In Danville’s River District, Davis signs tell a story of preservation

You’ve probably seen them. In fact, it would be hard not to.

The signs pop up throughout Danville’s River District, but what do they mean?

The district has one of the largest and best preserved collections of post-Civil War industrial buildings in the South. And on these buildings, you see one particular name rather frequently displayed.

Davis, the signs say.

So who is Davis? Or more properly, what is Davis Storage and why is their story so important?

Primarily constructed between 1865 and 1920, the expansive brick structures of the River District served mainly as manufacturing facilities for traditional tobacco products such as pipe and chewing tobacco. By the second decade of the 20th century, however, tobacco use shifted primarily to cigarettes, which were most efficiently produced in new, large factories (such as Lucky Strike, just over the border in Rockingham County, North Carolina).

This shift in tastes meant that most of the tobacco manufacturing in Danville became obsolete and their facilities no longer needed. Several stories tall and hundreds of thousands of square feet in floor area, these empty buildings could have quickly become derelict and blighted.

Seeing an opportunity

Fortunately, there was an individual who saw an opportunity in this unused space. In 1935, George Davis Sr. founded Davis Storage and Warehouse, Inc. By acquiring and utilizing these old buildings for a new purpose, the Davis family ensured these structures would be well maintained and preserved.

They were equipped with sprinkler systems to prevent fire damage. The roofs were repaired to prevent water damage and rot. They were made safe and secure from vandalism and from one particularly dastardly villain known as “urban renewal.”

In the late 1960s and early 70s, large swaths of Danville were demolished to make way for “progress”. Entire blocks of downtown were replaced by new roads and buildings. The Hotel Burton was wrecked to provide space for the now demolished Downtowner.

Lower Main Street saw the removal of classic brick facades in favor of “modern” concrete edifices. The canal that ran parallel to the river was filled in to allow for the construction of the Memorial Drive extension, which ended abruptly at its intersection with Main Street, directly opposite Craghead Street.

At the other end of Craghead was the newly built Industrial Avenue (the name says it all). It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to envision the plans to connect the two with a roadway bulldozed right through the heart of what today has become the River District.

Now imagine if most of the buildings that form the foundation of this area had been vacant. Would they still be standing right now? It’s unlikely.

Preserving history

By a count you can find “Davis,” in one form or another, in 15 different locations through-out the River District. This is hardly excessive, however, considering the storage business, at one time or another, owned 14 different properties consisting of hundreds of thousands of square feet.

None of these buildings were built initially for Davis Storage, and none currently serve that purpose. In fact Davis Storage, now in its third and fourth generations as a family run business, has relocated to more modern facilities throughout the city.

But the company’s impact can’t be overstated. Without that 1930s investment, it’s highly unlikely the buildings would still be around to provide space for the restaurants, apartments, condominiums and other amenities.