This historic sock mill once fought Nazis and clothed astronauts. It's ready for a new chapter

Sandy Mazza
This historic sock mill once fought Nazis and clothed astronauts. It's ready for a new chapter

NASHVILLE – Once Nashville's most booming business, May Hosiery Mill has a history that could rival Forrest Gump's tales of extraordinary encounters. 

The sock factory shipped 1 million socks a week around the country in its heyday. For nearly 100 years, it surfed changing fashion trends that threatened to upend the company. 

And it repeatedly brushed up against history along the way. 

During World War II, nearly 300 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany found sanctuary at the mill, which also had a stint as a weapons manufacturer. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, every Apollo astronaut donned the factory's all-cotton crew socks on missions to the moon.

"At our peak, we were making a million socks a week of all styles, fabrics and colors. And a million is a lot of anything, even jellybeans or BBs," said Jack May, former mill executive and grandson of May Hosiery Mill founder Jacob May. "Chaos is what it looked like."

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Three generations of the May family ran the mill – from its beginnings as a prison sock factory at the turn of the 20th century to a complex 1,200-employee operation with a side business making military weapons – before selling it in 1983.  

In May, Councilman Colby Sledge installed a historic marker to commemorate the former mill's storied past as it readies for a new chapter. 

"This is the crown jewel of manufacturing buildings in Nashville," Sledge said. "It's coming back in a much different way. But the buildings are what people fall in love with. The architecture, the curved edges (of the brick warehouses). Where else do you see that?"

A new life: Apple Music, Soho House

Now, the whir of hammers and buzz saws fills the complex of cavernous red-brick factory buildings in Wedgewood Houston.

AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago real estate firm with an eye for transforming historic properties, paid $41 million in March for the seven vacant buildings sitting on 4 acres. The triangular site at 429 Chestnut St. is bordered by a railroad track and Houston Street. 

Prominent creative local and national tenants, including Apple Music and Soho House members-only hotel, were drawn to the warehouses once filled with workers knitting, dyeing, drying, pairing, inspecting and packing socks. 

The site's redevelopment will turn a rugged industrial corner into welcoming offices and shops.

AJ Capital Partners will keep the original facade and wooden floors intact. But the aged interiors are otherwise in the process of being gutted and rebuilt. 

Tuck-Hinton Architects and Dream Technologies home-automation design and installation have already moved into one of the buildings. The Blockhouse barbershop has also had a location there since 2015. 

Apple Music, which is expanding its country music channel, is developing a 30,000-square-foot content creation office connected to an outdoor event space.

Soho House private hotel and club will also open its first Nashville location here. 

WWII changed everything

In the early 1900s, Nashville was a poor city with rampant outbreaks of typhoid, malaria and other diseases. 

May Hosiery Mill didn't pay top wages, so it provided other perks to employees. 

"We served a hot lunch," Jack May said. "It was the first meat and three. We sold meat, vegetables and bread for a quarter."

Ultimately, it added a beauty parlor, barbershop and health club. The company also became one of the first to install an air-conditioning system. 

The factory endured its first major product overhaul from heavyweight natural fiber cotton and wool ribbed socks in the 1920s.

Synthetic fabrics were being introduced and, at the time, rubber yarn made men's garters mostly obsolete. 

But the most challenging years followed with the Great Depression in the early 1930s.

May Hosiery Mill was selling seamless rayon and cotton hosiery and silk stockings in 1930. But the factory operated on a slim margin, with a pair of socks going for about 10 cents. 

Several lucrative contracts quickly changed that. 

The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, and department stores including Montgomery Ward and Sears, Roebuck and Co. became customers in the early 1930s.

The mill also began printing socks with Disney characters.

"We got a license to put Mickey, Minnie and Donald Duck, Goofy and all of that cast," Jack May said. "That was good, profitable business and really kept the factory running through those very difficult years. We got socks on people's feet at a very low price all over the country. Poor farmers in Kansas had socks at a price they could afford."

World War II brought some of the most simultaneously painful and lucrative years for the May family. 

In 1936, mill co-president Mortimer May made his first trip of many to his childhood home in Germany to help rescue fellow Jews from the Nazi Party regime. 

"Mortimer made six to eight trips to Europe and signed for many, many people," Jack May said. "We had to guarantee that they would not be thrown on the government, so we employed many of them at the hosiery mills or found them jobs elsewhere."

Betsy May Stern, the daughter of Dan May, who ran the mill with Mortimer May in the mid-1900s, remembered Jewish refugees seeming confused on their arrival in Nashville.

"These same people arrived in my front hall on Fairmont Drive and they were lost," May Stern said in a video about the May family produced for the "Our American Family" series. "They couldn't speak any English. They were homeless, and their sin had been to be a Jew in a world that had gone crazy."

Two members of the May family were killed in German concentration camps. 

Mortimer May's trips to Germany stopped when the war started in 1939, but he spent the rest of his life working to improve the treatment of Jews around the world. Family members estimate that he rescued 230 to 280 Jews. 

He worked closely with Zionist leaders Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, to help found the state of Israel. 

Nylon stockings and astronauts

The sock market expanded after the war with the addition of a variety of synthetic fabrics. The 1950s was one of the busiest eras for the factory. 

Pantyhose emerged in the 1960s, but challenges continued to arise for the industry.

"Women, for the first time in perhaps a thousand years, stopped wearing skirts and, for the first time in probably as long a period, boys stopped wearing socks," Jack May said. "In spite of these appalling developments in the hosiery market, innovation continued." 

In the early 1960s, the May family got a call from the U.S. government on behalf of the Apollo program astronauts.

"They wanted, for the space program, an all-cotton sock with no synthetics for the astronauts to go to the moon," Jack May said. "They didn't want the static electricity."

The mill made the socks for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and every astronaut who has been to the moon. 

"We had 100% market penetration of that territory," Jack May said. "But the market was small."

In more recent years, the bodysuit became popular, ultimately morphing from a body stocking into the now-popular body shirt.

But the family decided to sell the business to Renfro Corp. in 1983, and the mill was closed.

Neighborhood's industrial era ends

Joseph Jack May visits his family's old factory May Hosiery Mill on Chestnut St. Tuesday, March 19, 2019 in Nashville, Tenn. The facility is being renovated to house Apple Music and a hotel along with other businesses.

The area's future will bear little semblance to its past. 

AJ Capital Partners plans to follow the hosiery mill project with redevelopment of another large property across the street, at the long-vacant Nashville Warehouse Co. 

A few hundred micro-apartments, along with retail shops and a music venue or other entertainment destination, are being considered for a 5-acre lot there, but detailed plans have not been submitted to Metro officials for approval. 

On a recent tour of the May Hosiery construction site, Jack May reminisced about the years he spent working there. 

"When I was a little boy, I worked in the lunch room and I picked up Coke bottles and recycled them," he said. "In the finishing room, women worked in groups on tables folding socks, put them in boxes and labeled for the customer. We had a whole room full of people closing toes."

Socks may look simple, but they're actually very complex to produce, he said. 

"The sock is the only item of apparel that doesn't have a piece goods stage," he said. "Everything else you wear, you lay out the fabric, put a pattern on it, cut it out and sew it up. You can't do that with a sock. It goes right from the yarn to the finished garment, and it's complex."

Reach Sandy Mazza at smazza@tennessean.com or 615-726-5962 and on Twitter @SandyMazza.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: This historic sock mill once fought Nazis and clothed astronauts. It's ready for a new chapter