Charles Goodwin and Sons Weavers and Entrepreneurs
By Besty White | A! Magazine For the Arts | March 27, 2013Not many people today have heard of the Clinch Valley Blanket Mill, but everybody knew about it before 1950. It supplied wool blankets by the thousands to American troops overseas during both world wars, employed up to 120 individuals at various times, and was one of Southwest Virginia's earliest entrepreneurial enterprises based on regional culture. The mill utilized local wool brought in by countless men driving wagons from farm to farm, and its product line included woven coverlets with patterns based on old surviving weavings.
The Goodwin family owned and operated the mill that was located next to the Clinch River in Cedar Bluff, Va., a small community in Tazewell County. There were plenty of resources about. Southwest Virginia's chilly climate and rich pastures had been good for raising sheep since early settlement days.
In fact, almost 99,000 sheep were grazing fields in Tazewell and the surrounding counties shortly after James Goodwin arrived from England in 1837. A weaver, he taught the skill to his son, Charles, who in turn taught his sons – Jim, Jake, John and Ras.
The Goodwins were interested in innovative practices. In the 1890s, they installed new water-powered looms, and during the first decade of the new century discovered a way to eliminate the need for piecing together narrow lengths of woven coverlet fabric. Their seamless coverlets distinguished the Goodwin product from all those that had been made on home looms throughout the mountains of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee with the signature center seam(s).
In 1916, Charles, or C.E. as he was known, created the Clinch Valley Blanket Mill when he purchased the Klondyke Cotton Mill, which he had been managing, and the Cedar Bluff Woolen Mill, combining the two for his family business. The Goodwin operation could produce up to 50 blankets and coverlets a day, using a formula that was simple and effective.
Raw wool was brought in by individual farmers or men who drove wagons all around the countryside collecting it for delivery back to the mill where it was washed, carded, spun, dyed and finally made into a finished product. Each farmer received two blankets or coverlets for every 25 pounds of "clear grease wool."
The mill's specialty was old-fashioned wool coverlets that the Goodwin advertisements called "colonial style" with names like Rings and Flowers, Lover's Knot, Olive Leaf, Morning Star and Whig Rose.
Today, families across Southwest Virginia still have Clinch Valley Blanket Mill coverlets folded away on closet shelves or carefully stored in blanket chests. The one shown here descended from H. J. Tate, who collected wool for the mill and received beautiful coverlets for his family in return.
Though the building is still there, the mill closed with the Goodwin family's 1950s move to North Carolina. In 1994, Tazewell County's Historic Crab Orchard Museum showcased Cedar Bluff's blanket mill in an exhibition and accompanying booklet. Examples of the mill's coverlets remain in the museum's collection and are often on exhibit.
Charles Goodwin and Sons, Weavers and Entrepreneurs is adapted from "Backcountry Makers: An Artisan History of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee." This is the eighth in a series of articles related to this new book by Betsy K. White. Featuring more than 200 color images, it is newly published by the University of Tennessee Press. "Backcountry Makers" is White's second book on the history of the region's material culture. The first, "Great Road Style: the Decorative Arts Legacy of Southwest Virginia & Northeast Tennessee" was published in 2006 by the University of Virginia Press.
A Goodwin coverlet (Photo by James H. Price)