When woolens ruled: The mill behind the neighborhood

Before it was a college town, Charlottesville was a mill town. In fact, the mill was such a big deal that it made the fabric for uniforms of the Confederate Army, West Point cadets, and New York City cops.

Long before the Woolen Mills dam [see cover story] was built in 1830, the location at the base of Monticello Mountain on a triangle of land between the Rivanna River and Moore's Creek made industrial history.

Edward Moore built a gristmill there in 1795 that he sold, along with 500 acres, to William D. Meriwether in 1805. Meriwether expanded the mill to weave cotton and wool, grind flour, and saw lumber, and built a wooden toll bridge in 1826.

Over time, the textile end of the business was most profitable, according to historian Harry Poindexter in the Magazine of Albemarle County History. Wool was carried up the James and along the Rivanna River Canal in boats pulled by mules on the towpath.

"For more than a hundred years its busy hum has disturbed the sleep of Thomas Jefferson," writes Poindexter of the mill. Jefferson supposedly used a shortcut path down Monticello Mountain past the mill to get to the university.

John Adams Marchant bought the mill in 1852 when it was making jeans fabric from wool in white or blue that clothed slaves. Marchant sold the factory in 1864 to the man who would turn Woolen Mills into a powerhouse: his son, Henry Clay Marchant, whose leg had been shattered by a Civil War miniƩ ball in 1862.

While Charlottesville escaped the Civil War relatively unscathed, a month before Appomattox the mill became a casualty when General Philip Sheridan and General George Custer accidentally destroyed it while trying to burn the railroad.

Marchant fils rounded up additional capital, and in 1868 incorporated the business as Charlottesville Woolen Mills. While initially manufacturing an average-grade fabric, he was eventually producing high quality woolens, including cashmere.

The mill grew from 25 looms in 1883 to 50 looms, at its peak employing between 150 to 200 workers. For three years, Jefferson's grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, was its president, and prominent Charlottesvillians sat on its board.

From 1885 to 1945, the factory's output went to uniform cloth, and by 1930, company officials claimed they could travel coast to coast on railroads whose crewmen wore their cloth, says Poindexter. During World War II, most of the mill's monthly output of 15,000 yards went to the Navy, according to John Hammond Moore in Albemarle: Jefferson's County 1727-1976.

When the mill burned a second time in 1882, workers rebuilt it. The company was known as a good employer: It didn't hire workers younger than 13, rarely laid off anyone, and tried to provide decent housing for its employees, according to an article by Andy Meyers in the Magazine of Albemarle County History.

Working at the mill was a respectable option for those not on the university track. You could tell who worked in dyeing because their hands were likely to stay blue and skill at matching colors earned $1.50 a day around the turn of the last century.

Long before terrorists commandeered anthrax as a weapon, people working around livestock especially sheep were prone to the disease. Possible exposure to anthrax bacillus made the sorting room the most dangerous and highest paying– area to work, paying a handsome $2 a day circa 1910, says Meyers.

The now-gentrified neighborhood surrounding the Woolen Mills factory was a self-contained community providing housing, a school, and a church for the mill's employees, thanks to what Poindexter calls Marchant's "benevolent paternalism."

And the company was progressive: It installed the town's first telephone in 1878 to connect a downtown office with the factory, according to Moore.

Some believe it was the switch to synthetic fabric that led to the mill's ultimate demise. A November 19, 1963, article in the Daily Progress headlined "Shortage of Capital Makes Sale Necessary" reports that the mill, long profitable, had been operating in the red for all but one of the previous 10 years. The Small Business Administration refused to lend the mill $250,000, and the article cites "unionization" as a big stumbling block for potential buyers.

In July 1964, the mill and land surrounding it were split into parcels and auctioned off. Collett M. Thach bought the old mill, which today houses Security Storage and Van Lines, run by his son, Presley Thach.