By Deborah Burkett
Cherokee County Historical Commission
For years Cherokee County women worked at Marja’s Brassiere Company to provide additional income for their families. These women were ahead of their time. They made bras they didn’t burn them; but, were strong independent women none the less. The Cherokee County Historical Commission (CCHC) is pleased to provide a look back at one of the major businesses which started in Jacksonville 70 years ago. The impetus for this article was a box of old photographs given to Shelley Cleaver by Lindsey Kirkpatrick-Terry, owner of Tigerlillies, a floral shop at 109 East Commerce Street in Jacksonville. Lindsey, a lover of antiques, had found a wooden fruit box that she just had to have. The box was filled with old, soiled photographs. The entire price of purchase was $1.00. Lindsey kept the antique box and asked her mother, Peggy, if she knew of someone who might want the pictures. Lindsey was also looking for historical information about the building where her new business resided. Shelly Cleaver, a member of CCHC was contacted.
What can old photographs tell us? It depends. Can the images be placed in context and can people be located who still remember these times? Fortune was smiling in this case. Many of these “found” photographs were dated and included the name Marja’s; a name recognizable to many because their mothers or grandmothers had worked there.
In 1903 Margia Childs was born into a successful business family in Jacksonville, Texas. She was the daughter of Carter and Minnie Lattimore Childs. Carter’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. C. C. Childs, had moved their family from Fairfield, Texas to Jacksonville in 1900 and purchased a grocery store, which C.C. later sold to his sons Obie and Carter. This was the beginning of the Childs Brothers Grocery Stores. This enterprise became a chain of 35 supermarkets in Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana. The chain eventually sold to the Kroger Company.
It was in this business environment that Margia Childs must have learned the value of commerce. Margia graduated from Baylor University and after teaching school for awhile she began designing bras. In 1942, her future husband, Harold H. Hamlin moved from Dallas to Jacksonville. Harold was working with a flour mill in the Dallas area and he met Margia in conjunction with the Childs Grocery Store. Margia established Marja Brassiere Company in 1939. Later she, along with her husband Harold, operated the firm until 1969.
When doing historical research it is a boon to the researcher when someone is located who has been intimately involved in the story; Mr. Roland Offord was that someone. He explains, “Margia was a beautiful woman, this is evident in photographs that were found. She was also extremely creative. During high school and college Margia made bras for herself and her friends. They were a hit! Then she met Harold and together they expanded the business, which at its peak employed over 350 women and 8 men.”
In the 1940s Mr Offord had met the Hamlin’s at a design/fashion show in Los Angeles, Calif., at the Ambassador Hotel. Mr. Offord had initially worked at Lockheed Aircraft but after his father died Roland decided to change careers. He wanted to follow in his fathers’ footsteps and work in the textile/fabric business. One of their customers was Marja’s.
In February 1949 Harold Hamlin called Roland to ask him and his wife Virginia to move to Jacksonville. Roland became Executive Vice President and was involved in every aspect of the business, the creative side as well as the day to day management. According to Mr. Offord, “I had fabric in California that they wanted to use. Margia had designed the “Half-Hi A” brassiere; this creation was a half cup bra; very revolutionary at the time, considered risqué. It was an immediate success! The slogan for Margia’s creation was “Holding up the Nation’s Bust Line.” Margia, her company and Jacksonville were made famous by an article and full page color photograph in Life Magazine. Marja’s was on the map!
Further evidence that Margia Childs Hamlin was the creative force in the business was apparent during World War II. Fabric for women’s lingerie was impossible to come by. Margia went to New York City to buy all the parachute material she could; making sure the business would flourish even in those tough times. The company grew quickly. Harold wanted to expand the business and with Roland Offord’s help they did just that.
The trio of Margia, Harold, and Roland went on many sales trips together. One memorable time was in 1953 in New York City. Roland explains, “We stayed at the Palace Hotel. To play up our Texas roots, we dressed up like cowboys; we had custom western outfits made and Nichols Pistol Plant made us guns and holsters. Also with us on the trip was Grace Holcomb, one of our models from Jacksonville. Our outfits were so realistic that on our walk back to the hotel after dinner the New York police stopped us and wanted to confiscate our guns! After we reassured them they were not real, they escorted us to the hotel anyway.”
Marja’s rented five warehouses in downtown Jacksonville, lofts or second stories were filled with industrial sewing machines. Tom Reed, a Black gentleman, worked for the company, pushing a buggy all over town between the locations. He delivered cut material to the line workers, fabric to be sewed; then Mr. Reed picked up the finished product and took to the shipping department. There were several departments—design, cutting, sewing, finishing and shipping. The main location of Marjas was on the corner of Commerce and Main Streets, close to where Austin Bank and the big clock are now. The Marja building that caught fire in 1969 was on the corner of Main and Wilson Streets, which is now a grassy lot behind the Austin Bank.
Mr. Offord explains, “We had big gas-fired heaters hanging from the ceiling in the cutting room. I feel sure a heater malfunctioned but the cause was never determined. The old warehouse floors were oil soaked and fabric all around. The building burnt to the ground. The top floor burnt and fell onto the first floor. Both floors held machines and the weight crushed everything into the basement. Everything was leveled and covered over with dirt. The sewing machines are still there, in the ground near the Austin Bank building.”
Before the fire, Marja’s had already been sold to Henson Kickernick, a women’s lingerie business that originated in Greenville, Texas. Hensons was later bought by the Sara Lee organization. Mr. Offord stayed on and worked for Henson Kickernick for a year.
Henson Kickernick built a new factory, outside of Jacksonville, north on Hwy 69. Many former Marja’s employees made the move and worked for Henson Knickernick. Others formed their own business. Roland Offord started Ronald’s Incorporated; he continued in the women’s lingerie business in Jacksonville for 10 years, closing in 1980. Ethel Prater, an assistant designer at Marjas, stayed at Henson’s for about 20 years until they closed their store. Ethel then opened her own business in Summerfield.
The Hamlin’s made sure their employees knew they were valued. Huge Christmas parties were held at places like Beall Hall in the old United Methodist Church. Many old photos show Margia and Harold enjoying the festivities with their employees. Other images show Harold rewarding some employees by handing out $50 War Bond certificates.
Margia and Harold Hamlin not only provided much need jobs and income for local families they brought joy and beauty to their lives as well through Hamlin Gardens. The Hamlin home and surrounding gardens was located west on Hwy 175, approximately 1 ½ miles outside of Jacksonville. The garden, almost seven acres, filled with azaleas, camellias, dogwood, and other lovely plants was a showcase. Fountains and sculptures dotted the landscape. The garden had a national reputation and was opened to local residents twice a year, spring and fall. John Thomason, owner of Creative Graphics in Jacksonville, recalls taking his future wife, Faye Bolton, on a walking tour in April 1966. As they strolled through the gardens on a lovely spring day John took many color slides of the outing. John’s mother, Irma Bryce Thomason, worked at Marja’s, as many local women did.
The importance of Marja’s in Jacksonville and surrounding communities cannot be underestimated. This is reflected in the following quotes from recent interviews. Mary Agnes Lane, affectingly know as ‘Pee Wee’ while working at Marja’s, remembers, “I was born April 12, 1922 and started working at Marja’s in 1945. My husband, Lewis, was in the Air Force at the time. I had just finished two years at Lon Morris and was supposed to go on and finish college elsewhere, but I needed to work instead. Marja’s was a wonderful job for me at the time. After my husband came home from the service and after my third child was born, I decided to go back to college. I received my Elementary Education degree from Stephen F. Austin. I taught school in Jacksonville for 48 years; 30 years at East Side and 18 years at a Christian School. Several Marja’s employees went on to become school teachers; Mildred Waller did; she taught at Joe Wright in Jacksonville. She’s still living too...”
Another long time Jacksonville resident, Marguerite Wilson Booth Grisham, started working at Marja’s in 1942 and was there for 26 ½ years. She shares, “I was a supervisor for 24 of those years; I helped get three of the factories going. Margia and Harold were both very good to their employees and their business was very important to many women in Cherokee County. Some had lost their husbands and Marjas’ was their only hope...After my career at Marja’s I worked at May Drug Store in Jacksonville for 17 years…”
Another Jacksonville resident, Elizabeth McCutcheon, shares, “My mother Alma Liles Irwin, started working at Marja's factory during the winter when my Dad died in a tractor accident. I was 2 1/2 years old at the time. Our family lived in Ponta in the home he built for us. It was a case of Mother having to go to work so we could eat. I don't think that my mother worked there very long because she then went to work at the Rusk State Hospital which was closer to where we lived. Lots of women in Cherokee County were working outside the home for similar reasons...”
Vivian Hendrick of Mixon recalls “My sister, Thelma, and I worked at Marja’s and we were the first women in our family to have a ‘public job’. My father died when I was 2 years old and my mother supported us by doing farm work which was hard labor. I wanted something better; I wanted my son Mike to have what the other kids had....”
Mother and daughter teams also worked at Marja’s. Shirley Roper Massey was 15 years old when she went to work. “Mother signed a minor’s release for me. I stitched the bra cups; the floor girls kept things moving; they brought you your next load of material. Sybil Bearden was my supervisor… My mother, Thelma Boggs Roper, worked at Marja’s for 25 or 30 years…”
Many Mixon women worked at Marja’s, Bonnie Myrl Roddy, Maxine Adams and Christene Long, to name a few. Even one Mixon lady was a model, Bessie Irene Musick Roper. She went to work at Marja’s in the middle 1940s and was an employee for over 20 years. Bessie’s daughter, Beverly Knight Jimerson relates, “Buyers from J.C. Penny’s and Beall’s would come to Marja’s to see the latest products. My mother modeled the ‘258’ Bra. Later I still bought the ‘258’ from Mrs. Prater in Summerfield…”
Jobs outside the home became increasing more important because agriculture was on the decline. Henry’s Chapel resident Shelba Taylor Gray explains, “In the 1950s and 1960s family farms in East Texas were dying out. Marja’s was a place where women could work and feed their families until they made a transition to something else. My mother, Mavis Darby Taylor, worked at Marja’s. It saved our family. Mother and Daddy were trying to make it on the farm but couldn’t. Mother went back to school after Marjas and became a teacher…”
Many women of the era gained confidence in their abilities while working at Marja’s. . Marie Wilson Boggs said, “I started to work at Marja’s in the 1960s and later went on to work at Henson Kickernick. It was a big deal for women to have a steady job… I was so touched when I was asked to be a supervisor that was the ultimate position at Marjas…”
Janie Campbell Barber of Lady Jane’s Antiques summarizes the work climate for women during this time, “There were actually only 3 places women worked back then, Marja's, Nichols, and the basket factories. I worked for Marja's as a young woman. I began in the factory, trimming and shipping departments. Then through the generosity of Roland Offord and Harold Hamlin I worked downstairs in the office. I worked several desks back then; learning a little of everything. I thought that Marja and Harold were such a hoot. Roland was and still is a very kind man. Maurice Gauthier (lady) was his secretary and Jo Crawford was Harold's. There were so many good women that worked there and nearly all are gone today. They need to be remembered...”
Margia died first, in the early 1970s; then Harold. Both are buried at Rest Haven Cemetery in Jacksonville. But this story is not done.
History is fragile. If efforts are not made to record, preserve and document the stories of our parents and grandparents we will never know the details of their lives. With Mr. Offords help a list of Marja’s workers and additional stories are still being complied. If you have information about Marja’s you want to share or if you have other Cherokee County stories or photographs that need to be preserved call the Cherokee County Historical Commission at 903-586-4057 or e-mail us at email@example.com .
By Deborah Burkett
Group preserves quilting tradition
Inspired by unbounded imagination, generations of quilters have created history with thread and fabric, and now, local residents are adding to that history.
“Quilting brings a richness to the family and community in a very tangible way,” said Jo Caraway, who hosts the Quilter's Guild of Cherokee County gathering every second Tuesday of the month in her Rusk-area home.
Black History Month: Cuney - A town with black roots
February is Black History Month, a time for some to reflect on their heritage. One such place worthy of remembrance is Cuney, Texas.
Ois pido posada
It's a centuries-old tradition, based on the scripture story of Mary's and Joseph's search for lodging in Bethlehem.
Special birthday celebration held at Angelina House
Sadler was the guest of honor at a surprise party for his 30th birthday at Angelina House on Wednesday, an event coordinated by Angelina House Wellness Director Trachel Crow and residence sales manager Linzey Campbell.
Help pets stay healthy this holiday season, too
While Fido may be a pro at making big “feed me, I'm starving” eyes, animal care professionals remind people that sharing their Thanksgiving mean is more harmful than not.
Easy Ways to Lower Calories On Your Dessert Table
1. Lighten ingredients in your desserts. Use a low-calories sweetener in place of all or part of the sugar.
How much you know about avoiding holiday weight gain?
1. How many excess calories does it take to gain one pound? A) 1500; B) 2500, C) 3500; D) 4500
Holiday Eating Tips
• Don’t go to a party hungry: We often eat faster and more when we are hungry – therefore, eat a wholesome breakfast or lunch to avoid overeating at the party.
Private school caters to small clientele
With just an 11-student enrollment at the local Christ the Redeemer Academy, folks often are surprised when they learn about the K-12 Christian school, but that’s okay.
- Putting a face on hunger
- More Living Headlines
- Group preserves quilting tradition