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Reclaiming history

Tony Kirby, owner of K&D Signs of Mount Airy, has owned the building at 1078 S. Main St. since 2015 and has been slowly renovating it ever since. He said he has been amazed at what lies beneath the surface of the building that was ensconced in a metal wrap when past efforts to keep it painted were unsuccessful.

On the wall of the main lobby is a large photo of Barber Hosiery Mill, which once occupied the building on Main Street but is largely unknown to local residents. Kirby is asking the public for help in collecting photos and memorabilia from the Barber Hosiery Mills era to create a display in the K&D Signs lobby to honor the rich history of the former mill and its workers.

If Kirby is right, many do not know that T.C. Barber graduated from N.C. State and with a degree in textiles, came to Mount Airy to manage a small mill before Renfro Hosiery Mills Company scooped him up in 1921. He then opened the Barber Hosiery Mill in 1937 which were “manufacturers of fine quality infants, misses’ and ladies’ anklets” according to period documents. Renfro bought the business in 1972 and renamed it the Renfro Barber Street plant.

When touring the upper level, Kirby gestured to the many panes of plywood that covered where dozens of original windows had once been. He said it gives him pause to stand on the floor where the mill machinery once was and imagine all the windows open, the cool air of a spring or fall evening wafting through.

In his mind he can imagine the mill floor as it was and on hot days he said the old floor boards release some of the oil that had seeped into them over the years.

So much of the building is just as it was in the 1940s, and while Renfro may have laid 1970s era linoleum over beautiful hardwoods, they remained beneath just waiting to see the light of day.

The memories of Barber Hosiery have been similarly papered over Kirby said, and that is part of the reason he is seeking to create a place to remember Barber Hosiery. After Renfro bought them out, he said that is what most people remember, “Everyone knows Renfro, but no one remembers Barber.”

Those who do remember Barber Hosiery Mill are dwindling and Kirby is hoping that by soliciting donations from the public of all things related to Barber that he can create a display at K&D Sign for those folks.

“We are reaching out to former workers, descendants of and the public for their assistance in helping us to create a memorial for those employees, this will be located at the same facility they spent their years of dedication in making top-of-the-line products and providing for their families.”

“We want to have an event for the Barber Hosiery folks, and we need help finding things to display,” Kirby said.

He recalled seeing George Speight Sr., who was the longtime manager of Barber Hosiery Mills, come through the offices and when he saw photos of the old Barber mills, Kirby said it “caused a spark of energy” and he wants to duplicate that.

The Speight family donated items such as scales, sock boarding boards, and the time clock from Barber Hosiery. Kirby wants to add to the collection with items specifically from Barber Hosiery Mills from around 1938 to when Renfro bought them out in 1972.

His goal is to collect enough artifacts to invite Speight Sr. and former Barber Hosiery Mills employees back to tour the space and share their memories of their former mill.

When comparing the lobby photo side by side with what is visible from South Main Street today, it is not hard to see Barber Hosiery’s skeleton still. Kirby said after acquiring the building in 2015 that it and the grounds needed work. His staff cut back the vines and overgrowth from the street-facing side to expose the original stone wall and a granite landing from the staircase that led from the street to the mill.

He said that the former owner had let the building begin to fall into disrepair. There was significant damage from leaks in the roof that needed repair. Renfro had been using it for many years for storage only, Kirby said. “They basically just kept the boiler on.”

As repairs and renovations to the building have been made, more history has been discovered. Dustin Bledsoe, K&D Signs creative director, said the history of the building is not lost on him. He pointed to a dark spot on the floor and said that was where the water fountain for the mill had been. When he stands there, he said he feels “the weight” of those who were there before him and can picture weary workers seeking a respite from the heat of the mill floor one sip of water at a time.

Just steps from where the fountain once stood is a 1940s freight elevator that, Kirby said, although it needs one new button or switch, is in working order. The interior of the elevator shows the scratches and scars of a well used unit that was installed when there were 48 states. For Christmastime this year he said K&D Signs wants to incorporate the freight elevator tower into a display featuring one Mr. S. Claus.

Next on Kirby’s list is to build out displays of service stations from years gone by and show off signage and memorabilia surrounding classic service stations. K&D Signs have over 100 employees working and eight teams deployed into the field right now working on gas station renovations and brand conversions.

Contact K&D Signs to offer an items to the Barber Hosiery collection: 336 789-4074.



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