What is now a high-tech space for education and workforce training was once a booming tobacco production facility in South Boston’s Tobacco Warehouse District. Built circa 1890s, the American Tobacco Warehouse was one of three facilities in the United States that produced the cotton tobacco bags used to hold loose tobacco. Smokers used the loose tobacco in their pipes or to roll their own cigarettes, and the bags were a key part of that process. Because of this history many locals, then and now, know the American Tobacco Warehouse as simply “the Bag Factory.”
The American Tobacco Warehouse was an economic boom to the community. Employment opportunities abounded not only for workers on the factory floor, but also for countless others who worked in their homes as tobacco bag stringers. Bag stringers completed bag construction by hand sewing a drawstring into the top of each tobacco bag. This non-physically demanding work provided many with a means of employment or supplemental income.
During the World War I era, the American Tobacco Warehouse faced difficult economic times as machine-rolled cigarettes gained a greater foothold among smokers. The factory’s troubles persisted until the Great Depression forced smokers back to using cheaper loose tobacco, and the demand for tobacco bags greatly improved. By 1939, the American Tobacco Warehouse developed the technology to mechanically insert drawstrings into the bags produced in South Boston. While this technological advance reduced production costs, it also permanently removed the supplemental income so many had come to rely on (a remnant of the string-insertion machinery has been preserved in the Innovation Center’s TopSolid America CAD/CAM computer lab).
In the years during and after World War II, the popularity of machine-rolled cigarettes rebounded and the American Tobacco Warehouse converted its production resources from bag manufacturing to tobacco processing. It continued as a tobacco processor until all operations ceased and the factory was closed and later sold to Bob Harris. In December 2007, Bob’s widow, Eva Harris, donated the infamous “Bag Factory” to the Halifax Educational Foundation (HEF). The HEF, working in collaboration with the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, began a $10M historical and LEED certified renovation of the facility. The goal was to convert the facility into a 21st century teaching and learning environment called the Innovation Center. Renovations were completed in December 2010, and the SVHEC held its first classes in the new Innovation Center fall semester 2011.
Today, the Innovation Center, former American Tobacco Warehouse, is home to several SVHEC signature programs:
• Workforce Services
• The Business of Art & Design Program
• R&D Center for Advanced Manufacturing & Energy Efficiency
HEF Director of Development Tommy Nelson sums up the history and future of the facility by stating, “The building has served the community well for 125 years. We’ve renovated and re-purposed it, and now it’s ready for the next 125 years to serve the region’s educational and workforce training needs.”
“Tobacco Bag Stringing,” The University of North Carolina Library, http://www.lib.unc.edu/ncc/tbs/stringing.html
“From the First to the Last Ash: The History, Economics, & Hazards of Tobacco,” Health Literacy,
Nelson, Thomas “Tommy.” Personal interview. 12 April 2012.