The Vanderbilt Shirt Factory – Asheville, NC

One of the great things about living near a place like Asheville is the fun of playing tourist for a day.  We often get up to a day with nothing important on the agenda and take the drive into the city for lunch and window shopping.

Last week we were walking down a street passing by a favorite antique mall when I noticed the old sign above the door: “Vanderbilt Shirt Co. Inc.”  I’d seen the sign before and never given it a lot of thought.  At one time there were quite a few manufacturing businesses in the upper floors of Asheville retail establishments.  I can remember Vanderbilt from when I was a teen in the late 1960s and early 70s because they had a factory outlet that I loved to visit.  Suddenly, I was overcome with curiosity about the company.

I spent some time on the net, looking for information, and for a while I thought I was going to come up empty.  How is it that thriving businesses can close, and 20 years later there is little evidence that they ever existed?  Finally I found the transcription of an oral history interview in which the owners of the factory were mentioned.  Once I had their names, I got lucky.

Thanks to a project called The Family Store, there is a fairly good record of the Jewish businesses that flourished in Asheville in the early and mid 20th century.  Researchers Sharon Fahrer and Jan Schochet conducted interviews and compiled information about these businesses that was in danger of being forgotten.  In 2003 they interviewed Milton Lurey, who founded and owned the Vanderbilt Shirt Company along with his brother-in-law, Herb Wadopian.

Milton had been in the tire retread business, but it was dirty and smelly.  There was a small manufacturer of boy’s shirts next door, and it seemed like a pleasant place, so he sold the tire business and when into the shirt making business with Herb even though neither of them knew anything about making shirts.  They were able to get expert assistance when they found Evelyn Bookbinder, who had been a supervisor at a sewing factory.

They started by making men’s dress shirts, but before long they were doing contract work for other companies.  One of their big clients was Levi Strauss, for whom they made western style shirts.  They then made women’s shirts for Levis as well.  The interview does not give a good idea of dating, but it was probably in the early 1950s.  Around the same time they began making shirts and jackets for the US military.

After a fire the factory moved out of downtown to the outskirts of Asheville, where the business was located when I remember it.  The outlet was located in a fantastic old native rock building that was probably at one time a restaurant.   The outlet also sold blouses and dresses that were labeled Langtry, Ltd.  I’m not sure of the connection, but Langtry was located in Asheville on the same street as Vanderbilt, so it is possible that they contracted with the Vanderbilt factory.  At any rate, that outlet was my favorite place to shop for several years.  They not only sold clothing, but the leftover fabric from their lines.

I’m hoping the internet will not let me down, that someone who knows more of this story will stumble across this.  If that is you, please post a comment.

27 Comments

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27 responses to “The Vanderbilt Shirt Factory – Asheville, NC

  1. Richard

    Another business that was near Asheville, and sometimes mistakenly said to have been there, was Hadley, which was in Weaverville, NC., which is a bit north of Asheville proper. Hadley made the best camel hair, cashmere, and vicuna sweaters in America for many years. My dad was in the clothing business his entire life and used to buy from Hadley for the stores he was associated with whenever he could. The son of the owner attended UNC in the 1960’s, and I think they went out of business in the 1970’s, along with lots of other textile manufacturers of the day. My biggest goof was not buying a Hadley vicuna v-neck sweater in the late ’60’s when I worked at a store that sold them and could have gotten a nice discount on one!

    Cheers!

    Rich

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    • When the Asheville Mall opened in the early 70s, Hadley moved part of their operation into the old Sears building in downtown Asheville. At least the Hadley outlet was there. It closed around 1976, and it broke my heart.

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      • Richard

        I hear you. Unfortunate that such fine businesses were unable to continue their excellent work. Today, most clothing is basically throwaway since every 5 minutes people want something new that is, for the most part, rather ugly given that people now wear cutoffs and flip-flops to church. My young daughter has been schooled in vintage wear and her friends at college today also appreciate the older styles. I am trying to get a wide collection of vintage items for her to wear and I always tell her, “these are forever items,” and I hope she understands that quality has disappeared in most of today’s clothing and that she will be able to wear vintage Hadley, Dalton, Ballantyne, Villager, Gorden-Ford/Gorden of Philidelphia, and McMullen items all her life and even pass them on to her children if she takes care of them.

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  2. Incredible timing! We were just in Asheville a couple of days ago (visiting the parents) and walked by this antique mall (one of our usual haunts) and Isaac pointed out the sign. I had to confess that, even though I’m from Asheville, I’d never really noticed the sign (too focused on shopping I guess). I’m so glad YOU are able to answer his questions! 🙂

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  3. I love this, Lizzie. And you’ve reminded me of a similar experience I had for a company I want to look up. I saw an old sign I had never noticed before on a downtown Grand Rapids apartment building for The Globe Knitting Works. I’m going to see what I can find out about them!

    Can you imagine still finding 1950s era Levi’s shirts? That would be amazing.

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    • I hope you find all about Globe. You’ll have to do a blog post.

      Yes, it would be very amazing to find some 1950s Levi’s shirts. In the interview he mentioned that they were the type that had pearl snap buttons.

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  4. In the sunny (It’s really not) UK, it’s Sunday the 15 june..and it’s BLOG PARTY time!! So I’m here as a part of the amazing Blog crawl through all the attendees..the only downside is I’m drinking far too much and my dancing shoes are getting worn through! xxxxx

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  5. Enjoyed your site! I can spend a day or two exploring downtown Asheville! Love the homes on Montford Avenue!

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  6. Here as part of the MB blog party. Love your blog. I really need to make a trip to North Carolina! Have been hearing much ado about Merlefest, sounds like Asheville would be another great NC destination.

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    • To be such a small city, Asheville does have a lot to offer visitors – great restaurants, a lively music and beer scene, and the Blue Ridge Mountains nearby.

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    • Floramargaret, Just fyi, Merlefest really isn’t close to Asheville at all. It’s about 2.5 or 3 hours away (I guess if you’re from really far away from Asheville, then that would be close 🙂 . Some people don’t realize that NC is 800 miles across–they think they can come here and see all of Asheville in a weekend or that they can go to the beach on the coast and see Asheville and all in between in a week. Nope! You can spend your whole lifetime learning about all the really cool stuff in NC. Hope you visit sometime soon!

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  7. I love a puzzle! You probably came across some of this information in your search, but I thought I’d offer a roundup.

    This documents the company’s incorporation as 1946:
    http://www.bizapedia.com/nc/VANDERBILT-SHIRT-COMPANY-INC.html

    The Western North Carolina Heritage site is always worth a check, and they have several photographs of the factory in action in what looks like the early ’80s:
    http://cdm15733.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/searchterm/59!vanderbilt%20shirt%20company/field/all!all/mode/all!all/conn/and!and/order/nosort/ad/asc

    You could try having a chat with Martha Pendley, who apparently worked there for 30 years and is now teaching sewing at Black Mountain Primary:
    http://www.citizen-times.com/article/20130130/BLACKMOUNTAINNEWS/301300016/Dust-off-SEWING-MACHINE

    The company won North Carolina’s “Employer of the Year” in the over-200-employees category in 1971:
    http://newspaperarchive.com/statesville-record-and-landmark/1971-03-18

    There are an impressive number of obituaries showing that people worked there for 30 or 40 years. Ah, the old days when people could get jobs like that for life!

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    • That Western North Carolina Heritage site is one of my favorites. That is where I found the interview with the owner. I have a friend who works at Black Mountain Primary, so I’ll give her a call and see if I can hook up with Martha Pendley. Thanks!

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  8. Very interesting! I have seen several things in the Asheville area that made me wonder. Nice little history lesson. I have it scheduled to go out on our Facebook page later today.

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  9. Pat purvis

    My mom was an accountant for over 40 yrs and stayed through their bankruptcy before retiring — there were a lot of things that lead them to the end with a lot of characters — I’m sure she would be happy to talk with you —

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  10. Pingback: The Vanderbilt Shirt Company, Part II | The Vintage Traveler

  11. Hi Lizzie, I just ran across this post while I was researching something else. I’m Jan Schochet from The Family Store project. (fyi, my project partner on this, Sharon Fahrer has a MA in Urban Planning and used to work in that field and I have a MA in Folklore and used to work more in that field. The exhibit is the story of all my family in Asheville since they’d arrived in 1887 — yes 1887, not 1987, unusual for today’s residents’ minds to get around–and of all my parents’ and family’s friends who also had stores in downtown Asheville). I noticed a mention of here of Hadley Co and I can definitely get you in touch with the son of the owner of that company if you email me (janellennc at gmail.com). Also I’m in contact with the children of the owners of Vanderbilt, some of whom worked in the company in the 80s if you’d like to talk to them, too. Great blog. Thanks for featuring Asheville businesses and for mentioning our project.

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  12. Loretta

    Jan, enjoyable post. I worked for Vanderbilt Shirt Co. in the early 80’s.in a location they operated in Lake Lure, N.C. where they also had an outlet store. It is my understanding that the exodus of the textile industry in a large portion of N.C. aided in the demise of this as well as other manufacturing business across the board.

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  13. Lael Wadopian

    My Grandfather was Herb Wadopian. Curry Jamison is his living wife and my grandmother. Herb was an excellent business man with wonderful integrity. Its so great to see someone taking an interest in my families history! If you would like to contact Curry shoot me an email!

    Thanks,
    Lael

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  14. Lise Maddox

    To:Lael Wadopian. My parents were best friends with your grandparents. I grew up around your dad and your aunt. I would love to get in touch with them if that would be possible. I always wondered what happened to your grandparents.

    Thanks, Lise Holt ( now Maddox)

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  15. Tom R

    I have a army jacket made by Vanderbilt shirt co and according to the contract # on the label it was made in 1982.

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