Mount Airy was famous for many things – a big, shiny boulder, beautiful, simple, well-made furniture, high-quality bright-leaf tobacco, the happiest girl in the USA and, of course, a popular sheriff who never had a gun.
And for more than a century, she was famous for her socks.
Whether it’s for your toddler, Bobby Soxer, hiker, farmer, or M-16 rifle, Mount Airy has been making socks for 100 years.
The most unusual sock on that list, of course, is the M-16 rifle sock. Robert Merritt, grandson of Renfro Hosiery Mill founder and president of the company in 1991, designed rifle covers in response to troop requests in the first Gulf War for nylon.
What they needed was a way to keep the ubiquitous sand off their rifles, and Merritt thought he could do better than wearing pantyhose. Renfrew Hosiery and Competitor, Kentucky Derby, produced, dyed, finished, packed, and shipped.
Most of the socks produced at Mount Airy were of traditional styles.
Renfro Corp makes one in 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 was recently purchased by the New York Corporation.
Their sprawling factories used hundreds of locally produced socks for Fruit of the Loom, Carhartt, Dr. Scholls Merrell, Hot Sox, and K.Bell.
This first factory has been joined by as many as 13 other companies at a time, and local business owners are drawn to low costs and a large pool of skilled workers in the field.
But no matter where you start, the story of hosiery-making at Mount Airy seems to go back to Tollie Barber but it’s not clear why.
Surry County has never been a metropolitan area, but there has been a strong network of business people who have created a chain of industries that would seem unlikely for a county so far from the big cities. Chatham Mills has been in Elkin, Spencer’s Infantware, Mount Airy Furniture Company, and other well-known brands nationally and sometimes internationally.
Barber, who has a degree in textiles, joins WE Merritt Jr. and his brother Oscar, W. G. Sydnor and W. W. Burke, all men active in business and civic life of the county, to establish Renfro Hosiery Mill on Willow Street in part of the old Sperger Tobacco Complex. They started with $200,000 in capital, north of $3 million in today’s money.
By 1933 Barber and others in Renfrew had started two more sock mills, Argonne and Piedmont, each specializing in different products from children’s socks to anklets, to men’s introductory socks. The effects of the Great Depression affected, although Renfrew absorbed those mills in order to keep the company financially viable.
In 1937 the company’s sales reached one million dollars. The following year they lost $22,000 according to a report in the Charlotte Observer at the time. This was the last year the company had a loss until the 1979 flood destroyed more than $2 million in inventory, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Despite the economic challenges, the growth of hosiery production at Mount Airy as well as Barber has not stopped. In 1938 he built Barber Hosiery Mill on top of a hill near the intersection of Hamburg and South Main Streets.
The Mount Airy News reported it as “the eighth textile and knitting factory to be established in the city.” With 100 machines it employed 300 workers.
The Lynne and Surry hosiery mills were built in 1941. Barber was, once again, involved in operations with Surry, being hired as a consultant for Surry Mill. Although construction slowed during World War II, Barber was involved in local politics, banking, and the formation of the Mount Airy Base Ball Association.
Once the war was over and all of these soldiers went home, the Baby Boom that followed fueled an economic boom. Members of the powerful Carter family and the J.W. Brother, who were all successful in the business, purchased the Blizzard charging station on South Street and built the Carter Housery Mills in 1946.
The Moss-Foy Textile Company was founded on Newsom Street in the same year to do skein dyeing and spinning for hosiery factories. Construction and expansion began with Renfro adding 50,000 square feet to its Willow Street factory and Granit Hosiery Mill cemented their multiple locations under one roof by moving to the larger Renfro #2 factory at the corner of South Main and Worth Streets.
Amos and Smith Hosiery were added at Pilot Mountain, Oakdale, Brown Wooten Mills, Adams-Millis, Blue-Chip, Kentucky Derby and Nester.
With the opening of the global market, companies moved production, packaging and shipping to offshore facilities beginning in the 1990s. Little production remains in the county other than Nester, but the history and everything that has been accomplished is a source of pride for many in the region.
And if you have one of those M-16 rifle stockings in a drawer somewhere, the museum will give it a place of pride.
Kate Rauhauser Smith is a local freelance writer, researcher, and genealogist.