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America’s sock capitol?

Jun 06, 2023

Sock industry key to Mount Airy commerce

Local contractor Matt Hines began construction of Lynne Hosiery Mills on North South Street in 1941. "Machinery for the plant is arriving every day according to officials," reported the Mount Airy News, "despite shortages necessarily due to defense demands on certain types of material the factory should be in operation (by) January." By 1947, nine mills were turning out children's and infants socks; Renfro, Granite, Barber, Carter, Jackson-Speight, Barber-Allen, Lynne, Surry & Ashburn. Together they employed more than 2,000 people with sales of $6 million.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

In 1930 Renfro was the first hosiery mill to implement a second shift in Mount Airy. The plants had electricity but bulbs produced inefficient light. Cooper Hewitt bulbs, produced by Westinghouse, were the predecessors to fluorescent lights. They used tubes filled with mercury gas to create a bright, if somewhat greenish light. Barber is quoted in company advertisements crediting the lights as a "real factor in producing quality merchandise" The light cast was "as good … as Daylight." The company had moved on to fluorescent lights by the time this picture was taken of the Renfro Finishing Plant in the 1950s.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

Chester and Gladys Anderson lived in Mount Airy in the early mid-1900s. Like many in the area, he worked at several textile mills from the 1940s through the ‘70s including Renfro, Trio Knit, Granite, and Smart Tops. Gladys worked, we think, for Hanes in Winston-Salem and the family moved to Rural Hall for a better commute. After he retired Chester bought several older sock knitting machines from a mill in High Point and set up a small production in his garage, something a lot of former textile workers did across the region, apparently. Their son, Mike Anderson, recently donated the seven Banner Knitting Machines to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Based on the patents the machines likely date from the 1920s and most seem to be in working order.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

The humble sock is more complicated to produce than many might think. Mass production required 10 major operations, each requiring different machinery and skills, as described in the Mount Airy News in the 1950s. "Yarn is purchased and dyed, wound onto cones; ribbing machines do tops including various designs and knitting machines make the foot; these are then sewn together before going to the looping machines which close to the toes; in boarding rooms socks are placed on foot-shaped forms and pressed; then they are cut and paired, next they go through pin-ticketing machines and then boxed to ship." These bundles of a dozen pairs each were made on machines recently donated to the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History by Mike Anderson. Hosiery mills across the area produced tens of thousands each year for decades.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

ollie C. Barber is often credited with bringing sock manufacture to Surry County but it is unclear why that is. Born to a successful farming family in Pinnacle in 1890 he graduated from North Carolina State College in 1911 with a degree in textile manufacturing. He worked first for at Caraleigh Hosiery Mills in Raleigh rising to a supervisory position by 1917. He moved his young family to Rawleigh Street in Mount Airy the next year to open the Mayo Knitting Mill, part of a line of mills operated by the Fries. In 1921 he and other local businessmen formed Renfro Hosiery Mills on Willow Street. Their 25 employees produced 30,000 pairs of children's socks that year. He was respected for his knowledge of the textile industry, at one time serving as an officer or owner of four mills. Like many of his station he was involved with many aspects of community life and served several years on city council, the school board, and as an officer of two financial institutions in Mount Airy. He was also instrumental in forming the Mount Airy Base Ball Association. He is pictured here about 1945, then a member of the board of directors for Workmen's Federal.

Mount Airy Museum of Regional History

Mount Airy has been known for many things — a big, gleaming rock, beautiful yet simple well-made furniture, quality bright leaf tobacco, the Happiest Girl In The Whole USA, and, of course, a folksy sheriff that didn't carry a gun.

And, for most of a century, it has been known for its socks.

Whether it was for your toddler, a bobby-soxer, hiker, farmer, or M-16 rifle, Mount Airy has been turning out socks for 100 years.

The most unusual sock on that list, of course, is the M-16 rifle sock. Robert Merritt, grandson of the founder of Renfro Hosiery Mill and president of the company in 1991, he designed the rifle covers in response to requests from troops in the first Gulf War for nylons.

What they needed was a way to keep the ubiquitous sand out of their rifles and Merritt thought he could do better than a pair of pantyhose. Renfro produced the socks and competitor Kentucky Derby Hosiery dyed, finished, packaged, and shipped them.

Most of the socks produced in Mount Airy have been more traditional styles.

Renfro Corp. makes one out of every five socks sold in America. Merritt's grandfather, William Edward Merritt Jr. founded the company on Willow Street in 1921. The company has been headquartered here ever since. It has recently been purchased by a New York firm.

Their sprawling plants employed hundreds locally producing socks for Fruit of the Loom, Carhartt, Dr. Scholls Merrell, Hot Sox and K.Bell.

That first plant was joined by as many as 13 other companies at one time, with the local business owners joined by companies drawn to the lower costs and large pool of skilled workers in this area.

But no matter where you start, the story of sock manufacturing in Mount Airy seems to lead back to Tollie Barber but it's not exactly clear why.

Surry County has never been a metropolitan area but there has been a strong network of business-minded people who’ve created a series of industries that may seem unlikely for a county that sits so far from larger cities. Chatham Mills in Elkin, Spencer's Infantware, Mount Airy Furniture Company and others have been nationally and, sometimes, internationally known brands.

Barber, with a degree in textile manufacturing, joined W.E. Merritt Jr. and his brother Oscar, W.G. Sydnor and W.W. Burke, all men active in the business and civic life of the county, to establish Renfro Hosiery Mill on Willow Street in part of the old Sparger Tobacco complex. They began with $200,000 in capital, just north of $3 million in today's money.

By 1933 Barber and others at Renfro had begun two other sock mills, Argonne and Piedmont, each specializing in different products from children's socks to misses’ anklets, to men's boot socks. The effects of the Great Depression took their toll, though and Renfro absorbed those mills in order to keep the company financially viable.

In 1937 the company had $1 million in sales. The next year they lost $22,000 according to reporting in the Charlotte Observer at the time. It was the last year the company showed a loss until the 1979 flood that destroyed more than $2 million in stock according to the Wall Street Journal.

Despite the economic challenges, growth of hosiery production in Mount Airy didn't stop and neither did Barber. In 1938 he built Barber Hosiery Mill atop the hill near the intersection of Hamburg and South Main streets.

The Mount Airy News reported it was "the eighth textile and knitting plant to be started in the city." With 100 machines it employed 300 workers.

Lynne and Surry hosiery mills were built in 1941. Barber was, again, involved in operations with Surry, recruited as an advisor to the Surry mill. Though construction slowed during World War II, Barber was involved with local politics, banking, and the formation of the Mount Airy Base Ball Association.

Once the war ended and all those GIs headed home the Baby Boom that followed fueled an economic boom. Members of the powerful Carter family and JW Prather, all successful in business, bought the Blizzard Freight Terminal on South Street and built Carter Hosiery Mills in 1946.

The Moss-Foy Textile Company set up on Newsome Street that same year to do skein dyeing and winding for the hosiery mills. Construction and expansion took off with Renfro adding 50,000 square feet to its Willow Street plant and Granit Hosiery Mill consolidating their several locations under one roof by moving into the larger Renfro #2 plant at the corner of South Main and Worth streets.

Amos and Smith Hosiery in Pilot Mountain, Oakdale, Brown Wooten Mills, Adams-Millis, Blue-Chip, Kentucky Derby, and Nester were added.

As the global market opened, companies moved production, packaging, and shipping to off-shore facilities beginning in the 1990s. Little production remains in the county aside from Nester but the history and all that was accomplished is a point of pride for many in the region.

And if you happen to have one of those M-16 rifle socks in a drawer someplace, the museum would give it place of pride.

Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a local freelance writer, researcher, and genealogist.