Fries and the Washington Mill


Perhaps no town in the Southern Appalachian mountains is more unique than Fries, Virginia. In a region that has historically grown slowly from small settlements to more developed towns and communities, Fries is an outlier. Created almost overnight by the Washington Mills Company, Fries was born out of commercial necessity. The Washington Mill, which the town was constructed in order to serve, became a prolific producer of textiles, but perhaps the more lasting legacy of Fries was a different commercial product altogether: recorded country music. 

 Fries was named after its founder: Francis Henry Fries, who was originally from Old Salem. There his family had made a small fortune building and operating textile mills along the Mayo River, a tributary of the Dan that flows north of modern day Winston-Salem, North Carolina. These mills were operated by damming up the river and using the force of flowing water to power the machinery used to create textiles. Because of the need for the river and the difficulty in finding an ideal spot to place a dam, these mills were often built away from established towns, attracting the residents and infrastructure needed for an industrial operation after the mill’s construction was already underway. 

Washington Cotton Mill on the New River, Fries, Virginia. Circa 1910. Public Domain

In the early 1900s, a southwestern Virginia land owner, Jim Carico, felt that a piece of property he owned along Bartlett’s Falls on the New River would make an ideal spot for a dam.  Hoping to sell his tract for the most money possible, he contacted the Fries family of Winston-Salem and asked them to come examine his property. Francis Fries himself set out from Mt. Airy, North Carolina, to examine the plot, which was located in the rural countryside of Grayson County, just north of Galax. 

Fries approved the site, and soon construction of a dam was underway. By 1901, the impending construction of the Washington Mill caused a railway line to be extended into the area, the same railway line that would later carry Henry Whitter to New York City for his first recording sessions. By 1903, the mill was complete. Attracted by the promise of good wages and stable employment, hundreds of families began migrating into the new town.

Historical marker in Fries, noting the influence the town had on early country music.

As was the case with most mill towns, the homes for these workers were constructed by the mill company and were laid out to maximize efficiency and land usage. Around three hundred homes were quickly built. These houses, which would be used to accommodate the families working at the mill, were nearly identical and were laid out in a tightly packed grid pattern. This layout resulted in an oddly urban environment, especially when compared to less centralized nearby towns like Galax and Hillsville. 

Before the construction of the mill, and the ensuing growth of the new mill town, most local commerce was anchored in nearby Stevens Creek, which had a post office dating from 1877. Stevens Creek had at one time been the site of a grist mill and early academy, both of which served the outlying farming community. However, Stevens Creek’s importance was soon overshadowed by the emerging nearby town. The post office would soon be relocated and the community would acquire a new name. The mill town was originally going to be called Carico, after Jim Carico, the original landowner. However, the decision was made to instead name the town after its creator and owner, and soon Fries would become a bustling hub of migration and commerce for the nearby area. 

Fries was a mill town, and as a result, life for local residents was much more controlled, mechanized, and regimented than their agrarian neighbors. In Fries, like most mill towns, private property was practically non-existent and the company exerted incredible control over the everyday lives of citizens. A report commissioned by the United States Senate in 1910 sought to explore the lives of southern textile mill workers, and their findings give a keen insight into life in Fries and other towns like it. 

A group of young spinners at the Washington Cotton Mill, circa 1911. Public Domain

All the houses in which the operatives live are owned by the mill company. None of the land is privately owned. The company has donated land for churches and a school, and has built or helped to build the church and school buildings. Usually it selects the teachers and controls the school. It assists in supporting the pastor of a church or perhaps the pastors of several churches. It provides a water supply and regulates the use of the water. It provides for lighting: the streets, for cleaning the streets, and for cleaning outhouses. There is a company store, where a great variety of merchandise is sold, and in which the village post-office is located. Often the company sells fuel, and occasionally electricity for lighting the houses of operatives. . .In fact, all the affairs of the village and the conditions of living of all of the people are regulated entirely by the mill company. Practically speaking, the company owns everything and controls everything, and to a large extent controls everybody in the mill village. Indeed, in some mill villages every man but one, the railroad agent, is under the direct or indirect supervision of the mill.

Fries mirrored many of these assertions. Along with the workers’ houses, the mill owned the larger homes near the dam that were inhabited by the mill’s managers. The two boarding houses in the town were owned by the mill. The only hotel in town, The Washington Hotel, was built by the company operating the mill and named after it. The same company built the first gym found in either Grayson or Carroll counties, the Lyceum, which would be converted into a Y.M.C.A in 1923. By 1924, a two-story concrete school had been built by the mill company on land owned by the company. Francis Fries had himself donated the land used to build the first church in the town. Overall these construction projects show the trade off inherent in mill life: superior infrastructure and increased opportunities at the cost of local control and self-determination.

Perhaps nowhere is the control exerted by the mill more clearly seen than in the bell. This bell, situated on the roof of the Washington Mill itself, was a constant reminder of the mechanized life found in an industrial town. On the weekends and holidays, when the mill was closed, the bell was used to toll time. It was also used to warn of floods and fires. However, its primary purpose was to regulate the lives of the town residents. When the mill was first built, it employed a single ten hour shift, meaning that virtually every resident of the town would report for work and leave work simultaneously. To manage this incredible tide of workers coming and going, and to ensure productivity and efficiency, the bell was sounded as a way of organizing the worker’s hectic morning routines. At 5:00 a.m., on Mondays through Fridays, the wakeup bell echoed through the town. For anyone who tried to sleep in, another reminder bell was rung at 5:30. The toll at 6:00 a.m. was used as an indicator that all employees should be fully awake and dressed. Beginning at six o’clock, the bell began tolling every fifteen minutes, each toll designed to pair with an employee’s morning routine. Eat breakfast by 6:15, be out the door by 6:30. To accelerate the process, at 6:30 the bell began tolling every ten minutes. 6:40 was the warning bell, only twenty minutes to get to your station. By the 6:50 toll, responsible employees would be at their stations, while the less reliable would be running to catch up. Anyone arriving after the final bell, which tolled precisely at 7:00, would be considered late.

Although this level of automation on the part of both the factory and the populace would seem to be a dehumanizing force, in some ways, it helped to cultivate a strong sense of community in Fries. This was because almost every person in the town worked together. For the first years of the mill’s operation there was only a single shift; consequently, the mill’s workers all came to work at the same time, took breaks together, left together; in essence, the employees lived essentially identical lives. They faced tragedies together, like the massive 1916 flood that threatened to destroy the mill and the flu epidemic of 1918. They also shared in the rewards. Because of its status as the largest taxpayer in Grayson County, the Washington Mill provided Fries with resources other towns in the area didn’t have: high quality education, indoor plumbing, and eventually, electricity, provided by generators that were used by the mill to replace the more primitive water wheels. These realities made Fries a world unto itself, a very unified atmosphere in which people, who were often brought together from far flung regions and backgrounds, could intermingle, exchanging stories, ideas, and music.

The loom room at the Washington Mill where laborers like Henry Whitter, Ernest Stoneman, and Kelly Harrell spent their days before launching recording careers. Courtesy of Grayson County Historical Society

These influences led mill town performers to alter tradition and develop progressive styles. Henry Whitter’s first recordings, using a harmonica rack and guitar simultaneously, did not fit the mold of “traditional” Southern music, composed of a banjo and fiddle. In fact, Whitter was one of the first country musicians to play with a guitar and harmonica at the same time. Charlie Poole, who was also a product of a mill town environment, learned a unique three finger banjo roll rooted in a classical style.  Howard Dixon, another cotton mill native, began playing a new instrument, the Hawaiian-style steel guitar, after seeing Jimmie Tarlton.

These new styles, born out of the commercial awareness and cross-pollination afforded by the mill towns, created concentrated pockets of musicality. Fries may be the best example of a mill town bursting with musical personality. The town seems to have exuded a musical presence. Performers played on the streets; music was played through phonographs in houses; even at their jobs, the mill workers sang to pass the time. The repetitive and stationary nature of mill work made singing a commonplace occurrence. One song, making fun of the mill’s superintendent, a Mr. Kinsey, was fondly recalled by Henry Whitter’s sister, Callie, who had worked in the mills since she was eight. Henry Whitter and Kelly Harrell were working in the Washington Mill in the 1920s, while John Rector and James Sutphin operated stores that catered to the mill’s laborers.  Later musicians like Glen Neaves and Jimmy Arnold would also grow up in and around the mill. That isn’t to say that Fries only produced hillbilly music. From its inception, the town sponsored a community coronet band which performed in full uniforms, and many residents, Henry Whitter included, could play instruments like organs and pianos, not usually associated with traditional string bands. 

Consequently, Fries’ reputation was as a musical town, a reputation commemorated in a historical marker declaring Fries to be the “Center of Early Recorded Country Music.” This modern, industrial town is forever tied to the traditional sounds of guitars, fiddles, and banjos.  

Always Been a Rambler book cover

It was the unique nature of Fries, an Appalachian mill town, that spurred the birth of country music, as a commercial format. In Fries, the desire to reimagine oneself away from the shadow of the mill, along with the exposure residents had to performers from other areas, as well as the recordings, instruments and music books that were widely available and affordable, the railway, connecting Fries to every major city on the eastern seaboard, all converged to make Fries the first town in Virginia to produce recorded country music. 

Adapted from Always Been A Rambler: G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter, Country Music Pioneers of Southern Appalachia — By Josh Beckworth, McFarland & Company, Inc.

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