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.