By Kelly Hargett
Tobacco was the lifeblood of North Carolina during the 19th and 20th centuries, however, during the 17th and 18th centuries, North Carolina struggled with producing quality tobacco. This changed when a mistake was made during the curing process and it was discovered that intense heat cured tobacco quickly and thus the birth of “brightleaf” tobacco. Around the same time, tobacco usage was changing from pipe tobacco to cigarette that had become popular in Spain. As fate would have it, brightleaf tobacco was a perfect fit for cigarette production and became highly favored as its cost were more affordable in America. Small factories began popping up all over North Carolina to meet the demands of this new product and our economy soared.
Two brothers with a head for business, William H. Leak and James N. Leak of Guilford County, made their way to Kernersville in 1873 with the intention of building a tobacco factory. That building no longer stands, but at the time, it would be the first of its kind in Kernersville, and as noted by George Winfree in the The People’s News in 1959, was even before the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Factory, who did not build his first factory in Winston-Salem until 1875. The Leak brothers would expand their business, and in 1884 they built the 3-story brick building that is located on North Main Street and is part of what is now known as “The Factory” in Kernersville.
According to local historians Mike Marshall and Jerry Taylor, the Leak brothers produced what was known as plug and twist tobacco and employed fifty to sixty workers. Some of their most popular brands of tobacco were “Leak’s Best” and “Cock of the Walk.” The brothers had no way of knowing that in that same year, The Duke company would buy an exclusive domestic license to a machine that rolled cigarette and drastically increased their output. By 1890, five tobacco firms controlled 90 percent of the American cigarette market. Although some small factories held on for a few years, this development effectively put an end to the small tobacco factories that had popped up in recent years.
However, the Leak brothers were nothing if not adaptive. By 1901, W.H. Leak had converted some of the three-story tobacco factory built in 1884 to the Victor Knitting Mill. Some of the building was simultaneously being used for a hotel as T.J. Willis operated Hotel Willis from the building from 1907 to 1910. This reinvention would become a hallmark of the building as it continued to be adapted and changed to meet the demands of the economy. By 1922, the Vance Knitting Mill had moved in the space once occupied by Victor Knitting Mill and were busy turning out ladies’ hosiery. An additional building would be built beside the original to accommodate the growing Vance Knitting. Burlington Mills would occupy the space beginning in 1949, but by 1964, the building would see itself reimaged once again into a furniture making factory when Lynwood Furniture, Inc. purchased the space.
In 1972 the Hooker Furniture Company moved into the spaces, now including an additional building connecting the first two. For just over 30 years Hooker Furniture manufactured furniture in downtown Kernersville. Residents fondly recall “smelling the wood from the furniture factory” throughout the town at all times of the day or night. For many people in Kernersville, Hooker Furniture kept their families fed and a roof over their head. So it was a blow to the community when in 2003, the company made the decision to close the Kernersville facility, stating that it was the “oldest building and the smallest and the least flexible of all Hooker’s plants.”
The factory complex would not remain empty for long though. Seeing the potential in the space, as so many people before them, today the complex is a mixed-use facility, compromised of apartments in the upper floors, while the lower level houses various businesses and shops. Take a walk through history when you visit the The Factory in downtown Kernersville.