By Josette Keelor
Starting Wednesday at the Warren County Heritage Society, dresses made in the 1880s will be on display alongside a 1950s baseball uniform from the Avtex textile plant's ball club.
Across the room are night clothes made at home in the early 19th century before families from Warren County began importing clothing, said Patrick Farris, executive director of the Heritage Society. And in the next room is a display of quilts he called "eye candy."
"People love quilts," he said. It's with that interest in mind that he decided on the latest exhibit at 101 Chester St. in Front Royal -- "Textiles: Home Craft to Industry in Warren County."
Items for the exhibit have been collected over the years, but products before the Civil War are difficult to find and display because they're so brittle, Farris said.
Deborah Corey, assistant archivist in the Belle Boyd Cottage, is helping with the exhibit.
She and Farris have been "trying to pick out items that reflect the textile industry through the years," she said.
Post-Civil War clothing is unique because of the design, she said.
"It has the military influences," she said. "It even has tails on the back."
A big part of the exhibit will include part of Front Royal's most influential past: the Avtex textile mill.
At one point, Farris said, over 80 percent of the workforce in Warren County earned its income from one business: Avtex, a British-owned company he said sought employees in the U.S. during the 1930s in anticipation of a second war with Germany.
Avtex was the main employer of the county, Farris said, but it was so large that it had its own bus line for shuttling workers from Strasburg and neighboring counties of Rappahannock and Page to fill its three shifts. For about 30 years, almost anyone in Front Royal was guaranteed a job at Avtex if they wanted it, Farris said.
"It was the employer in town," he said.
This was atypical of Virginia, he said. The most similar comparison occurred in Patrick and Henry counties along the Dan River, he said, but "those mills were cotton mills."
Owned by American Viscose, Avtex produced rayon.
Because of its proximity to a good water source, easy rail access and an urban center like Hampton Roads, Front Royal was the ideal location for a textile mill, Farris said. But Pennyslvania had that too, he said. It was Front Royal's work force that drew Avtex to the Washington area.
"This county had a lot of factories and mills already," Farris said. Avtex built upon the skill that area workers already had when it moved in, soon employing 84 percent of the county.
By the 1960s, the county was diversifying in job options, he said. Then, in 1986, the Environmental Protection Agency shut down the factory to clean the site of toxic rayon. The 400-plus acres were capped with earthen covers to prevent pollution of the surrounding areas, Farris said.
No one can live on the site, he said, but the county has been working on other uses for the land.
"It'll be parks," Farris said. "Part of the site will be a hotel."
Farris said the prevalence of skillful textile workers in Front Royal came in part from an influx of Irish immigrants who came to the area to work on the railroad and then stayed along Happy Creek. So many lived there at one point, he said, and that neighborhood was dubbed New Dublin.
Its history makes Front Royal so unique, Farris said, and the textile exhibit will illustrate that storied past. "It's the people behind the story."
"Textiles: Home Craft to Industry in Warren County" will be on display until March 2014. An opening reception with light refreshments will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Warren Heritage Society Joy Lodge Museum, at 101 Chester St., Front Royal. For more information, call 540-636-1446.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or email@example.com