The rains came down for six days and accompanied by the remnants of Hurricane Juan too soon the ground saturated. Branches and creeks swelled, water rushed across lowlands and into the James River. On November 4, 1985 on Lowe Street in Buchanan, Glad Rags operated as a sewing plant employing 155 workers in the Town of Buchanan. Fortunately by 3:30 p.m. the workers had gone home. The river rose quickly. Pete Ragone, a small man with tough Italian backbone, who managed the plant was already in Roanoke. He got the call from his son, Chris. “Dad,” he said, “the water is almost at the door,” detailed Pete Ragone who recalled the flood of 1985. At 88, he is spry and willing to recall the event.
Glad Rags in the form of a sewing plant opened in 1978, but it had been part of Kenrose since it opened in Buchanan in 1953. The employees worked for a small wage and were paid for piece work production. “The Town of Buchanan had it built near Main Street so employees would be able to easily patronize local business,” said Ragone. The problem? The building was in the James River’s flood plain and in an area where the water in the bend swirled with pressure.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website the June flood of 1972, the James crested at 30.49 feet. The plant flooded then and Ragone said it was bad, but the 1985 flood was much worse.
When Chris Ragone called him the afternoon of Nov. 4, “I rushed down. When I got to the plant that afternoon, the water was up to the back door (which was several feet off the ground.) When the sun came up on November 5, the town was under water. “Water went up Main and the whole back of our building was gone.” He continued, “I had a few tears, but what can you do? We had to get moving.” According to Roanoke Times columnist of the time, Brian O’Neill, “You might have thought it (Glad Rags) had ended for good, but you didn’t know Ragone.”
Indeed within two weeks of the 18 feet of water invading the building, Ragone had employees sewing at the Marwood plant in Roanoke. Mary Proffitt of Blue Ridge, who retired from Glad Rags, recalled, “Pete didn’t have to do what he did for us, but he jumped right in. I lost my husband Bill from a heart attack the night of the flood and he encouraged me not to sit at home and grieve, but to come back to work. ”
She kept on, “He had us back in Buchanan by December 9, 1985 and by January most everyone was back to work.” Proffitt read from a tiny date book she kept in 1985 and detailed things Ragone did for them which included paying health insurance for the employees while the building was refurbished. “Pete could be tough to work for, but we knew he cared about how the flood affected our lives in and out side of the job. It was awfully nice of him.” She said. Ragone was business and community minded then and even today still volunteers with his church and The Knights of Columbus in Roanoke.
“I had put up a drop tile ceiling in January of 1985 and it was completely destroyed by the water and left a huge mess.” He said. The flood rose to 38.84 feet according to the NOAA site and water swept in and took away the back of the sewing factory. “My new ladder was destroyed, the air conditioning units, the old gasoline tank disappeared, it was just destruction.” With the help of trustys from Camp 25 and employees and his sons, Ragone, who was only insured for a small part of the damage, dove into the job.
“I kept a little Anisette ( an alcoholic beverage) in the office to add to my coffee now and then. The trustys found it and drank it all up. I couldn’t use them any more after that,” Ragone said with a chuckle.
Glad Rags continued to operate in Buchanan until December of 2002 and Ragone at age 80 retired and hung up the pattern boards. Faith Christian Fellowship Church owns the building now. The end did not come because of flood waters, but rather cheap foreign competition flooded the apparel making industry in the United States, he said. 1985′s James River Crest at Buchanan remains the all time high for James River in Buchanan according to the NOAA site. It was an uncommon sight of destruction and yet for 155 employees, the company made a rousing rebound thanks to the determination and big heart of Pete Ragone.
Ragone, who recently lost his wife of 62 years, Dru, said, “I got my start with her in WWII in an apparel shop in the US Marine Corps. The flood of ’85 was bad, but we got through and we were back in business in a couple of months.”