Frank Grogan found out Bassett Furniture Co. had job openings at its Old Town factory where he might get work and a company-owned house to rent.
“He thought this was a great idea,” said Patricia Clay Ross, his granddaughter.
Grogan had been buying land, cutting its timber and working in a sawmill, most recently at a sawmill in Critz in Patrick County. The prospect of steady work for decent pay with housing appealed to the father of five.
“So he filled a wagon with all the furniture they had and the children, (except) the next-to-the-oldest boy (who) walked, pulling the cow,” she said.
The year was 1922 when the Grogans went to settle in Bassett. Frank Grogan did indeed get a job at Old Town and a factory house on Bassett Heights. In their home on Bassett Heights, the Grogans had their sixth and last child.
The opportunity to have a company house was “absolutely wonderful,” Ross said.
“That’s what brought my mother’s family here. They had housing with employment.”
Pat’s mother, Marie, the fourth of Frank and Trudie Grogan’s children, married Gene Clay in 1939. December 1941 brought their first child, Pat, who was born in her grandparents’ house on Bassett Heights.
It was the first of four houses on Bassett Heights in which Pat would live. One other of the four was also a company house. That factory house was where she later lived with her parents and James Gaither Clay, her paternal grandfather.
Although her maternal grandfather did work for Bassett at Old Town, her father did not. Instead, her family owed its tenure in the other factory house to her paternal grandfather, ’Pa Clay.
He had come to Bassett from Lenoir, North Carolina, where he had worked for Broyhill Furniture. The Hickory/Lenoir area was rich with furniture companies and, therefore, with people who knew the craft and the business. That’s where J.D. Bassett, Sr., one of Bassett Furniture’s founders, went to find a manager and an electrical/boiler man for Bassett’s newest factory, J.D. Bassett Manufacturing.
Mr. J.D., as he was called, found a man to mange the new Bassett operation. The manager had a request: that Mr. J.D. hire a particular “boiler man.” The electrical/boiler man happened to be J.G. Clay. Mr. J.D. agreed.
J.G. Clay or Gaither, as he was called, would also have another distinction: he was the only person allowed to wear sandals in the J.D. plant, as it was known. Sandals would have offered sweet relief in a fiery-hot boiler room.
J.G. Clay and his wife, Addie Prestwood, lived in a company house in North Bassett. Years later, Addie became ill, though, so J.G. acceded to her request that he take her back to Lenoir to be with her Prestwood family. Upon her death, he returned to Bassett with plans to live with his son and daughter-in-law and their baby girl, Pat. As he was entitled to a factory house, they all lived in one together.
Pat Ross recalls the layout of the factory houses in which she lived as being a center hallway, with two rooms on either side of the hall. The hall led to a kitchen in the back.
Workers who got a factory house had their rent and utilities deducted from their monthly pay. A 1928 payroll ledger shows that J.G. Clay paid $6 a month rent for his company house.
There were a number of factory houses on Bassett Heights and North Bassett, as well as in other parts of town. Pat Ross recalls that, during her childhood on Bassett Heights, most everyone who lived there worked in or had family who worked in the furniture factory.
“Everybody knew everybody else,” she said. “It was just a nice community.”
Children played in the front yard, and went across the street to visit. Early mornings found them walking down the hill behind the houses to Campbell Court Elementary School.
And many neighborhood residents walked to church, Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church or Riverview Primitive Baptist Church.
“The ladies all knew each other,” Pat Ross said. Some quilted and would gather weekly in one of their homes to sew together. One of those quilts was found by the late Mary Jane Austin Osborne in an old trunk or chest that belonged to her grandmother, Mattie Franklin Philpott. It is on display at Bassett Historical Center.
There were many ties that bound. One, for instance, was through Pat Ross’ grandmother’s role as a midwife. Although she didn’t call herself a midwife – she just said, “‘I deliver babies,’” Pat recalls – her grandmother delivered many of the babies whose parents lived in the neighborhood.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the way of life for people who worked in the factories in Bassett – whether they lived in company houses or not – included going to picture shows, to semi-pro baseball games, to shop, to visit friends and relatives, to medicine shows and the circus when either was in town, to the park, and to church.
They raised vegetables, cooked and ate, sewed, listened to the radio, played cards and all manner of everyday activities. Such is the picture of daily life that emerges from diary entries in “Moving to Bassett – Mama’s Diary” (Laurel Hill Publishing, 2014). The book’s author, Avis Turner, lived for a time in a company house with her mother and father, Ida Ruth and Clifford Carter.
Although many old company houses are still homes, Bassett Furniture Industries no longer owns and rents factory houses to employees. Factory houses are now individually owned like any other house. Still, the company houses echo a way of life, one that bespeaks a sense of community, as the little town of Bassett began growing into an industrial giant during the 20th century.
“Wednesday, January 17, 1934 – Mama and I went to the store. I bought a blouse.
They are starting to build some houses up here.”
“New ‘company houses’ were being built on nearby Bassett Heights. If you worked for Bassett Furniture, you could rent one of these houses. If you quit and went to another furniture factory in Martinsville or Stanleytown, you had to move. Stanley Furniture also had company houses for their workers.”
From “Moving to Bassett – Mama’s Diary,” by Avis Turner, Laurel Hill Publishing, 2014.
Editor’s note: Patricia Clay Ross grew up, went to college and returned to her hometown where she is the director of Bassett Historical Center. The historical center traces its roots to a tea held by the Bassett Garden Club to found a public library, with Mrs. Effie Noland leading the way. The first materials that formed the basis for the Bassett Historical Center collection, which now comprises thousands upon thousands of files, were originally housed in a filing cabinet in the basement of Bassett Public Library. The historical center’s collection now also includes historical objects. See the quilt the ladies on Bassett Heights made and other artifacts of life in Bassett and Henry County at Bassett Historical Center.
Bassett Historical Center and one of the factory houses are stops on this year’s Martinsville-Henry County Garden Day Tour, which focuses on Bassett. This is the fourth in a series of posts about the tour, the history behind its sites, the town and the life of its people.
Lunch: Historic J.D. Bassett Event Center/EMI dining room, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; $12 per person. Reservations required by April 25. Contact Eliza Severt, 276-632-2447, firstname.lastname@example.org, or Lynne Beeler, 276-638-1030, email@example.com.
Getting around: The tour will offer shuttle service. Two tour sites, the Haley house and Hamlet Vineyards, may be accessed only by shuttle, while other sites have only limited parking. Shuttles will also go to Fairy Stone State Park. Catch a shuttle at Pocahontas Bassett Baptist Church, 120 Bassett Heights Road.
More info: Contact Lizz Stanley, tour chairman, 276-252-3009, or Cindy Edgerton, tour co-chairman, 276-732-2784. Reach either by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.