Here I am, on the final day of my grant-funded project to process the records of the Fries Textile Plant. Its been a fun year, and Ive truly enjoyed working on this project. Wrapping it up the past couple of weeks, Ive found myself quite pleased with the amount of work Ive managed to accomplish. Go me!
Shameless self-promotion aside, Id like to do a sort of post-mortem on the past year. More and more new (or not-so new) archivists are finding themselves in time- and scope-limited jobs, which require a different set of skills than the endurance race into posterity that is the lot of the traditional archivist. Rather than thinking about the long term health and wellness of the archives as a whole and wearing a variety of necessary hats as a result, we temporary members of staff are typically asked to execute very particular orders along a strict timeline, and then- frequently- to leave, occasionally with our work unfinished. It can be heartbreaking, and freeing, and terribly restrictive, and wonderfully lax.
Ultimately, the success of the project- and your own success as a project archivist- depends on the project youre employed on, the team youre working with, and your personal career goals. Unfortunately, almost none of us can afford to be picky these days when hunting for archival work. While I understand the temptation to take the first job offered in the field (boy howdy do I, but thats another story), often it is the jobs taken out of desperation that lead to the worst fits professionally.
Luckily, that is not the case in this instance. I have loved working with the textile mill records, the other staff in Special Collections and University Archives, and the people of Fries. I have learned an enormous amount about the region, the textile industry, and being an archivist from my time here. I liked it so much, tomorrow Im embarking on another collection processing project here at Virginia Tech, this time with the records of a defunct metallurgical company. To put a nice bow on the past year, though, I offer the following summary and thoughts.
The majority of my time this year was spent in processing the records. Previous student employees had made a dent in this work, but there still remained a large number of boxes as-yet untouched. The day-to-day of processing involves a certain tolerance for repetitive tasks, but the frequent discovery of interesting documents in this particular collection kept me engaged and happy with my job. Processing is often the bulk of project positions such as these, so its a valuable skill to be able to find joy it. This photo shows a (tiny) fraction of the staples I pulled this year, a task which does not give me joy but which does offer a certain small satisfaction.
By far the most rewarding part of the project has been working with the people of Fries, and bringing this collection back to them in the form of 3 community events I put together over the course of the year. The Fries-ians are warm, passionate, and deeply committed to their town, which was both refreshing and touching. They were wonderfully eager to interact with the collection and learn more about the place that they lived in. It has been an honor to facilitate their historical interest. This picture was taken of attendees at the first event I put on in Fries, March 30, 2019.
My work also involved a small digitization project, resulting in a digital exhibit hosted on the Special Collections and University Archives site, which can be found here. I am pleased with the result, overall. I gave several presentations on the project and my work for peers within Virginia Tech and the larger archival community as well, to make them aware of the collection and share what I had learned. I love being able to share my efforts, and I hope that these presentations have shed light on what we do in the archives and helped those facing similar processing projects.
Finally, Id like to close with some thoughts about what Id do differently, if I had it to do over. First, I would put more effort into the community engagement with the events I put on. My points of contact for setting up the events were frequently busy, so relying on them to spread the word in town about these events led to a poorer turnout than I had hoped for, given the deep interest in town history that I knew many residents had. In future, I will do more advertising for community events to make sure that everyone who might want to attend knows about them.
Second, Id have liked to take more careful notes on items within the collection that I wanted to digitize. Several times, I found myself with such helpful comments as Folder 7, really neat, with no further context. In the haze of processing, I had prioritized moving on to the next folder over giving my future self any but the vaguest clue. This led to several instances of poring through folders, looking for the particular document I had been referencing. I will save time in the future by taking a few extra seconds to describe the materials I found really neat.
Lastly, I would have liked to do more digitization. I got the necessities done, the fascinating and the context-giving documents featured in the online exhibit, but ultimately I wish the whole collection could be made available online. I know that this is rarely feasible and occasionally not particularly desirable, but with this collection, I want very much for the people of Fries to be able to look through it at their leisure without needing to come up to Tech and sit in the reading room. Personally, I believe that as an archivist, access is my highest calling. In an ideal world, this small town would have its entire history to peruse at will. However, this is not that world, so I must be content with the circumstances as they lay.
All that being said, I am proud of what Ive accomplished here, and I hope the next project will be even more successful.
The Fries Textile Mill was established in 1903 by Col. Thomas Fries, then the president of Wachovia Bank. He built the mill on a bend in the New River, which he had dammed in order to provide power for his new venture. He also built a town nearby to house, educate, and supply the employees of the mill. For 85 years, the town of Fries and its people were overseen by the company administration, which owned and operated the school, the stores, and the housing. The mill processed cotton from large bales that were brought in via train into a variety of finished fabrics, which they sent all over the country. Through the years, this fabric was used to make gloves, fine garments, military uniforms, and many other industrial and commercial goods.
The mill managed to stay open during the Great Depression by dramatically cutting hours without firing workers in order to keep at least a little money coming in for all of its employees, and stashing the fabric produced in a warehouse the company owned in New York. This plan worked out for the Fries Mill, it managed to stay open and running through the lean times of the late 20s and 30s. It also meant that it had plenty of stock on hand for World War II, when textiles were in high demand and many mills had closed. The 40s and 50s were a boom period for the mill. It was employing more people than ever and utilizing the most state-of-the-art technologies and techniques to create high quality cotton-based fabrics.
Unfortunately, as time wore on the mill began to decline. The infrastructure necessary to maintain a competitive edge in the textile industry was expensive to acquire and maintain, and pressure from a globalizing market made it all the more difficult, so a series of owners decided to simply sell the business on. After several such transfers, the mill finally closed in 1988. Because the company had effectively owned the town of Fries for the better part of a century, the reactions to its closure were understandably negative. The binding force of the community had disappeared, and the town suffered. However, many residents chose to stay and forge a new way of life around that bend in the New River. The mill building itself was torn down not long after, and now all that remains is a bare patch next to the dam.
Because of the terms under which this collection was given to Virginia Tech, it had largely sat in the backlog at Special Collections since it was acquired in 1988, although an inventory was conducted and several boxes of papers were partially processed in the interim. The work of Special Collections and the town of Fries, as well as a recent grant from the NHPRC, has allowed me to finish processing the entire collection (165 boxes!) revealing a trove of information about 20th century textile mills and the industry in general, mill towns, and life in rural Appalachia.
This processing included removing damaging metal fasteners (pictured is a small fraction of the staples removed from collection materials), rehousing the documents, getting intellectual control over the collection by creating a detailed inventory of folder titles, dates, and interventions, and evaluating any preservation or privacy concerns for the materials. The finding aid, which will be available soon, has a folder-level description of the contents of the boxes.
The collection includes records illustrating the work of the mill, including production reports, textile samples, and company correspondence, but also materials that give insight into life in a mill town, such as housing repair documents, letters to and from pillars of the community such as the town doctor and the school, and oral histories from residents and former residents of Fries.
We have also recently acquired another 2 large storage bins worth of blueprints from the town, as well as about 20 decks of slides. These new materials are currently being processed, after which I will add them to the finding aid. They were being stored in the basement of the Recreation Center in Fries, and were discovered entirely by coincidence on a visit to the town (picture three excited archivists spreading blueprints over every flat-ish surface in a basement lounge area while several bemused residents look on). The building that the bins were in had severely flooded not long before, but the blueprints were unharmed by the water, thankfully. It is entirely possible that we will continue to receive similar trickles of mill-related items as more materials are discovered and we continue to engage with the community.
Sadly, the picture is not complete. We only have the materials that were left at the mill when it closed, which heavily favor the early years of operation, and certain kinds of records. It is unclear whether the missing documents were destroyed as part of a regular records management cycle, or whether they were taken at some point. Despite the gaps, the collection offers a valuable look at life in a 1900s mill town.Starting August 22nd, there will be an exhibit up in the Special Collections reading room of selected materials from the collection illustrating the broad influence of the mill administration on the town, stop by and check it out!
It’s summertime in Blacksburg and at Virginia Tech Special Collections, I always think that’s going to be my two-ish months to catch up on the rest of the year’s projects. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t–inevitably, I also end up launching new projects or initiatives. This summer, one of those new projects is working on our backlog of digital materials. Special Collections has been digitizing collections for reference and research long before we had our current online platform. Some images lived on our old website, some lived (or still live) in Imagebase, and some never made it as far as the world-wide web. So, this summer, we’re making more of that possible. With the help of a student, we are taking some of these digitized collections, creating metadata, and adding them to our digital site! Here’s just a taste of some new items:
First up, the Norfolk & Western Railway Menus, c. late 1940s-1960s? (Ms2013-080). This collection includes a handful of railroad menus from Norfolk & Western passenger trains. Below are a beverage menu, a dinner menu, and a blank patron check. Note the “Apple Pie (baked on car)” on the dinner menu–train travel these days has changed a little!
Second, the letters of Joseph T. Harris to his sister, Molly Swope. Harris served with the 12th Regiment, Ohio Infantry, during the Civil War. This collection contains four letters written from parts of western Virginia between August 1861 and February 1862. Below is the letter from November 23, 1861.
Harris was particularly around the Kanawha Valley western Virginia and he writes to his sister about his regiment’s actions there, as well as camp life. He tells her “Harris describes his rations as being good and lists what he is being issued and getting food from the locals. ‘We have all theas things, besides what we can steal witch is a good deal. Steal did I say, well I will have to take that back for us boys have quit stealing and took to takeing a good menny things without leave.'” You can view the full collection and the finding aid online.
Last up, for the moment, is the Yonson (Johnson) Family Collection (Ms2013-020). The Yonson family was based in Wythe County, Virginia, at the end of the 18th century. The collection includes family receipts, estate bills, tax documents, and some other family papers. It’s worth noting that you’ll see variations on the spelling of the family’s name throughout the collection, though research indicates that later generations of the family eventually settled on “Johnson.”
Summer is also the time I catch up on student processing work. We would be lost without the help of our amazing student workers in Special Collections. Often times, they help organize and describe collections faster than I can get them finished and posted online, so I’ve also been spending time on that. Here are a few of my favorite newly processed manuscript collections:
Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA], n.d. (Ms2019-002). This collection includes a Bartender’s Cocktail Mixing Notebook [San Francisco, CA] with typed cocktail recipes and directions for their creation . Different sections include lesson plans for specific types of drinks, suggesting this was used in a bartending school or for bartending instruction. Some pages have handwritten notations or illustrations.Finding aid available online.
Herschel A. Elarth-Charles S. Worley, Jr. Architectural Firm Drawings, 1955-1961, undated (Ms2019-036). Related to both the personal and professional papers of Elarth and Worley, who were Virginia Tech faculty and architectural firm partners, this collection includes drawings from selected local projects.Finding aid available online.
Jaffe-Lankes Family Correspondence, 1930-1942, 1980-1985 (Ms2019-014). This collection contains two main sets of materials: Correspondence between Louis I. Jaffe and J. J. Lankes from 1930 to 1942 and correspondence between Alice Jaffe (Louis’ widow) and J. B. Lankes (J. J.’s son) from 1980 to 1985. In addition, there is a small folder of notes and letter excerpts created by J. B. Lankes in the early 1980s. We processed this collection as part of the Sherwood Anderson online exhibit that launched in April 2019.Finding aid available online.
Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection, 1926-1971 (Ms2019-009). The Piedmont Tuberculosis Sanatorium (Burkeville, Virginia) Collection includes materials from 1926-1971. The collection contains information relating to the operation of the sanatorium from 1918-1965. The collection contains administrative papers, published works of doctors, ephemera, and images. Finding aid available online.
We’re always processing new materials and making new materials online, so we always encourage you to check out our resources, but since this is on my mind lately, it seemed a good time to do a round-up/reminder. You can usually view our most recently posted finding aids onlinein upload order and see our most recently collections on our digital collection site’s “Browse Collections” page.
After several years, I recently finished processing the Smithey & Boynton, Architects & Engineers Records, Ms1992-027. Partner in the firm, Kenneth L. Motley purchased the firm in 1992 and donated their historical records in 1992 and 1994. About 30% of the collection was made available before I arrived at Virginia Tech in 2014, but the oversize, rolled architectural drawings and blueprints were not (although I must thank my predecessors for labeling and locating the rolls, which helped me significantly). Over the past four years, I arranged, described, and boxed up nearly 1,500 project drawings, totaling over 220 cubic feet and including over 920 boxes. (This isn’t even the largest collection we have in Special Collections!)
Louis Phillipe Smithey and Henry B. Boynton formed the Smithey & Boynton partnership in 1935. Smithey & Boynton built and renovated thousands of buildings throughout the state of Virginia. They designed Lane Stadium and several other buildings on the Virginia Tech campus, buildings for the Norfolk & Southern Railway (now Norfolk Southern), and the Lyric Theatre and Armory Building in Blacksburg. The firm became best known for building public schools, even using the same basic layout for numerous schools. They had nearly 150 school design commissions from 1945 through 1953 in at least 19 counties and 10 cities in Virginia.
Drawings of the Armory Building in Blacksburg, designed by Smithey & Boynton:
Louis Phillipe Smithey (1890-1966)
Smithey graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 1910, before attending both Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was an engineer for Virginia Bridge & Iron Company from 1916 to 1920. He then opened his own practice, before partnering with Matthews H. Tardy, as Smithey & Tardy from 1922 through 1932. Smithey again had his own practice, occasionally working with Henry B. Boynton, before they partnered as Smithey & Boynton in 1935. Smithey was a registered architect in Virginia and West Virginia, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and served as president of the Virginia chapter of the AIA in 1940. He also served in the U.S. Army during World War I and World War II. Smithey married Dorothy Terrill in 1938, and they had one daughter.
Photos and drawings of the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, designed by the firm of Louis Phillipe Smithey:
Henry B. Boynton (1899-1991)
Boynton graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1923, before taking classes at the University of Illinois (now the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign). He worked for Carneal & Johnston, Architects & Engineers, from 1924 to 1928. (We previously wrote about Carneal & Johnston on this blog in “A New Collection and a New Look at Virginia Tech’s Architectural Style.”) Boynton joined Smithey’s practice in 1929, becoming a partner in Smithey & Boynton in 1935. He was a registered architect in Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania; held several positions of the Virginia chapter of the AIA; and served as the Governor’s appointee to the State Registration Board for Architects, Professional Engineers, and Land Surveyors from 1962 to 1972. Boynton also served on the VPI Alumni Board of Directors from 1969 to 1979 and the VPI Education Foundation, Inc.’s board from 1978 to 1982. He also served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the World War II. (Special Collections also has the Henry B. Boynton Papers, Ms1992-002, which include some records from Smithey & Boynton.)
Drawings of the Norfolk & Southern Railway’s General Storehouse in Roanoke, designed by Smithey & Boynton:
Insane Asylums have been a part of horror movies and ghost stories for decades. From shows like American Horror Story to Shutter Island, there are many portrayals of what it was like to be treated for mental illness in the 1800-1900s. However, when it comes to the real story about old asylums, not all institutions were set up for jump scares.
The Western Lunatic Asylum was founded in 1825 by the Virginia State Government. It was the second mental health facility established in the Commonwealth and took patients that could not function in society but had hope of recovery. The first director of the hospital was Dr. Francis T. Stribling, who was also the first graduate of the University of Virginia Medical School. Stribling believed in humane treatment for those suffering from mental illness and applied the concept of Moral Medicine to his practice. Appointed in 1836, Stribling served as the director of the asylum until his death.
The Western Lunatic Asylum collection currently consists of an annual report from the asylum from 1903 and numerous letters written to Stribling between 1840 and 1868. This collection gives you an insight into what everyday life was like for the patients and family who were connected to this institution. It strips away all the haunted hallways and creaky doors and tells the stories of brothers, sisters, parents, and children whose loved ones are under Striblings care. It also gives you the chance to see into the mind of patients who were treated at the asylum when they write back to Stribling to discuss their condition.
The annual report (pictured above) introduces this collection perfectly. Situated in the first folder of 14, it acts as an exposition chapter, setting up the scene. While the report is from a few decades after Striblings death, it helps you understand how they ran an institution like this. Some of my favorite highlights of the report are the section titled Occupation, Recreation, and Amusements which talks about how they divert the disordered minds of [their] patients again into normal channels by alternating their schedules between jobs around the asylum and entertainment like weekly dances, concerts, and games. The statistical tables are also fascinating, detailing information about how many people were admitted, what they were admitted for, and how long it took to cure those who recovered.
As mentioned above, there are two main types of letters in the collection: The Families and The Patients.
The letters from families range from those appealing to the doctor to admit a new patient to those asking about the status of current patients (Above). Many of those with family members in the asylum also mention sending money or clothes. Letters from former patients are primarily written to Stribling to update him on their status after being released from the hospital. Some are thriving and thankful, but most seem to write the doctor when they are experiencing symptoms of relapse like the one pictured below.
There are also a few business letters like the one below that informs Stribling of a woman that had “been examined according to laws & found to be a fit subject for the Lunatic Asylum at Staunton.”
This collection really feels like a window into the past. After months of scanning and transcribing these letters, it feels living in a way, and that isnt just because we find new letters to add every other month causing it to continuously grow. Each time a new one comes in its a privilege to be able to read them and add that persons story to the rest of the collection.
My job here at Virginia Tech is Community Collections Archivist & Inclusion and Diversity Coordinator for the University Libraries. I forgive you if you got lost in all that. Essentially, the part of my job that is archival in nature is to engage with traditionally marginalized communities around their histories. I help them preserve and make available documentary evidence of their existence so that history will better reflect the full human experience. This post is about a project that fell squarely within that scope – and helped me really see what doing this work can mean.
About a year ago, I got a request for a meeting with Nancy Kelly, a lesbian alumna who wanted the university to acknowledge the early history of the Gay Rights Movement at Virginia Tech. At the time, I assumed this would be a fairly standard discussion with a potential donor about materials they had and whether Special Collections would be interested in adding them to our collections. I was wrong. Nancy, certainly had some wonderful documents and we talked about the donation process. But, Nancy had a vision. She wanted us to document her experience as a lesbian at Tech during the birth of the publicly visible LGBTQ+ community here. And, she wanted it done on video. And, she wanted us to document the experiences of all of her friends and fellow alumni from that same time period. And she wanted the university as a whole to celebrate the events of 40 years ago and publicly display support for the LGBTQ+ community here. This seemed an impossible dream at the time.
Having some familiarity with the events of January 1979 from the coverage in the Collegiate Times, I wasn’t about to say no. It’s a fascinating exploration of late-1970s attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. At the time, I had no idea how I would make a video oral history project a reality. I had no personal experience as an oral history interviewer. I also knew we had limited storage space and that video files are huge! Still, this was a project with potential, so I said yes. No conditions. No mentioning all the potential issues. I just said yes. Luckily, the university made Kaltura available institution-wide for video hosting about the time I needed to put the interviews online.
What happened over the next year was a mixture of serendipity and perseverance. Working with Jessica Taylor, Assistant Professor of Oral and Public History, and Luis Garay Director of the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, we held an oral history workshop in late November specifically targeted to the LGBTQ+ community and preservation of its history.
At that workshop, I found out that Joe Forte, Shelving Supervisor with the University Libraries (and an amazing DJ for Stacks on Stacks, the University Libraries Radio Show), and Slade Lellock, PhD candidate in Sociology, were very interested in recording some interviews. I also met Adri Ridings, a student who was similarly interested in helping to document LGBTQ+ history.
From there, we began recording interviews with alumni who hadn’t engaged with the university in 40 years. It was emotional. It was cathartic. It was a labor of love for everyone involved. Nancy did the work to engage them and tell them we could be trusted. Without her, there would be no interviews because these alumni had no reason to trust someone from Virginia Tech to care about their experiences and sharing them honestly.
While I worked with the alumni to preserve their stories, Luis Garay, from the LGBTQ+ Resource Center, Latanya Walker, Director of Alumni Relations for Diversity and Inclusion, Mark Weber, from the Ex Lapide Alumni Society, students from Hokie Pride, the LGBT Faculty and Staff Caucus, and more were all working on putting together an amazing schedule of events for a 40th anniversary commemoration of Denim Day combined with Pride Week and Queer in Appalachia, an annual event celebrating what it is to be queer here in appalachia.
Meanwhile, we were busily recording and transcribing as fast as possible to get as many interviews online as we could before Pride Week and the planned #VTDenimDayDoOver. I worked with our media folks to create a cool promo/intro video (linked below – click on the picture) for the collection.
As the Denim Day events grew near and we had recorded almost all the scheduled interviews with the alumni from 40 years before, I worked with Susanna Rinehart, Chair of Theatre and Cinema in the School of Performing Arts on content for Jeans Noticeably Absent: The Story of Denim Day 1979 which combined theatre students reading newspaper articles and letters reacting to Denim Day with clips from the oral histories.
Overall, this experience has been amazing and triumphant. We gathered great oral histories and engaged the community. Nancy and her fellow alumni were celebrated by the university that had once ostracized them and called them an embarrassment. We were in the VT News, and the Roanoke Times. We were on the home page of the university – for 2 days running so far!!!! (see picture below)
We had the main university Twitter account tweeting about us.
We had departments from across the university sending out messages of support even though they couldn’t attend our coordinated commemoration photo.
We also got more members of the community to sit down and record their own stories for our collection.
There’s still a ton of work to do to process the material we’ve gathered related to these efforts. There’s also a ton of work needed to engage the parts of the community not represented by the story of Denim Day: those members who aren’t white, cisgender, gay, or lesbian. Hopefully, the work we’ve done here will be a step toward showing that we care enough to do this work honestly and with respect.
To see the collection we built about Denim Day (in progress) and our broader documentation of LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech visit here and here.
UPDATE: The committee mentioned below in this post from February 2019 is active and ongoing! If you’re curious to know what appalachian archivists are up to, visit our newsletter, published online three times a year, the Appalachian Curator.
This year, a new standing committee will be making an appearance at the annual meeting of the Appalachian Studies Association (ASA), to be held next month at the University of North Carolina, Asheville (UNCA). There has been no formal organization of Appalachian Special Collections archivists and librarians since the Appalachian Consortium disbanded in 2004, but due to an effort headed up by Gene Hyde (UNCA), this absence has now been remedied. Initial interest in the formation of this group was received from archivists representing Appalachian State University, Mars Hill University, Western Carolina University, East Tennessee State University, University of Kentucky, Berea College, Virginia Tech, Marshall University, Radford University, West Virginia University, University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Morehead State University. Rachel Vagts of Berea will serve as the new committees first chair.
While there are regional organizations of archivists defined by the boundaries of states or groups of statesMid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC), for example, includes states from New York to Virginia, while North Carolina and Ohio have organizations of their ownthe Appalachian region cuts across these boundaries. Also, these are organizations, overwhelmingly, of, by, and for archivists. By having an increased and formal presence within the Appalachian Studies Association, archivists of the region will gain an opportunity to create a larger profile for themselves and their repositories among scholars of the region and share more directly in the exchange of ideas among people working in the region.
In part, the new group will update and continue the work of the Special Collections committees that existed under the Appalachian Consortium. This work may include identifying and providing information about Appalachian repositories, facilitating the exchange of information between repositories, assessing the needs of larger and smaller repositories, and providing information and services to repositories. New tasks may include offering workshops, exhibits, and sessions at future ASA meetings; exploring external funding sources for shared projects; and encouraging and recognizing new scholarly work in the area that uses primary source materials.
One task that has already begun is the rejuvenation of the Appalachian Curator newsletter. From 1986 to 2004 this newsletter existed as a print publication under the direction of the Appalachian Consortium. The new version will go online next month, in time for the ASA conference, March 1417. A new editorial board is in place. Articles and news items are being collected. The URL for the newsletter will appear here as soon as it goes up!
In the early years of the Great Depression, a team of 15 men and women visited the homes of more than 300 families in Grayson County, Virginia to ask residents dozens of questionssome rather personalabout their homes, their farms, and their lives. The questions solicited data for a survey conducted by the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and the U. S. Dept. of Agricultures Bureau of Home Economics. Conducted over the course of nine weeks in Grayson Countys Elk Creek and Wilson Creek districts, the survey formed part of a larger study of social and economic conditions in the southern Appalachian highlands. The resulting report was to form the basis for the development of effective and much needed home extension work as well as furnish valuable information of use to the departments of education, public health, the state traveling library, and other agencies (Annual Report of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Agricultural Experiment Station, 1931). The collected data was later used in Faith M. Williams 1935 report, Variations in Farm-Family Living (in United States Dept. of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication205, Economic and Social Problems and Conditions of the Southern Appalachian Highlands, available online here.)
Here in Special Collections, the original survey records may be found in the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Grayson County) (Ms1940-023). Nearly 90 years after the surveys completion, the responses generated by it remain a rich source of raw, granular data for a sizable chunk of Grayson Countys rural population at that time. Comprising a painstakingly meticulous record of a community in the southern Appalachian highlands, the survey data could today be used in examining any number of social, economic, agricultural, or other trends.
Today, however, were going to look at the collection from a different angle. For Grayson County local and family historians, the survey responses can provide an unintended wealth of information. Here in a single place are detailed records of 300 of the countys families, providing data on their employment, income, educationeven how many pairs of underwear they made or purchased in a year. As an example, Ive chosen a single family at random to see what the survey can tell us about them. All of the information that follows is derived from the survey itself, with no outside sources consulted:
On June 29, 1931, surveyors T. M. Dean and Amelia H. Fuller visited the Birkett F. and Ruth Sutherland Taylor family of the Comers Rock area in Grayson Countys Elk Creek District. The Taylors were asked to provide information for the 12-month period ending on March 31, 1931. Given the number of questions asked, the visit must have taken the greater part of the couples day.
Birkett Taylor, 42 at the time of the study, was the son of Freel and Bell Harrington Taylor. Ruth Sutherland Taylor, his 38-year-old wife, was the daughter of Alex and Eliza Comer Sutherland. Both Birkett and Ruth were natives of Grayson County, as were their parents. Birkett had attended four years of high school, while Ruth had attended 14 years of school, averaging 16 weeks per year.
Birkett and Ruth had been married for 19 years and were distantly related by blood, being fourth cousins. The Taylors had a rather large family, with four daughters (ages 17, 10, 3 years, and 13 months) and five sons (ages 19, 15, 13, eight, and five). Also living in the household was Birketts 62-year-old mother. The family had no boarders or hired help living with them. (They seem to have had frequent guests, however, having provided an estimated 416 meals to guests during the year.)
The Taylors two-story, 1500-square-foot frame house had been built in 1881 and was remodeled in 1901. Valued at $2,222, the mortgaged home had a sound metal roof and a single-layer, unfinished floor. Stretching across the full front of the home was a porch, seven feet deep; a smaller, 30 x 7-foot porch was attached to the back of the house. The weathered home had 12 rooms including a kitchen, dining room, and parlor. Birkett and Ruth shared their bedroom with three of their children. Four sons shared another bedroom, and two daughters were in a third. Birketts mother, Bell Taylor, had use of the fourth bedroom. The surveyors gave the home a poor rating in terms of cleanliness and neatness. Surrounding the house was a picket fence in poor condition. The yard included shade trees, rosebushes, peonies, and lilies. Nearby were the familys cellar and a vented privy. The home sat on The Taylors 210-acre farm, with 102 acres in pasture and another 55 acres devoted to crops.
In addition to two fireplaces, the house was heated by a woodstove and a coal stove. The family cooked on a woodstove, and the home was lit with kerosene lamps. (The Taylors had spent $50 on 50 cords of wood during the previous year and a dollar on five gallons of kerosene.) A handpump at the sink drew clean water from a spring 500 yards from the house. For bathing, the Taylors used one of two galvanized washtubs in the home, and the family had a gasoline-powered washing machine for laundry. Clothing was pressed with one of three stove-heated irons owned by the family.
The Taylor home was furnished with 15 straightback chairs, five rocking chairs, five tables (in addition to any tables in the kitchen), and a desk. For bedding, the family had five feather ticks, nine straw ticks, and two mattresses. The Taylors also owned three clocks, a piano, a foot-powered sewing machine, and a radio (purchased within the previous year for $30).
There had been no deaths in the Taylors immediate family during the previous year. Reporting on serious illnesses in the family, Birkett mentioned that hed had pneumonia, as had the couples 15-year-old son. Ruth reported having had a baby. During the previous year, the Taylors had spent $20 on dental work and $75 for medical services, and they had received free vaccinations.
The Taylors were members of a church and had tithed a total of $10 during the year. Theyd paid $4 in income tax and $4 in poll taxes. Other expenses included $2 on cosmetics, $2.60 on toiletries and barber visits, $13 on tobacco, and $3.60 on photography. The family had spent nothing on gifts throughout the year, except at Christmas, when two dollars worth of food gifts were distributed within the family. Other Christmas food giftsvalued at five dollarswere given from what the family had themselves produced during the year. No gifts were given outside the immediate family. For the year, total expenditures on recreation and leisure amounted to $42.60.
The Taylors children helped significantly with the farm work, the older boys performing the milking, livestock care, field work, and vegetable gardening. The eldest girl, meanwhile, helped to care for the younger children, cleaned, cooked, and did laundry. The children also picked berries during the year (30 gallons total) and gathered nuts (150 pounds total). With the help of her eldest daughter, Ruth canned 194 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 40 quarts of jams and preserves, 120 quarts of fruit butters, four quarts of jelly, and 122 quarts of meat. They dried another 10 pounds of fruits and vegetables and pickled 44 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 10 quarts of sauerkraut, and 25 quarts of cottage cheese. They’d also made 96 pounds of sausage and 122 pounds of lard. The Taylors teenaged sons had assisted in the butchering of four hogs and one steer and had also hunted wild game, bringing home 12 squirrels and 36 rabbits. The boys had also caught four pounds of fish.
The Taylor farm had produced 75 bushels of apples in the previous year, at a value of $75, as well as two gallons of cherries, valued at $2.00. Other harvested produce included 1200 pounds of white potatoes ($20.00); 112 pounds of beets ($2.00), 5 pounds of carrots ($5.00), 5 pounds of onions ($5.00), 40 pounds of turnip greens ($2.00), 400 pounds of cabbage ($8.00), 20 pounds of lettuce ($1.20), 192 pounds of cucumbers ($4.00), 15 pounds of tomatoes ($15.00), 528 pounds of string beans ($22.00), 120 pounds of dry beans ($7.00), 32.1 pounds of peas ($5.00), and 360 pounds of green corn ($6.00), in addition to many other crops omitted here. Theyd also collected 250 pounds of honey, valued at $50.
In addition to farming, Birkett Taylor worked as a miller and carpenter. He earned little as a carpenter during the year (just $50) but made another $410 in lumber and in another unspecified business. The two eldest Taylor boys, meanwhile, had brought in another $100 by working on local roads. The boys earned an additional $284 in hauling, and three of the boys sold some of the rabbits theyd killed, for $7.20. The Taylors daughters had not worked outside the home but sold some of the nuts that theyd gathered, for $7.80. The familys total income for the previous year totaled $1093.00.
The family supplemented their garden harvest with produce purchased with cash or trade, mostly at the Comers Rock store, three miles distant. During the year, the family purchased 120 pounds of watermelons for $1.50. Theyd also purchased 12 pounds of string beans ($1), three pounds of prunes ($.30), 6.56 pounds of raisins ($1.05), two dozen oranges ($.60), 1.59 pounds of peanut butter ($.60). Among the familys other food purchases were 25 loaves of bread ($22.50), 6 boxes of crackers ($.30), 7.5 pounds of oatmeal ($.90), 6 boxes of prepared breakfast foods ($.60), 24 pounds of rice ($2.40), 12 pounds of macaroni ($3.60), 500 pounds of sugar ($30.00), 25 pounds of brown sugar ($1.50), and candy ($10). They bought no tea and only three pounds of coffee ($.60), but consumed 24 pounds of Postum ($6.00) and three pounds of cocoa ($.90).
The Taylors made most of their own clothing. For the year, they reported spending $46.87 for clothing or materials on female members of the family; $188.65 on the males. Many of these items were purchased at Long Gap, in Wytheville, or through mail-order catalogs, these being cheaper alternatives to the store in Comers Rock.
In the interest of brevity, Ive omitted here much of what the survey tells us about the Taylors. Other survey responses reveal, in detail, the number of times each family member journeyed away from home and for what purpose, the quantity and cost of each article of clothing spent on each family member, the number of pillowcases and screens in the home, which newspapers and magazines were read by the family, and, wellthe list just goes on and on. No less interesting is what the survey tells us about what the family didnt have. For example, one blank response tells us that the Taylors, like many of their neighbors, didnt own a car. Other blank table cells tell us which crops the family didnt raise, which products they didnt purchase from the store, which types of plants werent in their yard, etc.
The image of the Taylors that emerges from the survey is remarkably detailed. Without using a single photo or a word of narrative, the survey responses give us a portrait of one southwestern Virginia family, based entirely on objective data provided by the family itself and the observations of the surveyors.
I should perhaps note here that the data is not easily retrievable. The survey records contain hundreds of individuals sheets divided among several volumes, each volume comprised of several sets of questions, all arranged first by question, then by record number, not by family name. Nor is the survey infallible. (In seeking more information on the Taylors, for example, I found this page on findagrave, which revealed that Mr. Taylors name was Birket rather than Birkett.)
Despite the cumbersome arrangement of the records, they would prove an invaluable tool for any genealogist or local historian whos looking for information on an area family and is willing to undertake a little digging. Moreover, the survey continues to hold inestimable value for its original, intended use. Extending this gleaning exercise over the entire survey, an interested researcher could develop any number of projects from the meticulous records created by 15 workers during that summer of 1931.
More on the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Ms1940-023) may be found in the collections finding aid.
Make an animation. Make a gif. Make a collage. Write some microfiction. Write a poem. Get out your digital black-out marker to create some redacted poetry. Make something entirely unique that was inspired by an image or string of text. Remix and stretch your creativity. Archives are here to inspire!
Archives matter. They preserve records of human history and offer glimpses into the past. Historians mine them for the sources that make up their books and artists, musicians, and writers pull inspiration for their creative works. Genealogists seek out threads of family history and alumni find scholastic treasures.
October is American Archives Month and to celebrate special collections departments everywhere we’re holding an Archives Remix event all month long. Take some inspiration from the Virginia Tech Library archives and stretch your creative muscles by producing a visual or written work that uses one or more of the VT Special Collections images that are posted above.
Share your work on social media (Twitter or Instagram), tag #VTArchivesRemix and @VT_SCUA, and let us know which image(s) inspired your work. We’ll be sharing your artwork and written pieces all month long!
Send us your creations:
Crumbling under the weight of words:
Send us a piece of microfiction inspired by one or more of the images. Economy is key, so make sure to exercise efficiency of language. Submissions should be 200 words or less.
Use one or more of the images to create a new visual work. Think beyond boundaries and remix the images with your own work or repeat elements of the same picture to create something entirely new. Stills or animations, collages, videos, photographs, memeswe want to see it all.
Brief and bold:
Poetry is the ultimate in brevity and elegance of prose–no room for stray words or useless turns of phrase. Take inspiration from a fleeting image or line of text. Redact words on an existing page to unveil something entirely new. We can’t wait to read your poems, written or redacted.
Choose from the following images to inspire your own works:
Need a little extra inspiration?
Read this incredibly moving microfiction piece, Sticks,by George Saunders.
Throughout the month of May, Special Collections is displaying an exhibit on five decades of student activism at Virginia Tech. The exhibit highlights several campaigns and demonstrations from 1968 through today, including impromptu vigils for Martin Luther King Jr. and Trayvon Martin, the student occupation of Williams Hall in the wake of the Kent State shootings, anti-war marches and pro-military responses, demonstrations against racism and sexual violence, calls for the protection of natural resources in Appalachia, protests against exploitative labor conditions, LGBTQ pride rallies, and campaigns to highlight ADA violations across campus. These materials come from the University Archives and manuscript collections of Virginia Tech alumni.
Alongside these materials, weve chosen to highlight the work of a single student organization at Virginia Tech. The Appalachian Student Organizing Committee (or Appalachian Student Committee) operated as an official student organization of Virginia Tech in the early 1970s. The Committee aimed to raise awareness of Appalachian issues and provide support for other grassroots groups in the region. Under the leadership of student organizers David Tice and Allan Cox, the group worked throughout the region to address issues such as land use, energy policy, poverty, access to health care, labor rights, systemic racism in Appalachia, and the Vietnam War.
In May 1971, several chapter members traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in a national civil disobedience campaign which resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people. The Special Collections exhibit includes memos and training materials distributed on campus to student affiliates. Additionally, visitors to Special Collections can review information about the Community Free Clinic of Blacksburg (1971-1972). This initiative was part of a national movement to establish locally responsive and accessible health care throughout the country.
To see these materials in person, visit Special Collections in Newman Library anytime during the month of May.