American Culture

ArtSunday: The architecture of home…

Even in America, home is where (historically) the class is

I grew up in a Southern mill town.

Such towns come in one of three primary flavors: tobacco, textiles, or furniture. My hometown was a textiles town, the home of several major textile companies over its roughly 220 year history.  As a fellow writer who’s also an Eden native once put it, most of the population of these towns worked in one “good Bastille” or another. Of course, that’s all gone now. Like most Southern mill towns, Eden, NC, is a town struggling to find an identity even as it struggles to survive.

A Tale of Three Cities: A Pictorial History of Leaksville, Spray, and Draper is my latest read, and I can tell you now that unless you’re from Eden, NC (the city created by merging the three towns mentioned above) you probably won’t find most of this book terribly interesting. The bulk of the book is pictures of houses, churches, schools, and, of course, those all important textile mills. Each of these has accompanying description of its architectural features (and since many of the architectural features are similar for both houses and mills, the descriptions can start to feel quite repetitive) and, usually, some approximate construction date. Included also are the names of long time owners of the homes. As a home town boy I am familiar, of course, with many of the family names mentioned. So nostalgia, pricked by the cruel realities of what’s happened to home towns such as mine thanks to what American Prospect calls “The Forty Year Slump,” permeated my reading experience.

The brief opening section, a history of the development of the three towns, features some famous names. Leaksville, the oldest of the three towns, was founded on the southernmost part of the vast holdings of colonial planter, surveyor, and diarist William Byrd of Westover. That founding came with its price: Byrd’s son and heir sold the acreage where Eden, NC, now stands to a planter from Antigua named Farley. Farley brought 100 slaves from Antigua to work his land. Thus the seeds of the plantation South were sown and grew there, as they did throughout the region, until the Civil War. The name of Leaksville comes (as often happens with place names) from a great dreamer/entrepreneur but poor businessman, John Leak. Within 10 years of founding the town that bore his name, Leak had had what this carefully worded history calls “business reverses” and disappears from the pages of his namesake town’s history. As Edward Lear reminds us, “Such, such is life…

Because two rivers ran through my home town, the place was ideal for 19th century textile development. Probably my home town’s most famous (part-time) resident was the guy who brought textile manufacturing to the area, John Motley Morehead. While Morehead, as noted, did not live full time in “the Tri-Cities,” as the area was once known (if an area with a total population – even now – south of 20,000, should presume to such a moniker), he did maintain a house there which he used when visiting his holdings. Several of his descendants did live in the area, however, and even today members of the Morehead family own holdings in Eden. The high school, hospital, and a popular park are all named for one Morehead or another.

The founding and history of the other two towns, Spray and Draper involve other names well known in North Carolina textile industry history – Mebane, Marshall Field, Chatham – all played a role in the history of what is now Eden. Perhaps the largest role goes to Marshall Field who built the planned mill village of Draper as well as the section of Eden where I grew up, another planned mill village called, creatively enough, New Leaksville. Mostly these villages consisted of 3-4 room “mill houses” as they were known in my childhood with, scattered here and there, the occasional nicer bungalow for supervisors and other management or staff employees of whichever corporate entity controlled the mills at a given point in history. Ancillary characters such as neighborhood merchants usually had homes similar to those of of mill supervisors although notable successes were able to build residential monuments to their success of finer quality.

The “documentary inventory” section of this book records the sorts of details I mentioned above. What is interesting to me (and would be for any reader interested in social history), is what they choose to document.The “pictorial history” focuses primarily on three sections of what is now the city of Eden: Old Leaksville, the part of town founded by Leak and sustained by a range of enterprises and  inhabited in the majority by families with the longest pedigrees as residents of the area; the Highlands, a well-to-do- residential area abutting Old Leaksville and inhabited by senior mill officials, physicians, high level educators, and other professionals; and Matrimony/Oakland Heights, a preferred residential area for successful merchants and business persons not affiliated with the mills.

The houses described range from large plantation homes and mill owner mansions to formula built mill shacks and farm houses. The care which the authors – and their sponsor the Eden Preservation Society – take to include representative dwellings of every type (including some wonderful information about the African American neighborhoods in each section of the city) is admirable both as social psychology and history.

The pictures of houses and their accompanying descriptions, though dry, sometimes  offer anecdotes and folk history. These gems provide insights into the lives my ancestors and their families, friends, and neighbors lived. They also provide a message for the insightful reader that perhaps even the Eden Preservation Society does not realize.

That message is this. When those who owned and managed the mills lived among those who worked in them, that physical closeness bred a sense of community and mutual appreciation. Once that ownership moved far away or sold its interests to owners unconnected to the community, that relationship was ended and decisions that were beneficial from a business standpoint but harmful from a social standpoint were easier and easier to make. It’s the story of the last 40 years I referred to earlier: it’s good business to liquidate assets advantageously whether they be products, infrastructure or personnel. And it’s easy to do so when one doesn’t have to look those liquidated assets in the eye as one’s ancestors did.

I visited my home town a couple of weeks ago in the midst of reading this work. Some of the mills – as well as my old elementary and junior high schools – have had their historical site designations reversed and have been torn down so that their heart pine flooring and  vintage brick could be sold and “recycled” into luxury home construction for the sorts of people who used to live in towns like mine but who now, in the Age of Financialization, demand high returns on their investments no matter what that does to people in home towns like mine. My home town is a place in need of funds now that the tax base that supported it has migrated offshore to maximize investor returns – and reduce labor costs. The decision to sacrifice town history for survival was, by the measures we use to assess such decisions in our country, sound business.

Calvin Coolidge’s most famous, most often cited quote is “The business of America is business.” Maybe, just maybe, America should make its business asking Tolstoy’s question: How much land does a man need?

(Image courtesy spraymercantile.com)

6 replies »

  1. Transfer the premise to Franklin County in Massachusetts, or any of a number of agriculturally based (once upon a time) communities in the Northeast. Working as a journalist during the ’70s and ’80s in my home town, I witnessed the evaporation of farming and its replacement by homes, often resplendent, and industrial parks in those same corn fields.

    Your experience and mine differ only in the type of product produced.

    A great post. Thanks.

  2. Thanks, Denny. Hope your home town finds its way back to some semblance of what you knew – or at least figures out a way to use its history as a tourist draw. Maybe our future in America is to become one big theme park….

    My town is doing its dead level best to recover in just that way – and having some success by taking advantage of those rivers I mentioned as recreational sites. Good canoeing, kayaking, tubing streams for families because they’re not particularly rough waters – just a few class 1 and class 2 rapids to give the kids a thrill. And they’ve built a couple of nice parks along the rivers for biking, walking, jogging, picnicking etc….

    What I hope to see and seems nascent now – is a growth in tourist oriented accommodations, dining, and diversions (movie theaters, outdoor (or indoor) concert venues, etc.) for visitors when they’re not enjoying the Smith and Dan rivers.

    Unlike your area where business/industrial parks have proliferated, Eden’s industrial sites are mostly ghost areas now. But maybe tourism will help rejuvenate. Would love to see at least one of those mills converted into a museum of textile history. Would be a great thing both for the town – and for the state and region. But there may be too much money in those buildings for “re-purposers” serving the wealthy’s home construction desires to allow that to happen.

    • Jim, my name is Richard Nance and I have lived in Eden all my life, was born in Spray when it was Spray and by the way I guess you know that Spray was once called Splashy a long time ago, but anyway How can I obtain a copy of either the book or literary piece that you have written, I enjoyed reading what you wrote on a Facebook Article and would be very interested in purchasing the piece. Thank you Richard Nance

      • Hi, Richard,

        The book reviewed in this piece is available at the Eden History Museum at 656 Washington St. You can buy it there – not sure about the cost. Here’s a link to the Society FB page where you’ll find info on the museum’s location as well as the phone #, etc:

        https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eden-Preservation-Society/320105342613

        If you’re interested in my books (yes, I’m an author/professor and I’m from Eden, as are poet/professor Sam Gwynn and historian/professor/poet John Marshall Carter), here’s a link to my web site:

        http://www.jimboothauthor.com/

        And here’s my Amazon page:

        http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Booth/e/B001K7XFHW/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1

        You can find info on Sam and Johnny via Google.

        Hope this helps. Let me know if I can provide other info.

        As for this article, you can simply print it out for your own enjoyment/use. Please feel free to do so if you’d like to share with others….

        Best,

        Jim

        • Thanks Jim for all the Information you kindly gave me and yes I do know exactly where the Museum is Down Town Leaksville, actually, a lot of us still call the 3 towns by their prior name because it just comes automatic when talking with someone we’ve known all our lives and thanks again for all your help. I haven’t had time to access the other info you gave me but I will tomorrow, thanks, Richard Nance

  3. If I understand all this, I was two years old when the 40-year slump started in 1974. In the small Southern town where I grew up, the industrial work was all making gloves, making electric blankets, or milling lumber. I agree with this part of the post, and I think you are really getting at something important here:

    When those who owned and managed the mills lived among those who worked in them, that physical closeness bred a sense of community and mutual appreciation. Once that ownership moved far away or sold its interests to owners unconnected to the community, that relationship was ended and decisions that were beneficial from a business standpoint but harmful from a social standpoint were easier and easier to make.

    I’ve seen the effects of that alienation first-hand, and it ain’t pretty.