A hundred miles up the Alabama River from Mobile Bay, where the Black Belt meets the Coastal Plains, is uniquely situated Monroe County, a place most Alabamians overlook.
Aside from its literary exploits and being geographically situated far from the major thoroughfares, Monroeville, the county seat of Monroe County, clings to a historically forgotten status. Indeed, unless you have a reason to go to Monroeville, it is unlikely you would ever, by happenstance, pop by.
Late last month, I had a reason to go to Monroeville.
Like most small towns after 6 p.m. on a weekday, the town square surrounding the Monroe County Courthouse is quiet. It’s late January, and Mardi Gras decorations are mixed in with the town’s signature “To Kill a Mockingbird” décor.
The lone show of a pulse is the Prop and Gavel, a restaurant that arrived on the courthouse square in 2013. Inside, I am automatically recognized as an outsider. A rare visitor. Why am I there? To get the real scoop on the rise and fall of this small town. In Monroeville, this is synonymous with the rise and fall of the old Vanity Fair “silk mill,” which was once Monroeville’s crown jewel.
All three patrons at the bar and the bartender know someone who was once employed by Vanity Fair.
“My granddaddy worked there for years,” said one.
Monroe County Probate Judge Greg Norris echoed that sentiment.
“When I grew up, Vanity Fair was the biggest company in the county,” he said later in an interview. “I think they hired somewhere between 3,000 and 3,500 people. Everybody that you knew had a family member that worked there. Growing up, there’s no telling how many baseball jerseys, football jerseys I put on that Vanity Fair made.”
Vanity Fair was a textile manufacturer that got its start at the very end of the 19th century in Pennsylvania and for decades was Monroe County’s largest employer. In 2018, the last remnant of Vanity Fair is a distribution facility, now owned by Fruit of the Loom.
But there is still a recognizable footprint left on the town by Vanity Fair. At the corner of Alabama Avenue and Claiborne Street, a historical marker recognizes Vanity Fair as how “Monroeville’s industry got its start” and acknowledges its contributions to the community.
Economic development in Depression-era Alabama
While in town, I caught up with local historian and newspaper columnist George Thomas Jones. He set the scene of a pre-Vanity Fair Monroeville. Jones, a resident since 1926, described Monroeville back then as a town of fewer than a thousand people.
“It was a real backwards country town,” he said in an interview while seated in his recliner in a local nursing home. “There wasn’t a paved street in town, no sewage system. It hadn’t had electricity but for about three years. But it was a real friendly town. I learned later in life the lifeblood of what makes a town worthwhile are the people.”
In 1929, the Great Depression came and lasted through the 1930s. The economy of that time relied on the almost 500 small cotton farmers for the county’s cash crop. Aside from a sawmill or two, there were no industries in the county.
The Depression was particularly hard for Monroe County.
“In 1929, they had what I remember they called the ‘September gale,’” Jones said. “Well, actually that was a hurricane. It blew all the cotton out of the fields before they could pick it. That hurt. Then the Depression hits about ’30.”
Jones, whose father owned the local Ford dealership, was forced to let all of his salesmen go. Aside from that, Jones described living through the Depression in blissful ignorance, which is how many of his contemporaries in the South who survived the downturn have described it.
“As kids growing up, we didn’t know there was a Depression,” he said. “We had enough to eat. We had enough to wear. We didn’t have a big wardrobe. But heck, we just thought that’s the way things were supposed to be.”
Monroeville still was not the idyllic version of a small town you would see in films. Although the city had paved sidewalks, it wasn’t until 1934 that they started paving the town square, a project that did not wrap up until the next year. The downtown stores had tin sheds over the sidewalks. There were no fireplugs. A sewer system did not arrive until 1930.
Several one-room schoolhouses scattered throughout the county served as the local school system. It was not until the mid-1930s that they consolidated the schools — the town did not do this earlier because there were no school buses. And school, back then, did not start until the third week of September because school-aged children had to pick cotton.
Monroeville’s fortunes would soon change for the better thanks to one of the most colorful figures in Mobile’s political history: Alabama Congressman Frank Boykin.
Perhaps it was by chance, but Boykin had an early morning encounter with Vanity Fair executive Howard “Pop” Snader in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., in 1936.
Snader was there to meet with a member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, but as Jeffrey Rodengen chronicled in his book “The Legend of VF Corporation,” that member arrived late.
Word had gotten out that Vanity Fair was looking to locate in the South to evade a wave of unionization in the mid-Atlantic. The member’s late arrival gave Boykin an opportunity to lobby Snader to build a facility in South Alabama, where unions were discouraged and labor was cheap and plentiful.
On the list of possible sites was Monroeville and in the end, its location in the middle of nowhere was an advantage in luring a company seeking to disappear from the labor unions’ radar. Vice president J.E. Barbey had been traveling throughout the South looking for such a place.
“He wanted a place somewhere in the Deep South that was completely off the beaten track, and boy, Monroeville fit that description,” the historian Jones explained. “You think about it — we’re a hundred miles from any city in any direction. There were no good roads coming into Monroeville. You didn’t come through Monroeville going from one city to another. You come to Monroeville. So, as far as being off the beaten track, Monroeville fit that bill.
“And it also fit the bill that there was no industry involving women. They had a wide-open market. They were country folks, and they had learned that country folks made great employees.”
Late winter that next year, it was official. The March 4, 1937, issue of The Monroe Journal featured the headline “Vanity Fair Silk Mill assured.”
Vanity Fair’s arrival in Monroeville required some concessions. Under the terms of a deal made between the company and county residents and businesses, $40,000 (nearly $700,000 in 2018 dollars) would be raised to build a structure to house the mill. In return, all 200 of the mill’s first workers would be Monroe County residents.
That led to the organization of the Monroe Industries Board, which sold bonds for between $25 and $500 to finance the building. Given that this was near the end of the Great Depression, the town was only able to raise $35,000. Vanity Fair made up the difference in addition to its commitments, and on June 23, 1937, the mill held its grand opening.
An immediate impact
The arrival of Vanity Fair was particularly important for local women. Other than work as sales clerks, school teachers and secretaries, employment for women in Monroe County was scarce. Vanity Fair offered farm housewives the opportunity to earn a reliable income to supplement cash made from the cotton crop, which was only harvested once a year.
“It changed the face of Monroe County,” Jones said of Vanity Fair’s arrival. “All of the areas outside of the towns — they had nice, modest houses but, for instance, all of the yards were dirt. But when Vanity Fair came, and the women had a little money, they planted grass and bought a power mower and kept neat yards.”
Washing machines, once an unheard-of luxury locally, became commonplace on front porches. Spirits were picking up, and Monroe County was shaking off the impact of the Great Depression. It also brought new residents to town. “High-class people,” as Jones called them. “Their executives were just a notch above.”
The newcomers got involved in civic clubs and other things such as the Chamber of Commerce. The newcomers fit in, according to Jones.
“Monroeville is different from towns like Evergreen and Brewton that are kind of aristocratic,” he explained. “Monroeville is more like Jackson. You had to be an awful unfriendly guy not to be accepted.”
World War II and beyond
Vanity Fair thrived in its new Southern location. Expansions began almost immediately, starting in 1938.
When World War II came, the plant put its silk panties operation on hold and started manufacturing silk parachutes. It produced three basic types of parachutes — personal chutes for paratroopers, cargo chutes for equipment and supplies (including chutes large enough for tanks and artillery) and flare chutes that served to illuminate night targets and make nighttime bombings possible.
The war ended in 1945, and after the economy readjusted, Vanity Fair closed its Reading, Pennsylvania, plant in 1948 because of labor unions. That spurred even more expansion in Alabama, and over the next 20 years Vanity Fair would have facilities throughout Southwest Alabama and into the Florida Panhandle.
The company built a plant in Jackson in 1939, in Demopolis and Atmore in 1950, in Butler in 1961 and in Robertsdale in 1963. Vanity Fair added a 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Monroeville.
With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, the company had a come-to-Jesus moment with the town’s locals over racial integration of the plant’s workforce. Being Alabama in the 1950s, townspeople were not particularly happy about this possibility.
Company executive M.O. “Whitey” Lee threatened to move Vanity Fair’s manufacturing effort to Mobile’s Brookley Field if this proved too much of a problem for the locals. They got the message.
During those years, Vanity Fair was also contributing to the community, working with local organizations and government to build new ballparks and improve other recreational facilities. To this day a lake, park and golf and tennis club are still in use.
“It was a great relationship between Monroeville and Monroe County, and between the Vanity Fair leadership and our leadership the project grew and grew and grew,” former pulp and paper executive Pete Black, a long-time Monroeville resident and son of a local service station owner, said in an interview. “They eventually moved their headquarters from Reading, Pennsylvania, to Monroeville.”
“Vanity Fair was a … tremendous blessing to this community,” he added.
The locals nurtured the relationship. Whenever Vanity Fair had a bond sale for expansion, people snatched them up. The bank would loan money for the bonds at 6 percent interest. The bonds had a return of 4 percent, yet they always sold enough.
There was also a community effort to keep the unions away.
“Civic leaders knew we needed to keep the union out,” Jones said. “When union representatives would come to town — boy, they’d get spotted, and word would get around, ‘That guy’s with the union.’ The local newspaper wouldn’t take their ads. Usually, we didn’t have trouble with them.”
Jones recalled that sometime after the Korean War, they got a whiff of intimidation tactics by union organizers and it was immediately snuffed out.
More expansions came. In the 1970s, Vanity Fair built cutting and dyeing facilities. As the company’s presence grew, so did Monroeville, leading to the construction of new churches and medical facilities, the expansion of existing businesses and the creation of new ones.
A half a century after Vanity Fair’s arrival, Monroeville was better off. In 1986, Vanity Fair employed 1,641 employees and had a payroll of $26.5 million.
Start of industrial globalization
The late 1980s saw the beginning of the proliferation of outsourcing in manufacturing. In 1989, the United States entered into the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement. In 1991 talks began to include Mexico, and the U.S. entered into what is known as the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. The treaty eliminated tariffs and certain quantitative restrictions, making it possible for U.S. manufacturers to seek lower-wage labor in Mexico.
Keith Baggett, the son of a 40-year Vanity Fair employee, had a front-row seat to witness how this would eventually unfold and what it meant for Vanity Fair’s presence in the region.
Baggett, with a college degree from Troy State University, started with Vanity Fair in 1991. He estimated 85 percent of the company’s manufacturing was done in South Alabama and northwest Florida at that time, with a total workforce of at least 3,000.
Baggett had the roles of sewing superintendent, manufacturing manager and supervisor of production at various facilities under the Vanity Fair Corp. umbrella in the early 1990s. While he was there, Vanity Fair began moving some manufacturing to Mexico.
“I saw the handwriting on the wall that we were gradually going to be shutting those facilities down and moving it to Mexico,” Baggett, now an administrator for a health care facility in Monroeville, told Lagniappe. “And again, this was somewhere in the mid-‘90s. That’s exactly what we did. We started opening up factories in Mexico and our headquarters for Mexico was in McAllen, Texas.
“We gradually moved stuff to Mexico and shut factories down here in the states. And so, I had to travel to McAllen and in Mexico. We’d usually go about once a month to McAllen in order to work with that group — managers, scheduling and leveling their factories out.”
Eventually, Baggett began aiding in this transition — training the workforce, procuring the materials and troubleshooting the new operation. As this process was underway, the operation in Monroeville was shrinking. The corporate headquarters left for Alpharetta, a suburb of Atlanta, in 1998.
“It was like chopping the dog’s tail off an inch at a time over a five-to-10-year period, and then rumors in between,” Black said of the time.
The jobs Alabama lost did not last long in Mexico. Before long they moved on to the Far East, first to China and then to Southeastern Asia. But the damage was done.
Vanity Fair Corp. got out of the underwear business in 2005 when it sold its remaining assets in Monroeville to Fruit of the Loom. Baggett’s career path took him into the health care industry and back to Monroeville.
However, he insists that with or without NAFTA’s passage in the 1990s, Vanity Fair in Monroeville would have likely had a similar fate.
“I was always told with or without NAFTA, we would have already went,” Baggett said. “As a matter of fact, we were probably one of the last textile companies to start moving offshore like that. Other companies had already done it, and the reason we had to do it was to compete. NAFTA accelerated it.”
Baggett said he believed transportation costs will inevitably make the U.S. a more competitive place for manufacturing.
“In my lifetime, I will see it where it is cheaper for us to produce in the United States than it is over there because of the inventory you have to carry. The biggest thing was our transportation costs. When we first started doing China, we could get a container, and it cost us $3,000. When we had these issues with fuel, it jumped to $10,000 a container to ship. When you weigh all that in and wages increasing, you get to that point where it makes more sense just to manufacture it back here.”
For now, all that remains are 300 jobs at the Fruit of the Loom distribution facility. It was a good run. At the time the first sewing machines started running in June 1937, Monroeville was a town of 1,500. Today the population is estimated to be around 6,000, give or take a few hundred.
Post Vanity Fair Monroeville
Bordering Monroe County to the north is Wilcox County, plagued by high unemployment and a poverty rate of 38 percent, one of the poorest counties in the nation. Immediately to the south is Baldwin County, with low unemployment, and economic and population growth projected for the next decade.
Monroe County’s current situation is somewhere in between those two extremes.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 14 points in Monroe County. That was not so unusual because only twice since 1964 has the county not gone Republican in a presidential election.
In this election, however, Trump’s message on trade in a global economy resonated with Monroe County voters, who have had firsthand experience with the economic consequences of globalization.
When you talk to some of the old-timers in town, they acknowledge the post-VF state of affairs was a result of going all-in with a single employer. They also say it was necessary because Vanity Fair didn’t want other industries in town that would compete for labor. In other words, the single-employer model was part of the deal.
Since Vanity Fair’s departure, Monroe County has grappled with bouts of unemployment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the county peaked in February 1992 at 23.5 percent, then remained in the high teens for most of the decade, far above the state average. The county regained its footing and, in the first eight years of the new millennia, Vanity Fair kept the rate under double-digits.
The so-called Great Recession that began in mid-2008 exposed how vulnerable Monroe County was to economic downturns. The countywide unemployment rate hit 22.3 percent, rivaling the worst unemployment following Vanity Fair’s departure. Since then, the unemployment rate gradually decreased to a manageable 5 percent.
Vanity Fair left behind a skill set, and if there ia an opportunity for textiles to return, there would be a qualified workforce, according to Baggett.
“It could,” he said. “The workforce is there. The biggest thing is that all the people that were experts in it went on to do something else because they had to, or they retired.”
Is there an answer?
In late January, Rep. Bradley Byrne was wrapping up his whirlwind tour of town hall meetings in the first congressionaldistrict. His last stop was in Frisco City, eight miles from Monroeville.
Byrne addressed trade and praised Trump’s early actions on the issue, which, he said, are specifically targeted.
“I think President Trump is doing the right thing by pushing back,” Byrne said of a recent Trump move to impose tariffs on imported solar panels and washing machines. “I think that’s exactly the way to go because when you rifle in on the precise things that are the issue, you’re going to have more of an impact than doing sort of blanket stuff.”
During the town hall, Byrne took a question about local infrastructure, specifically four-laning U.S. Highway 84, the main east-west highway that runs from Mississippi to Georgia through Alabama, just south of Monroeville. U.S. 84 is four lanes through half the state, but from Andalusia to Mississippi it remains a two-lane road and serves as one of the primary routes in and out of town.
Black, the former Vanity Fair paper executive, blames past politicians for not making Monroeville more accessible to the rest of the state.
“If you want to look back to when George Wallace built the interstate highway system and say, ‘Where was a major faux pas created?’ — I-65 was supposed to come right dead through Monroe County and Monroeville,” he said. “We had a probate judge at the time that was against that project because it was going to disrupt farmland — cotton and cows.”
Instead, I-65 passes through nearby Conecuh County. According to Black, not having a four-lane highway and a Class 1 railroad into Monroeville was an obstacle.
For decades, local leaders have lobbied Washington, D.C., and Montgomery to four-lane U.S. Highway 84 to where it connects to I-65 near Evergreen.
Black insisted that is the wrong project. Instead, he said, Alabama Highway 21, the main north-south route through the county, should be widened from Monroeville south to I-65. Why? Better access to Mobile.
“That’s where you want to connect,” Black said. “Mobile is the place. If you go east to Evergreen, you haven’t accomplished anything. You still have got to go north or south.”
Black pointed to the economic development of Mobile and its transportation assets as why a focus on improved access to the Port City would be more beneficial to Monroeville.
Much of the state’s recent economic development success has been in Huntsville and Mobile. Probate Judge Greg Norris insists that despite this, Montgomery is doing what it can for rural areas such as Monroe County.
“They’re doing everything they can for rural Alabama,” Norris said. “I’m from rural Alabama, and it’s more difficult to do anything for rural Alabama. We don’t have the resources. We don’t have the roads. We don’t have the infrastructure. So I think the Office of Commerce is doing a great job, but it’s just so much easier to bring those jobs to a Huntsville, to a Mobile.
“Maybe they’re not targeting us. You know, you’re rural, you’re left out. It’s just so much easier to bring it to another place. We have to get out and hustle. But they help us,” Norris added.
Black explained how the focus of the county’s efforts was finding a company for which a place like Monroe County would be a good fit.
“We had to do it on our own,” Black said. “What we did was hire a site consultant ourselves who is touching base with projects all across this country and paid him a retainer so that when he runs across a project, he thinks that might fit in rural America.”
Black said they recruited 200 jobs in 2017, and that the key to success is getting the company executives to Monroeville.
“They love this little community,” he said. “I mean, it’s a hundred miles from nowhere, but it’s a warm, friendly community. It’s got a lot of great things going for it. It’s got a great hospital, great community college. We got a great mayor, a great probate judge. The longer answer is you got to do it yourself.”
In his closing sales pitch, Norris told Lagniappe that much as they were 80 years ago when Vanity Fair came to town, locals are willing to cooperate.
“The quality of life is unreal,” he said. “Fresh air, beautiful outdoors, low taxes,” he replied. “We’re a work ethic by the people — people that want to work that want to earn a living wage, and a government that will work with you.”