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END OF THE LINE

END OF THE LINE

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The end is near for one of the city's oldest factories, which is almost bare today except for the Rolane Factory Outlet.

To put it in the parlance of pantyhose, Joe Horne is talking no nonsense.He says he's closing Greensboro's oldest factory outlet, the Rolane store on Howard Street, in May. It will relocate to a more visible location, leaving one of the city's earliest industrial buildings bare.

Horne holds up a box of Rolane brand stockings from 40 years ago to explain why what was once a factory with more than 100,000 square feet, now houses only the outlet store and his offices. He points to the price on the box: $4.95.

``Can you image, $4.95 for a pair of hose?' asks Horne, who owns nine other Rolane outlets that will remain open. ``Hose sold for more 40 years ago than they do today.'

Automation, using machines instead of human labor, accounted for the price drop.

The Howard Street factory, which was founded 73 years ago as the Mock-Judson-Voehringer Co., once employed 2,000 people on three shifts, more than Cone Mills' White Oak denim plant employs today.

At its peak in the mid-1950s, Mock-Judson-Voehringer Co. turned out 19.2 million pairs of Mojud brand stockings a year. It also produced a championship industrial league baseball team, the Mojud Nighthawks, which played other mill teams on a field next to the factory, that is now filled with weeds.

Today's generation knows the plant only as the out-of-the-way site of the Rolane outlet.

By June 1, the store will be gone, along with the Horne's offices. A new location for both is being sought in Greensboro. The building, which still has Mock-Judson-Voehringer Co. on the front, will be without activity for the first time since it opened in 1926.

``This was a hard decision to make,' Horne said, walking through the empty plant, ``but we are going to have to say goodbye to this old lady. It's just an old manufacturing plant, and it's hard to keep up.'

Horne, who plans to find new offices for his staff, has worked in the building for 28 years and feels a strong attachment. So do his customers. He says several cried at the checkout counter last week when told of the closing.

The building has long been obsolete for manufacturing. Never air-conditioned, it's hot in summer, drafty in winter.

Stockings haven't been made there since 1972, when Kayser-Roth, the Burlington hosiery and sock maker that bought Mock-Judson-Voehringer Co. in the mid-1950s, converted the building to a machine shop. By then, the plant's work force had dropped to 200. Today, about 35 people work in the store and in Horne's offices.

While the factory declined, the outlet store experienced phenomenal expansion for an enterprise that started out on wheels.

``A push cart was pushed through the plant every Friday and employees were allowed to buy Kayser-Roth products from it,' Horne says. ``Then we opened a little room in the plant for employees. The employees wanted to buy for friends, so we we let them buy for friends. Then we opened it to the public one day a week. We then opened the little room all the time.'

The little room got bigger and bigger. Today it covers 19,000 square feet, more than twice that of other Rolane stores, which are named for a former Kayser-Roth brand. At one time, Kayser-Roth had 35 Rolane stores.

Today it seems every highway interchange advertises factory outlets, but Horne can remember when outlets were so rare that several women from Texas drove to Howard Street once a year and loaded a station wagon with socks and hosiery for friends back home.

The public associates Rolane stores with Kayser-Roth. In fact, when a Mexican company bought Kayser-Roth five years ago, the outlets were not included in the deal.

Horne, who had been president of Kayser-Roth's outlet division, and his wife, Ruth, bought the stores. He still stocks Kayser-Roth socks and hosiery, but his stores also carry other brands.

Horne says the flagship store's sales have declined compared with smaller sister stores in shopping centers, including one that opened last year at Golden Gate in Greensboro.

Howard is a side street in an industrial area that dead-ends at the Pomona rail yard. Few customers discover the store by chance.

Most customers, Horne says, are middle-aged and older and have been shopping there for years. Most don't realize that 90 percent of the building is empty, including the paneled offices where John Voehringer Jr. and his staff worked.

Voehringer, Bernard Mock and Nathaniel Judson chose Greensboro for their plant because of the abundance of cheap labor. Voehringer, who died in 1967, served as Chamber of Commerce president and led the city in adjusting to a wartime economy from 1941-45.

During the war, local plants shifted gears and made defense-related products. Vick Chemical, makers of VapoRub and cough drops, manufactured lubricants; Glen Raven, a Burlington hosiery maker, made parachutes and pup tents.

But Mock-Judson-Voehringer Co., continued to make hosiery. Without silk and newly invented nylon available, the plant switched to making rayon hose, which most women hated because they snagged, sagged and itched.

After the war, with nylon plentiful, hosiery sales in America stretched. Horne believes the gun racks on the plant roof and the barbed wire atop the fence around the property are reminders of how hot a commodity stockings became. He figures the company had armed guards on the lookout for thieves and hijackers.

By the time Kayser-Roth bought Mock-Judson-Voehringer in the '50s, the plant had been expanded in a straight line until it reached Willowbrook Drive, a long block away.

The building is for sale. Horne says it might be ideal for apartments aimed at college students. UNCG is not far away on Spring Garden Street. Or the plant could become a warehouse, Horne says.

``I hope some new use can be found for it,' he says, ``I would hate to see the old building go away. It's been part of me for so long.'

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