The West Edge Factory was originally built in 1930 by A.F. Thomson Manufacturing, and housed production for the stove manufacturing company until the 1960s. A clothing manufacturer, Corbin Ltd purchased the building after A.F. Thompson vacated, and operated out of the factory until 2002. Corbin was the last manufacturing company to utilize the building, and it sat vacant until 2014 when Coalfield Development saved the 96,000 square foot factory from demolition with intent to restore the space as a job training and workforce development center, and hub for local artists. Today, the space is known as the West Edge Factory and includes a solar installation training facility, a 7,000 square foot woodshop, and an organic farming operation. Future renovations will include a black box theater, artist studios, and a museum and interpretive center honoring the stories of former Corbin Ltd. employees (most of whom were women).
The factory was built for the A.F. Thompson Manufacturing Company,
and was one of two factory locations established by A.F. Thompson. The factory
allowed for the mass production of cast-iron and ceramic stove heaters. A.F.
Thompson donated property that was located next to the facility to the city of
Huntington so that a public pool could be created; this pool was one of three
small community pools that were created during the 1950s. The company was
eventually passed down to Thompson’s son, Cecil, who also served as one of
Huntington’s mayors. A.F. Thompson manufacturing closed for business at this
location in the 1960s.
Corbin Ltd was a garment manufacturing company who inhabited the
building after A.F. Thompson, and was reportedly the largest employer in the
area. Nathan Corbin and his sons (Howard, who worked at the Vernon Street
factory and eventually served as president of Corbin Ltd.; Lee, head of Corbin
Ltd. Sales Department; and Sol, Corbin Ltds.’ Marketing Lawyer) originally
founded a clothing manufacturing company in Brooklyn, NY in the late 1940s.
They decided to move their business to Huntington, WV in 1957. There is
speculation as to why the company moved it’s operation to West Virginia, but property
and land costs, low taxes, and available workforce played a role in their
Corbin Ltd. employed 200-300 employees when it opened its doors,
and 1,200 at its peak in the 1980s. As Oral Historian Cat Pleska noted in her 2017
Corbin Oral History Project Report, “Nathan Corbin personally trained
all of the sewing machine operators. The work was what is called piece work. In other words, the faster
you worked to complete the task on any garment, the more money an employee
made. Everyone began at minimum wage then depending on his/her own quickness,
could earn more. The majority of workers were women. In fact, women interviewed
were quoted as saying, 'At the time (especially the first 30 years), it was
THE place for a woman to make a 'decent' living; that is, well above minimum
wage.' Some workers, however, were not suited to working faster and faster and
faster, for various reasons. Although the company maintained a loyal and stable
work base for most of its existence, there was a fairly steady turn-over rate
throughout the life of the company, due to stressful and demanding expectations
regarding speed and quality.11
Corbin Ltd. specialized in making men’s trousers and jackets and
eventually added women’s clothing. Corbin Ltd. clothing was regarded as being
of the highest quality and was popular among politicians, businessmen, and celebrities.
Corbin Ltd. had an active chapter of the Amalgamated Clothing Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and lended support at local and national protests. In 1995, the national ACTWU merged with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and was known thereafter as the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE). After 1995, Corbin Ltd.'s union chapter was UNITE Local 747.
Pleska details: “In the late 80s, before Howard passed away,
there was a legal dispute about control of the company with Howard’s son,
David. David eventually came into control of the whole company. By this time,
factories of all types were mechanizing and creating automation that meant
down-sizing of employees. David also changed the formulary on how workers were
paid piecemeal, reducing employees’ pay over all. Quality, long the standard
for Corbin garment, began to fall with the garments made in Mexico and Columbia
and customers were beginning to return garments, representing the loss of
hundreds of thousands of dollars.”11 The Factory closed its’ doors in 2002.
After sitting vacant for over ten years, local authorities decided
to demolish the factory that employed much of the Tri-State area for decades.
The plan was to make room for a new industry that could provide jobs to the
local community, however demolition costs were too high. The Wayne County
Economic Development Authority hired Coalfield Development to salvage materials
from the factory to lessen demolition costs. Coalfield Development saw
potential in the factory’s strong foundation and support system, and decided to
purchase the factory for $110,000. Coalfield Development is a nonprofit that
serves as a workforce training and life skills program for unemployed people in
Southern West Virginia. Coalfield Development CEO Brandon Dennison says of the facility:
“I think this building in many ways symbolizes the challenges
Huntington has had, this was a building that employed hundreds of people,
globalization happened and it closed down and we lost a lot of our good jobs,
but now it’s going to symbolize a new Huntington which is more creative and
entrepreneurial, building on what’s great about the past, but shaping a more
Coalfield Development was awarded a grant from Brooklyn,
N.Y.-based ArtPlace America for $350,000, and a $150,000 loan from
Charleston-based Community Works. The plans to restore and re-purpose the
factory will unfold in a two-phase process beginning with a job-training focus in
Phase 1 and shifting to an arts focus in Phase 2. The factory is being gutted
and repaired to hold a warehouse that will showcase local artists’ work. In
2017, Coalfield Development was awarded a $1.8 million dollar grant from the United
States Economic Development Administration to begin Phase 2. These funds will
completely renovate the exterior core and shell of the building.