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The Fire 

Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Citizen Times

We can't let September slip away without mentioning the anniversary of the fire that destroyed the Beacon Blanket Mill and changed the landscape of Swannanoa forever. In the early hours of Sept 3rd, 2003 an arsonist set fire to the vacant building that had housed the Beacon Manufacturing Company.

The fire raged for three days, burning through what local songwriter Bert Brown called "the rafters of strong native oak" and "sturdy wood floors" that were transported from the old mill in New Bedford. Hundreds of firefighters and other emergency personnel worked to contain the blaze and protect the mill houses and other structures nearby. People reported finding debris and ash as far away as Montreat. Months after the fire former employees and Swannanoa residents made the pilgrimage to Whitson Avenue to stare at the ruins. Often they took a brick home with them. 

Swannanoa Valley Fire Department Chief Anthony Penland said that when he was working the fire and saw the four story brick wall collapse, he knew "it was the end of an era." 

Beacon shut it's doors in March 2002, after a new company, comprised of local managers and investors, bought the ailing mill from textile giant Pillowtex, which had declared bankruptcy. Even though the mill was closed, as long as the building remained, Swannanoa residents could hope that some other  industry- textile or not- would take Beacon's place, and provide good, steady jobs to those who lived nearby. But once the building was gone, that dream was dashed.

You can see more photos of the fire and archived news articles about Beacon on the Swannanoa Fire Department's website. 

Photo Courtesy of the Asheville Citizen Times

Beacon's Beginnings

I am on my way to attend the Center for Independent Documentary/Kopkind Filmmaker Retreat for one week in Guildford Vermont, to work on Blanket Town.  

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum

Since I am going to be in New England, I've decided to visit New Bedford and Lowell MA, researching the early days of the textile industry. While the focus of Blanket Town is on the Beacon mill that operated in Swannanoa, NC, Beacon Manufacturing Company started in New Bedford Massachusetts.

New Bedford provides a fascinating case study of America’s cycle of industrialization and it's decline, first establishing itself as the whaling capital of the world in the 1700’s. Whaling flourished in New Bedford, making it one of the richest cities in the United States. According to the American Whaling Museum by 1857 New Bedford was home to 329 whaling vessels, valued at more than $12 million dollars, which employed more than 10,000 men. A short 15 years later, as the whaling industry declined, New Bedford emerged as a center for textile manufacturing.

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum

By "1907 New Bedford was home to 25 textile manufacturing companies operating two million spindles in 50 separate mill buildings, with 14 additional mills under construction." - American Whaling Museum

Beacon Manufacturing emerged during this time of growth, starting operations in 1905. But the industrial boom of New Bedford was relatively short lived, as textile manufacturing shifted to the south. Beacon built their second mill in Swannanoa in 1925, shuttering it's New Bedford operation in 1933.

Photo Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum


One of the advantages of hosting community works-in-progress screenings is that we get invaluable feedback from audience members. At the Q & A at one of our recent events, someone asked "Where are the blankets?" Incredibly enough, while making a documentary about the largest manufacturer of blankets in the world, we had forgotten to discuss the design process and to include many images of colorful Beacon blankets. 
 We put a call out on our Facebook page, asking for any collectors to contact us so we could film their blankets. Recently we filmed three different people who had beautiful blankets to share. We also spent time conducting additional research about how Beacon blankets were designed and were reminded of the sophisticated ad campaigns that Beacon created to help sell their products.

It is easy to forget how much artistry went into each blanket design. In pre-computer days, full color designs were sketched out by an artist and then created as a watercolor. Thread had to be assigned for every color or pattern. Remember, the designs were woven into the blankets, not printed on them. Once the design was approved a test run blanket was made. According to the book Language of the Robe: American Indian Trade Blankets by Robert W. Kaupon, the use of the Jacquard loom "...allowed for the creation of a blanket with a positive design on one side and a negative of the same image of the reverse."  

 Although inspired by Native American patterns, with bold colors and strong geometric design, Beacon blankets were not American Indian Trade blankets. Unlike some of the west coast woolen mills like Racine or Pendleton, Beacon blankets were not designed and marketed to be used and worn by Native American populations. Instead Beacon blankets, including their "Indian" designs, were marketed as colorful bedding, motoring or camp blankets.