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Hills & Heights

Must-See RVA! — Chesapeake Warehouses

A look into the history of Richmond places that are still part of our landscape.



1100 Dinwiddie Avenue
Built, 1929
VDHR 127-6720

Sometimes, even the ugly can be historic.

(Etsy) — Joe Gravely’s Chew

This is the tale of a little-known tobacco family named Gravely, and the rise of a small company called Philip Morris.

Throughout the 19th century in the United States, leaf tobacco products were mainly “plug” products. Smoked tobacco was generally taken in the form of cigars or pipes. Cigarettes were not mass-produced but rather were individually rolled by the user. Tobacco production was localized: cultivation, curing, and production into its ultimate form all occurred at a local level, with limited distribution. Because of this, quality and taste varied greatly between producers.

As tobacco production centralized at the end of the 19th century, producers became increasingly concerned with the need to ensure consistency across a given brand’s production, to ensure that the taste sought by the consumer was at least somewhat consistent. This was the beginning of the concept known as the “blend,” the combination of tobaccos used to ensure a particular flavor profile for a given brand of tobacco products.

(Find A Grave) — J. O. W. Gravely

J. O. W. Gravely closely observed developments in the idea of the “blend,” and used his growing connections in China to import large amounts of Chinese tobacco, and to use the profiles of tobacco he imported and brokered domestically to sell to tobacco producers to develop and maintain particular flavor profiles. The idea of the “blend” became critical during World War I, when “ready rolled” tobacco – the mass-produced cigarette – became popular with the general public (far surpassing small-scale, locally-produced tobacco products), and the maintenance of consistent flavor across a given brand became critical. International tobacco importation and processing became a significant concern for the tobacco industry in the early 2oth century.

(Duke University Libraries) — James Buchanan Duke

James “Buck” Duke of the American Tobacco Company followed developments in the mass market production of cigarettes and the maintenance of the “blend” closer than nearly anyone. Duke controlled a large segment of the United States tobacco market by 1900, when he turned his attention abroad, making aggressive moves into the European tobacco market. In response, several European firms responded with the creation of Imperial Tobacco, a conglomerate of thirteen smaller, independent European firms determined to resist the onslaught of the American Tobacco Company. The focus of their strategy was the establishment of a strong presence in the heart of tobacco-producing America. Examining the American market, they selected a site for their warehouse and auction center in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, next door to J.O.W. Gravely and Co. Because of his extensive local, European, and Asian contacts, Imperial Tobacco selected J.O.W. Gravely as their American contact.

While these developments were taking place in North Carolina, the tobacco industry in Richmond, Virginia, was facing a problem. The only tobacco production and warehouse facilities in Richmond were multi-story masonry buildings located in the Shockoe Bottom neighborhood. In a crowded urban environment, these tobacco concerns were unable to expand, and often faced limited rail connections on the downtown spurs and poor access to the James River. In response, Richmond annexed the town of Manchester, south of the James River. Manchester had better access to the James, and with far less building density, and a much more accessible set of rail spurs. American Tobacco Company located its new facility in Manchester, and many other tobacco companies were soon to follow. J.O.W. Gravely noted that American Tobacco did not own its own storage facility, and he began making plans to move to Richmond.

While early cigarette manufacturing was a minor industry in Richmond (cigarette manufacturing was first introduced to Richmond by the P.H. Mayo & Bros. Tobacco Cornpany in 1874), other companies soon followed, as an embrace of machine production transformed the industry. After the conclusion of World War I cigarettes quickly grew in popularity, fueled in no small part by increasing social acceptance of women smoking in public. Hundreds of new brands emerged, each vying for the attention of the consumer. One of these new brands, patented in 1925 by Philip Morris, was Marlboro.

(Pinterest) — Marlboro Man

Production had to keep up with the new demand, and the new national audience demanded that a given cigarette had to taste the same, no matter where it was purchased in the country. The industry understood that mass production was necessary to profitably keep up with demand, but that mass production also had to protect the characteristics of the “blend” of each cigarette brand. In 1926, J.O.W. Gravely, Jr., lead tobacco broker for the China America Tobacco Company (CATCO), understood that the new high-speed cigarette machines required mass bulk storage, and that storage had to be capacious enough for a producer to have enough tobacco on hand to maintain their blend.

September 2018 — headquarters building

In 1928, CATCO funded the acquisition of Richmond’s first rail-fed bulk leaf warehouse development at 1100 Dinwiddie Street in Richmond, through an interim holding company called Bright Leaf Storage Company. In 1929, while the complex was under construction, the Bright Leaf Storage Company was sold to the newly-formed Chesapeake Storage Corporation. The headquarters of the new company was located on site at 1102 Dinwiddie Avenue. J.O. W. Gravely, Jr., was the chief stockholder and Chairman of the Board of Directors. The first portion of the Chesapeake Warehouses was completed and the complex began use in 1929.

(Texas A&M) — tobacco beetle

The Chesapeake Warehouses originally served Philip Morris, American, Reynolds, P. Lorillard, and other tobacco companies in its louvered, or “open”, warehouses from 1929 through the 1940s. The warehouses were not open to the air, as the term implies, but rather were galvanized metal-clad and louvered buildings with no insulation, no interior finishes, and no impermeable weather barriers. This was the typical design of tobacco warehouses as they sprang up across Richmond’s south side to serve the new high-speed cigarette production facilities. The high concentration of tobacco in these new, large warehouses, and the new process of aging it in bulk made the industry vulnerable to a new threat: the tobacco beetle.

(Getty Images) — tobacco hogsheads

The shift to large-scale warehousing meant that tobacco was left in storage for several years, creating an ideal environment for tobacco beetles, insects that are drawn to tobacco, and will live their entire lives in the leaves if left alone. This occurs most often while they are undisturbed and undetected, which in the case of the Chesapeake Warehouses occurred while the tobacco was stored out of sight in massive hogshead barrels. The hogshead’s design survived for centuries due to its ventilating effects. This characteristic, unfortunately, also allowed access to the beetle, causing significant monetary loss.

September 2018

Fumigation, a method by which oxygen is removed from the insects’ permeable environment and replaced with gas, effectively killed both insect and eggs. Fumigation began as early as September 1930, but it soon became apparent that architectural changes – and more space – were necessary in order for fumigation to prove effective. The Chesapeake Warehouse facility was retrofitted between June 1954 and September 1960, when the last of the warehouse retrofits was completed, becoming a “closed” facility.“ Galvanized metal louvers were replaced with seamed steel panels, which remain in place today. Tobacco was fumigated when it arrived at the warehouse, when it was shipped out of the warehouse, and each year it remained in the warehouse.

September 2018

The Chesapeake Warehouses did business as usual until the late 1970s when warehouse technology and liability concerns forced the abandonment of horizontal bed style-stacking on cinder floors. By then vertical barrel stacking on hard surface floors was safer, more efficient and much faster. The first concrete floors were poured in 1969; these concrete floors were to trap moisture beneath the warehouses on the lower, eastern side of the site, which was to lead to termite infestation and rot. In the 1970s, the Chesapeake Warehouses had been inherited by a generation of Gravelys who were absentee administrators and executives. Intimate business associations and reinvestment suffered while the facility fell out of favor with local production managers. The Chesapeake Warehouses were all but dormant for several years. In 1977, CATCO was sold to Eastern Processors and the Gravely family left the tobacco storage business, though the family retained ownership of the warehouses.

September 2018

During the 1980s, J.P. Taylor and Tom Cummings leased space for storage of damaged wooden hogsheads, mats, and lids in the east side warehouses utilizing the buildings and keeping them in use. However, time and the lack of a Gravely presence took its toll. Water came into those warehouses from above and below as they sat mostly idle. Concrete floors poured in an attempt to dry the buildings had the unintended impact of concealing water beneath them on the lower, northwest portion of the site, leading to a concealed and extensive termite infestation. Without emptying the warehouses completely, termite infestation was impossible to see or to treat. The non-resident owners were hesitant to change the status quo, and termites flourished as the facility declined.

September 2018

Tobacco was stored at the Chesapeake Warehouse as late as 2008, largely for Philip Morris. Around 2008, Philip Morris, citing insect damage, changed its production and storage processes. Instead of storing tobacco in centralized warehouses near production facilities, Philip Morris changed its system to one that encouraged individual farmers to use surplus overseas steel shipping containers to store and fumigate tobacco on individual farms until it was processed. As a result, the large-scale, single-story, high-bay tobacco warehouses are no longer needed for tobacco storage on a large scale, and many of them are falling into disuse. (VDHR)

(Chesapeake Warehouses is part of the Atlas RVA Project)


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