Mount Airy is known for many things – a big shiny boulder, beautiful simple but well-made furniture, quality shiny leaf tobacco, the happiest girl in all of America and, of course, a folk sheriff who did not carry a gun.
And, for over a century, he’s been known for his socks.
Whether it’s for your little one, a bobby-soxer, a hiker, a farmer, or an M-16 rifle, Mount Airy has been making socks for 100 years.
The most unusual sock on this 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 the troops of the First Gulf War for the nylons.
What they needed was a way to keep the ubiquitous sand out of their guns and Merritt thought he could do better than a pair of tights. Renfro produced the socks and competitor Kentucky Derby Hosiery dyed, finished, packaged and shipped them.
Most of the socks produced at Mount Airy are more traditional models.
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 a New York company.
Their sprawling factories employed hundreds of socks producing locally for Fruit of the Loom, Carhartt, Dr. Scholls Merrell, Hot Sox, and K. Bell.
This first factory was joined by no less than 13 other companies at once, with local business owners joined by companies attracted by the lower costs and the large pool of skilled workers in this field.
But no matter where you start, the history of sock-making in Mount Airy seems to date back to Tollie Barber, but it’s not clear exactly why.
Surry County was never a metropolitan area, but there has been a strong network of business people who have created a series of industries that may seem unlikely for a county so far from major cities. Chatham Mills in Elkin, Spencer’s Infantware, Mount Airy Furniture Company and others are nationally and sometimes internationally renowned brands.
Barber, a textile manufacturing graduate, joined WE Merritt Jr. and his brother Oscar, WG Sydnor and WW Burke, all active men in the business and civic life of the county, to establish Renfro Hosiery Mill on Willow Street. in part of the former Sparger Tobacco complex. They started with $ 200,000 in capital, just north of today’s $ 3 million.
By 1933, Barber and others at Renfro had started two more sock factories, Argonne and Piedmont, each specializing in different products, from children’s socks to women’s ankle bracelets to men’s boot socks. The effects of the Great Depression, however, took their toll and Renfro absorbed these factories in order to keep the company financially viable.
In 1937, the company had a turnover of one million dollars. The following year, they lost $ 22,000 according to information published at the time in the Charlotte Observer. It was the last year the company posted a loss until the 1979 flood that destroyed more than $ 2 million in stock according to the Wall Street Journal.
Despite the economic challenges, the growth of hosiery production in Mount Airy has not stopped and neither has Barber. In 1938 he built Barber Hosiery Mill on top of the hill near the intersection of Hamburg and South Main streets.
The Mount Airy News reported that it was “the eighth textile and knitting mill to start in the city.” With 100 machines, it employed 300 workers.
The Lynne and Surry hosiery factories were built in 1941. Barber was, again, involved in the operations with Surry, recruited as a consultant to the Surry factory. Although construction slowed down 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 those GIs returned home, the baby boom that followed fueled an economic boom. Members of the powerful Carter family and JW Prather, all successful in business, purchased the Blizzard Freight Terminal on South Street and built Carter Hosiery Mills in 1946.
The Moss-Foy Textile Company moved to Newsome Street that same year to dye and wind skeins for hosiery factories. Construction and expansion have taken off with Renfro adding 50,000 square feet to its Willow Street and Granit Hosiery Mill plant consolidating their multiple locations under one roof by moving to the larger Renfro # 2 plant at the corner of South Main and Worth.
Amos and Smith Hosiery at Pilot Mountain, Oakdale, Brown Wooten Mills, Adams-Millis, Blue-Chip, Kentucky Derby and Nester have been added.
As the global market opened up, companies moved production, packaging, and shipping to offshore facilities starting in the 1990s. Little production remains in the county outside of Nester, but the history and all that has been accomplished is a point of pride for many in the region.
And if you happened to have one of those M-16 rifle socks in a drawer somewhere, the museum would give it pride of place.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is a local independent writer, researcher and genealogist.