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The Rayon Years

As many will know, the Old Hickory site is older than 75 years.  However, the record keepers consider the date that rayon began production, January, 1925, as the official date of the beginning of the DuPont-Old Hickory site.  The beginning and end of rayon stands testimony to the Old Hickory site's ability to continually re-invent itself.

In a special publication in 1950 noting 25 years of rayon production at Old Hickory, the observation was made that the story of rayon had a beginning and a middle, but no end.  The demise of rayon was in a future "too remote to foresee."  

There was an end to DuPont's production of rayon, of course, but not before the product, the plant, and the people at Old Hickory had established a record of highest quality that has carried into today.  Accomplishments of Old Hickory rayon were important to the growth of the DuPont Company.  They resulted in a better life including a higher standard of living for thousands of Middle Tennesseans.  And, on another level, for many,  many people the rayon plant was destined to become a large part of their daily lives and in later years, their memories.  Rayon was made for more than 36 years here, for many an entire working career, and it will not be forgotten.  

Rayon plant 1 started production in January 1925, only nine months after ground was broken for plant construction, and plant 2 began the following December.  

The first year's production amounted to 2.1 million pounds, and production rose to a peak of 52 million pounds in 1951.  All told, over one billion pounds of textile and industrial rayon were produced at this location.

In the early years, most rayon output went into low-priced underwear and hosiery.  the thought of producing woven fabrics from "artificial silk" was then mere fancy.   Those early yarns had neither the strength to withstand the weaving processes, nor the uniformity and quality for making fabrics that would compete with trade demands.  This condition did not last long.  Determined technical people with the aid of operating organizations made rapid strides in gaining know-how and introducing process improvements.  As progress was made in such areas as improving the dyeing properties of the yarns and increasing strength of the product, Old Hickory yarns were gradually introduced into the weaving trade.  These improvements proved advantageous for this site through the years, particularly during the depression.  Although business declined in this period, most spinning machines were kept running and layoffs were not as long lasting as in most other businesses throughout the country.  

In the 1940s rayon surpassed wool and silk in fiber consumption in the United States.  It came to be used in the finest of fabrics and the choicest of garments, with applications in ties, evening dresses, gloves, raincoats, draperies, ribbons and exquisite upholstery fabrics. Rayon had evolved far beyond the "artificial silk" of 1925.  

Despite many advancements in the product, a declining sales pattern began in 1952 which continued until the plant was closed down.  In 1953 it became apparent that textile rayon would never again enjoy the populairty of previous years.  Furthermore, by this time, Old Hickory rayon was not as competitive as it had been due to quality and package improvements made by other rayon producers in up to date plants.

It was at this point that Textile Fibers management began a series of studies directed toward preserving Old Hickory as a plant site.  One major objective was to minimize any possible negative effect on employees, many of whom had been with the DuPont Company since rayon startup.  In addition, considerable attention was given to developing plans which would restore DuPont textile rayon to a better competitive position.  By early 1956, a plan had been developed which appeared attractive from both personnel and economic viewpoints.  This program proposed to:

  • Modernize the rayon plant to improve overall quality and extend its useful life as long as possible.
  • Select appropriate new products for the site which would supplement and gradually replace rayon.  "Dacron" was tentatively visualized at this time.

Demand for rayon continued low, and it was soon decided to consolidate all production into plant 1.  Part of the plant 2 unit was shut down in late 1957 and the remainder in 1958.  The overall modernization-consolidation program for the remaining plant was completed by mid-1958, approximately the same time that employees learned they would soon be producing the new fiber Dacron.  During this period (1956-1958) wage roll employment dropped from 2,200 to 1,300, but the quality improvements temporarily stabilized sales and aided job security for the remaining employees.

Employment was relatively stable through 1959.  Late that year and in    early 1960 some 200 wage roll employees were recalled to begin training for Dacron and DMT startups. 

In August 1961, with Dacron well into production and the future again brightening, Old Hickory people manufactured their last rayon.  An era had ended.  

From Our Old Hickory Heritage - published by the DuPont Old Hickory Site, 1982.

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