Community explores Beacon Manufacturing legacy, eyeing future of textiles

Emily Patrick
The Asheville Citizen-Times

Fire seems to produce a final end, especially when that fire burns for three days and consumes a sprawling, six-story building of 1 million square feet.

When Beacon Manufacturing Co. in Swannanoa was obliterated by a massive conflagration in 2003, many considered the blaze the definite conclusion of Beacon’s story, which began in 1923 when Charles Owen purchased a large tract of land in the valley and relocated his blanket factory from New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the farmland east of Asheville.

A Citizen-Times article from 2003 captured former employees’ reactions to the fire at the plant, which had shuttered a year earlier. “I cried, it touched me so,” said Ruby Killough, who had worked at the plant between 1962 and 1975. “That was where my roots were. That’s were I started.”

But although Beacon is gone, its story might not be complete. On Nov. 20, historians, filmmakers, former Beacon employees, a songwriter, curators and present-day textile makers gathered at the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design’s Benchspace Gallery to consider Beacon’s 78-year legacy and talk about how its influence carries over into the present day.

“With the original Beacon site up for sale and growing interest in revitalizing the area, rebuilding the community today should take careful consideration of the history of Swannanoa and the Beacon story,” Marilyn Zapf, assistant director of the center said before the Nov. 20 event.

Rebecca Williams, a Swannanoa resident and oral historian making a documentary, “Blanket Town: The Rise and Fall of an American Mill Town,” was scheduled to screen clips from her project at the event. And local historian David Whisnant was to lead a panel discussion with former Beacon employees.

But why rehash this history that seems to have such a complete and final end? And why do it in a gallery?

Williams and Zapf see a resurgence in artisinal textiles taking place in Western North Carolina and throughout the state. Oriole Mill in Hendersonville began creating design-forward luxury fabrics in 2007, and Echoview Mill in Weaverville combines textile manufacturing and farming.

“We’re really interested in becoming a maker economy,” Williams said. “I get back to that idea of pride in work, and the pride in making something that people value and something that will last .... I also think it’s really important as a culture that as we move forward, we have an understanding of the history and the roots.”

Beacon blankets offer lessons in the aesthetic and administrative aspects of making.

“They were really beautiful and complex, and they had amazing artists to do the designs for them,” Williams said. “To me, it’s looking at that lineage of what inspired this, and how does that inform artists who are creating things today. I love the idea of people creating things that are treated more as heirlooms.”

When they were made, these blankets were fairly affordable. During World War II, Beacon manufactured utilitarian blankets for the military. Williams noted the irony of the current high cost of these basic necessities. She said the price hikes are a telling cultural response. Consumers value traditional legacy items.

“I think it’s about relationships,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things people mourn with the loss of Beacon as the focus of the community and a place to hold relationships.”

Although Beacon was just another industrial textile mill to many who bought its blankets, for locals it was essential to relationships. It provided much of the community’s infrastructure, including homes, baseball teams, grocery stores and eateries.

“Nobody has 50 years of job stability or everybody in your family working at the same place,” Williams said. “(Beacon) propelled the next generation into the middle class. It was a kinder, gentler form of capitalism (that illustrated) the difference (between having) owners who lived in the community versus owners who were several states away. There’s certainly a tremendous legacy of the generosity of the Owen family giving back to the community.”

Tales of the Owens’ kindness abound. The founding Owen had an open door policy, in which any of his employees could come speak with him in his office. It was a big commitment - at one time, Beacon employed 2,200 people. Accordingly, the story of the open door policy lived on in newspapers and books for decades after the Owen family sold its stock in the mill in the late ’60s.

The company also facilitated the sale of homes to employees. When the banks closed and the Great Depression ensued, Beacon issued company-backed script so commerce could continue.

Charles Owen had reasons for being kind, Williams explained. Strikes and labor unions in the Northeast drove many textile manufacturers south, Owen among them, in search of nonunionized labor and abundant natural resources. By presiding generously and maintaining infrastructure, Owen increased the stakes of a strike. For his employees, rebellion would mean starting life from scratch.

The challenging aspects of Beacon’s history, including the layoffs and fire sales that preceded its closure, remain part of the discussion of Beacon. The event was not an exercise in nostalgia, Williams said. It was about rebuilding.

“To me, the story of Beacon and the story of Swannanoa is a really American story,” she said. “It’s something that I think resonates across the country as lots of communities are facing the challenges of how to rebuild after the economic engine of a certain industry has left and gone overseas.”