Down By The Catawba River
By Tom Poland
Driving north on US 21 toward a “very small town,” I watch the land change. Hills rise into view. Large rocks protrude from the ground. Boulders. I’m passing over land where hard crystalline basement rock meets softer sedimentary rock. I’m leaving the coastal plain for the piedmont. The juncture of these two zones creates the Fall Line. Great Falls sits on it and I’m headed that way.
I drove around and through Great Falls several times, that town down by the Catawba River. The day was cloudy and gray and I sensed ghosts. When I saw an old brick building with an old wall dog sign on it I knew ghosts were about sure enough. At first it looked like the sign spelled “Pelks” but I knew in a flash that once upon a time Belks operated here. As I took photos a big man stared at me.
Big man walked up. “Can I help you?”
“Just taking photos,” I said, and we began the business of checking each other out.
Turns out that Glenn Smith and I had a connection with the University of South Carolina’s Media Arts Department back in the 1980s. We tossed names about. Glenn had worked there and I had freelanced for various project directors … people like Larry Cameron.
Glenn said that before Belks came along, the old brick building had been a company store. Textile workers spent company scrip for goods there. As a result, Great Falls developed a split personality. Back then, merchant Andy Morrison, who had a drooping eyelid, sold things people needed at lower prices. The company discouraged its workers from trading with old Flopeye but people liked his prices and moreover they genuinely liked him. As a result, the area around the Number 1 mill, company store, bank, and First Baptist Church came to be known as “Downtown,” while the retail area where Flopeye held court came to be called Flopeye. To this day, two business areas exist.
In their heyday, textile companies dominated workers’ lives, but at least they had jobs, something in short supply, though those would go away. I drove on and saw something that spoke volumes: a rusting, bent turnstile that stood at the entrance of a textile mill. Vines had woven through the chain link fence attached to the turnstile. I imagined that turnstile in better days—shiny, well maintained, and turning smoothly as a long line of workers filed in to work their shift, lunch pails in hand. Now it rusts. Some would say decay. A short drive away a similar turnstile awaited workers who would never return. Rust-frozen turnstiles, icons of economic downturn.
You see Great Falls was once a mill town, and like other mill towns it has a great but tortured history. It was first known as Catawba Falls and was a boomtown in the early 1900s. Sitting on the old US 21 peddler’s route from Charleston to the North Carolina mountains and beyond, it was a great trade route. Tobacco baron J.B. Duke who owned a power company you might’ve heard of founded the town. Why not? A major byway and a powerful river were close at hand. Mr. J.B. had a propensity to build hydroelectric plants on the Catawba River, which courses by the town’s eastern edge, creating some serious rapids and as you’d expect, great falls.
Those falls led J.B. to found three Republic Cotton Mills that pulled people from the plow into newfangled jobs. It’s a story I know, having written about it in Transforming South Carolina’s Destiny, the history of South Carolina’s technical college system. “Farming’s mechanization, federal crop restrictions, and foreign competition in cotton and tobacco forced thousands of people off the farm. Farm work was just no good and millwork wasn’t far behind. Textile mills began eliminating many jobs through automation. Cheap imported textiles closed mills and led to less demand for domestic cotton. There was one way out. Leave. Walter Edgar explained this exodus in South Carolina, A History, ‘Changing agricultural patterns resulted in reduced job opportunities and were another factor in the depopulation of the countryside.’ ” There was a more heart-rending way to express this. Said one man, ‘My daddy was the strongest man I know, but not having work brought him to his knees.’ ”
People left farming communities to live in the newly constructed mill villages where homes featured running water and electricity. You can see Great Falls’s mill villages still and the homes there are most curious. Large rocks, boulders really, sit all around them. Some homes have no front yard, just miniature Stone Mountains, rocks bigger than cars. Well, less grass to cut. Life on the fall line.
The mill company also built merchants commercial buildings downtown. All that would go away too despite old Flopeye’s efforts. You can see the outcome in various ways. Up the street a short ways, a gas station of the old days sits idle. Green and white, its long overhang rests on just one column. Gas pumps are MIA and the concrete lot is badly cracked. Here and there, grass slowly colonizes all that hardness.
When people leave, businesses close. In 1950, 3,533 people called Great Falls home. The ensuing decades brought a steady decline and in 2016 it was estimated that 1,928 people lived in Great Falls. And no wonder, three mills had closed, as did the sewing rooms, and a spiral down effect hurt retail services, a scenario that affected other areas such as the Glendale community up near Spartanburg. In the 1950s textile jobs declined, and workers sang the blues as their way of life crumbled. Glory days were slipping away.
Smith, however, feels optimistic. The town’s vintage look and Catawba River could play roles in a resurgence based on tourism, and he may well be right, for down by the river stands an intriguing attraction, Stoney Lonesome, the old jail, which last saw inmates around 1951. The jail was built circa 1912. In March 2011, former town councilman Larry Loflin helped town employees and community service workers unearth the old jail with a backhoe. Somehow it got covered when the first Republic Cotton Mill expanded its parking lot. Loflin says the old jail is “a nice bit of chrome for the town, a forgotten piece of history.”
You could say that old jail came back from the grave. You could say they dug up the past, and you’d be right, for they should have dug it up. Travel the back roads, and you travel into the past, and Great Falls and its old mills, boulder-strewn yards, Belks, and Stoney Lonesome make for a great destination, a journey to a past where a river famed for Indian pottery watched a textile industry wash downstream.
Someday, maybe, just maybe, people will take US 21, 141, 97, and 200 to this town down by the banks of the Catawba River. Sure, Great Falls has some wreckage, but it’s authentic, a real-deal place, nothing fake about it at all, and that’s because it’s a ways off the interstate, the road to everywhere, the road to nowhere, the road to nothingness.
Visit Tom Poland’s website at www.tompoland.net
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Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. The University of South Carolina Press released his book, Georgialina, A Southland As We Knew It, in November 2015 and his and Robert Clark’s Reflections Of South Carolina, Vol. II in 2014. The History Press of Charleston published Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia in 2014. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.”