News Stories & Columns
Cliffside: Born of Dreams, Dead of Reality
Cliffside: Born of Dreams, Dead of Reality
R.R. Haynes Built Town and Mill…Now, Only The Mill Survives
They saw their children born here. They saw the summer sun give life to flowers and trees and country children’s cheeks. They found joy here in the fragrant autumn evenings under soft southern stars. And they watched themselves and their children and their town grow strong.
Now the town is Dead.
The people, when you can find any, smile at strangers. But their eyes avoid looking down the main street of the town because they don’t want to be reminded that there is no town to see.
By Barbara Blake
The Asheville Citizen-Times, February 27, 1977
Cliffside, North Carolina. A rude example of American technology and enterprise marching into the simple life of a tiny mill village in the corner of Rutherford County.
Demolition and destruction of hundreds of homes, in the name of progress and government regulations, has squeezed the life out of an incidental village in a remote section of the U.S.A.
“You get to thinking about it sometimes and you start to get real sad,” Paul McKinney said slowly. “Seems like they could have kept some kind of town alive.”
In 1899, a man named Raleigh Rutherford Haynes saw a dream of bringing a town called Cliffside to life. A model community with a great textile plant and a thriving village of happy, industrious citizens.
Within a decade, the laughter of children rang through the tree-lined streets, neighbors gathered in the evenings for social fellowship, businesses sprang up on corners up and down the mainstreet, and roots were planted firmly in a progressive little community.
Following Haynes’ death in 1917, until the 1960s, community life in Cliffside thrived. Four generations of citizens made their livings, raised their children and worshipped as they pleased.
Houses were, although rented by the mill owners, known by family names, such as “the Scruggs house”, or “the Hawkins place.”
“Neighbors were neighbors then,” John Tinkler recalled. “You could leave your house open all weekend and not worry about a thing. Your neighbors took care of you.”
In 1919, the R.R. Haynes Memorial Building was erected, and still stands as a monument to the creator of the town born of a dream and put to death by reality.
“That was the place we all gathered every night,” said Shirley White, who raised two children in Cliffside. They had basketball games, the moving pictures, barbershops, beauty shops, a library, even places upstairs for visitors to stay overnight.
“Anybody could go in there day or night and find something to do. It was where everything happened.”
And yet today, the tattered remains of starched white curtains blow gently through the jagged glass of a window in the building.
One stands at the side of the main street and listens to unnatural silence, broken only the the sounds of padlocks clicking against the molded wood of the library and theater doors.
““What do I think about the possibility of that old building going down like the rest of them?” Tinkler said. “Well, it’s this way. You hate to see something you’ve seen grow up from nothing get destroyed, for no particular reason But what could we do?””
There was, in fact, little that any of Cliffside’s natives could do to save the town.
In 1945, Cliffside Mills was merged with Proximity Manufacturing Company of Greensboro, which was converted to Cone Mills Corporation in 1948.
In the late 1960s, Cone, which owned the majority of homes and businesses within the town itself, began the process of demolition.
Bud Willis, who grew up near Cliffside and is now manager of the Cliffside plant of Cone Mills, tried to explain the process:
“I’m only speaking from hearsay, because I’ve only been manager here for eight months, but when the federal government brought in so many regulations in the 60s, the mill company decided that it could no longer afford the remodeling and renovation of all the house the mill owned.
“The houses went first, then the businesses began to be used less and less, and it became economically unprofitable for those running them to continue the operations.
“You just watched the little community die, physically as well as industrially. But it had to happen,” he said.
Fashionably-dressed secretaries walked quietly and efficiently in and out of carpeted offices in the two-year-old addition to the Cliffside plant, which now produces denim in both old and new buildings.
“We gave all of the people plenty of time to find other places to live — they were given the choice of buying the house they were renting, and having it moved, or buying a house elsewhere, or building out in the country somewhere.
“And I think that most of them, in the end, appreciated being forced to move. It made them make a decision they had hesitated to make before,” Willis said.
“Lots of folks that worked at the mill moved nearby (after the houses were gone),” Paul McKinney recalled.
“They came back to work. But they haven’t come back to church. And they aren’t neighbors anymore…They aren’t friends to walk to work with, like they used to be.”
The granddaughter of Raleigh Rutherford Haynes would have nodded at that. Mrs. Beth Caldwell Padgett has seen the process, too.
“In the days of my grandfather, there was that close relationship between the mill staff and owners, and the people of the village.
“Now there’s such a different policy. They’re nice to the workers…but there’s not that family feeling.
“I loved Cliffside,” she said. “Now it’s gone. I guess there’s nothing more I can say.”
A large television screen in the gatehouse office keeps a constant and unmoving eye on the parking lot — questioning the presence of strangers and unnatural occurrences. An imposing steel fence imprisons the plant and the Haynes building.
“We have had calls from people concerned about the possibility of us tearing down the memorial building,” said Willis. “First of all, the building has no useful purpose as it stands nor, and it is a safety hazard.
“I had our architects check into renovating the building, and they came up with estimates close to $200,000. But for now, it is unsafe for use, in the opinion of my engineers.
“The company has taken the standpoint that there are no plans to take the building down. But we have made it clear to those concerned that if it ever does happen, we are committed to taking down the clock in the building, and the plaque, and building a memorial on the old Haynes homestead to include those items.
“Cone is extremely interested in this area,” Willis said. “And we are interested in the welfare of all those who live here. We have tried to do the best we could for all of them.”
Reprinted with permission from The Asheville Citizen-Times.
Footnote: The building eventually came down; the clock and plaque were moved in 1978 to a new memorial tower on the spot where R.R. Haynes’ home stood.