For more than 45 years, the factory on East Wayne Street was a hub of industry and commerce in downtown Franklin.
The manufacturing plant helped provide millions of undershirts to U.S. soldiers fighting in World War II. Hundreds of people were employed by the Varynit Mills company.
The workers are gone, but the factory building still stands. Later this year, it will again become a center of activity, just in a different way.
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Renovations are underway to turn the historic shell into a reception center, condominiums and shops. Garment Factory Events plans to open in late 2017, hosting conferences, weddings, large gatherings as well as smaller meetings in the lounge.
To honor the history of the factory and its role in Franklin, company officials are seeking out uniforms, photographs and other memorabilia from people who might have worked there. The items will be preserved on a wall-length display area telling the story of the former garment factory.
“We’re looking for anything that connects back to the building,” said Rachel Ford, marketing coordinator for Garment Factory Events. “People that have stories about working here, anything that might have been made here, pictures, whatever people have from that time.”
In March 2016, local development company Bemis Group and the city of Franklin announced plans to turn the factory building into an events venue. They have partnered with Kwang Casey, owner of Oaken Barrel Brewing Co. in Greenwood, to operate Garment Factory Events.
“The Bemis Group has had roots here in Franklin for a long time,” Ford said. “It’s going to highlight Franklin, since this is going to be a premier attraction here, and hopefully bring a lot of visitors to town.”
The space will have a large ballroom on the second floor will accommodate 500 guests, while the downstairs hall can fit 250. A majority of the factory will be taken up by the two ballrooms, lounge, bridal suite, “man cave” and other aspects of the event-planning operation, though plans are in place for retail shops and condominiums, Ford said.
“Our focus isn’t just weddings. We want to bring in conferences; we’ll have about 10,000 square feet of banquet space,” she said.
Construction workers remain busy inside the former Varynit Mills factory. Metal supports have been installed to mark out the different rooms and retail space planned for the facility. The exterior brick facade is being repaired and revamped.
Rough plywood walls give a sense of where the smaller downstairs ballroom ends, and the bar area begins. Though the windows are covered by boards, it’s easy to imagine the wealth of natural light and panoramic views of Province Park and Youngs Creek.
“It’s going to be so much brighter when it’s done,” Ford said.
The building was constructed in 1925 by the McLoughlin Manufacturing Company, who was later bought out by New York-based Varynit Mills in 1941.
A government contract from the U.S. Army during World War II kick-started the factory’s success. Of the 10 million garments supplied to the armed forces in 1943, 6 million of them were made in Franklin.
Varynit Mills continued operating even after the war was over, until in 1970 the company was sold and production was moved to Tennessee. Since that time, warehousing, furniture and other garment businesses had filled the space.
Garment Factory Events planners have tried to respect the historic nature of the building as much as possible. Original exposed brick will be visible in walls and support beams.
A mural-size vinyl photograph of Varynit Mills employees will greet visitors through the main entrance. Industrial accents such as a specially designed staircase will speak to the factory’s past life.
“The scheme is going to be industrial-modern, with a little bit of feminine touch here and there,” Ford said.
Ford has been working with the Johnson County Museum of History to put together the history of the space, and with its brand and logo so closely tied to the garment industry, it’s important to emphasize that aspect, Ford said.
The hope is to have the first events in late fall, and officials already have booked numerous events for 2018, Ford said.
The operators of Garment Factory Events, the new event center that will occupy the former Varynit Mills factory in downtown Franklin, is asking the community for help in decorating a special display in the facility.
Company officials are seeking out photographs, uniforms, items of clothing and other memorabilia related to the factory. They are hoping to connect with former employees or family members of people who worked there to collect items for a history wall being planned inside the event center.