One of the founders of the historical society is local textile expert, Jack Page, who easily recalls the numerous mills and their mark on everyday life. Page agrees Belmont’s historical marriage with its textile mills is evaporating…”Our history with the mills is changing, maybe nearing its end,” said Page. “At some point, there will be a new generation of children who have no idea about the mills and the mill culture that once was the only way of life in Belmont…”And that’s quite a turnaround from once in the early century of the 1900s to the mid-50s when the all-inclusive textile life dominated culture and lifestyle. People went to work in a mill, lived in a mill house— which was built in a mill village, shopped in the mercantile owned by the mill, and everything they needed was mostly provided by the mills from the electricity to the water.”..The historical society, located on Catawba Street, is working on the renovation of a mill house restoring the dwelling to its day of prominence, when little one story box-styled houses dotted the landscape of nearly every town and city in Gaston County. The mill house, sitting behind the historical society museum, is a work in progress with a hopeful grand opening in April…It’s not an original Stowe mill house but inside it displays numerous Stowe mill artifacts. Even a quilt made by Page’s wife, Gearl Dean, suspends gently from one of the bedroom walls, featuring black-and-white quilted pictures of many of the mills in service up to mid 1900s…Interestingly, the Belmont Historical Society operates out of R.L. Stowe Sr.’s, house that was built in 1899 and is thought to be the third-oldest residence in Belmont. It is the home where Stowe Sr.’s, three children were born: Robert L. Stowe Jr., Catherine Stowe Pharr, and Dan J. Stowe…Page said they hope to preserve as much of the closing mills machinery as possible but most is large-scale equipment from when the mills modernized and BHS doesn’t have plentiful room to hold everything…R.L. Stowe Mills, a consolidation of the National and Helm mills, was the final mill operating when it was announced in January that it would close, with a formal stop date in March. The corporation is headed by R.L.’s grandsons, President and CEO Harding Stowe, in addition to his brothers, Robert L. Stowe, chairman and Richmond Stowe, treasurer (a title historically held by his grandfather and in early days was the principal executive position)…According to Hoovers.com, a Dun and Bradstreet Company that compiles data and analysis on businesses, the last available financial figures cited $61.3 million for fiscal year 2007 for Stowe Mills but in third quarter 2008 Harding announced the stunning closing of the remaining mill citing record drop-offs in orders. The company spins, twists, dyes, and mercerizes cotton and cotton synthetic blended yarns. These contribute to final products such as wall coverings, sports clothing, child and baby care products, insulation, soft furnishings, socks, towels, or golf shirts, and is used primarily in the home furnishings, apparel and automotive textile industries.
With Christmas 2008 sales plummeting, especially apparel, commodity yarn producers were stung by the economic down swing. Harding said it was impossible to keep the doors open.
“The sales were just not there and I didn’t see them returning to levels sufficient to sustain business,” said Harding, whose early memories are intertwined with the family mills. Harding spent college summers working to gain first-hand experience of the empire he would eventually oversee, later watching its demise as the textile industry shifted overseas.
The day after R.L. Stowe revealed it was closing, Gaston County’s jobless rate for November was announced, hitting double digits for the first time in recent memory at 10 percent, up from 9.2 percent in October. February and March’s numbers will be the two unemployment rates, where laid-off Stowe employees are absorbed into the statistics. According to the Employment Security Commission, just a year ago, N.C. unemployment stood at 4.9 percent and in January 2007, the state rate was 4.5 percent.
It’s ironic that the founder of the textile empire whose early sights were to start his own business that would in tandem provide a living for hundreds of area workers thus creating the modern local economy would eventually be the industry whose own collapse is re-shaping and fashioning the 21st century global economy. And it’s also a paradox that the industry for which R.L. Stowe Sr. used to create thousands of jobs for area workers would be the same one to cause rampant unemployment, a century later.
And though Stowe mills have survived numerous catastrophes including a tornado that substantially damaged the roof just after R.L. Stowe Sr., opened his first mill, the Chronicle in 1901, to the Great Depression, both world wars, and numerous up and down swings in the economy, this latest financial storm proved too strong for the final textile battle.
Belmont Mayor Richard Boyce notes frequently in city council meetings about the changes of the economic and cultural landscape happening in Belmont before everyone’s eyes. He said Belmont’s future is in flux but the connation isn’t necessarily negative.
“Our history is changing in the city. For the last one hundred years it has been associated with textiles. Even our logo has a yarn emblem on it. But now the global economy has changed things for us and we must look ahead for opportunities and paths that present a new history that is as rich and strong and vibrant as the one that we are leaving.”
Source : Belmont and Mount Holly Banner News