Our History is a regular column by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, Director of Education and Programs at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history on display at the museum. This week, we look at the history behind The Liberty Tobacco Warehouse, which burned last week.
The Liberty Tobacco Warehouse first opened its doors on Sept. 16, 1946, the date appointed by the Tobacco Association of the United States as the beginning of the Old Belt tobacco sales season. The warehouse operated for another 26 years, before being converted to a storage for furniture and electrical equipment, followed by 25 years of rope and twine manufacturing before, most recently, new owners planned renovation for possible apparel production. It was also nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.
Sadly, a raging fire in the early hours of June 18 may be the final chapter for this workhorse building in downtown Mount Airy.
Just over a year ago the North Carolina National Register Advisory Committee authorized a study on Liberty Warehouse to support its inclusion on the National Register. It is an example of a property “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history” and a building that “represents a significant and distinguishable entity.”
“Tobacco auction venues, once essential and ubiquitous components of the trade that fueled Surry County’s economy from the late nineteenth through much of the twentieth century, are increasingly rare,” wrote Heather Fearnbach in the report. The architectural historian compiled the 16-page document which was finished this spring. The Globe Warehouse, built in 1887 and converted into apartments at the corner of South Main and Willow streets, is the only other remaining tobacco warehouse in Mount Airy.
The brick and steel-beam building boasted a 25,000 square feet of sales floor made of wide pine boards, loading docks, and sales offices. The concrete-floored basement housed tobacco storage space, and the supervisor’s office was located on a mezzanine overlooking the sales floor which was lit by 112 square skylights.
The building, she wrote, “epitomizes economical, functional, and fire-resistant mid-twentieth-century tobacco auction warehouse design.”
Though tobacco had long been king in the region, the industry suffered from the combination of the American Tobacco Company’s unfair business practices, the Great Depression, and two World Wars consuming resources and taking thousands of young men away from the factories, fields and barns. But through it all Mount Airy seems to have maintained a stronger footing than many rural towns with its several cigar, cigarette, and plug factories (the Spencer complex was originally Sparger Brothers Tobacco Factory) as well as the sales houses.
JH Midkiff and DC Lewis bought the lot on East Oak Street in 1945 with plans to build a two-story tobacco warehouse. In March 1946 the lot, now graded for construction, was sold again to local tobacco man and Stokes County native F. Vance Dearmin Sr., his son Fletcher V. Dearmin Jr. who’d worked in tobacco before joining the Navy, and a partner named Davis G. Smith.
Wartime shortages of materials and labor slowed the project but when the buyers arrived that year, Liberty was ready. It was the seventh tobacco warehouse in Mount Airy at the time it opened. This was an unheard of number for a town the size of Mount Airy.
Many locals will remember the building being used for other activities outside of the sales season. The large, open floor plan with few support beams made a perfect venue for concerts, dances, roller skating, sporting events and civic meetings.
Fearnbach’s research shows that Dearmin Sr. operated the warehouse until his death in 1964 and his son, until the economics didn’t support tobacco sales anymore, closing about 1972. Carter Furniture Store on North Main Street rented the main warehouse as furniture and mattress storage while Dearmin’s daughter, Helen, and her husband, Herman Inman, used the basement to store electrical equipment for their business, Inman Electric Company.
In 1993 the building was acquired by Ernest T. Callaway, owner of Callaway Sales and Manufacturing Inc. He produced rope and twine at the facility until early this year. Callaway had sold the building to Araneum LLC, which company had planned a renovation of the building to house offices and manufacturing space for the planned Fish Hippie men’s clothing company headed by Ben Webb.
Regardless of what comes next, Liberty Warehouse was a solid citizen of Mount Airy for 72 years providing jobs, and adding to the sense of stability in a town that has weathered many changes.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the Director of Education and Programs for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228