A tobacco town loses its identity Changing times: R. J. Reynolds gradually is severing its ties to Winston-Salem, N.C., which had been known as "the best-run company town in the South."

Sun Journal

November 13, 1995|By Jay Price | Jay Price,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Gone is the smell of cured tobacco, the rich, almost food-like aroma that used to hang over the city day and night.

Most of the huge red-brick cigarette factories remain and still fill block after block of the downtown, but they're vacant now or used for something else. The dominant features now are skyscrapers owned by insurance companies and banks.

For nearly a century, it was hard to tell where Winston-Salem left off and R. J. Reynolds tobacco began. But not any more.

Winston-Salem, once the most genteel of tobacco capitals, once "the best-run company town in the South," is seeing its identity fade, because Reynolds -- part of the company that now calls itself RJR Nabisco -- has reduced its work force and is moving operations elsewhere. The single dominant, seemingly benevolent company in the city has been replaced by a commonplace mix of employers.

"My friends and I actually talk about this a lot," says Bob Wells, owner of Rainbow News and Cafe, an arty establishment on the western fringe of downtown. "What's happening is we're losing what has always been Winston-Salem and getting what every other city in the nation has."

You can still attend R. J. Reynolds High School, take off or land at Smith Reynolds Airport, use Reynolds Park or Reynolds Auditorium. You can visit the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, on Reynolda Road. There are six other streets bearing the family name, not to mention Camel Avenue, named after the brand Reynolds introduced in 1913 and that made Reynolds for a time the largest tobacco manufacturer in the world.

But the corporate presence is steadily shrinking. Last month, the company announced it would cut 500 workers from its domestic tobacco operations and move its international tobacco headquarters to Geneva.

And Winston-Salem's response was akin to a shrug, as if the city had reached the last stage of grieving -- which is acceptance.

"It got the big headlines for one day, then it was over," says Frank V. Tursi, author of "Winston-Salem: A History," and a reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. "I think the people of Winston-Salem are beginning to understand that Reynolds is no longer the power here."

Richard Joshua Reynolds founded the company in 1875. But the town long preceded him. The Moravians, a Protestant sect emigrating from Europe, established the community called Salem in 1753 on a 100,000-acre tract that was nearly untouched wilderness, and into that unsettled place transplanted a notably sophisticated culture.

"Here the first chamber music in the U.S. was composed," says state Sen. Hamilton Horton, author of another city history. "Wolves were howling outside, but they had music."

Winston began as Salem's industrial neighbor, and the two communities eventually would merge.

By 1900, Reynolds was the largest employer, and was importing so much tobacco from Turkey and so much cigarette paper from France that the U.S. Customs declared the city a port -- albeit one more than 200 miles inland.

For decades, the municipal version of the American dream was a snug, lifetime job at Reynolds.

"A kid came out of high school in Winston-Salem, got a job with R. J. Reynolds, a healthy salary, a stock plan, good benefits and was able to live the good life without much education," Mr. Tursi says.

Will Hanes was one of those kids.

He started on the factory floor in 1955, rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a vice president.

"It was the largest tobacco company in the world, but it hadn't lost its innocence, its hometown feel," Mr. Hanes says. "It was like someone who has a lot of money but doesn't flaunt it."

A string of company officers with the common touch reinforced the sense that Reynolds was a beneficent family. As late as the 1960s, the company had presidents who would walk the factory floor, offer to stand in for someone wanting a break and run the machinery until the worker came back.

Mr. Hanes quit in 1981. He was only 51 but unhappy about the advent of what he calls "the professional managers" -- the outsiders who arrived to run the company. They quickly changed the culture of paternalism.

There was a merger with Nabisco, still more outsiders and then a chief executive named Ross Johnson. He was more big city than tobacco town. There were new corporate jets, so many that the fleet was dubbed the RJR Air Force. Then he moved corporate headquarters to Atlanta, breaking the city's heart. Ownership and management changed again in 1989, and layoffs followed, as did another headquarters move, to New York.

RJR has about 7,000 tobacco workers still in Winston-Salem, down from 15,000 in 1987.

This is still the company's headquarters for domestic tobacco operations, the company is still an important employer -- but hardly lionized.

The company says it still values its hometown ties.

"Winston-Salem has been our home for 120 years, and we certainly don't foresee that changing," says Don Haver, vice president of community affairs for RJR's domestic tobacco subsidiary.

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