Covington HousesTypical mid-century homes in Covington, Virginia

What is a “mill town“? A town near the type of old-fashioned gristmill you see on postcards or oil paintings at a flea market? Not really, though in their time, these would have probably qualified, too. The mill towns of the twentieth century through the current day are moderate-sized (sometimes large) cities built around one or more factory that forms the basis of the local economy.

These started out in England and the US as Industrial Revolution-era textile mills, but the concept has spread to other forms of industry that employ large numbers of people, often in shift work, and produce (mostly) durable goods, often for retail. With the shift away from an American-based manufacturing industry to one overseas, many mill towns have suffered markedly and the question of saving them and their often unique architecture has been a national concern in urban planning and preservation sectors.

Westvaco Paper Mill Mead-Westvaco Mill

Covington, Virginia is one such small city. It is the county seat of Alleghany County, but the real economic basis for most of the twentieth century has been the Mead-Westvaco paper mill located there. Covington’s location on the Jackson River provides the water source necessary for paper production and it has the rail and interstate highway access to port in the raw materials needed and to ship out the finished products.

The area around Covington is rural, even rustic: The nearest town is Clifton Forge, which has been an important railroad center and beyond that, the quiet college town of Lexington. However, to really reach a large city, one would have to drive nearly an hour to Roanoke or even further to Richmond. Washington, DC, is easily a four-hour drive away.

Downtown CovingtonDowntown Covington, Virginia.

The architecture of Covington’s main street is typical to small American cities throughout the south and also speaks of some aspects more common to the midwest where it’s colder in the winter. The expansive use of brick in not only commercial buildings but homes—as well as the sheer size of some homes—betrays the wealth that was once here. Many homes in working-class neighborhoods are large enough to house a good-sized family and contain an attention to detail and craftsmanship (as do the retail façades downtown) that demonstrates the faith and pride America once placed in its blue-collar jobs and industrial economy.

While the paper mill is very much still in business, other light industry has left Covington for a variety of reasons. Retail has suffered greatly, not so much because of a lack of local spending power, but because the locals have discovered Amazon, et al, for their purchasing needs. We spent an hour talking to the lady who runs the Shoe Box & Sports Center, a local sporting goods store, and learned that all that really keeps them in business is high school team orders and loyal customers from decades of high school support. High school sports here, like in most small towns in the American south and midwest, are a very big deal.

Covington BankThis bank building in Covington had the first electronic bank vault in the entire state.

The first bank in the state to have an electronic vault was located in Covington and we also got a tour of that building despite it being repurposed in an ad-hoc manner as a veterinary practice and, upstairs, apartments where offices once stood. Another men’s shop still stubbornly remains in business, selling suits and shirts as it would have years ago, in the same building where it was founded in the 1950s.

Back then, people would come to Covington from all over the surrounding counties to buy work-wear or back-to-school clothes. A musical instruments shop, despite its obvious state of poor repair, appears to (at least some days) still open for business. As the lady at the sporting goods store said, “you see change, but you don’t always want it”.

Covington Music Store

For Covington to thrive in a new century, it seems the historic office and retail space of downtown needs to be seen as a prime resource in some capacity. If the city could draw in ultra-light industry such as software development companies or tourism, that might take advantage of the welcoming, unique, built environment while also providing a more diverse economic base. Virginia has been touting its “technology corridor” in this region for some time now, and that seems one direction to explore in earnest now.

Post Office CovingtonPost Office in Covington, Virginia.

Downstairs CovingtonOriginal balustrade in the basement of Shoe Box & Sports Center store, in Covington.

Mike Walker is a journalist who studied architecture and architectural history. He has been published in Slate, Thought Catalog, the ATA Chronicle, and The Gainsville Sun.

8 thoughts on “What’s at Stake for American Mill Towns like Covington, VA When the Local Economy Doesn’t Change with the Times?

  1. Covington, Virginia; wow Covington, Virginia. Takes my thoughts way back. Now as a retired member of the world’s best army, The United States Army; it is sad to hear of such digression. I was shocked to read that Covington, VA has been of accused of not growing because of the 1980’s football teams. I was a standout member of many of the CHS football teams, most notably the STATE CHAMPION OF 1984. The City of Covington must change if it is to compete in today’s society and also must find ways to sustain growth. In addition the City Council needs to compete aggressively to bring jobs and more revenue to the city. The children of Covington only grow up to leave the city; there is NO re-occurring deposit to be put back into the city because the children go to other cities that provide more opportunities. I am not knocking the Paper Mill but Covington needs to offer a young talented child more than just working at the mill. To those who work at the Paper Mill of Covington you have my respect and admiration because you provide for you families(great citizens). CITY COUNCIL OF COVINGTON, VIRGINIA, please get your stuff together and cause Covington to be desired for jobs, recreation, decent lodging. Nobody likes to stop and stay in Covington if you have dirty, nasty, insect infested hotels. I know I will just keep driving until I find a better hotel. I have done that, even in the town where I was once raised. Please do not fault the CHS FOOTBALL TEAMS for small thinking by the City of Covington City Council.
    If Covington is to be a strong, vibrant, enthusiastic, desirable place is must start with a City Council that has new, fresh, young, and creative ideas. To change Covington, then Change the Covington City Council- PASS THE BATTONS, and allow more talent to come to Covington.
    There is HOPE!!!

  2. My grandfather supposedly had somthing to do with the paper mill I would like to know and find out more.His name was Ernest null

  3. I grew in Covington and left for the military and never went back to live! Retired USAF. I do go back for family and CHS reunions, but not much for me to live there permenantly. I do love the place because the town and Alleghany county has not changed hardly at all(takes my back to my happy childhood). I wish all of my friends who still live there good retirement and take care!!

  4. Having grown up in this mill town, truly sad to see how it has not been able to grow. It was a boom town when I lived there, many plants besides the paper mill and my father was an individual owner of a plumbing and Heating business that was doing great business and we had a good living and a happy town. lots of business and it is too bad it has not been able to attract new business. I think it would be a good small town to raise a family.If there would be something there to attract people.

  5. My family has roots in Covington and I myself have lived there off and on for the past 40 years. Its the only place Ive ever been that for the most part is exactly the same every time I return even after being away for 15 years.

  6. I grew up in Covington and the problem there isn’t the mill nor is it the discovery of the internet. The problem in Covington is that Covington had a chance to grow in the 1980’s and due to it’s pride over it’s FOOTBALL TEAM, they voted not to join forces with other localities and become a more marketable city. Covington, much like other cities has seen a decline in it’s population of young people “staying put” and it’s population is “greying out”. There are small towns just across the border in WV which are thriving because they began looking towards the future and thought about marketing etc. Covington HAS the possibility to be a cool quaint shopping destination if it would only let go of it’s football past, it’s we are Covington VA ego and realize that times have changed and soon they will be more of a ghost town than it already is.

    1. This might be the saddest story of pride I’ve ever come across. High School football? Seriously, Covington? Good luck…

      1. ‘It didn’t have to do with football as to why Covington wouldn’t consolidate. It was more about picking up the counties debts. Really? Over football? We’re not in TX and all about sports.

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