The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Called To Work By The Bell

By Jackie R. Sharp © 1986

Issue: June, 1986

My home town is Fries, (pronounced Freeze), Virginia. This small town is nestled deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Grayson County [Virginia] and is situated on the banks of the picturesque New River.

When a bout of nostalgia hits me, I remember many things about life in this small cotton mill town during the 30's and 40's. However one of my fondest memories is the ringing of the mill bell.

Today, the mill bell can be seen on the roof of the Fries Textiles Company building. It has its own neat housing and is on the west end river side of the plant. The bell is now silent. It is no longer used to call employees to work.

When the big bell was in its hey day, the day of a typical mill worker began at 5 AM. At this time the bell rang five times. This was called the "five o'clock bell" and it was important. This was the call to get up. The women in the households punched up the fire and put breakfast on at this time. The bell rang one time at five thirty. By this time, most of the families were almost ready to begin breakfast. The menu was the same all over town. There was fried fat back, "grayson" gravy, hot biscuits and often homemade apple butter.

The bell rang again at 6 AM. If lunches and snacks were to be carried, they were prepared at this time. The left over breakfast biscuits, fat back and apple butter, usually made up this snack or lunch. Many folks came to their homes for lunch because all the plant machinery was shut down at lunch time in those early days.

Next came the 20 minute bell. At 20 minutes until 7 the bell rang, long and loud. This was a warning. Employees had to start walking to work at this time, if they were to be on time. The bell rang again at ten minutes until 7 and again at 7 o'clock.

The bell was rung by hand. It began its warning system again at lunch time just the same as morning time.

On weekends and holidays, the bell rang on the hour. One could count the claps and know the exact time. The bell clapped one time on each half hour. It was as if Fries had its own Big Ben.

All through the years, the bell tolled for a long time, when an emergency, such as fire or flood took place at the plant. When this happened, the men in the village, automatically made their way to the plant, to lend assistance to take care of whatever emergency had occurred.

I remember the long sad ringing of the bell in 1941 when War was declared on Japan. I also remember the tolling of the bell for over one half hour in spirited staccato rings, when the Japanese surrendered in 1945.

The late Warren Aderson, a Fries Native, told me the following story about the bell.

In early days of the Fries plant there was only one shift of workers. A watchman made rounds through the mill every hour. It was his job to ring the bell at midnight.

One morning, the watchman, came to the mill office and sought out, Jim Bolton, the plant Superintendent. "Mr. Bolton," he said, "I can't work tonight. When I finished ringing the bell last night a beautiful woman appeared right there by the bell pull. She was dressed in white and had long flowing yellow hair. She said to me, don't ring that bell tonight." After some discussion, Mr. Bolton found a substitute watchman.

That night, as the substitute watchman, approached the bell, it fell from its housing and crashed through several floors of the plant.

The big bell no longer rings but it played an important part in the early days of the Fries plant, the employees, and it could be heard all over town and into the surrounding communities.