Writing about Richmond, for me, isn’t as easy as writing about Detroit. Detroit’s history is like a giant grab basket of easily reduced symbolism. Henry Ford. The UAW. Suburbia. Urban decay. The media passes Detroit around like an overeager groupie. It’s almost too convenient.
But Richmond? Richmond was the capital of the Confederacy. It’s big historic industry, tobacco, is vilified and flogged in our schools and in congress. For a time, it was one of country’s biggest slave trading markets.
This is touchy stuff. Just recently, a plan to build a new ballpark for the Double A Flying Squirrels caused a huge controversy when the site of an old slave jail was proposed as the location.
In Richmond, the old wounds may be healed, but the scars are still visible. Yes, Monument Avenue is still bedecked with statues of Confederate heroes. Yes, people wave Confederate flags weekly in front the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts because the Confederate War Memorial Chapel – on museum grounds – was forced to take down its flag.
As a northern carpetbagger, I feel unqualified to write about this stuff. What kind of statements can I make about Richmond? The people here are about the same people anywhere in America. At heart the city is charming, almost quaint. The food is tremendous. Old row houses with creaky porches, meticulous landscaping, and the occasional wrought iron fence recall the genteel image of the South held as incontrovertible by the rest of the country. You half-expect someone to offer you a complementary mint julep, until you realize that half the bartenders in Richmond have never heard of a mint julep.
And, really, that about sums up Richmond today. A city at odds with its past that’s moving very quickly into a bright new future, where all the strong southern accents have packed their bags and left for North Carolina. Downtown, today, is a typical modernist dead zone, eerily quiet even at lunch time. Failed streetcar suburbs ring the outer edges of the city, old and unfashionable, but not quite enough of either to be rehabbed. Past that are some of the most prototypical, auto-dominated suburbs you can imagine, outnumbering the people in the city by a factor of about 5 to 1.
It’s a brave new world, except without the Richmond Braves, the Triple A ballcub the city lost a few years back.
One innocuous bit of Richmond past that always catches my eye and reveals the lingering nostalgia in Richmond for the time when it wasn’t just another Southern city, but one of THE Southern cities, is the Interbake Foods factory. Or, as Richmonders may know it, the Southern Biscuit Company. It just north of Broad, the old main thoroughfare, at the end of a long strip of multi-story commercial buildings dressed up with the occasional neon from the good ol’ days. HOME OF FFV [Famous Foods of Virginia) COOKIES AND CRACKERS reads Interbake’s own sign, though it no longer lights up at night.
Once the Southern Biscuit Company was the only commercial producer of Girl Scout Cookies in America, those cheap yet addicting cookies you’re shamed into buying yearly in a sad spectacle of child labor. The smell of the company’s “peculiarly Southern” fresh baked goods with “the amount of sugar which the Southern palate demands” (as the Richmond Dispatch-Times put it in the ’20s) filled the surrounding streets day and night. Certainly, a factory could smell worse.
Constructed in the late ’20s, the Southern Biscuit Company’s 6-story white stucco factory was state of the art. Raw ingredients were sent up to the top floor by elevator. “Gravity conveyors” brought the finished products back down to the first floor. Cookies and crackers were baked in massive gas ovens with rotating racks. The exterior had Beaux-Art touches, with fake columns, a concrete balustrade, and ample windows to allow natural light in. The iconic water tower on the roof adds to the buildings distinctive appearance.
In its heyday, the Southern Biscuit Company employed not just Richmond’s men, but its women, too. Not just as secretaries, but on the floor. A company VP told the paper in 1926, his heart bleeding: “The most distressing thing in this world is the dependent woman needing work and unable to find it, work that will help her to maintain her self-respect and very often to enable her to care for dependent ones.” Of course, it’s questionable how dignified boxing cookies for low wages was, but hey, a job was a job. When your no-good alcoholic husband laid himself up again with that fake back injury, someone had to pay the milkman.
The factory remained in operation for a shockingly long time, all the way until the 2000s, albeit with a few additions along the way. Yet over the decades, as mergers and buyouts changed the company’s identity, allegiances changed and the company – now known as Interbake Foods – bolted for the green belt pastures of Front Royal, Virginia. Now all that Richmonders have are assurances that one day the factory will be converted into… wait for it… lofts!
Not that it’s all doom and gloom. Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, concentrated its operations in Richmond a few years before Interbake went Benedict Arnold, again placing the city at the forefront of the tobacco industry. To which I say, smoke ’em if you got ’em.