The son of a tobacco farmer in Virginia, R. J. Reynolds sold his shares of his father's company in Patrick County, Virginia, and ventured to the nearest town with a railroad connection, Winston-Salem, to start his own tobacco company. He bought his first factory building from the Moravian Church and established the "little red factory" with seasonal workers. The first year, he produced 150,000 pounds of tobacco; by the 1890s, production had increased to several million pounds a year. The company's factory buildings were the largest buildings in Winston-Salem, with new technologies such as steam power and electric lights. The second primary factory building, built in 1892, is the oldest Reynolds factory still standing and was sold to Forsyth County in 1990.
At the beginning of the 1900s, Reynolds bought most of the competing tobacco factories in Winston-Salem. The company produced 25% of America's chewing tobacco. 1907's Prince Albert smoking tobacco became the company's national showcase product, which led to high-profile advertising in New York City's Union Square. The Camel cigarette became the most popular cigarette in the country. The Reynolds company imported so much French cigarette paper and Turkish tobacco for Camel cigarettes that Winston-Salem was designated by the United States federal government as an official port of entry for the United States, despite the city being 200 miles (320 km) inland. Winston-Salem was the eighth-largest port of entry in the United States by 1916.
In 1917, the company bought 84 acres of property in Winston-Salem and built 180 houses that it sold at cost to workers, to form a development called "Reynoldstown."
At the time Reynolds died in 1918 (of pancreatic cancer), his company owned 121 buildings in Winston-Salem. He was so integral to company operations that executives did not hang another chief executive's portrait next to Reynolds' in the company board room until 41 years later. Reynolds' brother William Neal Reynolds took over following Reynolds' death, and six years later Bowman Gray became the chief executive. By that time, Reynolds Co. was the top taxpayer in the state of North Carolina, paying $1 out of every $2.50 paid in income taxes in the state, and was one of the most profitable corporations in the world. It made two-thirds of the cigarettes in the state.
Reynolds Co.'s success during this period can also be measured by the concurrent success of many Winston-Salem companies which received large amounts of business from Reynolds: Wachovia National Bank became one of the largest banks in the Southeast, and the company's law firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice became the largest law firm in North Carolina.