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The Rise of the Small Towns

Pineville, Matthews, Huntersville, and Cornelius are children of the railroad. These towns may share many traits, but their strongest bond is the railroad tracks. Due mainly to the availability of rail transportation, on the eve of the Civil War Charlotte was the county's only official "urban place." Between 1850 and 1860 Charlotte had become the junction of four rail lines that penetrated the county, and the population of this farming community and courthouse town promptly doubled in size to 2,265. As the county recovered from the Civil War in the latter decades of the century, new and rebuilt railways not only stimulated Charlotte's continued expansion but also spawned smaller shipping and trading points along their routes. In 1872 the Carolina Central Railway completed its line from Wilmington, North Carolina to Charlotte, locating one of its depots southeast of Charlotte, beside a stagecoach stop known as Fullwood's Store. In 1879 the Town of Matthews was born on this site, named, in fact, for a member of the Carolina Central's Board of Directors. By 1874 rails had been relaid on the prewar Atlantic, Tennessee, and Ohio Railroad line between Charlotte and Statesville. Three years later Huntersville was laid out along these tracks. During the early 1890s Cornelius also took root along the A.T. and O. Railroad line, three miles north of Huntersville. Starting out as a cotton weighing station and general store, the Town of Cornelius would be incorporated in 1905. At the south end of the county near the state line, Pineville grew up after the Civil War around a depot that the Charlotte, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad had fortuitously sited there in 1852. 1

These four towns were part of a vast web of railroad-oriented settlements that spread throughout North Carolina in the late nineteenth century. Only twenty-two railroad towns existed in the state in 1860; by 1900 there were two hundred and twenty-five, the majority in the Piedmont. 2 To be sure, most of these urban places were small. The largest of Mecklenburg's four towns in 1900 was Pineville, population 585; by 1930 Cornelius headed the list with 1,230 residents. However, their importance lay not in their size but in their reflection of the Piedmont's changing economic, social, and cultural geography.

By the 1890s the region's railroad towns had been integrated in a national network of rail lines. Mecklenburg County, like the rest of the Piedmont, may have continued to be predominantly rural, but old patterns of isolation were being challenged by a new mobility and access to far-flung marketplaces. Railways tied the towns not only to each other and Southern seaports but also to Northern markets and sources of building materials and finished goods. "We are no longer shut out of the rest of creation" sang the Davidson Monthly upon the reconstruction of the A.T. and O. Railroad. By 1894 this railway was part of the extensive Southern Railroad system which had direct connections to the North. 3

Thus Pineville, Matthews, Huntersville, and Cornelius functioned as rural marketing and shipping stations for the local cotton crop. The railroads enabled merchants to bypass Southern port cities and market this staple directly to Northern cities in exchange for goods shipped in by rail. Storekeepers stocked their shelves with the latest products from northern stores, and advanced agricultural supplies to farmers who, in turn, cultivated more and more cotton to pay for these provisions.

Each town contained a host of general merchants who were part of a new and aggressive entrepreneurial class described by W. C. Cash as "the army of the enterprising and the hard." 4 These adroit Piedmont businessmen operated cotton gins, brokered cotton, organized banks, established textile mills, and were active in local and state politics. In Pineville, where 6000 bales of cotton were sold each year around the turn of the century, merchant Tom Younts "made a fortune," it is said, in the cotton trade and credit business. In Matthews business partners Everard Jefferson Heath and Edward Solomon Reid prospered as cotton buyers, merchants, and bankers, while B. D. Funderburk operated a store and cotton gin, sold coal and fertilizer, and was the president of the Bank of Matthews. Neighbor Thomas Jefferson Renfrow not only owned one of the town's major dry goods stores and a cotton gin but served seven years in the North Carolina General Assembly as well. Cornelius' R. J. Stough and J. B. Cornelius "sold everything from cotton to coffins," in their store, and helped establish two cotton mills in town. Huntersville's stock of general stores climbed from three in 1900 to ten by the end of the decade, reflecting the preeminent role of the town's new "army" of merchants. 5

Heath-Reid Store, Matthews

Renfrow Store, Matthews

The small towns may have been centers of local commerce, but they also performed a host of other functions. Private academies and public schools were located there. Both Matthews and Huntersville were selected as sites for state-supported rural high schools in 1907. In the latter town the state school first occupied the former Huntersville High School Academy, which had been established in 1878. As the number of residents increased, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches opened their doors in each town. Hotels, liveries, teacherages, banks, and post offices also appeared, filling out commercial cores and spilling over into residential areas. Simultaneously, African-American communities burgeoned at the peripheries. Tanktown, Smithville, and Pottstown were the names given such areas that arose beside Matthews, Cornelius, and Huntersville, respectively. These black neighborhoods contained concentrations of farmhands, domestic help for white households, and skilled carpenters and members of work crews who contributed to the towns' physical expansion. 6

Townspeople regarded no single event as more vital to physical expansion than the arrival of a cotton mill. During the decades around the turn of the century town building was synonymous with mill building. Huntersville has "factory fever," announced a resident in 1888, following a citizens' meeting urging industrial growth. As railroad towns vied for factories, the infatuation with spindles and looms sometimes resembled a religious crusade. "Next to God, what this town needs is a cotton mill," proclaimed one Piedmont preacher. Between 1880 and 1900, one hundred seventy-seven mills were established in the state, ninety percent of them in the Piedmont. Mecklenburg County alone contained seventeen mills in 1903, and twenty-two by 1915, including fourteen in Charlotte. This textile boom was powered by steam. Railroads opened the Appalachian coal fields and hauled into the region the fuel necessary for operating massive steam engines. In contrast to previous, water-powered mills, the new factories were no longer bound to isolated water courses. Liberated from the riversides, textile plants arose along the railroads, often around the outskirts of cities and small towns that eagerly awaited their coming. 7

The cotton mills--like the rail lines and towns that wove them together--were symbols of a new order. They inextricably tied the region into the national market economy, and began a social movement whereby thousands of families fled their small Carolina farms for jobs in the mills. The textile industry promised steady employment and an hourly cash wage ("public work" it was called) for farmers confronted with depressed cotton prices and the grim prospect of lifelong tenancy. The mills, however, were no panacea. Farmers-turned-millhands faced low wages and work-weeks that averaged sixty to seventy hours. Though the mill owners provided subsidized housing and a range of other services which varied from mill to mill, rarely during the early twentieth century did their workers rise above the minimum standard of living in North Carolina. 8

Textile communities were a complex mix of paternalism and exploitation, self-reliance and mutual aid. Mill owners developed mill villages as acts self interest: to provide basic facilities for the waves of migrants leaving the countryside for "public work;" and to exercise corporate control over their new labor force. A 1907-8 federal investigation commented that "all the affairs of the village and the conditions of living of all of the people are regulated by the mill company. Practically speaking, the company owns everything and controls everything, and to a large extent controls everybody in the mill village." 9

Yet textile workers were not merely functionaries of the factories that employed and housed them. Mill families breathed life into their villages, creating places that reflected their agrarian ways. Their rural independence was so persistent that mill owners, looking to secure a reliable work force, incorporated a variety of rural elements into the planned mill complex. Villages included house types borrowed directly from the Southern countryside; spacious lots for kitchen gardens; and adjoining pastures, barns, and hog pens for livestock. Within this setting, millhands sustained a traditional allegiance to kin and formed new bonds with fellow workers. When one resident of Pineville's mill village stated that she was "proud to have grown up in the mill," she was expressing not just a loyalty to the company but a sense of pride in her membership in the local mill community. In Pineville, for example, each mill family--independent of ownership--contributed twenty-five cents weekly for a medical insurance program with a town physician. 10

Pineville, Huntersville, and Cornelius each had a textile factory and village by the turn of the century. Cornelius Cotton Mills began in 1888, and was joined in town by Gem Yarn Mills in 1907. Anchor Mills was established in Huntersville in 1898. Dover Mills, a Providence, Rhode Island firm, selected Pineville as the site for its North Carolina plant in 1894. By 1908, this factory was part of a chain of plants owned by Chadwick-Hoskins Company, an expanding textile mill business based in Charlotte. These five mills and corresponding villages were not the largest textile operations in Mecklenburg County. 11 They were, however, integral to the growth of these towns and bestowed on each distinctive architectural forms and housing patterns.

Dover Mill, Pineville

The landscapes associated with the textile culture and other aspects of the county's traditional small towns largely predate the 1930s. By the Great Depression, the sluggish textile industry and severe rural poverty provided scarce opportunities for new construction. Growth remained slow in the postwar decades, as cotton production virtually vanished from the Piedmont and the role of agriculture in the local economy declined. In turn, the roles of storekeepers as cotton brokers and suppliers of merchandise to farmers diminished. The textile mills continued to run in the towns, and even enlarged their physical plants in Pineville and Cornelius. But their work force increasingly lived away from the traditional villages, benefiting from greater housing opportunities afforded them by better salaries and automobile ownership. The automobile, indeed, has contributed mightily to the new patterns of growth. In combination with major highways that now span Mecklenburg County, motor vehicle transportation has fueled decentralized development. When the county's towns have expanded--and growth has spiraled in recent years--new construction has taken place primarily on former farmland at their outskirts. At an accelerating pace auto-oriented commercial strips, shopping malls, and residential subdivisions encircle historic town centers. Around Matthews alone, over one million square feet of shopping plazas have been constructed or proposed since 1986. 12

Such out-lying development, however, has spared the interiors of the towns from drastic physical change. Each Main Street, though altered by some modern intrusions and recent demolitions, retains turn-of-the-century commercial buildings often occupying entire blocks. Early white as well as black neighborhoods also remain in place, as do a host of churches and school buildings. Finally, cotton mills and their affiliated villages continue to dominate sections of towns. The finest surviving examples of these traditional landscape elements are the focus of the remaining parts of this essay. Together they epitomize the historic small town in Mecklenburg County.