I grew up hardly aware of the constant machine roar emitting from the “silk mill,” located behind our W. Watauga Avenue apartment residence. The Tennessee Silk Mill, owned by Leon-Ferenbach Inc., commenced operations at 248-254 W. Market in 1917, supplying silk primarily for ladies’ clothing.
Mary Nell Rader, who was employed there for 43 years between 1928 and 1978, reflected on her job: “I worked ten hours a day for the first two weeks and drew $15 pay. The next payday I received $21 and thought I was rich. I was just happy to have a job since this was during the Depression. Those were the days when you could buy a new dress downtown for $5.98. Today, it would cost many times that.”
Mrs. Rader labeled the plant a "sweat factory," having no air conditioning or fans; even the windows had to be kept closed to prevent air damage to the fragile silk. Mary Nell further recalled: “The women wore dresses to work; slacks were not allowed. I walked to work each morning neatly dressed and wearing high heel shoes. I kept an old pair of shoes to change into at the plant.”
By 1940, the company increased its production capability, expanding east on property once occupied by a livery stable. This was adjacent to the back-to-back Police Department (King Street) and Fire Department #4 (Market Street).
Mrs. Rader vividly remembers the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor: “The night following the attack by the Japanese, our workers were down in the bulk room removing Japanese-imported silk from the shipping tow sacks. Management immediately put out the word that no more sacks could be opened after midnight because we were at war with Japan.” The mill underwent an immediate transition from silk to rayon (later nylon), supplying parachute cloth and hosiery for ladies in the Women's Army Corps. The demise of silk manufacturing necessitated a name change; Tennessee Silk Mill became Leon-Ferenbach.
In 1943, the patriotic Mrs. Rader sought employment at Holston Defense Corporation in Kingsport, affording her a way to contribute to the war effort. Seven years after the end of the conflict, she returned to her former mill job.
Mary Nell recalled when she and a co-worker, Pauline Sifford, were looking out the window from the second floor. They watched as a peddler approached, hauling a horse-drawn wagonload of apples: “We yelled to him and asked if he would sell us a quarter’s worth of apples. We tied a string to a bucket, put a quarter into it, opened the window and lowered it to the ground. After the man put apples in it, we pulled it to the window and found that he had intentionally left the quarter in the basket; he was certainly a nice man.
“Ten former plant workers and I shared dinner at my house several years ago, one of whom was Herstyne Watson, wife of Pat Watson, onetime owner of Pat’s Trading Post.”
The former mill employee spoke very positively of her 43-year tenure with the long-running firm: “I really enjoyed working at the mill. We formed friendships that lasted all our lives. Most are gone now; I guess I am one of the oldest ones left.”