Preservation Durham Awards: Advocacy

Dec. 22, 2012 @ 08:36 PM

Donald Yarboro

Wright’s Automatic Machinery Co.

921 Holloway St.


 Preservation Durham presented a 2012 Advocacy Award to local resident Donald Yarboro for his work documenting a largely forgotten story of the Bull City in wartime.

Yarboro has been researching and saving materials related to Wright’s Automatic Machinery Company, a local business that contributed to World War II weaponry and, later, the Space Race.

Wright’s Automatic outfitted U.S. Navy warships with gunfire-control systems in the 1940s. Postwar, the company built precision instruments for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Wright’s Automatics’ tiny motors and other components went into the Saturn V rockets that sent U.S. astronauts to the moon. Later, the company designed and built instruments for joints in the Space Shuttle’s robotic arm.

Wright’s Automatic dates to 1893. It distributed and later built packaging machines for tobacco, food and other products.

As World War II got underway in Europe, the company was working in the old wooden Yarborough Mill on Calvin Street near its intersection with Holloway. It began pursuing war-related government subcontracts early in 1941. Within months, the Defense Plant Corporation erected a more secure factory on the lot, fronting Holloway Street.

The new plant reflected its defense industry origins: The brick-and-concrete-block building could double as a bomb shelter, and the bands of glass-block windows lit the interior while obstructing views inside. A fence encircled the property. Patrols staffed the tiny guardhouse at the gate 24 hours a day.

In 1943, the company won an Army-Navy “E” award for excellence in war equipment production. The prize drew national attention. A ceremony held before a capacity crowd at the National Guard Armory on Foster Street was broadcast nationally on the radio. The event filled the local papers for days.

Yarboro, a Durham native, bought the property soon after the company left Durham in 2005. His father had worked in the plant for 30 years, beginning after the war. He has cleaned up the building and site, scraping old paint off the glass block and giving the building a fresh exterior coat.

Yarboro is organizing a small museum within the building, which also houses his storage company and a Durham Police substation. He has been collecting oral histories from former employees, and a few years ago, he hosted an employee reunion.

He has listed the building in the National Register of Historic Places and had it named a Local Historic Landmark. By preserving this one building, Yarboro hopes keep alive the story of the workers and work of Wright’s Automatic.