News Stories & Columns
2,000 Reunite at Home — in Cliffside
2,000 Reunite at Home — in Cliffside
By Chip Wilson
The Charlotte Observer, May 9, 1988
Cliffside was a place where it was easy to raise cows and pigs in your yard, but illegal to walk a dog.
It was a world of long workdays in a textile mill that built the homes, helped pay teachers and even printed its own currency. It became a town where you stayed forever or left at first opportunity.
To 2,000 or so people who sauntered through what’s left of its streets Saturday and Sunday, Cliffside is home. They came back for the first reunion of this unincorporated Rutherford County community.
“This was a classic mill town,” said Gerard Davidson, who emceed at Saturday’s welcoming ceremony. “But we always felt we were a cut above other mill towns.”
Cliffside had so much going for it, anyone who left even for one night became the target of good-natured ribbing from those who stayed behind on the front rail of the community’s “Memorial Building.”
“If you went to Rutherfordton, it was for business,” said Raleigh Biggerstaff. “If you were going to Chesnee, S.C., it was to get booze. If you were going to Gaffney, it was just to get married. If you were going to Whitney, S.C., it was to drive around — Chesnee was the most poplar of them all.”
I’m still working for the company
I have worked for many years.
When my father speaks of moving,
it just fills my eyes with tears.
For I love to live at Cliffside,
Everything is nice and clean
And the men we have to work for
Do not try to treat us mean.
—Poem by “E.H.,” July 16, 1919
“The word is benevolent feudalism,” said Phillip White, principal at Cliffside School.
White referred to the hold that community founder Raleigh Rutherford Haynes and son Charles H. Haynes had on the community.
The elder Haynes founded Cliffside in 1900 when he built a mill there. He
went on to build had built mills in nearby Forest City and Henrietta, but Cliffside seemed to have it better.
“It made a difference because the owners lived here,” White said. The Hayneses made sure the community had the best of everything — schools, churches, recreation facilities — because managers and laborers had to share them. “It gave them control over their people,” White said. “If a child was causing trouble in school, the teacher could talk to the parent’s supervisor and tell him to take care of it.”
One thing the Hayneses wouldn’t tolerate were dogs.
“It was called the Dogless Eden,” White said. “Working men couldn’t be kept awake by barking dogs, so they were kept away.”
In return for loyalty, the mill provided workers with well-kept homes that rented for 25 cents weekly per room, a recreation center that included a movie theater and gymnasium, and an extra month’s pay added to the annual salary the county paid to teachers at Cliffside School.
The pay wasn’t great — Biggerstaff started at 33 1/3 cents per hour at the Cliffside Mill — but the mill supplemented the cash with “scrip,” currency good at the company store.
“There was a lot of pride here,” Biggerstaff said. “Not the kind that’s one of the seven deadly sins, but a real feeding of self-esteem. People had a concern for one another.”
“If one man had a sack of potatoes, every family had at least one potato,” said R.G. Watkins, 66, who moved to California in 1960 and came back for the reunion. “Everyone was at the same level, so we all shared.”
Townspeople knew the Hayneses as “Mr. Raleigh” and “Mr. Charlie” and called each other by nicknames such as “Lassie,” “Pieface,” and “Wormy.”
“It is distinctly a gift, a representation of the fine spirit of consideration which Cliffside Mills has for its employees.”
— Charles H. Haynes
dedication speech for Cliffside School
April 22, 1922
The Hayneses paid $330,000 to build the Cliffside School and sold it to Rutherford County Schools for $120,000. It quickly garnered a reputation for academic excellence.
“I don’t know if it was better than other schools,” said Joe Dedmond, a 1935 graduate. “But I wasn’t lacking a thing when I went to the University of North Carolina.”
The original building has remained — except for an added gymnasium — but it now graduates students at the eighth grade instead of 11th.
At its prime, the school was headed by Dr. Clyde Erwin, who later became Rutherford County Schools superintendent and the N.C. superintendent of public instruction. He also headed national and international commissions on public education.
Another principal, J.J. Tarleton, later became county schools superintendent and supervised the consolidation of city and rural schools into one countywide system.
Dorothy Wilkins King didn’t get her high school diploma from Cliffside School. Instead she graduated from Haynes Brook School for the community’s black students.
School was the place blacks and whites stayed separate. Even that didn’t make King feel different. One of her best friends and playmates was Earl Owensby, a Cliffside native who would go on to earn fame as a filmmaker.
“I used to stick him in a trash can with a rusted out bottom and roll him down the hill…His mother used to come over to our house, and mine would go to hers. That was before integration. We didn’t see any difference back then.”
Most of Cliffside’s black population has left. Weeds and overgrown shrubs now dominate “The Line,” the locals’ name for Whiteline Street and the community’s largest black residential area.
King was one who left. She pursued a singing career that brought her to Laurel, Md. But she never forgot Cliffside, and paid tribute Saturday night in a song she wrote after coming back for a cousin’s funeral.
She performed the song Saturday night in the auditorium of the school she never could attend as a student.
“I helped tear down the house I was born in and the house I grew up in,” Mike Fisher said. “That really makes you think.”
Fisher left Cliffside in 1961 for UNC-Chapel Hill and a career in the Navy and business. He recently retired to Bucks County, Pa.
He was part of an exodus during the early 1960s that cut Cliffside’s population in half, to about 1,500. The mill tore down hundreds of houses, so people found shelter and jobs elsewhere.
“During World War II, people saw over the mountain and left,” he said. “Many were able to get schooling under the G.I. Bill. I was one of them.”
Biggerstaff taught public school in northeastern North Carolina, but came back to Cliffside when most people were leaving. He took a job teaching English at nearby Isothermal Community College.
It’s unlikely Cliffside will ever grow significantly. Rutherford County’s major thoroughfares — U.S. 74 and U.S. 221 — bypassed it years ago, leaving only winding 221A.
Reprinted with permission from The Charlotte Observer. Copyright owned by The Charlotte Observer.