America’s Industrial Revolution not only transformed existing cities but gave birth to them in previously rural areas. Mills—textile, food-refining, or otherwise—allowed towns to grow by leaps and bounds, sometimes more than doubling their populations in a decade or two. Industry is often thought of as the keystone of the mid-century economy in Rust Belt towns of Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Indiana, but the South also benefited from mills and factories. This influx of industry changed lives, was the catalyst for migration, and became the means of wealth for many cities. We often call such places “mill towns” for their industrial roles, and Covington, Virginia, is a fine example of the fates and fortunes of one.
Covington is located in Alleghany County, Virginia, where the Jackson River and Dunlap Creek meet, so it has an ample water-source. The topography is rugged, even by the region’s standard of rolling hills and slowly-climbing mountains. While the climate is reasonable and even rather warm in the summer months, winters can be harsh enough to make the raising of livestock difficult. Small family farms and timber operations throughout the nineteenth century were the main way of life for the area, and Covington grew up as the center of court and business, becoming one of Virginia’s independent cities (technically not beholden to the county—even though it was the county seat).
Normally, such cities were larger ones where it made sense to have a fully separate city government, but Covington is the third-smallest of Virginia’s independent cities. For its region however, a region so rural it can be considered rustic and contains a lot of unspoiled forest lands, Covington became the primary city for people to come for business and shopping. Roanoke, though much larger, is around a forty-five-minute drive away, and Richmond would take several hours to reach. I have relatives in West Virginia who can recall in the 1950’s driving “over the mountains” to reach Covington for back-to-school and Christmas-shopping trips.
The heart of Covington’s reason for growth and success is its paper mill, MeadWestvaco (recently renamed WestRock in a merger but still known locally as the “MeadWestvaco mill”). The mill has had an operation at Covington since 1890, making it one of the longest-running in the nation and the second-largest east of the Mississippi. The ample supply of timber and water in the region has provided the paper industry the resources it needs to thrive here, and in return it has provided the region with good-paying blue-collar jobs for decades.
Many mill towns reached their apex in terms of jobs and population in the 1950’s, some before and some later, but with Covington an interesting aspect is that the ’60’s–’70’s were really the greatest periods of growth, with a population just over 11,000, the largest city has seen yet. Despite being its county’s seat and having other businesses in town, Covington really is a company town—not the typical Appalachian company town built by a coal mine with a company store and housing all constructed for the workers—but a town that grew organically enough yet never could have obtained its level of success without its core industry. This is the situation with most mill towns, when a major factory is placed not in a large city but a much smaller and more-isolated one.
Something started to change, however, in the 1980’s. The paper mill is still there and still the leading employer, but the rise of big-box stores, and later of mail-order via the Internet, changed the retail landscape, and this was a huge issue for towns like Covington, an issue often glossed over by historians of business. Covington was a regional center: if you lived in neighboring Clifton Forge it was far easier to drive to Covington than to Roanoke to go to the jeweler or order uniforms for your son’s baseball team.
Before the rise of shopping malls in the 1970’s and 1980’s, Covington’s Main Street was exactly what we think of when we think of a Main Street USA. Covington was once a city of firsts: A bank on this Main Street was the first in the state to get an electronically-controlled bank vault. Downtown early- and mid-twentieth-century architecture, though weathered today and with plenty of vacancies, betrays that businesses here were once furnished with the finest in design and materials for their buildings. Law offices—many still in business—are found near the courthouse, and down Main Street you find traces of what once was a diverse variety of retail establishments, some still here and some long gone: florists, a piano shop, jewelers, department stores such as J.C. Penneys, Rooklin’s, and Stone and Thomas, sporting goods stores, lunch-time cafés, beauty parlors.
In the 1910’s–’20’s, an iron forge and several machine shops and other industries were also present in Covington. And in the 1930’s, the Peerless Creamery processed local milk into milk products and distributed milk via trucks to homes in the city—the famed American “milkman” of Norman Rockwell paintings in real life. Of course, over time, milk came in cartons and from afar, sold in the local supermarkets that got most of their goods not from local farms—though there were plenty of them—but from national distributors. Consider the irony: we think of the 1950’s as America’s prime period for “main street” culture where most business was done locally, neighbor to neighbor, but this was the very same decade the automobile culture, suburban migration, and advances in national transportation enabled things to become non-local and non-native for smaller cities and towns.
The culture of community changed—it didn’t happen overnight and took a few decades, but it happened: by the 1980’s shopping malls were the new main street. A couple decades later, a number of malls that thrived during the Reagan years were vacant or nearly vacant. But a mall can be repurposed or replaced, whereas an actual downtown depends on reuse of extant buildings. It may take renovation, but the façades of these grand old buildings beg for as much preservation as possible.
All that Covington’s downtown offers is sincere and impressive. There are examples of vacancies that are depressing, not the least being the H & L Jewelers, which went into an old bank and kept the vault and much of the original interior. Now itself a victim of hard times, the jewelry store is closed too, but the building is only a few doors down from the county courthouse and would be ideal for . . . something. The trick, of course, is to find that business. Law firms wouldn’t need the room, no matter how low the rent. With nearly half the commercial space on Main Street vacant, this is the challenge city and business leaders now face.
But some progress is being made. When a beloved sporting goods store called the Shoe Box and Sports Center went out of business last year, a young couple bought the machines this business used to produce custom sports team uniforms and opened their own business across the street. (The Shoe Box and Sports Center itself had taken over an old department store and when I got a tour of the building in 2013 prior to its closing, I found the basement level where jewelry was once sold to still have its display cases intact. The new business did not need such a vast space however, according to the owner.)
As impressive as commercial architecture along Covington’s Main Street is, its residential architecture is possibly an even more profound legacy. Many homes were built between 1920 and the 1940’s and the collection of period housing is one of the finest in the East. What is more, these homes—which were not ornate but generous in size for the needs of the larger families of the early twentieth century and often had five or six bedrooms—have remained to the present day in the hands of the blue-collar workers for whom they were built. As the paper mill has remained in business and provided jobs, and as Covington has not seen an influx of gentrification (whether for better or worse), for nearly a century working-class neighborhoods have remained intact. This is fairly unique: these neighborhoods may have a house or two in need of fresh paint, but most are kept up and tidy and have not been significantly renovated or changed. Not far from the mill there is also a very upscale neighborhood of around the same vintage, showcasing the type of homes that mill executives and others who were more affluent would have owned and the aspirations of America before the Great Depression.
Covington as a city and the regional Alleghany Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Tourism have in recent years stressed the natural bounty of their region, promoting ecotourism as well as traditional tourism centered on golf and other pursuits. There are several renowned resorts in the region, the Homestead and the Greenbrier (in West Virginia) being the foremost of them. Also the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson National Forests are in the area, and the opportunities for recreation such as mountain biking, hiking, camping, fishing, and hunting are plentiful.
If Covington can re-invent itself as a tourism destination, combined with its established industrial base, it would provide a very strong economy. The problem is, the base of tourism thus far has been widely distributed across both economic basis and geographic locales: some upscale visitors go to the posh Homestead Resort while others are only interested in a simple cabin rented in the woods, and neither of those cohorts may even venture into Covington itself. If the number of tourists was greater, the position of Covington would be stronger and that seems to be the focus right now: generating a tourism base large enough to have a key benefit to the city.
In the end, Covington is evolving like all towns and cities must over time. It has had the great benefit of a stable, primary source of its economy for decades—for over a century—but is dynamic enough to realize it cannot put all its eggs in a single basket. In the meantime, it offers some of the best examples of early to mid-twentieth century residential and commercial architecture in the entire South, as well as a wealth of scenic nature to enthrall visitors.
See More Great Covington, Virginia, Photos Here