This summer, the Swannanoa Valley Museum is exploring the story of the textile industry in Western North Carolina through its new exhibit “Beacon Blankets: The Mill.” This multimedia exhibit delves into the history and cultural impact of Beacon Blankets, a New England textile company that migrated to Swannanoa during the Great Depression. The Beacon Manufacturing Company was once the largest blanket manufacturer in the world, employing more than 2,200 people at its one million square-foot plant in Swannanoa. Today, many Beacon blankets are collector’s items.
The Beacon Mill exhibit highlights several aspects of Beacon’s history, including its controversial use of the term “Indian Design” when advertising its blankets; workers’ striking and unionizing efforts; and the lives and culture of Beacon’s Swannanoa community. These topics are explored through banners, historic footage, textile and blanket displays, activities for children, and more.
Beacon transformed Swannanoa into a mill town, with company-owned houses and company-sponsored entertainment and sports teams. While amenities such as mill village housing were provided as a strategy to discourage workers from union organizing, the bustling, close-knit community that formed around the mill is fondly remembered by former residents.
Multiple generations of Swannanoa Valley residents worked at the mill until its closure in 2002. In 2003, an arsonist set fire to the building, burning it to the ground. Today, the former mill site is an open field situated next to historic mill village housing, now private residences. Several entities are working to preserve the memory of Beacon’s history in Swannanoa. The Swannanoa Valley Museum maintains collections related to Beacon, and its 2019 exhibit is part of ongoing efforts to educate the public about the history of the mill and its workers.
The Swannanoa Valley Museum is located at 223 West State Street in Black Mountain. Museum hours are Tuesday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. For info, call 828-669-9566.
Story Courtesy of the Swannanoa Valley Museum.