The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

All Wool And One Yard Wide

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1984

Issue: October, 1984

all wool and one yard wide 1The Dunn Woolen Mill as it used to be on the banks of beautiful Burkes Fork Creek.Like many of his contemporizes, 27 year old Tom Dunn of Buckland, Virginia was caught up in the excitement of the battle cry, "Remember the Main" and he volunteered to go to war against Spain. So here he was in Florida in 1899, trained, fighting mad and ready for the big invasion of Cuba when peace came. Mustered out of the army there, he returned to his native state and the only trade he had ever known, spinning wool.

When his father had died in 1881 leaving no one else to support the family, Tom Dunn, age 10 entered the Buckland Mills as a floor sweeper for $2.00 per week. He worked hard and he learned fast and before long he was performing better jobs for better pay. Then he moved to the Winchester Woolen Mill for an even better weaving position. His daily route to work there took him by the city library and he soon became a voracious reader, borrowing and completing a new book each day. This not only assisted with his self education, but became his recreation as well. He is said to have eagerly pursued reading for the rest of his life.

With the Spanish-American War behind him he obtained a supervisors position at the Radford Woolen Mill and it was there that the course of events was to drastically change his life. Columbus Vaughn, who had earlier fought the Yankee Army at Winchester, and his brother Green had established a small woolen mill on the banks of Burkes Fork Creek near the Blue Ridge mountain community of Willis in Floyd County, Virginia. The Vaughns were prominent people of that community and the increase of mail for the mill caused the establishment of a Vaughn Post Office nearby.

all wool and one yard wide 2Hansel and Oneida Dunn Banks in the early 1930's.A decision by the brothers to enlarge and modernize the mill took them to Radford where they purchased 14 additional looms and a 60 feet long spinning machine. Trouble. The Vaughn brothers couldn't install the equipment alone. Enter Tom Dunn, reliable and knowledgeable. The Radford mill would furlough him to do the job. Dunn assisted in converting the mill from an overshot wheel to a turbine to harness some additional power from Burkes Fork Creek. And as he installed the other equipment, he became increasingly impressed with the beautiful valley and with the Vaughns, especially Columbus' daughter Allie Manda who came daily to the mill to bring the men hot lunches. When the installation was complete and all signals go, Tom Dunn didn't want to go - back to Radford, that is. And the Vaughns didn't want him to leave. So he was offered a partnership in the mill. Allie Manda soon became Mrs. Tom Dunn and the partnership flourished. Before many years Tom accepted a proposal to purchase Green Vaughn's share of the mill and it became Vaughn and Dunn Woolen Mill. Then when Tom later purchased his father-in-law's share, it became the Dunn Woolen Mill as it is remembered today.

Meanwhile the Dunn family was growing. Three sons and pretty soon two daughters. As the sons became old enough to work they joined their father and about a dozen other workers in the mill. The daughters also helped. And it is from the memory of one, Oneida (Mrs. Hansel Banks) of Meadows of Dan that most of this story is drawn. Many people in the tri-county area of the Blue Ridge came to know and respect Oneida and her knowledge and skills when she operated a fabric business in connection with her husband's lumber plant near the Meadows of Dan Post Office.

Oneida remembers when she was an early teenager, how she helped to gather up the sun-dried wool from the grass lawn in front of the mill and carry it to the second floor. She remembers the newly purchased wool being washed in a 100 gallon copper kettle to remove excess oil and dirt. The same kettle was used for dying the yarn and fabric to obtain the many beautiful colors for which her father was famous. She recalls the wagons loaded to the bows with bags, and bags tied on the side, as they cautiously forded Burkes Fork Creek. Tom Dunn wasn't about to buy wet wool for dry wool prices. It seems only a short while ago to her that she was helping take the wool from the second floor trash and burr-picking machine and passing it through holes in the floor to be carded, spun and wound onto three foot reels and made ready for the looms. Likewise, she recalls the fine quality flannel and cashmere that the looms produced. She can still see the snow-white blankets with the colorful stripes on each end and the egg-shaped burrs grown and imported from Canada that were used to tease the blankets and raise the nap. She almost shivers remembering how it wasn't practical or safe to heat the big building and how they were forced to suspend spinning during the coldest months of winter because the chilled thread would break. And she remembers, along with many folks when, "All wool and a yard wide" was once a declaration of excellence.

Perhaps it wasn't Hansel's stealing Oneida away for his bride in the early thirties that started the decline of the industry. But it may have carried a little weight. It was the big depression, however, the dwindling number of wool growers and the introduction of synthetic yarn that had the killing impact upon the industry. So in 1931 the looms hummed with less frequency. And in 1934 the mill finally became silent. A family industry and an important market for the Heart of the Blue Ridge had passed into oblivion. There are those, however, who can still display some of the beautiful coverlets and blankets from the mill. And a few of us can remember the white flannel trousers we used to wear with pride. Some, no doubt made from the quality fabrics of the Dunn looms.

Tom Dunn has long since passed from this life. Most of the signs of the old mill have disappeared. Burkes Fork still sings and gurgles. And the several varieties of native birds still trill their beautiful melodies. But at other times a hush falls over the valley that stirs the memories of this old man's soul. It is then he pauses to gaze at the Little Flock Primitive Baptist Church, and strain his mind and imagination for the sound of the doping of the horse's and mule's hooves and the rattle of the wagons as they went rolling with their cargo down to the Dunn Woolen Mill. Makes him wonder, too, about the many other synthetics that have somehow become woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.