill tidings of a railroad and finance market-based collapse that was swiftly metastasizing into the infamous Panic of 1893.

So too soon went dreams of wide boulevards and a luxurious hotel to compete with those of the cities on these shores and abroad.

“Indeed,” Slough said, “it was just that quick.”

The comeback maybe not so much, but rally indeed it was. Better than that, a certain indefatigable won’t back down quality developed in the citizenry.

The chronicles list catastrophic floods in 1936, 1950, 1969, 1972, 1985 and 1995. Hearts have been broken in every conceivable fashion. The rebuilds by contrast are the definition of stoutheartedness.

One storyline that parallels that of Glasgow itself is Lees Carpet, founded 1935. Now a part of Mohawk Industries, the plant has been through the proverbial bad times and good. Those who believed in a winning bet on a carpet factory launched during the Great Depression had every bit or more gumption than the poohbahs of the Rockbridge Co. did decades before.

“The determination to build a completely new carpet mill in the South at a time this country was in the depths of the Great Depression took courage and foresight,” proclaimed the literature accompanying the 75-year anniversary of the plant in 2010 and provided by librarian Slough.

The company changed hands several times after its founding by James Lees & Sons of Philadelphia. Mohawk acquired it in 2003.

“We have been very impressed with the operation of Lees,” Mohawk Chairman and CEO Jeffrey S. Lorberbaum said in the announcement of the acquisition. “The company has creative, hard-working employees that have developed one of the most successful commercial carpet companies in the industry.”

The diamond anniversary release described the Glasgow plant as one of the oldest carpet manufacturing facilities in the United States and one of the largest in the world. The plant employed 1,000 at its 34-acre facility and was the largest employer in the county, according to the 2010 release. Production capability was reported to be about 330,000 square yards of carpets per week.

When founded as the Blueridge Co. by Lees, more than 100 sites had been evaluated during the process. Glasgow’s assets listed in the winning bid were abundant water from the two rivers, access to two railroads and U.S. 11, and “the caliber of residents in the Glasgow area.”

Construction began the day after Christmas 1934 and continued through September of the following year. The first roll of carpet was produced in June, the first order shipped in September. The first building was 98,000 square feet and employed 200.

Hiring was conducted from the post office down Anderson Street from the plant and initial training staged at the Blue Ridge Tea Room on Blue Ridge Road.

Construction on facility expansion began in 1941 (more great timing) but was slowed by World War II. Meanwhile, the plant converted to the manufacture of cotton duck for the war effort, 400 women stepping up to the manufacturing line to replace men gone to the armed forces.

The plant was honored for its contribution to the war effort with prestigious Army-Navy E award accompanied by four stars.

The anniversary literature celebrated the employees, nearly all of whom it was said were from Rockbridge County and some from the third or fourth family generation.

“They have endured floods, drought and blizzards. They have persevered during difficult economic times. They have served our country in World War II and other armed conflicts.”

In other words, those who tend to back down from a challenge don’t last long around here.

If you’ve been wondering about something, call “What’s on Your Mind?” at 777-6476 or send an email to whatsonyourmind@roanoke.com. Don’t forget to provide your full name (and its proper spelling if by phone) and hometown.

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