Corbin Limited Garment Factory; West Edge Factory, A.F. Thomson Manufacturing
Known by many as the West Edge Factory, this structure 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 Limited, purchased the building after A.F. Thompson vacated the building. Corbin 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 a 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.
Backstory and Context
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 decision.
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 formula for 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 sustainable future.”1
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.
1. Davis, Clark. Can This Huntington Warehouse Become a Magnet for Artists?. WV Public Broadcasting. August 10, 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://wvpublic.org/post/can-huntington-warehouse-become-magnet-artists.
2. Casto, James E.. Lost Huntington: Corbin Ltd. store. Herald Dispatch. May 30, 2015. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.herald-dispatch.com/special/lost_huntington/lost-huntington-corbin-ltd-store/article_03ab....
3. Casto, James E.. Old Huntington, WV plant now creates new jobs. The State Journal. August 04, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.statejournal.com/story/32684150/old-huntington-wv-plant-now-creates-new-jobs.
4. Lost Huntington: The Olympic Pool. Herald Dispatch. August 04, 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.herald-dispatch.com/special/lost_huntington/lost-huntington-the-olympic-pool/article_17b5....
5. Harold, Zack. Group hopes to give former factory new life as arts hub. Charleston Gazette Mail. December 04, 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141204/DM07/141209721/1282.
6. CORBIN PROJECT RECEIVES A 2014 ARTPLACE AMERICA GRANT. Coalfield Development Corporation. July 29, 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.coalfield-development.org/news/view/corbin-project-receives-a-2014-artplace-america-grant.
7. New Use for Former Corbin Building in Huntington. WSAZ. August 01, 2014. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.wsaz.com/home/headlines/New-Use-for-Former-Corbin-Building-in-Huntington-269544811.html.
8. Roberts, Brandon. Old factory gets new life. Herald Dispatch. March 09, 2015. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/old-factory-gets-new-life/article_51b4b751-36cf-50cc-ace8-6aec46....
9. West Edge. Accessed December 01, 2016.
10. Pace, Fred. Historians looking to interview former Corbin factory workers. Herald Dispatch. November 30, 2016. Accessed December 01, 2016. http://www.herald-dispatch.com/news/historians-looking-to-interview-former-corbin-factory-workers/ar....
11. Pleska, Cat "Report: Corbin Oral History Project" (for Coalfield Development). 2017. p.6-7