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.