Those Were the Days – Working at the Aileen Plant

The Aileen Factory in Flint Hill employed as many as 500 workers. Joyce Pullen, who spoke in a Rapp at Home “Local Voices” talk on Jan. 22 at the Rappahannock Senior Center, was one of them. She worked at the Aileen plant for 29-plus years, nearly the entire time it was open.

Joyce Pullen worked at the Aileen factory for nearly 30 years. By Kathy Eggers

Pullen told Rapp at Home members and Senior Center volunteers that the Aileen workers were one big family. “When something happened to one of us, we all felt it,” she said. They shared many good times with home-cooked food because there were great cooks among the Aileen employees.

About a fifth of the Aileen workers were Rappahannock residents, Pullen estimated. Most were women, but the factory also employed men as “bundle boys” and machine mechanics. The manager and assistant managers were men, but the supervisors were all women. She said the men and women worked well together: “There were no problems.”

Pullen fondly remembered the manager, Wayne Walker, who died recently. She attributed the good working atmosphere to working as a team.

Aileen, which produced women’s and girl’s knit clothing, once had five factories in Virginia (Culpeper, Flint Hill, Edinburg, Monterey and Woodstock). Abe Oberlin of New York owned the business, and Pullen recalled two of his visits to the Flint Hill factory.

The Aileen Company filed for bankruptcy about 10 years before the Flint Hill factory closed in 1992. After it closed, the cutting and sewing were moved to Haiti; the company closed for good shortly after.

Jackie Porter, who was in the audience and worked at Aileen for a short time, said that working at the plant was often the first job outside the home that Rappahannock women had had.

Aileen was non-union. And it was understood that there was to be no talk of a union, Pullen said. Her hourly wage when she started to work at Aileen in 1963 was $1.30. When the factory closed in 1992, she was earning $8.20 per hour, which was a decent salary for the times. And the benefits were good, Joyce said.

“I offered my husband my first paycheck,” said Joyce. “He said, ‘No, you keep it.’ And he always said that was the last time I ever offered!”

Asked if they liked the work, Pullen and Porter said that those who worked there truly enjoyed their jobs. “We were one big family,” Pullen said. But after you had been working there all those years, it did “kind of get old,” she admitted, and you didn’t much feel like sewing anything once you got home.

“A man I knew had a hole in his jeans,” quipped Joyce, “and his friend said, ‘Ah, I can see your wife must work at Aileen too!’”

Pullen described the strong smell of the dye in knit fabrics and wondered whether that played a part in the later deaths of co-workers. She also mentioned the discharge of cleaning fluid into a nearby stream. And she mentioned the factory could be noisy.

Rapp at Home members and Senior Center volunteers gathered last week to hear tales from the Flint Hill garment plant. By Kathy Eggers

When Aileen closed in 1992, some found work in the Wrangler’s factory in Luray. Pullen became a nursing assistant at the Fauquier Hospital, where she worked until 2012. This was a good fit because she had taken care of Aileen workers who had mishaps like needles in fingers. Pullen would take them to Dr. Jerry Martin or to the ER.

The once-bustling building in Flint Hill stands mostly empty now. When asked what she’d like to see happen to the Aileen factory building, Pullen didn’t hesitate: “I’d like to see it fixed up as a nursing home,” she said.

About Kathy Eggers 10 Articles
Volunteer coordinator for the Food Pantry and Plant a Row. Writes updates on the Food Pantry and Plant a Row for the Rappahannock News, PAR website, and Rappnet.